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Sermon for Youth Sunday

February 22, 2018

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Lynn Dunn for The White Plains Presbyterian Church, February 11, 2018. This Sunday was observed simultaneously as Youth Sunday,  Transfiguration Sunday, and Science Sunday.

Mark 9:2-9


Have you noticed how very different the Bible sounds when we hear it read aloud by a young person? Some of our most cherished and familiar passages can sound quite different, even shocking, when we hear them in the voice of a teenager, or a young child. To me, it somehow makes whatever passage or story I hear more vibrant, more transcendent and even more universal. Hearing these sacred words in their voices de-centers adulthood and de-privileges what we call maturity and sophistication. It makes the text seem more immediate and clear. If we remember that Jesus’ disciples were probably much closer in age to the youth group members who read today, than to most of the adults here, it can really put the whole Christian story in perspective for us. This “hearing with new ears” is one benefit to the whole congregation of having special services during the year when children and youth are particularly invited to lead us in worship. Today, of course, is Youth Sunday, when the middle school and high school youth groups are leading us in worship.  

I ‘d like to thank our youth who have led us in music, prayer, and readings, and also the young artists who created the Youth Sunday banner for our table this morning. At the end of the service, you will have the opportunity to greet and thank them as well.

We had some fun the other night, reading the story of the Transfiguration together and wondering what it might have really been like. What really happened? What did it mean? Was that really the voice of God? Was it a shared vision that was like a waking dream with auditory features, or an observable luminosity and acoustic phenomenon? So many questions occurred to us. Artists’ depictions of the story over the centuries reveal an astonishing variety in the ways it is represented, and could not really answer our questions. What was clear was that this story is about an emotionally and spiritually powerful encounter with Jesus.   In the encounter they saw and heard something bigger, something beyond normal experience, and something that both revealed and also concealed a great mystery. They told it as a story of a peak mountaintop experience.

In the story as we have received it, Peter, James and John had a powerful, overwhelming experience of light and love up on that high mountain– when they saw Jesus as dazzling bright light, and a voice that declared him beloved. It is a brief glimpse of the divine breaking into the mundane, of the Infinite breaking into the finite, which cannot contain it. Such a moments are always fleeting and ethereal, but Peter’s first impulse to build three dwellings to contain that which cannot be contained.

The story attempts to describe the elusive Presence of God. The whole Bible narrative can be described as tracing the elusive presence of God with humans throughout history. This Presence cannot be guaranteed, cannot be explained rationally, and cannot be summoned at will. If we could guarantee the divine Presence, it would not be true Presence; and if we could summon it at will, we would be conjurers, not worshippers. But the Divine cannot be summoned when we will it. All we can do is invite God’s presence, and then be prepared to recognize it and allow it to transform us. The way we prepare ourselves is to practice the arts of worship, to be attentive to God’s presence in the world around us, to wait, to listen, to hope.

Youth Sunday provides the opportunity for the youth to learn and practice the language and art of worship in a faith community.   We can rejoice and thank God that each of the young people leading worship today represents a miracle-combination of God-given spiritual gifts and talents that we can all discern– whether it is music, art, drama, eloquence of speech, or another of their many abilities. Nevertheless (and this may shock you), we are not here to celebrate them (the kids). We are here to witness as they learn to use these considerable talents and abilities in the only way that matters, the only way that will give their lives meaning in the long run, forgetting themselves in the service others and of something even bigger. We are here to worship God, to re-orient all our lives towards God, and to celebrate God’s love that is so all-encompassing, it can set us free from the constant pressure the world puts on us to have more, be more and accomplish more.

As youth leaders, Patty and I can tell you that every one of one of the kids in our youth programs at times feels anxious and pressured to perform in the world. But here, in this place, as we help them learn the art of coming humbly before God, and leading others in doing so, we hope they learn to see themselves and one another as fully known and beloved, not for any talents and accomplishments, as something to boast about, but simply as God’s cherished children. Putting the focus squarely on God, can take the pressure off of them.

This is not an indulgent message: They are capable of doing great things, and we hope that a glimpse of this radical, unconditional love will inspire them to work hard to create more justice, peace and love in the world. But no matter what, God knows and cherishes them (and us) for simply being. This is message we all can receive, again and again, and so, in this way too, Youth Sunday becomes a gift to the whole community.    

For those who aren’t familiar with how we choose worship themes during the year, I’ll fill you in. In the Protestant tradition, many churches follow a cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary, or “lectionary” for short. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of recommended Bible passages, corresponding to the yearly cycle of church holidays. We are not bound to it, but by following the recommended readings in the lectionary, we can provide a variety of readings over the three-year lectionary cycle, corresponding to the seasons and holidays each year. Our children are learning that we call it the “circle of the church year.” Transfiguration Sunday, when we observe it, is not always the same date, but in our lectionary it always falls on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

It was a happy accident that Youth Sunday falls on Transfiguration Sunday and this year. This year it also happens we are observing Science Sunday, in honor of Darwin’s birthday, tomorrow. A couple of weeks ago when we were talking about this and other possible themes for today’s service, Alexis suggested using butterflies as a motif to symbolize evolution, transformation and social growth. This theme resonated with quite a few of the others. Then, as we looked at the Bible passages recommended for today, we realized that the theme of transformation fits well with Transfiguration. It’s fitting too as a theme for a service led by the youth who are at a stage in life when each year, month, week, and day, seems to bring rapid growth and change.

Let us praise God, who is at work in the midst of all these changes, and may we all learn to be attentive, so when we experience those moments of transcendence, we may be willing to be guided, healed, transformed by them. Amen.

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