Back in the before times—before the pandemic, that is—First Church Amherst had a beloved tradition of making an annual youth and family retreat to the Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod.
Oh, what a wonderful time we would have, multiple generations having fun together and receiving, sharing, and experiencing God’s love through everything from play-acting Bible stories, doing arts and crafts, playing softball, going on nature walks, singing our prayers, attending evening Vespers together, frolicking in the ocean, and sharing Communion on the beach.
The weekend was always loads of fun and community building, but it was also so much more than that. Most of all, we wanted our children to know that they were loved—not only by a church community but especially by God. And that meant working in some low-faith formation.
The gift and the challenge of that was exactly the same: kids.
You never know what will work with them and what won’t, what will sink in and what will provoke the dreaded eye-roll. All you can really do is put your love out there and hope for the best.
One year we focused on the story you just heard, the one about Jacob at Beth-el, all angels and awesomeness and a pretty spectacular promise from God.
On Sunday morning we gathered on the beach for our closing worship service. Kids, worship, beach—what had I been thinking? The sun was shining. The waves were rolling in. The distractions were legion. Almost half my congregation was busy with shovels and buckets. Brendon, who sat with his back to me, was clearly not paying attention.
But what could I do? Being a preacher, I just kept talking. I told again the story of Jacob and his pillow and his dream. The ladder and the stone pillar. And when I got to the part where God stands beside Jacob and speaks to him, I said, “And what did God tell Jacob?”
Which was the whole faith-formation, remember-God-loves-you point, after all.
Sunshine diamonds danced across the water. Seagulls squawked overhead. And eight-year-old Brendon, who was still facing the opposite direction and playing in the sand, did not miss a beat. In a voice clear and strong and sure, he spoke the words of scripture, almost verbatim:
“I am with you and I will be with you wherever you go. I will bring you back home and I will stay with you until I keep all my promises.”
Kids. You just never know.
I’m pretty sure I was not the only adult who was stunned by Brendon’s almost word-for-word recitation of scripture. I don’t think I was the only one moved to tears by having a child speak the truth we all long to hear, no matter what our age, no matter what our situation:
I am your God, and I love you. I am with you now and I will stay with you always. I will be with you wherever you go. I will be with you whatever happens to you. I will never leave you, and you can never lose my love.
That’s true for us all—whether we’re a child just beginning to discover the world, a young adult who’s moved across the state, across the country or around the world to attend college, a parent wondering how to fit church into an already overly-full, stressful life, or someone in middle age, retirement, or their nineties wondering if they still have something to offer the world.
By the way, for those of you who don’t know, that eight-year-old, scripture-quoting Brendon grew up to become a wonderful young man, and last week he started college. Earlier this year, he made the decision to become a member of this church. And this morning, he’s helping to teach Sunday School.
Kids. You just never know.
Jesus’ disciples certainly didn’t know. Apparently, they considered children a nuisance or somehow disconnected from Jesus’ true purpose and ministry. But Jesus knew.
“Let the children come to me,” he insisted. “Do not stop the children, because it is to the childlike that the realm of God belongs.”
And what is it to be childlike? Perhaps innocent, curious, open, seeking, wonder-struck, forgiving, impressionable, vulnerable, dependent, growing, and becoming.
Science now knows what Jesus’ disciples did not. That we are all spiritual beings, for example, and that we are born spiritual beings. That some 71 percent of our spiritual development is influenced by our environment, and that unless our innate spirituality is engaged on a regular basis it will stagnate or even atrophy.
And I think Jesus also knew what we adults sometimes forget: That children and youth are not only our future; they are also our present. That even now they are calling us to be our best selves, not only in how we raise them but in what we learn from them. Even now, our children and youth are calling us to climate action, racial and economic justice, a fuller understanding of sexuality and gender, gun control, the value of community.
But sometimes we adults, not unlike the disciples, see the passion of our youth as inconvenient.
Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting in which 17 people were killed and who now goes by the first name X and the pronoun they, has spoken to this.
“Adults like us when we have strong test scores,” they said, “but they hate us when we have strong opinions.”
I’d like to think that when Jesus said that the realm of God belongs to the childlike, he was referring not only to the innocence and open-heartedness of young children but also to the idealism, passion, and strength of youth and young adults.
Which is to say: We need each other. From the Greatest Generation to Gen Alpha, from the Silent Generation to Generation Z, from Boomers to Gen X’ers and Millennials.
Which is to say that this world that God so loves—this burning, divided, beautiful and broken world—needs all of us: children and youth, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, singles and partners, healers and organizers, teachers and community builders, truth-tellers and peace-makers, contemplatives and activists, justice seekers and music-makers, the actively working and the newly or long retired, people of every age, race, economic status, education level, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Which is to say, of course, that we need each other, but also that the building of inter-generational and cross-cultural relationships and communities requires intention, commitment, vulnerability, investment, a willingness to make mistakes and keep trying, and the refusal to give up.
Parenting is hard work.
Community-building is hard work.
Following Jesus is endlessly challenging.
And none of these things—not parenting, not organizing, not even following Jesus, not even just surviving—is meant to be done alone. Not one of them can be done alone.
We need each other and we need the love of God, the example of Jesus, and the power and sustenance of the Spirit. We might even need—dare I say it?—church, by which I mean not the institution but an ever-evolving, expanding, and deepening community of seekers and servants, beloveds and lovers, and children and the childlike of all ages.
May we, like Jacob, discover that God is in this place, wherever we are. May we, like Jacob, learn that God is with us, no matter who we are and what we’ve done or not done, no matter what we believe or don’t believe.
And may we all—in all of our weariness or our fear, in our sense of overwhelm or confusion, too much and not enough, take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Unlike us, God does not faint or grow weary; God’s patience with us is never-ending.
It is God who gives power to those who are worn out and strength to the powerless.
Even young people will get tired and discouraged. Even children will sometimes feel like giving up.
But those who wait for God, anyone and everyone who chooses to trust that—despite everything—God’s love is at work in the world, well . . .
God will renew their strength. If they will simply open their hearts and be still for a moment, God will recharge their batteries like the most efficient EV.
They will be fully charged, and they will keep going on Spirit power.
They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run on and on and on and not get weary. They will walk the talk and not faint.
How awesome is this place, beloveds! May we all open our eyes and hearts to see that wherever we are is the house of love, the heart of God, the gate of heaven for all ages and all creation.