A sermon I wrote for my senior youth Sunday
I’m a hoarder. I like to hang on to silly little trinkets, junk, and knickknacks, stuff that holds no real purpose. They hold memories. I get caught up in sentiment, and it creates tension between my mother’s neat and orderly house and my own cluttered bookshelves. Long weekends of room-cleaning punctuated by staccato outcries of surprise: “How many times will I ask you to clean that shelf off!”—a typical teenager’s life, right? But these things are only distractions from the present life, memories and fragments of a past that pulls me away from the future. “Do not remember the former things,” the Lord commands us. These “things of old” pull all of us away from the Lord’s miraculous presence in our lives. They distract us from a beauty and love that we need in our darkest days. I love my little things: curious rocks shaped by rivers, wooden puzzles, cards from friends…there are probably things in my room that I no longer remember. But I need to turn these memory-catchers into trinkets, and let the memories live on their shelves in my mind and not distract me from what lies ahead.
So, enough about old things. What about all the new things? Who’s got a smartphone, an iPhone? Don’t be shy! I remember my first experience with an iPhone, how intuitive it was to just push the buttons, and how my grandparents still sometimes struggle with it. “How do I go back?” they ask—just tap the back button. To me, it’s old hat. And in fifty years, there will be things I don’t understand that are as much a part of modern culture as iPhone is today. “Welcome to the new age,” an age of big, bad, new things, full of techno-toys, gizmos that fit on your wrist and cars that drive themselves. My generation grew up with all of this. Future generations will too, with more and more until what seems relatively new to you and common to us kids will be as fondly remembered as the Ford Model T of today. The next waves of children will be full of things we dream of and invent for them. But these are only distractions. Life isn’t about these new things, despite luxury’s convincing promises otherwise. Just like those memories on our mental bookshelves that keep us bogged down in the past, Apple’s latest toys keep us sucked up in our own comforting lives, clouding our vision when we look to the heavens, blocking out the sky and the sun when we look for God. Sometimes the wind comes and blows those clouds back, if only for a moment, and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the beauty that wants to shine down upon us—too quickly, it’s gone. We turn away, bending our aching necks back over our phones and computer screens, as though their artificial light can replace the warmth of our sun.
Now, as a teenager, navigating life can be like surviving a desert—and everyone keeps telling us it only gets worse. This is why the Bible remains so accessible; we recognize the struggles in the wilderness as our own. Surrounded by sand, not a living thing in sight, not sure where you are, if help is coming, or what you’re going to do, the heat beating you down, that’s life. Maybe you’re lucky; your parents gave you some kind of compass before you struck out on your own. Maybe your faith keeps it and you pointed in the right direction. But just when you feel like you’re finally getting somewhere, Bam! Whoosh! Sandstorm! Blinded, skin raw with pain as sand blows all around you, turning you around and choking you until you feel like any hope you had is completely gone…But that, that is just a distraction, a moment of extreme despair intent on covering the path that lies ahead. We fail to perceive the way forward, ahead, out of our troubles. We weren’t prepared for the enormity of life, the vastness of the desert. We need help.
Our mighty Lord, for whom the passing of time is a path among mighty waters, a grain of sand among millions, sends jackals and preening ostriches running past us, stripping down the sentimentality, the fragments of the past, the distracted worry stemming from a life of motion, the bleeping and buzzing of our iPhones—and we need to follow them. With faith, trust, we follow. As the animal’s instincts guide them, we follow something deep within us that drives us forward. We seek the inexplicable revelations awaiting us: the oasis. The distractions in which we cloaked our radiant, happy souls falls away as we bathe in a fountain made holy by the Lord’s drawing it up to show us water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, the blossoming of life all around us. We rejoice, praising the Lord for his mercy and grace and beauty and love—but all too quickly, the bath is over, the cloak draped across our shoulders, the oasis miles behind us. Why? Why do we irrationally turn our backs on something so powerfully beautiful? Because we are, all of us, human. God knows. It’s why he constantly puts more oases in our path.
Getting this far has been, for all of us seniors, a crash-course in wilderness survival. We had to figure out how to navigate packed hallways, tough decisions, and periods of spiritual drought just to stay alive. I remember coming into middle school thinking, “I am not going to know a single person here. Not one.” I was scared that of that new, large school filled with unfamiliar faces. But I found an oasis: my homeroom consisted of many of my friends from youth group and Sunday school here at SMPC. So I had people I could talk to, people I knew. A few years later, preparing to make the jump to high school, I found myself worried again: how am I going to learn the layout of that massive school? How am I going to avoid being crushed in a sea of bodies? How will I survive high school? Plot twist: there was another oasis. Playing in band builds up such a strong community of friends, students of all ages, so that walking through the hallways I saw familiar faces. I had people I looked forward to seeing each day. Over the last four years, I’ve taken a lot of wrong turns in my desert. My compass hasn’t always been pointing north, and sometimes even when it does I go the wrong way. But coming through the tough junior year, filling out all the college applications, reconciling a world of hate with the teachings of love, at each step in the journey, there were oases. Youth group, Sunday school, Montreat, martial arts, a good book…every time things got rough, I had to pick myself up and get moving again until I found a better place to rest, relax, and wash away the troubles of a weary world. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, that journey is always better with company, with friends. And we as friends prepare to take on the newest stretch of sand before us, college. We’ll pause at this oasis of frozen time, senior year, and hug and cry and laugh, and then we’ll strike out in our own directions, looking up at the oasis that lies ahead and not down at our phones or deep within our memories of the past.
Our lives are about more than past and present, more than the distractions with which we surround ourselves. It’s about God’s new work, his spiritual refreshment awaiting each and every person, provided in a form meaningful to each of us uniquely, located in the wilderness we’ve been trekking through since before time, trying to navigate a path we don’t, and won’t fully understand. Ask yourselves—are you prepared to undertake that journey? To let go of everything that holds you here as did the disciples and rediscover again what it means to be whole? Or are we too distracted by a life that presses in at all sides, threatening to overtake us? Can we prepare ourselves to love others, love often, and love openly? God is a 3-letter name for a 4-letter word: Love. He wants us to see through Him what power He and it have together to change lives. Love pervades our existence in every way, even when we try to shut it out with hate. It’s time to open up and let it—and God—into our hearts, and to remember that when things get tough, a smile and an open heart can remind us of the oasis we left behind, and of the ones we have yet to discover.