2021 Youth Sunday Sermons
March 14, 2021
A year ago, I was sent home from school with the promise of returning in two weeks. Like many of my peers, I was excited about the possibility of a break. The struggles of junior year were at their peak, my mental health was draining, and I needed some time off. Things were looking up. Here we are a year later, and I can tell you that things have not, in fact, looked up. My senior year has become an experiment, with everyone, and I mean everyone, struggling to find their next step. I can remember my brother’s senior spring, full of stress-free days with friends as he neared the finish line, days that will look much different for all of us.
And of course you all have your own stories of change and challenge over this last year. Loved ones lost, isolation from friends and family, or just the general raincloud that seems to follow us wherever we go right now. Here we are a year later, and I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of Israelite days these many months. Wandering through this pandemic wilderness has spawned a lot of questions for God. What is the purpose of this pandemic? How can God afford us so much loss and expect us to love him just the same? When will it be done, God? Why is all this happening? Of course, questioning God has always been an important part of my faith journey, but these days, I feel like I have far more questions than answers. I’m starting to think that maybe the stress of Junior year would have been a whole lot better than this wilderness I’m walking through now.
So here I am, stumbling through this pandemic desert, managing anxiety about all of the unknowns, hoping to find some answer in Jesus’ words through scripture, and what does Luke transcribe for us? “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Now, forgive me for not shouting my hallelujahs and singing my praises, but that’s about the last thing I’m ready to hear right now, God. Amid all this despair, chaos, and unexpected loss, God, in all his infinite wisdom, tells me not to worry. The endless zoom calls, social isolation, and anxiety for my future are but a passing storm, and my salvation awaits in Heaven. Heaven sounds great, God but what about right here, right now?
I don’t know about y’all, but I’m a pretty good worrier. It might come from my parents’ fastidious demeanors, or the pressures of growing up in a college town where every action must be perfectly calculated, but I’m basically worried all the time. And from grade-point averages to college essays to Covid safety, there’s plenty to worry about in my life. As anyone who’s ever worked on a school project with me will tell you, I like to be in control. Sure, that may mean a bigger workload, but at least then I can determine the outcome. When someone tells me to let go of these concerns or to loosen my grip, I just cling tighter, upset that someone else would even think that I could just drop them, and suddenly, magically, my worries would disappear. Through my near constant worrying, I’ve learned how to function in my web of anxieties. If I’m worried, it means I’m paying attention, that I’m engaged, that I can have some control over my life. It’s become a familiar place in an often unpredictable world.
You can imagine my frustration at Jesus’ advice in the gospel passage. I want to be able to worry about the uncertainty of my senior year. I want to be able to worry about the incredible loss so many are facing due to this pandemic. I want to be able to worry about not seeing my friends and family, and feeling locked in my house for a year. How, when so much around me has become unexpected, am I supposed to let go of my anxiety? Being able to have power over these fears and concerns seems to give me just a little more autonomy in a time when it seems that everything else around me is determining my circumstances .Rather than looking to God for reassurance, I search for control in unending worry. And why should I be surprised? How much easier is it to force everyone else out, including God, and solely focus on myself?
I often hear people of faith say, “give it to God.” In all my life, I thought that letting go of my concerns would have made me weak. To sacrifice my control over a situation would make me less powerful and less strong – less in control. However, in this case, I think that holding on to these fears has shown my weakness. In imagining truly giving all these worries to God, I recognized just how much effort it would take. It is no small task to release our control over any of our fears, let alone the great anxieties we all feel right now. It would take a focused effort, every single day. I would fail often, and be tempted to force God out of the picture with each new moment.
I can tell you that if I were hearing this message, I’d likely be thinking, “well that’s all well and good, but I’ve had more than enough struggle this year. I’m not ready to add any more strife at the moment, thank you very much.” What I hope that we all might realize is that by relying on God, we are reminded that God is here to stay, actively at work in each of our lives. People of faith, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” If we just take that step, that one, uncomfortable, detaching, hopeful step, then God will take care of all the rest. It’s a sacrifice to give up worry and control. It’s a daily practice to rely on God. We don’t always get it right and I’d venture to say we’ve really messed it up THIS year. But when we do get it right, when we are able to rely on God instead of our own worries, we help to bring Heaven on Earth, and feel the unfailing power of God’s presence in our lives.
For 14 years, I sat in this church, and listened to Bob Dunham say, “hold fast to the one who always holds fast to you.” His words still linger with me today. Friends, I’m still figuring out how to hold fast, and I know I will be for a long time. But by offering my worries and fears to God, I know that I am one step closer. Won’t you join me?
A couple weeks ago in homeroom, our gathering question was “what would you do if you couldn’t fail?” I said I would explore the deep sea since I wouldn’t risk being eaten or crushed. Others expressed interest in going to space, opening a business, and flying around in a squirrel wingsuit. In reading the scripture for this Sunday, I was drawn back to this gathering question. In both the Numbers and Luke passages, we see God telling us not to worry because He will provide for us, so in a sense we cannot fail.
But is that really true? We are only human and we fail God and each other all the time. Everyone in the congregation has sinned and I’m sure we will again. Still, God ensures that there is “treasure that will never fail” for all of us in heaven. He provides us everlasting forgiveness that allows us to try again and again to live up to his call.
Of course, this idea of not worrying is easier said than done. One day last November, after weeks of agonizing over my college applications, my sister turned to me and said: “Clive, you’ll always be stressed. Right now you’re stressed with applications and then you’ll be stressed with school. Then you’ll be stressed at college and then you’ll be stressed with your job and then you’ll die.” Thanks Lois, very encouraging! In some sense, she’s right though. It’s easy to get caught up in all the small stuff. I often get so distracted with everything going on in my life that I forget the big picture. College applications aren’t the only thing I’m here to do, after all! God calls me not to fret over these applications or my hair or this calculus test coming up, because He knows the bigger picture. No matter how much I worry about anything or how badly I do on this test, I will always have God’s promise of grace and mercy behind me, I just have to open up space in my life to remember it.
The current season of Lent is the perfect opportunity for me, and all of us, to reorient our lives towards God’s call to help others. In our Luke passage today, Jesus asks us to set aside our worries and sell our possessions. However, doing that again causes worry. We’re all accustomed to a certain lifestyle and being asked to give that up is unsettling. But if we truly trust in God and his call, we have nothing to lose by helping others. Instead of waiting for individuals to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” we are called to lift them up with an outreached hand. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to be the best, we are called to combine our efforts to create a better world. Instead of constantly worrying about what people are thinking of us, God asks us to take a courageous step outside our comfort zones and offer up our gifts to help others.
My sister isn’t wrong. We will always have worry in our lives. But it’s important to remedy our worries by surrounding ourselves with reminders of God’s presence and promise of salvation. For me, this church congregation has been this reminder, providing meals for my family when my mom was sick and uplifting me after my coming out. It’s my tangible reminder that God is present even while snakes bite at our heels. We can all be reminders of God’s presence for others, using our privilege for good, whether it’s donating to a foodbank or volunteering to pick up trash. During this time of Lent and always, God is asking us to put aside our worries and help others using all he has already provided. Even with all the uncertainty and legitimate worries this year has created, God is reminding us that power comes from our faith, not our fears.
Ann MacAllister Alexander:
In December of 2011, my great-grandmother was moved from her retirement home to intensive care at Duke Hospital. On December 30th, she passed away. I remember waking up that morning to find my Aunt Betsy in the kitchen and my mom and dad gone. I was 8 years old, turning 9 the next month, and though it wasn’t my first time dealing with a death in the family, it was the first one that I can remember having a really big impact on me. I was old enough to understand the fact that everyone dies at some point, it’s an inevitable aspect of life. But I was also old enough to be a little mad at God. Why did she have to die right now? Why couldn’t she have lived for longer? I was frustrated, and if you knew me when I was 8, then you know how stubborn and moody I could be. I couldn’t wrap my head around why God let this happen, I thought God was supposed to make everything good.
In the Numbers passage the Israelites were going through hard times; they are wandering through the blazing hot desert with only manna to survive, they don’t know when they will reach the Promised Land, and they’re forced to live in huge uncertainty. They’re complaining to God, expressing their doubts in him, questioning Moses as to why he led them “to die in the wilderness.” God sent down poisonous serpents, which bit and killed the Israelites. As anyone would be in that situation, the Isrealites were scared and desperate for the snakes to go away, so they went to Moses and confessed that they spoke out against him and God, pleading that he prays to God to rid them of these snakes. However, instead of taking the snakes away, God tells Moses a solution: set one of the serpents on a pole. Those who are bitten should look at that snake and they will live.
God takes a rather interesting approach to solve this deadly serpent problem. The Isrealites asked for a solution and God provided one, just perhaps not in the way they thought God would. Instead of getting rid of the problem, God provides a solution that doesn’t involve taking away the source of the issue. The deadly serpent, when lifted on a pole by Moses became the thing that the Israelites looked to for healing. That’s a little confusing, right?
Now when I first read this passage, my initial thoughts were, “that was pretty harsh” and “wow God was being really cruel,” which I think were pretty valid thoughts. The Israelites were already suffering on this long journey in the desert and then poisonous snakes got sent upon them??!! Where’s the God of grace and mercy in that? We like to think of God as a creator and sustainer, who is welcoming and loves us, right? At first reading, this story doesn’t say that at all.
But, as I studied this passage further, I came to realize a few things. It doesn’t say that God sent these snakes as punishment. It’s easy to make that assumption. But the text just says that God sent them. These snakes did create a change of attitude among the Israelites, no doubt. But maybe the pain of the snakes wasn’t punishment from a vengeful God. Maybe the snakes were a catalyst to help the Israelites remember that God is present with them, even when the journey was an incredibly difficult one.
Lent is a time where we explore our faith in God and when we work to remember that God is with us on this journey, even when metaphorical snakes are biting at our heels. When the Isrealites took the solution God gave them, and looked at the snake Moses put on the pole to heal them, they remembered God’s power and presence, even in the depths of their despair. The terrible pain wasn’t taken away, but the way to healing was revealed.
Maybe God wasn’t being so vengeful after all. Maybe this story teaches us that our gratitude for God’s presence is of utmost importance on this journey. When I learned of my great grandmother’s death, I wondered why God didn’t just keep her alive and spare us from the pain of grief. But God doesn’t promise a life free from pain. Instead God provides ways to heal from the grief and pain we all experience in this life. God isn’t all of a sudden going to bring my great grandmother back to life because God isn’t here just to magically solve all of our problems in the blink of an eye. But God provides means for us to heal and deal with our grief. It may not be as tangible as the serpent on the pole was for the Israelites, but God’s presence and provision is all around us, if only we are willing to look.
Much of the past year of my life has felt like a desert and I’ve been wandering through it. Much of the time I spent wandering through this proverbial desert land, I behaved like the Israelites in our scripture from Numbers today. I will not pretend I went through the past year without my fair share of complaining, or wallowing in “what could’ve been.” I cannot say that I always looked to God in the turmoil. When the snakes of this last year entered my story, I found it even harder to remember God’s presence and provision. Some days my grief gets the best of me and I forget that God is still with me alongside all of the terrible things happening in the world.
For most of my life, I have been confident in myself, my relationships, and could roll with the punches of everyday life. However, starting my junior year, things changed. Even before Covid hit, I lost some of the relationships I depended on with family and friends, losses that took a tremendous toll on my mental health. When I finally started to get myself together in February and March, the pandemic hit, and I lost the foundation I had been building. The stability I’d once gained from my social network, academics, and organizations I worked with, fell apart, and I found myself in a new, dark state of mind. I didn’t actively work to change my mindset. I was lazy, angry, and sad, and it was so much easier for me to blame my circumstances instead of looking to God for healing. I fell into a cycle of anger and grief, and breaking out was not an easy thing to do.
I know I’m not the only one who felt that way over the last year…or maybe even the last week. We’ve all gotten a little taste of the Israelites’ pain this year, although COVID-19 has nothing on wandering in a desert for 40 years. The Israelites’ lives were filled with uncertainty and pain, both from wandering with no end in sight and from the snakes, biting at their heels. After this last year I think I can understand a little better where the Israelites are coming from when they complain against God and Moses.
But learning that it’s ok to complain to God isn’t the lesson here. We see people crying out to God all throughout scripture. But here, God heard the cry of the Israelites yet did not remove the snakes. Instead, he left the snakes but provided a source of healing. This snake on a pole was a visible reminder of God’s presence and salvation, without making things easy and perfect. It became a physical reminder too for those that got bit by the snakes but looked to the one on the pole and lived. Maybe the lesson here is that God will always be present and supply healing, but it’s up to us to look for it.
It’s not always easy to look for God when you are in the darkness of grief and anger. I was lost in that darkness for much of this year and I’m still wandering. But now I know that when I look to those around me, my family, and my friends who love me deeply, that they are reminders of God’s love and God’s presence with me. It’s not always easy. Sometimes, It’s hard to believe God has a plan for me and my salvation especially when so many days seem dark. But scripture tells us that even in the bad days, God is present and if we choose to look, we can see God active in our lives and world. And so I’ll continue to look, knowing that God loves me, and will always provide healing when I need it.
My great grandmother Nana was one of the strongest people I’ve known. Visiting Nana was a frequent occasion growing up and I could always expect my mom telling Nana that she shouldn’t clean out her own rain gutters when she was over 80 years old. She was such a spunky woman and had always resisted any intrusion on her independence. One recent Christmas Eve after her health began to fail, my entire family was together. We had all gone to church after dinner, a concept somewhat crazy to think about now. My mom stayed with Nana at her house, and when we got back to open presents together, we went into her bedroom to hold her hand for a moment and say Merry Christmas. The mood was cheerful with laughter and smiles. After having her whole family by her side for the entire week, Nana died peacefully.
The next month, I was getting ready to leave school, when I got a call from my mom saying that our dog, Shelley, had cancer. We had a long holiday weekend beginning that day, and friends and family who loved Shelley all came by to cuddle with her and give her treats, scratches and attention. Four days later Shelley passed away.
We had just gone to Nana’s funeral, and then our dog, only nine years old, unexpectedly passed away. I was frustrated and sad. Hadn’t we all been through enough? Where was God and why was he letting these bad things happen?
The Israelites may have been asking a similar question to God. In the Numbers passage the Israelites feel lost, frustrated and forgotten. They had just been released from Egypt and had expected a better future. Instead, the Israelites found themselves wandering in the wilderness with “food they detested” and no water and no sign of a better tomorrow. They had been led out of Egypt and were starting to believe it had just been for them to die. God’s intentions were questioned and confusion and frustration increased. Hadn’t they all been through enough? Where was God and why was he letting these bad things happen?
God sent deadly serpents and the Israelites changed their tune. They repented of their complaints against God and Moses and asked God to save them. God was there and He heard their pleas. When someone was bitten all they had to do was look upon the serpent on the pole and they would live. At any moment on any day, God would be there to save them. He was there, always. Even when things were at their worst, God was there providing healing.
Both the death of my Nana and our dog were sad in a way I had not experienced before, having never known anyone close to me who had passed away. I would have given anything for something like a serpent on a pole…something tangible to look toward and be healed. Something that would remind me of God’s presence with me in the pain.
While it was tempting to dwell in my grief and on the questions I had for God, I took time to reflect on the gifts He gave me during these two difficult months. I realized I was completely surrounded by love. God HAD been there the whole time. Our family was able to be together for Nana’s final days. Friends were able to support us in our grief over the death of Shelley. I was never alone in my pain but was held up by others. God used my friends and family to show his love. Although He was the one who made death a part of life, God also gave people to sustain me during times of suffering and grief. These people were more than a symbol of God’s presence, they were a tangible reminder of the love of God.
When I look back at the darker times in my life and analyze how I got through them, I can see more clearly how God has been there the whole time. I still have questions for God and moments when I am, once again, in the wilderness. But God’s gift of community never fails to remind me that God is with me on this journey. In times of great joy, God surrounds you. In times of great suffering, God is with you. We can be sure that we will never walk through the wilderness alone.
I think of my life like a puzzle: some pieces are going to be full of color and detail, while others are just dull, blank squares. However, every single piece is an important part of the final picture.
In February 2020, I was on top of the world. It felt like everything was finally clicking in place. A few months before, I had made the varsity basketball team after years of hard work and dedication following getting cut in eighth grade. I had met a girl that I was absolutely crazy about after never having any luck in that department before. She lived in Delaware, six hours away, but we would stay up late every night FaceTiming and talking for hours into the morning. My friends were great, my grades were great. I felt like things in life were really going my way.
It all culminated Valentine’s Day weekend. My basketball team, East, played against our rival, Chapel Hill, on senior night in front of hundreds of screaming students and fans, including my girlfriend who had traveled down for the weekend. We won, and after the game the whole team celebrated with the student section in a giant mosh pit on the court.
One short month later, the happy, comfortable bubble I was living in popped when COVID arrived. Prom-cancelled. Spring and summer basketball tournaments-cancelled. College visits-cancelled. Breakup. Broken heart. Shortened senior basketball season. Empty gyms. Classes on a computer. All of the sudden, I wasn’t on top of the world anymore.
Suddenly, I could relate just a little bit more to the pain of the Israelites wandering in the desert. In our scripture today, we hear the story of the Israelites feeling miserable, not knowing when or if life would be normal again. They have food but they hate it and they make their pain and disgust known when they complain against God and their leader, Moses. God sent serpents, causing death. It’s one of those old testament stories that I’ve not given much thought to before. This is not a story I would usually be able to relate to. I’ve got it pretty good and have never known a time when my life or my faith felt like wandering in the wilderness, getting bitten by deadly snakes.. But suddenly, there I was, surrounded by serpents, not knowing what comes next, no idea about my future plans.
Just like with the Israelites, God didn’t simply take my serpents away when I was struggling and complaining about this last year. Covid didn’t magically go away when I was worried that everything that I had worked for was suddenly disappearing. This passage teaches us that God does not work that way. We can be sure that God heard the cries of the Israelites and that God hears our prayers today. But, even so, the deadly serpents didn’t disappear when the Israelites begged to be saved.. The deadly serpents remained but God did provide a way to survive them. The serpent on a pole provided healing and reminded the Israelites that God was present and active in this journey, even when things seemed dire.
Over the past year, I have seen God at work and active in my world, too. Even when I felt surrounded by deadly serpents, God was there providing ways to survive and heal. Without the ability to attend worship in the sanctuary, I relied on a ritual of watching the sunset at night on top of a six-story parking deck to remind me of God’s presence. I have always loved being surrounded by large groups of people, many who have looked to me for entertainment. But this year forced me to focus inward on my own emotions and motivations. I learned how to find satisfaction in solitary, late night drives, singing along to the radio. Socially, I had to narrow my circle and lose a lot of people who I was close with, but that allowed for deeper connections with individuals and smaller groups. In the midst of this storm of serpents, God offered me so many bronze serpents that gave me strength and helped me heal.
I know that when it comes to the pains of this last year, I’ve had it pretty good. But grief is not a contest and we have all had feelings of being lost in the wilderness. Our scripture today reminds us that God is present and hears our cries, whether we are being bitten by deadly serpents or complaining about the food we have to eat. God’s presence has been evident to me in every new path I’ve taken and every new perspective I’ve gained. God is in all the new layers of depth that have been added to my life.
2020 was a pretty ugly puzzle piece. But it’s part of our story now. Just as God was with me for the ugly, blank piece that was this last year, I know that He will be there with me when the puzzle regains color again.