Youth Sunday – Click HERE for a short description of the service in which this sermon was preached.
When a young person from the Lakota people reached their early teen years, they were prepared to set out on their Vision Quest. During their Vision Quest they would go out alone into the wilderness, taking nothing with them except water. They were to look for a spot, a place that caught their attention. When they found their location, they would sit down and settle in. It was understood that they would not move from that 10 foot radius for the next two to four days. Not to explore the woods, not to get food, not to avoid any animals that may come their way. Without any one or any thing from their life there with them, their task was simply to look and listen. What they were looking and listening for was a sign, or some kind of message or voice that would serve as a guiding vision as they entered their life of young adulthood. Because they believed that the Spirit spoke through all things, the message could come in any form. With no food of their own and the possibility of becoming food for any wild animals that may pass through, it was also a time to overcome personal fears. The experience was to take the youth outside of the smallness of their own self, and connect them to the Great Spirit who had a larger purpose and direction for their life. When their time was up, they would return to their people and meet with the spiritual leader who would help them interpret their experience. Whatever kind of direction they received from their Vision Quest was what became the defining part of their new life with the tribe. Undergoing this rite of passage was what marked the transition from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood.
Well, after many long hours of discussion, your parents and I came to the conclusion that we would not take you out into the woods and drop you off for several days. Even though we knew we had some connections in rural Indiana where there might even be a wild animal or two, we decided this was probably not the best idea. But we did think it was important to create a service that might be a similar kind of rite of passage for you, marking the transition you are making from childhood to adolescence.
You are entering a time of life when you are beginning to ask questions about who you are and who you want to become. It is an exciting, mysterious, difficult, confusing, age. The exciting part is that the world is wide open to you. One of the great things about our culture is our value that each person should be allowed to pursue their own interests without having to play out an assigned role. You’re at the point where you’re still a ways off from having to make any major decisions about your life path, but you’re beginning to ponder and explore and consider the possibilities. What are the ways you want to use your gifts to serve others? What are your gifts? What are your interests and passions? These are exciting kinds of questions to ask.
The confusing part is that this is a time of life of rapid change. Not only are your bodies and minds changing, but your relationships are in transition. You are still very much a part of your families, but you’re beginning to gain some independence from your parents, in what you do and in how you think. You’re taking more of your cues from your peers in regards to how you think of yourself. Peers can be difficult people. This is not easy territory. I’m probably not alone in this group in saying that my junior high years are not at the top of my list of all time favorite memories. Along with this is another type of question that you’ll be asking yourself over the next while. The question more difficult than what you want to become is who you want to become. What kind of person do you want to be and how do you become that person? What kind of habits will you need to form and what kind of spiritual disciplines will you need to have to help this along? It’s especially challenging since many voices around you are promoting a self-oriented approach to life rather than a God-oriented approach.
So, I picture that Lakota youth out in the wilderness surrounded by trees, birds, the wind, leaves, and stones, listening for what kind of voice may come out of her environment to guide her. I also picture each of you in your own environment, surrounded by friends, homework, activities, TV and the internet, church, and family, also listening and looking for what kind of voice may come out of your environment to guide you. I’m not so sure you get the easier path. Wild animals come in many forms. How do you face your own fears and be at peace with yourself in the world? How do you listen when there are so many different voices speaking to you? Which ones are God’s leading? Which ones are distractions?
A pastor and writer by the name of Fredrick Buechner says this: “When you are youth, I think, your hearing is in some ways better than it is ever going to be again. You hear better than most people the voices that call to you…When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and what you really want to do with your life. But the danger is that there are so many voices…The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you…To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey?” (Fredrick Buechner, 2006: 37-39 Quoted in Road Signs for the Journey, p. 35)
When we got together and looked through some possible scriptures for today the story that most caught your attention was the anointing of young David as king over Israel. This is a story very much about listening and looking. And one of the reasons you gave of why you were drawn to this story was that there is an unexpected ending. Samuel, the mature, experienced, prophet is sent on a mission to anoint the next king of Israel. If anyone had practice and expertise at listening to God it would have been Samuel. Ever since his mother, Hannah, dedicated him in the temple when he was just a baby he had served in the temple and been mentored by the other priests there. When he was a boy he had heard God calling his name, even though the older priest didn’t hear anything. Now Samuel is older and his task is to go to the house of a man named Jesse and choose one of his sons to be king. Unfortunately, it appears that Samuel’s hearing isn’t as tuned into God as it could be. He is immediately drawn toward the oldest son who is tall and strong. Not that there’s anything wrong with being tall, but Samuel isn’t looking very closely for what really matters. And so we get this line in the story that caught your attention: “humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” From David’s perspective, this story isn’t so much about seeing or hearing, as it is about being seen in a certain way.
There is an interesting relationship between how people see us and how we see ourselves. Or, how we think God sees us and how we see ourselves. We tend to see ourselves through the eyes of others. A psychologist by the name of Dr. James Fowler talks about how the movement into adolescence has to do with becoming a “self-conscious” person. And the initial way that we become self-conscious is that we learn to see ourselves as others see us. He has a little line that describes this which goes like this. “I see you seeing me, I see the me I think you see.” (Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, 2000, p. 46.) Dr. Fowler goes on to say that “this accounts for the (adolescent’s) rather sudden new depth of awareness and interest in the interiority (emotions, personality patterns, ideas, thoughts, and experiences) of people – others and oneself. It makes for a newly ‘personal’ young woman or man. I see you seeing me, I see the me I think you see.
Young David has the experience of being seen in a way that neither Samuel, nor David’s father or brothers, or David himself could have imagined. Each of these characters limited their view of David as being the youngest brother, the last in line for any kind of opportunity. But then God’s way of seeing changed all that. David was not only a sheep herder, but he was also the Lord’s anointed, full of the spirit of God.
This would have had to have been a startling and even disturbing experience. There’s no sign in the story that David was looking to be king. He hadn’t written any essays in elementary school of how he wanted to become to next king of Israel. But something new happens for him when someone else first sees him as the Lord’s anointed. He is first seen in this new identity, and then he slowly becomes that new identity.
Something similar is going on in the other scripture that you chose. Timothy is in the process of being shaped and taught by his mentor, Paul. Timothy might have seen himself as too young, too inexperienced, not good enough for the job, but Paul saw someone who God had gifted to be a leader and a teacher. One of Paul’s purposes in writing Timothy would have been to help Timothy see himself through Paul’s eyes, who was looking in the same way as Samuel learned to look at David, not at how things appear, but at the inner reality of things. Paul says “Don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with you life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture… Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes.” (Message translation).
An important experience for me when I was about your age, even a little younger, happened because people were looking below the surface in my life. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was asked to preach a sermon at my home church. We were a small group, maybe 40 people or so, and I knew everyone, so it I felt comfortable saying Yes. I chose for my text the entire book of Job, even though I had read only the first and last couple chapters, and not the 40 chapters in between. The sermon probably wasn’t all that ground breaking, but afterward something very important happened. People told me I did a good job and that I should keep studying and writing and speaking. The pastor joked with me that if he was ever sick he was going to give me a call to fill in for him. Because of the way others saw this experience of mine, it was the first time I was able to see myself as someone who may want to do this in the future. This didn’t mean I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but it is a time I remember when I started to see myself in a new light. I would imagine that others here have similar kinds of stories from their own lives – when others pointed something out in them that helped them know themselves better.
We look for signs from God and we listen for God’s voice. We are all on our own Vision Quest, and we have to learn how to listen well to the calling on our life, whatever that may be. But as we ourselves try and look below the surface of things in this way, we will also find that there are others looking right back at us below our surface. Not seeing us just for who we appear to be, but for our whole person. These people are some of God’s greatest gifts to us.
We are called to look at each other below the surface, in the way that God sees us. One of the important things that we do together as church is to simply tell each other what we see when we look in this way. We may be able to see gifts and potential and the Spirit of God in others in ways that we can’t see in ourselves. We want to learn how to see each other in the light of God.
For each of you youth, I can say with confidence that there are a lot of wonderful things God has placed in each of your lives. I know this because I can see it, and because others here have seen it. We are blessed to have you a part of our fellowship as you move through these adolescent years. The surprise ending is that God has not only anointed young David, but has also anointed you. Whether you know it or not, we see the Spirit of God in each of you and pray you can tune your ears to the adventure of your calling. In a little bit, we’re going to get quite a bit more specific about this. I will ask each of you to come forward one at a time and listen to some of the voices from CMF speaking to you about what they have observed in you.
Before we do this, let’s sing together one of the songs the youth have chosen, which speaks to the reality of the voice of God that calls to each one of us.
In their highly communitarian culture, the Lakotas sent their youth out into solitude to hear the voice that would guide them. In our highly individualistic culture, we are surrounding our youth with community and praying that within this faith community they are able to hear the voice that will help guide them as they listen for God’s leading in their life. It was common for the Lakota youth to take from their circle some kind of physical object, like a feather or twig or stone, as a reminder of their Vision Quest. And so as a physical reminder of this time we will be giving each youth a notebook to keep. The first several pages of the notebook were made by the youth and represent part of their personality and who they are. They second part of the notebook contains comments, notes, blessings, from the congregation. It’s not to late to contribute to this, so over the next few weeks you can still send notes to Jane Patty who will help compile them. This can be something that each of you can refer to anytime as a reminder of what people see when they look at you.
Now we get the chance to hear just a few of these comments for each of you.