A Sermon at 8 a.m.

Across every generation, God has shown us wisdom through the scriptures which proclaim this: Romans 12

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. May it be so. Thanks be to God.

This little passage from Matthew, about salt and light, reflects the enduring struggle of faith:

  • the temptation to think we’re not enough.
  • That our faith isn’t big enough.
  • That our impact isn’t broad enough.
  • That our life won’t add up.
  • That our contribution to God’s kingdom won’t be good enough.

As Matthew was writing this gospel, the “church universal,” the “church around the globe,” was still quite small.

The whole of Christendom was only a small network of house churches, people gathering in one another’s homes for worship and study and friendship. They had every right to believe that their light wasn’t bright enough, and their salt wasn’t salty enough. They had every right to believe that their small church wasn’t big enough to make an impact on God’s world. And yet, Jesus’ words echoed back across that ancient early church, reminding them that their light gives glory to God. Listen for God’s word to you in Matthew 5:13–16.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Please pray with me: Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is Youth Sunday, but, no surprise, I couldn’t sucker any of the graduating seniors to wake up early enough to preach at the 8 a.m. worship service. High School students notoriously love their very few chances a month to sleep in, and, to top it off, Friday was the last day of school for New Trier seniors, so they have been enjoying a well-deserved relaxing weekend. And, in order to celebrate Youth Sunday here at 8 a.m., I want to tell you a story.

It is a story that goes back to the future, so to speak, a story that looks toward a shared past, a shared song, and points toward a hoped-for future of faith. I might have told this story before, but if you’ve heard it before, don’t stop me. At Kenilworth Union Church, Fridays are the best: and not for the reasons you might expect.

On Fridays, here in this very chapel, the preschoolers sit in these pews, feet dangling far from the floor, and they sing. They sing the songs you know: Jesus Loves Me and Deep and Wide. And, they love this little light of mine. It is a four-year-old favorite, a true crowd pleaser. I think they love it, mostly because it lets loose a little bit of mischief, but for the adults in the chapel service, it represents an optimistic conviction.

Here’s what I mean. They sing: (you can sing along with me if you’ve got it in you)

this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Alright, we know this verse. It sets the stage. It preaches today’s scripture passage, loud and clear. But then, in comes the mischief.

Hide it under a bushel, No! I’m gonna let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel, No! I’m gonna let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel, No! I’m gonna let it shine,
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Now, on this verse, the kids make a deliberate move. You can see it in their eyes. They intentionally shift from their sweet, genuine singing voices, to their best “top of their lungs” shout. They get overwhelmed with screaming “No!” Now, do I shout “no”?

Nope. They didn’t learn this from me. I almost sing quieter on the “no” verses because their response is so forceful. Sometimes I whisper “no” just to delight in their overpowering delight in howling their reply. But I purposefully don’t hush them, either, or chide them for being so emphatic. Their loud “no” is a commitment to God, a vow, a promise to let their light shine.

At age three or four, these kinds of promises to God are endearing. We are captivated by their trusting love, we are enamored by their unguarded faithfulness. And yet, if we take seriously the work of faith formation of young people, and honor their in-the-moment conviction that they can and will shout if you try to hide their light under a bushel, then we must earnestly, wholeheartedly, honor and learn from their palpable, pint-sized, promises to God.

On Youth Sunday, the question I wonder is this:

How will these three and four-year-olds live out these promises—now and in the future?
By the time they are graduating from High School, will they still boldly let their light shine?
How will they proclaim God’s promises to them, and their promises to God, in the midst of an ever increasing secular and nonreligious world?
Or, how will they be able to maneuver the difficulties of being a Christian in a multi-faceted Christian culture that is increasingly polarized and contentious?
Will the children who let their voices echo into the rafters now, be able to continually live into the promises they make to God?
The simple yet monumental promises to let their light shine?

Literature on the philosophy of promise-making reveals that promises are weighty and demanding. Theoretically, promises have the ability to take on a special kind of power that “invokes obligation” by their very utterance.[i] Socially and culturally, the practice of promise is beneficial, making “trust-based cooperation possible.”[ii] Theologically, promises are a communal commitment “of renewed life” in the face of what they call in Hebrew the tohu va vohu, or the “dark abyss.”[iii]Biblically, as Martin Luther argues, “there is only one faith and one God—the One who makes promises.”[iv]

Will the promises made here in this chapel, in 2016, take on this sense of obligation, trust and commitment to renewed life, seeking our God-of-promise in the days ahead?

Young children are especially attuned to the presence of God, since “adults who understand so much, want to understand everything; but children are willing to stand unembarrassed before mystery.”[v] Children have an innate capacity to engage in talking about and worshiping God. When we understand worship as “entering into another reality, the reality of the kingdom of God” children can readily resonate with this imaginative work.

“When a child is told that one goes to church to meet God, and that the church is God’s house, the child accepts and believes.”[vi] Whether they are entering the sanctuary or a child-oriented worship space, children can approach the throne of God in the way that Jesus recognized, saying, “allow the children to come to me, and do not forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”[vii]

While faith dawns naturally, it must be nurtured. As children transition to adulthood, adolescent faith depends largely on “how they are welcomed into the world and what kinds of environments they grow in.”[viii] The challenge is that youth culture, not just at Kenilworth Union Church, nor just in the United States, but across the globe, is increasingly materialistic and disenfranchised, resulting in “new values, loss of traditional systems of support, and places of meaning-making.”[ix]

Not only that, globalization, social media and increasingly diverse communities “require youth to participate in multicultural settings and to be culturally pluralistic.”[x] In some ways, the cultural of individualization already disadvantages the communal, social, and interactive nature of faith.

When it comes to a sense of wonder and delight in the presence of God, teenagers are often dependent on how the spirit and grace of God is “recognized and imagined, unperceived and ignored” by both peers and adults.[xi] Parental and peer attitudes toward the Christian faith color a child’s “growing up in God.”[xii] Consequently, while it might be attractive to imagine that faith forms within the vacuum of church-life, this is not the case.

The faith of young people is influenced by peers and adults in every sphere of influence—academic, athletic, social, celebrity, cyber, and familial. Here, “faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse” set of social settings, providing a basis for identity and worldview.[xiii] While “adults all too often look upon the unexplained as weird, foolish, impossible, children live in a world still bursting with miracles,”[ix] and youth are straddling these two worlds, paying special attention to adapt to what is perceived as the more mature, adult way of looking at the world.

Peers are paramount. In their transition to adulthood, adolescents mirror those around them as they explore what adult faith might look like. Maybe this terrifies you. It does me. Even as a “professional” in this faith-building world, it can be paralyzing to think that young people might pick up the inherently human and flawed ways that I live out the gospel.

Yet, there is a sense that being an adult mentor in the transition from childhood to adulthood matters because, even within the disequilibrium and disruption that adolescence brings, with some mentoring, youth can emerge as adults who have the capacity, flexibility, and stability of a robust theological imagination: the still-yet-innate ability to marvel at the mystery of God at work in them, with them and through them in the world.[xv]

With mentoring adults like you to guide them along the way, when this year’s three-year-olds and four-year-olds are graduating from high school, or moving to their first apartment, or bringing their own babies here to be baptized, they might still joyfully sing this little light of mine reaffirming their promise to never let anyone hide their light under a bushel.

I don’t know who the children are in your lives. I don’t know which High School students look up to you. I don’t know which parents of small children need you as mentors in the every-day work of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or changing another diaper or worrying about all the worries of raising children.

But, I know that there are children in your lives. I know that there are High School students who see your light shine, whether up-close or from a distance. And, I know that there are parents and teachers and leaders who work daily with children and youth who see God’s love echoed across your life.

It is up to us to decide how we will let our light shine. And, our preschoolers invite us to join them in their protest song—a song which says “no” loud and clear, when any one tries to hide their light under a bushel.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

[i] Allen Habib, “Promises,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., accessed November 12, 2015, plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/promises/.

[ii] Habib, “Promises.”

[iii] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 81.

[iv] Robert Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology about the Gospel of Jesus (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), ii.

[v] Mary Catherine Bergland, Gather the Children (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1994) 43.

[vi] Constance J. Tarasar, Taste and See: Orthodox Children at Worship, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Seabury, 1983) 53.

[vii] Matthew 19:14, Common English Bible.

[viii] James Fowler. Stages of Faith (HarperOne: New York1981) xiii.

[ix] Eugene C. Roehlkepartain. The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006) 125.

[x] Eugene C. Roehlkepartain. The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006) 125.

[xi] James Fowler. Stages of Faith (HarperOne: New York1981) xiii.

[xii] Susan Marie Smith, Christian Ritualizing and the Baptismal Process: Liturgical Explorations toward a Realized Baptismal Ecclesiology (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 59.

[xiii] James Fowler. Stages of Faith (HarperOne: New York1981), 172.

[xiv] Mary Catherine Bergland, Gather the Children (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1994) 43.

[xv] Fowler, 69.