In It Together

October 02, 2016
Leviticus 19:33-34; Mark 10:13-16; Ephesians 2:17-22

On World Communion Sunday it is natural for us to think about the wider church. And I don’t just mean MCUSA, on world communion Sunday we are invited to ponder and celebrate what it means to be in communion with the whole world. The church, on this day is the movement and expression of God’s love for all people everywhere.

In the past year Sojourners magazine has been asking LGBTQ folks why they stay in the church. Traditionally LGBTQ folks have experienced rejection inside the walls and even on the doorsteps of the institutional church and yet we continue to show up. Why? It is a question that has been asked of many different subsets of Christians throughout time as institutional theology and critique has selectively persecuted one segment of the body after another in an attempt to maintain an illusion of power and purity.

I was drawn into the question this week as I viewed the Sojourner video interview of Erica Lea, a local pastor at Calvary Baptist Church who has ties to the Mennonite community and preached for us here at HMC a year or so ago. As I watched Erica thoughtfully express her reasons for staying in the church and in ministry while also authentically expressing her identity as a lesbian, I started to ponder the question for myself. Why do I stay? It is an interesting question to spend some time with and I invite each of us [and not just the LGBTQ folks in our midst – but all of us] to ponder. Ponder the reasons you stick with church – and I invite you to consider it not as motivation to get angry about all the injustice and hurt that exists or may have been part of your church journey, but to instead spend some time thinking about the life-giving reasons you continue to show up.

When I think about the reasons of why I stick with my faith journey, why I stay in the church, in part it comes down to what I said about world communion Sunday. I stay because I have experienced and continue to experience the love of God in my life. I value those experiences and I desire to be part of the expression of that love to others. I stay because the concept of church is one way in which that love is made manifest in the world. I stay because I believe there isn’t a single human being, including myself, no matter their theology, who can take God’s love away from me or anyone else. And if the theoretical or emotional side of it isn’t appealing language for you in your faith journey, I also admit I stay because of the tangible expression of the church I find right here at Hyattsville Mennonite.

In particular, I have been drawn into deeper connection with the church as I have spent the past three years exploring how this community welcomes and engages children and youth in the life of the church. When I applied for the job of associate pastor 3 years ago, the job description included an expectation of time spent focusing on spiritual formation for kids and youth. This community, which has a rich history of including kids and youth in the life of the congregation, was desiring to specifically invest energy into enriching the lives of those kids and youth and their experiences within the church.

While I admit to being a bit daunted by this piece of my job description, I was also excited about the opportunity and so I dove in and asked many of you to join me in the process of looking at what we do to include kids and youth in the life of the church. How do we do those things well, how could we improve them? What are we not doing for the kids in our midst? What could we be doing? And this journey has not just been about what can we do for the kids and youth at Hyattsville – but instead, how do we live and grow with the kids and youth. How are we doing at understanding that the kids and the youth of this community are a valuable and essential part of the life of the church? How do we all journey together on this path of spiritual formation?

Spiritual formation isn’t something we do while we are young and then check it off a list as accomplished once we become adults. Spiritual formation is a life long journey, it is part of the reason each of us adults choose to stay active in the church – as spiritual beings, we are all constantly in the process of becoming. We are all learning, experiencing, questioning, feeling, growing, and making meaning in our lives. We are on that journey from the very first day of our lives and we need support on the path from that moment on.

It is important for us to pay attention to the children in our midst.

Jesus says to those gathered around him:

“Let the children come to me; do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the kindom of God belongs. The truth is, whoever doesn’t welcome the kindom of God as a little child won’t enter it.”

Our kindom living begins when we are children. It is just as necessary for the young in the church to have space to learn, experience, question, feel, grow, and make meaning in light of God’s love as it is for those of us who are older. We are intentionally trying to create space for those things for the kids and youth in this congregation – spaces where our kids are invited into kindom participation. I wanted to share with you some of the ways we are offering support and spiritual space for our kids and youth here at HMC:

The newest space is a 15 minute gathering time at the start of Sunday school each week where kids age 4-12th grade spend time together singing, praying, and playing games to build community.

We have revamped children’s church and now hold it on the last Sunday of each month. This is a space where kids age 4-3rd grade have a chance to participate in a more interactive form of worship together. Each month we sing together, share joys & concerns with each other, and tell stories or make art that explore different ways we experience and share God’s love.

Knowing that the lives of senior high youth are busy with sports, school, theatre, cooking, and countless other adventures, we are trying to re-envision how we offer community building opportunities for that age group. Instead of having youth only group events last year, we started trying to hold multi-age activities that allowed the youth to gather and get to know people of a variety of age ranges in the community – previous feedback from the youth was that some of their favorite times at church are when they get to hang out with people and get to know them – and not just other youth – but people of all ages in the congregation. The events last year were mixed in success – I think there was some confusion from some adults that they were ‘allowed’ to go to a youth event. And so this is something we will continue to work on together as a community – finding ways to be and play together across our age spans in ways that foster community for all of us while creating a space of intentional inclusion for the youth.

We are also aware of how our kids are invited and encouraged to participate in worship on Sunday mornings:

We have started using kid generated ideas for where to donate the children’s offering funds.

We have created bags of toys, books, and activities that are available for kids of any age (or adults!) to bring into the service with them to keep them actively engaged in ways that allow them to remain contentedly present in this space; soaking up the sounds and patterns of worship even when not fully attentive to it.

We are mindful about how and what we present during the children’s time of our service so that we can use that space to truly invite and include the kids into the worship life of the church without putting them on display. I am also well aware of the fact that many adults get more out of the children’s time of each service than they do out of the sermons, so we take it seriously for all ages!

The kids and youth in this community are vibrant, spiritual beings who bring their full selves into this space each week. I am so grateful for the chance to spend time with each and every one of them, to get to know them, and to learn with and from them as they grow. I am grateful for a community that desires to take these participants seriously and to create a safe space in which they can explore, learn, question, and make meaning alongside and with people of all ages. We are all in this together. And so we will continue the work of paying attention to how we pay attention to the children in our midst.

Jesus said:

“Let the children come to me; do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the kindom of God belongs. The truth is, whoever doesn’t welcome the kindom of God as a little child won’t enter it.”

Children know how to offer welcome.

I was reminded of that last week when I heard about a letter that a 6 year old boy named Alex, from Scarsdale New York, wrote to President Obama as he was processing what he knew of the experience of 5 year old Omran Daqneesh – whom you may remember from images of him sitting in the back of an ambulance in shock after an airstrike on his home city of Aleppo, Syria.

Alex’s letter said this:

Dear President Obama,

Remember the boy that was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to our home? Park in the driveway or on the street and we’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school I have a friend from Syria, Omar. I will introduce him to Omar, and we can all play together.

This is the unabashed welcome that children know how to offer…he will be our brother…we can all play together.

It is the welcome God has called humans to from the beginning:

The foreigner who lives among you must be treated like one of your own. Love them as you love yourself, for you too were [once] a foreigner.

It is the welcome of Christ who came and announced Good News for those near and far.

It is a welcome that reminds us, no matter where we live on God’s earth, or what it is that brings us into the space of the church today, we are strangers and aliens no more. We are all in it together, one in Spirit, creating the kindom, a holy dwelling place for God.  A dwelling place that has room at the table for any and all who choose to take part.