Friday, August 26, 2011

Who Is Jesus?

Sermon for 8.21.11, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Who Is Jesus?”
Common Lectionary Scriptural Lessons: Psalm 124; Exodus 1.8-2.10;
Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

Please pray with me: May my words please you, dear Lord, and may your Holy Spirit speak them to those gathered before you, here, in your holy place. Amen.
From today’s Epistle: “…We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”

Sometimes the lessons chosen for the Common Lectionary really support each other as a unit. Today they seem to have gotten it right! In Exodus, the women work together to disobey Pharaoh so that the children can survive. In Romans, Paul asks us to think of ourselves as one body, each part absolutely connected to the other and each part not only having different functions but having unique and true value. And then in Matthew, we hear Christ proclaimed by Peter as the “Son of the living God.”

These passages are a perfect introduction to the themes of the combined Vacation Bible School that took over the Reformed Church this past week and took over the schedules of some of us on the VBS Committee here. The Vacation Bible School is offered by the combined efforts of three churches in Port Ewen: Town of Esopus United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church, and Presentation Roman Catholic Church. Two years ago, when I first came, there were 44 students. Last year there were 59, and this time we had 70. The upper classes that Susan Dolce and I taught (grades 5 & 6, 7 & 8) topped out at 18 students. We don’t usually see all those children in our churches!

It was clear that the children genuinely enjoyed their time. Through their collections each morning at worship, they brought $219 to the Port Ewen Food Pantry (housed and run by our Methodist Church) and over 157 items of food. They brought materials for 11 school kits. The older students, under Susan’s direction, packaged 18 full and 7 partial kits of toiletries. These older ones came down to the Pantry and helped inventory and shelve the donations. From the questions they asked—such as “Why are there so many cans of green beans?”--it was clear that this work made an impression on them. They also gifted us with the blankets that we have placed over the altar rail; these are for us to give out in winter so that a few people at least can feel cozy.

But the week was far more than these statistics. VBS is community building and mission in the deepest sense. Children are our future, our responsibility, and a way that God blesses us. They bring their individual and age-related gifts to the body of Christ of which we are all a part. How good it is that there were so many and that some will remember that at least three different churches gathered them. The children may not yet know how serious the differences among our denominations can be. More important is that we prayed, sang, played, and talked about God together. There were unchurched children there as well and children from other churches. Many some from each group came in part because their friends were going or because it gave their moms some precious mornings off. What nobody knows is that word, what activity, what response will come back to them, maybe years from now and maybe in an hour of need. Let them remember that diverse as we may have been, we are all the children of God. So much the better that the space we shared was safe and the time filled with laughter.

The lessons were organized around five very basic yet important questions. We didn’t start, as does Jesus in the passage from Matthew, by asking, “Who do people say that I am?”. Instead we asked much the same question that our Lord was really interested in: “Who do you say that I am?” Tuesday’s question was “Why can I trust Jesus,” then “Why do I need Jesus,” then “How can Jesus help me when I mess us,” and finally, on Friday, “What does Jesus want me to do?” I could spend the rest of my life on these questions!

I taught two days, Pastor Jim Beukelman two, we overlapped on Friday, and Susan Dolce, bless her heart, was our five-day continuity. We wanted our examples to be as concrete as possible for our age group, and so we chose Bible stories that we thought the students could imagine themselves into. For warm-up, we tossed beach balls back and forth; the one left holding them when I chapped had to give a quick answer to a question such as “What makes a friend?” of “Tell us something that no one would guess about you”—questions that we could apply to Jesus later on. But sometimes we popped the big question: “Who is Jesus?” Aside from “Miracle Worker,” “God,” and “Savior,” we got “someone who helps me with my fears” and “Jesus is bread.”

For the balance of this first lesson, we had them divide into small groups, read the stories of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, and then draw pictures showing what kind of person they thought Jesus was in the story. The results were telling: Often the Jesus figure looked very much like them, small and vulnerable, but not backing down, despite a huge or very red devil, surrounded by amazing clouds and lightning.

There was also a Bible verse for each day. On Wednesday, the day of looking at why we need Jesus, the verse was from John 10.10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” As we worked through our story choice for that day, the feeding of the multitude, the students translated “abundant” as: “amazing,” “more than enough,” “as much as I need,” “feeling filled,” “an awesome life,” “graceful/grace filled,” “filled with wanting to give,” “enough for others,” and—simply—“satisfied.” We then asked them to complete two questions: “I need Jesus because…” and “Jesus needs me because….” Here’s what we heard: “He fills us,” “He understands us,” “He listens,” “He notices us.” And conversely: “Jesus wants us to pray,” “to love him,” “to care,” “to continue his ministry,” “to protect his church from harm.”

I’m sure that some of these responses began developing on the previous day when the students did a trust exercise: They were blindfolded and someone told them how and where it was safe to go. On the next day, the students loved pantomiming the story of the Prodigal Son. No words, just actions, as they considered this story of a messed-up boy and a God who is always waiting.

Susan and I struggled to find the right story for the last day. We didn’t just want to preach discipleship in the abstract. We wanted a story for the students to act out that would show Jesus reaching out to someone no one else would go near. It was Susan who came up with Zaccheus, the tax collector. Our play opened the Evening for Families and Friends on Friday night.

Susan Dolce: We wanted to end the week with something that would tie together the five questions proposed by the VBS program. I thought of the story of Zaccheus because I wanted something that would hold the interest—and energy-- of 5th through 8th graders and help them answer the questions. We thought of making it into a play because the interaction would help them understand the story better. For those not familiar with the story, it would be easy to follow.

A tall and gentle young man named Tayshan Grey portrayed Jesus. Zaccheus was portrayed by one of the shorter members of the class, Mike Miller. The tree that he climbed was a ladder draped in table clothes. I put a slit in the top, so Zaccheus could pop his head out of it and wear it like a poncho. Of course the audience laughed! Our two narrators, Robert and Olivia, helped the audience picture the scenes. The rest of the class and Pastor Jim were the crowd that followed Jesus and tried to stop him from going to Zaccheus’s house. But Jesus refused to listen, and the two sauntered off, with a changed crowd following behind.

The class became very involved in the play and those with reading parts wanted to practice them over and over. The rest of us noticed that the more they read out loud, the more they seemed to understand. When we had our final rehearsal, I asked how the play answered our questions from the week’s lessons. And here’s what we heard: Clearly this is a man we can trust and one we need. Look how he turned around that awful tax collector who worked for the Romans! Look how he changed someone who had been really messed up. Look how he changed us in the crowd! Pastor Dora and I loved our interactions with all the boys and girls and the insights that the young are so able to provide when we give them a chance and a way.

Pastor’s closing prayer:
Dearest Lord: May we remember your gifts to us: that you are in our lives; that we can trust you; that we need you more than we might know; that we can always turn to you, even when we’ve messed up—or find ourselves with others who have; and, finally, that you want us to reach out in love even to those who are very different from us. Give us grace to remember that all of us, diverse as we may be, are part of your body, are part of your love. Help us to keep asking the questions we asked the children this week and to live into them more deeply day by day. We pray in your name. Amen.

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