Dear Youth Ministry Committee and parents of St. Andrew’s,
Grace and peace to you all!I wanted to reach out after our deep-dive of a meeting last Thursday and thank you for your honesty and willingness to try this new endeavor in youth ministry. It must be uncomfortable to feel the lens shift from your children to you. I want to reiterate: in our unprecedented time, the co-chairs and I want this shift to be a gift, a grace, and a support (all the things we confess that God is for us). And you all, with your input, have already made us better able to do that.
Today at the office it’s very quiet, dark slabs of clouds roll by overhead, the hiss of the air conditioner is lonesome. So, in between preparations for this Sunday’s sermon I was browsing through old filing cabinets. And reading again the printed emails and saved files concerning Pastor Lutcher and Bruce, Pastor Jack and Rachel, I am reminded of how much conflict has wracked the Christian-Ed office I’m sitting in. Disappointment, hand-wringing, anguish even. And, do you know, what all the conflict is about? On the surface it would seem child attendance and volunteer involvement, “lack of performance.” But I think it is grief and confusion about the end of traditions, of events that “used” to be successful, in other words, the bitterness that comes when we see life as only either success or failure. And, in this case, failure.
Gosh, even though I am an outsider to the long-life of St. Andrew’s, I can taste the bitterness of these seeming defeats that stretch 10 years and more into the past. I heard the whispers and the ghosts of these perceived defeats when I first joined with you, when the Holy Spirit first nudged me in your direction. Over styrofoam cups of coffee older leaders waxed poetic about the numbers of kids who used to attend. The amazing power of the events held here, they bragged to me. But a shadow of shame crossed their face, and they muttered, “But now, I don’t know, where did they all go?”
I think you all know how hard I and Pastor Krey have been trying to keep together these dreams and memories of success. Really I think that’s why you called a Minister of Word and Sacrament like me in the first place, right? Bring in the big guns… It’s true, together we did work so hard to bring up new volunteers and leaders, to adapt Sunday school and SAYF and VBS. (With many successes we still deserve to claim, I think, given the circumstances). But often, at least for me, it has felt like trying to cup water in my hands—no matter how tight I squeeze my fingers together, it trickles through… “Where did they all go?”
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday is the famous one from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus walks over the sea to find his helpless and storm-tossed disciples in their boat. Underneath maybe the same kind of grey sky that is outside my window now, seeing him, they scream out in fear, believing him to be an evil apparition. But Jesus calls out to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” The salty wind whistled in their ears, dark purple and green waves rammed the prow of their little boat. I think we all remember the scene of Peter testing Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.”
What are the waves and the storms of decades past that have battered our boat of youth ministry, of teaching our kids to believe, of church? Is it the mismanagement of staff, is it the changing winds of culture, is it the numbing drudgery of habit and duty that has emptied our spirituality of vitality? Is it fear of failure, fear of getting it wrong? Maybe, possibly. Or is it a real lack of trust in the power of God, and a belief instead in silver bullets and right answers?
The water that slips through the cracks in your fingers doesn’t cease to be water. The kids who are baptized, who come and go through the hallowed halls of St. Andrew’s don’t stop being children of God just because you cannot count them anymore. But I know that you know this already, deep down.
But even still, now, to make matters more intense, we are enduring a pandemic, a time of national grief and confusion not felt in generations. The lightning of social unrest strikes outside our very windows, the rumble and thunder of unknowing echoes off the ridge. If a generation ago the boat was battered by the storms of decline, then now, together, you and I have seen the body of Jesus out on the water, we have decided to leave the boat completely, to do the impossible and place our feet on the water as though it were solid ground. How brave you all are, how much praise you deserve for taking this step! That is what our shift in approach to ministry with kids feels like.
What I want to say is this: again, the vision of the water falling fast through our fingers, of “losing our kids, “losing” our church, is an illusion—it’s not real. They are not lost. Certainly some traditions are lost, perhaps for good reason, or they are transformed beyond recognition. Just like with Peter, it is the same with us: with Jesus in our sight, the wind pelts our faces with salt-sprayed hair, we fear, we start to sink.
This shift in our Youth Ministry and Christian Education from children to parents is not really a loss. It is an act of faith, a proclamation of your deep trust in God. We do as Peter does in the Gospel when he cries out. Fast sinking, wet and dazed, with schedules out of control, worries stacked on worries about sickness and finance, as we confront the unknown of school years and vaccines, our hopes for imagined futures ricochet back at us in a misfire. Pivoting our attention from children to parents is not another task in your calendar, to home-Sunday-school your kids.
It is time to learn how to cry out, “Lord, save me!”
As Matthew’s story goes on, hearing Peter’s cry, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him. Together now we linger in the uncomfortable space between sinking, crying out, and touching the hand of God.
It sometimes amazes me how Bible stories can be so simple and complex at the same time. Today’s Gospel condensed would be: Jesus has got you. But, expanded, we can see ourselves, our situation in both Peter and Christ simultaneously. Peter is the “rock” on which Jesus built his Church, that’s even what the name “Peter” means. Peter is the people of God, beleaguered and frightened, trusting but cautious, faithful but still pierced with doubts, testing God and sinking, and crying out for help.
And baptized into Christ, we are the Church, Christ’s body in the world. Simultaneously, we, now, are Christ’s hand too, and it is to those who are sinking, our siblings here, those walking the precarious water-walk with us, to those we reach out and catch too.
So, we’re leaving Sunday school behind for a while. I don’t know how long. We’re leaving the boat. Let it be. It was a leaky old boat anyway.
As parents, together, this means three things. (And maybe you have already started on step one…) 1) We must feel the strong wind of change, we feel the biting cold of the salt water as we start to sink. But, 2) we will find our voices as we cry out to God, in prayer, in song, in surprising ways. And, 3) We will feel God’s touch, catching us, holding us, now and forever.
Thank you Rebecca Lebold and Josh Flynn, co-chairs, I give thanks to God for your leadership, as well as all the faithful and transformed leaders that join you on our committee of parents and grandparents. Indeed, as Scripture teaches us in many places: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I believe it will be so.
I am yours in Christ, and we are together in prayer,
Pastor Joshua Sullivan