Scripture: John 13:31-35
Let Love Lead: Reflections from Montreat 2019
I sure hope it’s obvious to you that eight members of your Small Group, along with Ashia and I just returned from Montreat, North Carolina after seven days at the Youth Conference. Perhaps the sermon title gave it away. But our liturgy this morning was part of one or more of the worship services we were took part in there, services that started on Sunday evening and closed on Friday evening. Such a rich tapestry of calls and confessions, prayers and music that I hope will be a part of many worship services here this summer. We learned new songs, sang old favorites, passed the peace using more than simple handshakes, watched video clips, heard sound clips, listened to piano, beatbox, and guitar, every single day this past week and cried when we started home because we couldn’t keep doing it! We have got to get more of what’s “there” in here … in here (the sanctuary) and in here (our hearts). But … I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pray with me … and listen for the Word of God from the Gospel of John. Read John 13:31-35. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Last week’s theme for Montreat Youth Conference II was Let Love Lead. That’s the theme for all the youth conferences this summer. There are four of them. The goals of the conference were ambitious: To equip and empower youth to make tangible changes within themselves and the greater community by hearing their peers’ voices and using their own. The Youth present were invited every day to be their authentic selves, to form deep spiritual and intentional relationships with God, themselves, and others in order to grant the assurance of wholeness. And, the retreat conference promised to provide an affirming atmosphere to embrace the unknown and ask questions that lead to exploration as a means of faith development.
I told you – ambitious goals! But they were met … in our group, at least. They were met. Toby, Nick, MacKenna, Gabe, Annie, Ethan, Jackie, Lucas. They were equipped and empowered. They were invited to be real. They were assured of their wholeness – now not sometime off in the future. They were allowed to develop their faith, not by getting answers handed to them, but by asking questions that led to deeper explorations of who God is, who they are, and what they’re supposed to do with both of those beautiful things. We have got to do more of what we did “there” here.
Ashia and I were allowed to do all those things, too, of course. And we did. I must point out that Ashia did all of it with eleven month old Edessa in one arm or the other, up and down the mountain walks. Ryan was at the United Methodist Church’s Kentucky Annual Conference in Covington last week. Ashia managed to nurture the fifteen to eighteen year olds in her charge every bit as much as Eddy. In fact, as much as I may discourage clapping in our worship services on other occasions, I think we need to recognize the presence that was Ashia with our Youth last week. (Clap!) This was her first Montreat trip, as well. So grateful for your presence, Ashia – for your patience, your wisdom, your incredible ability to sit in silence waiting for the timid voice to speak up, and for the love you have for our incredible young folks.
Love was, of course, the focus last week. Let Love Lead was the name of the conference and the hope of it. Scripture was read, shared, explored and engaged – from Genesis to Revelation, Jonah to First John, and Paul’s writings to the Gospels, all four.
On Monday we explored how God leads with Love. That took us, of course, to the creation story. Just like the whole of creation, we spring forth from Love. In that same day we read First John, chapter four: God is Love. Love leads us into life.
Tuesday’s theme revolved around “Love leading us to trust.” We turned to Luke and the stories of the Woman and the alabaster Jars and Zaccheus. The Love of God, the Love that is God, extends beyond those who we think are “lovable,” those we think are worthy or comfortable enough to love. When we trust in God’s love, we love beyond our convenience. We love dangerously.
Wednesday “Love led us to wholeness.” The familiar story of the prodigal son deeper detail how Love is not only something we are called “to do,” but called to receive. Group leaders and youth, alike, were prepared for this day to be “heavy.” On Wednesday we were told, the keynote speaker would be sharing a story of a friend’s death by suicide. He did. And everyone talked … all day long. Ashia and I learned as much, if not more, about this “secret” in the lives of young people from our own youth and those in the small groups as they learned from us. It is not a secret to them. It must not be a secret to us. We must share the belief that even when, especially when, we feel unworthy – like the child who squandered all he had been given and was at the lowest point imaginable to him – especially then, we are loved beyond any measure. When we allow others to love us for who we are, even at our lowest points, then we are truly whole. A powerful day right in the middle of the week.
The days moved very quickly at the end of the week. They always do. On Thursday, through readings from Jonah and the end of John’s gospel, we explored how Love leads us to each other. To those who we don’t want to Love, like Jonah and the Ninevites and to those we are called by Christ to Love. On Friday, Love led us “out” with Joy. A resurrection passage from Matthew and the Book of Revelation’s “new heaven and new earth” called us to move beyond the safe and comfortable Montreat youth community and into the world to share the Love that should lead us all.
On Friday evening, we gathered around Lake Susan for the closing ceremonies and celebrated the graduated Seniors who will move on from the Youth Conferences that have been such a big part of their high school Christian faith formation. Annie and Nick Metry were among those whose candles burned longest along the lakeshores were extinguished, not with a ‘see you next year,” but with a loving goodbye. There are college and young adult retreats at Montreat, so we weren’t devastated. But this was, it is, a powerful closure.
So … that was the week in a “programmatic” nutshell. What that summary of themes and conversations doesn’t begin to share with you is the Spirit that is a part of each and every one of the twelve hundred teenagers gathered in this one place. Maybe I can’t honestly speak for the other eleven hundred nine hundred and ninety-two youth, but I can speak for our eight. They wanted to go to morning energizers and listen to the week’s keynote speaker. They wanted to read and hear the Bible, those scriptural passages chosen to explore the daily themes, passages that were then applied in small group discussions. They wanted to go to small group, twice a day, to be with their peers to hear what others were experiencing and to share their own experiences. They wanted go to worship every single day to be a part of putting all they had heard, shared, experienced and explored into contact with the Holy, with the Sacred reality we most commonly call God, but which this week was spoken of most provocatively as “Love”.
They wanted to do all of this. In fact, the only thing our kids didn’t’ want was to leave! We have got to get more of what’s “there” in here … in here (the sanctuary) and in here (our hearts). And not just for our young people. For all of us!
I know that a lot of what we experienced in Montreat last week has to do with the context. The huge critical mass of youth and adults fired about ministry from, to, and with teenagers; the mountains of North Carolina; the freedom and security offered to all who participated by a college campus with gift shops, snack bar, and (yes) a Starbuck’s counter. I know all that. But the fact of the matter is that, within that context, the, gatherings – keynotes and worship services – were extremely traditional in form and order. With the exception of the theme song and a few other favorites, the music we learned and sang was almost all from a Presbyterian Hymnal – the newest one, the Glory to God hymnal. That music was led by two Louisvillians, Reverend Marissa Galvan-Valle and Reverend Marcus Hong, both of Beechmont Pres. in the south end, and it was played only on piano, guitar, and with the help of a “cajon,” a box shaped percussion instrument.
The worship service itself followed the exact order of our own. But movement was encouraged, even required. Processions and lengthy pauses and many different liturgists were utilized. And to me, the biggest “difference” is that there wasn’t any sense of urgency in the event, in the worship experience, like everything had to be done in an hour on one day of the week. They knew, we knew, that we had time – with ourselves, with one another, and with God.
We can get more of what we all experienced “there” in here. For all of us. Next week, we’re hoping to have most of the youth who participated last week together to share more personally and directly what I’ve spoken of today. Throughout the summer, I’ll attempt to bring the energy of the week past in that other place to the weeks ahead in this place. I need, we need, everyone here to think about what this room will look like in thirty or forty years if we don’t find a way to express and reveal the Spirit that was present in the Conference last week and is present everywhere, including right here. The way that we reveal this Spirit is to … Let Love Lead.
“We’ve never done some of these things before.” Let love lead. Let’s try something new.
“We’ve done some of these things before, but done them poorly.” Let love lead. Let’s try it again.
“We’re comfortable with the way we do things now.” Let love lead. Let’s not get rid of those things. Let’s add to them.
“We’re worried that we’ll offend our tradition, make ourselves uncomfortable, or do something heretical.” Let love lead. God is always more forgiving than we allow!
God called twelve hundred youth participants and the adults they allowed to go with them to “let love lead” them beyond Montreat, back into the world, to transform it with the lessons they learned, the life they shared, and the Love they worshipped.
We, too, must let love lead. For that is how we will make ourselves known – by our love – yesterday, today, and far into tomorrow. Let’s stand and sing together an old song that is in our new hymnal and found on the insert in your bulletin. I look forward to the weeks ahead.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 16, 2019