Open Arms

June 29, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Proper 8 – RCL Year A
Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The Rev. Jody Greenwood, with Kathy Smith


Duni at Sunset (photo by Jody Greenwood)

Good morning. It’s great to be back after spending ten days with our J2A Pilgrims in Scotland and England. It was a wonderful trip, and as you may be aware, the Pilgrims will be putting together a presentation to share their experience with you, so I don’t want to steal their thunder. Just know that it was an enriching time for these youngsters, and for those of us privileged to be their leaders on this journey. It wouldn’t be possible without the support provided by so many of you. So, I invite you to reach out to these teens and let them share their experience, especially at Iona, Scotland, where we spent most of our time. The only thing I’ll say is that sheep were involved.

The trip was a great way for me to culminate my first full year as an ordained priest and as the Associate Rector for Christian Education and Youth at Christ Church. Having jumped into programs already underway, I felt a little like I was tossed into the deep end of the pool and quickly began paddling. All in all, I don’t think I took in too much water, thanks in large part to the lay leaders of these programs, who kept me afloat! They are so vital to these ministries!

A handful of these leaders came together a few weeks ago and spent a full day looking at the Christian Formation programs for Children and Youth. At the heart of our work, we hope to convey the love of this congregation and the love of God through Christ, to these children and young people; to provide a place where they are welcome and part of our church family.
We also hope to create a foundation for facing the world as an adult. When they are faced with difficult decisions or encounter life-struggles, they will know that they can trust God to help them through, and they can also rely on us, their Christian family – not only in times of need, but we are also here to celebrate their joys in life!

the_episcopal_church_welcomes_youToday’s gospel lesson conveys the importance of welcoming others. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The word Disciple means Learner, so if we think of all those who come into this church, including children, as Disciples, as Learners, we are called to welcome them! And in welcoming them, we welcome Jesus and God more fully into our own lives.

Today’s verse concludes: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The “cup of cold water” we share with these little ones is provided at every stage of their Christian formation:

  • Caring for these little ones begins in our Nursery, a place where they feel the love we have for them and the playful time they share with one another.
  • Catechesis of the Good Shepherd shares with these little ones the love of Jesus, assuring each child that God knows them by name, and Jesus cares for them as the Shepherd cares for his sheep. As they progress through the Catechesis program, they begin to understand their role as co-creators with God, exploring their connectedness with God and God’s creation.
  • Children’s Worship provides a time for kids to experience liturgy in a way they can relate to as children. While also allowing older kids to be worship leaders and even help plan the service. It’s a place where joyful noise rings-out Praise to God!

The Youth program further instills a sense of connection with one another and with God as these young people begin to navigate the complexity of becoming an adult.

  • The first stage helps budding-teens more fully understand and experience what it means to be a Disciple – a Learner – in faith.
  • The next stage focuses on what it is to be part of the Episcopal tradition, including Confirmation and culminating with a Pilgrimage trip.
  • And the last stage will invite the older teens to look beyond themselves and become Mission-focused. Having learned what it is to be a disciple and having claimed their own place in the Body of Christ, it’s now time to go into the world, as the hands and feet of Christ, to serve others.

Each step of formation creates a foundation for the next. All are vital to creating a place where children and young people feel that they are WELCOME, that they know God and God knows them, and that they are integral to our Christian community.

The biggest challenge to this undertaking is sustainability, because it is SOOO dependent on enthusiastic lay leaders to keep all of these formational ministries going. The parents of these kids are already stretched thin, and I don’t know about you, but my most meaningful Christian Formation leaders were cooler than my parents (no offense to my Mom and Dad).
And what you’ll receive in return… well, for that, I’ll turn it over to Kathy Smith, who’s both a teen’s parent, AND a cool youth leader…

Words from Kathy Smith

A few years ago, my husband and I heard about Advancing Authentic Leadership, a Christian Ed program that began at Christ Church. As a high school department chair, I felt called to explore ways that I could lead and serve using Jesus’ example. I also wanted to know how to do that without being completely overwhelmed, which is how I was feeling in the late fall of 2011. I was well aware that no self respecting church would teach a group of committed parishioners about leadership if they didn’t hope that some of that rain would fall here. But I really wanted what AAL had to offer. I resolved to be honest, and at the first class, I clearly explained that while I desperately wanted to learn about how I could find some balance in principled leadership, I had no intention whatsoever of doing any more than I was already doing at the church.

Three years later, Steve is on the vestry, and together with Pamela and Ray Russo, we have been the Rite 13 leaders for the past two years.

It might seem that I did something wrong, made some sort of horrible miscalculation, but luckily for me, God doesn’t do math the way we do. I had been trying to count and keep my chickens in a well guarded area. I closed the door on the barnyard filled with a demanding full time job, and active and social family, close friendships, hobbies. That is enough. That is all I can hold. The attempt to try to protect what we have seems pretty practical. The problem with this approach, as a priest once explained to me, is that God’s love and all the manifold blessings He has for us are only able to flow into our lives and our hearts when we open our arms. All the blessings and gifts I was trying to protect were ones given to me by God and while there are no strings attached, Jesus made it pretty clear that if you want the really good stuff, you have to be willing to share your gifts with the rest of God’s kids. Time and time again some slob comes to Jesus looking for the answer to happiness, to peace, to heaven – and the answer is the same: open up those clenched fists holding fast to your gifts and let them go. The rich young man who hears this and walks away does not get struck poor – he walks off with his money, but not the the gifts of the Kingdom that he seeks. We aren’t punished for trying to hunker down with our time and talent – but we limit what God can do with it. When the widow pours out all her oil, when the disciples drop their nets – that is when we see the gift of the Kingdom. All he asks, it seems, is that we be willing to share what we have. In so doing, exponential and unimaginable things happen. God’s counter-intuitive math is that one + one doesn’t equal too many things to handle — it equals love. It equals that peace which passes all understanding.

One of the commitments I already had when I began AAL was volunteering with the Sunday School. I am much less comfortable working with large groups of small children than with teens, but since my children had been receiving the benefits of this ministry, I felt I should help out. I met some of the most lovely and wonderful children. When Patti Broomfield asked innocently if I would be the Rite 13 leader the following year, I said, “Uh, no way.” But I didn’t stop thinking about the encounter. I have found that the still, small voice of God is most evident for me in being unable to stop thinking about something. So when Gretchen asked formally two months later, I knew that I had to say yes. My husband, the playful one, said he would go on the ride with me and we haven’t looked back.

Here is my math today, two years later: I have 15 young people in my heart that teach me more about the nature of Jesus than I teach them. Steve and I have grown closer together in our work and play with these kids. God threw in a huge bonus blessing of Pamela and Ray Russo to join us and we have two more dear friends who have helped each of us and our family to grow. I have grown closer to my daughter and all the youth at the church. We have done five service projects, gone to two haunted houses, one corn maze, one bowling alley, and had two retreats. And because our Rite 13 students deemed it so on the first day we met together in 2012, we have donuts every Sunday.

donutsA note about the donuts: we asked the students to come up with a list of norms that we could agree on to create a safe and fun place. Addie wrote them up on the board for us that first day and I keep a copy of them on my phone. The first one was unanimous: Bring donuts everyday. After a little prompting, they added “be respectful” and “don’t gossip” and other more sanctioned group rules. But that first one – I love it so so much. First, I love donuts. Second, as an English teacher, I love the use of imperative voice. Bring donuts. I also love the fact that there isn’t a subject. Who will bring the donuts? Obviously those with money and the ability to drive….and that presumption I find hilarious. But thirdly, and most importantly, these little bits of fried sugary goodness are a symbol of God’s grace, a way for us who drive and have money to demonstrate the nature of God’s grace. I heard a story when we moved here of a Northerner ordering breakfast and getting a bowl of grits. “Ma’am,” he said to the waitress, “I didn’t order these grits.” To which the waitress replied, with not a little measure of confusion, “You don’t order grits, they just come.” That is the way of the donut, that is the way of the grace of God.

We have a choice to send the grits back, to reject the grace and gifts, but when we do so, we are the ones who miss out. Trust me when I say, I know we are all busy. There is never enough time, every activity seems to demand 100% commitment. I have had to make some choices and to let some things go, but of all the places I bring my time, talent and energy, working with the young people in this parish has been the most rewarding. If you have felt a stirring of interest to work with our children or youth but don’t think you can, I am here to testify – with Steve, Pamela and Ray, with Sam and Jess who just gave up ten days of vacation and time with their toddler, and with all the former youth leaders and those who serve in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – that there is no better investment of your time. So you have a choice – lock down the gates on your time, or open your arms and say yes to the manifold blessings of giving. You do the math.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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