Monday, November 7, 2016

Sermon: "It Gets Better"

Intro to Luke 6:20-31

Today’s reading from Luke gives us the familiar words of the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed are you who hunger, Blessed are you who weep.”

We may be more accustomed to hearing Matthew’s version of these Beatitudes –
also known as the Sermon on the Mount - where Jesus leaves behind the crowd that has been following him and ascends up a mountain to proclaim these blessings from God, just as the great prophet Moses once did.
It’s from this lofty perch that Jesus makes equally lofty pronouncements like,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”

But from Luke’s vantage point, Jesus delivers a slightly different sermon.
In Luke’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is known as the “Sermon on the Plain.”
Here Jesus comes down off the mountain and stands among the people on level ground, where he can look them in the eye and engage them face to face.

Here Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
instead he says, “Blessed are you who are poor now.”

Instead of “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness,”
he says “Blessed are you who are hungry now

The spiritual hunger becomes a physical hunger.
For Luke, Jesus words are more personal, more immediate, more concrete.

While Matthew and Luke give us slightly different versions of the Beatitudes,
where they converge is in the hope that Jesus has to offer to those experiencing suffering – be it spiritual or physical.

Those who hunger will be filled.
Those who are poor will experience the riches of God’s bounty.
Such suffering is only temporary, says Jesus.
And justice will be realized in the end.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 6, 2016 – Youth Sunday – All Saints Sunday
Luke 6:20-31

“It Gets Better”

In 1981, when I was 15 years old, I saw the movie Breaking Away and fell in love with the sport of cycling.
I was drawn to the speed and freedom of movement,
the exotic sounding French and Italian names on the bikes,
the sleek looking clothing and shoes – it all appealed to me.
Seeing the movie inspired me to register for a 50-mile charity bike ride that involved riding 50 laps around a local park.
The farthest I had ridden at that point, was the 2 mile round trip to school.

I decided I needed some “serious” cycling gear for my 50-mile ride, so my mother took me to the sporting goods section of the local TSS department store.
They didn’t carry “serious” cycling gear, so I came home with a hockey helmet and a pair of leather golf gloves.

On the day of the ride I showed up with my new bike gear and my 1976 Columbia 10-speed, with it’s bicentennial red, white, and blue decals.
At the start of the ride, I found myself briefly keeping pace with a “real” cyclist, who had a real bike helmet and real bike gloves.
He said he did 50-mile rides all the time. 
I was in awe.

Of course he was much faster than I was.
He offered a word of encouragement as he left me behind, but every lap, as he came around and passed me again and again, he yelled out,
“Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it!”
As the miles ticked by, I don’t remember the rising ache in my legs or my lungs.
I don’t even remember how long it took me to finish the ride.
What I do remember is telling myself on every single lap not to quit.
Because every time the “real” cyclist rode past me and shouted, “Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it,” I knew I had to be there the next time he came around,  just so I could hear him say it again. 

In September 2010, author and journalist Dan Savage organized an online campaign called, “It Gets Better.”
The campaign was directed at teenagers – specifically teenagers who were being bullied by their peers and rejected by their families for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
These were teens who were choosing suicide at alarmingly high rates,
rather than endure a pain that they felt they could not escape.

Savage started the campaign after a 15-year-old Indiana boy named Billy Lucas, hung himself in his family’s barn, after being relentlessly bullied at school.    Savage said,
"I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it does get better.”

The It Gets Better campaign started with a few heartfelt videos uploaded to You Tube, recorded by celebrities and ordinary people, who shared their own stories of the pain they endured as teens and young adults,
with the hopeful encouragement that finding love, acceptance, and even happiness in life is not as elusive as it appears.
With the support of family, friends, mentors, and counselors who reached out to them in their despair, these formally suicidal teens found comfort, peace, and healing as adults.
They came to love themselves, just as they are.

Today the It Gets Better project website contains over 50,000 testimonial videos that collectively have over 50 million views.
It’s primary purpose is help at risk teens realize that they’re not alone.
GLBTQ teens are 3 times more likely to commit suicide,
and nearly 40% of gay youth attempt suicide near the age of 15.

On this Youth Sunday, it’s important to note that all teens are at risk.
Suicide rates among youths aged 15-24 have tripled in the last half century,
even as rates for adults and the elderly have declined.

Anybody who has contact with teens on a regular basis, or who is a teen, can testify to the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and stress that our youth are experiencing today.

We might blame it on the increasing pressures that teens feel to fill their schedules with academic and extracurricular activities to ensure they get into the college of their choice while earning enough money to pay for it.

We might blame it on the increasing use of technology, and the prevalence of social media that puts teens lives in particular under a microscope and allows bullying to reach outside the classroom and the schoolyard and into the home.

We might even be tempted to blame it on a lack of resiliency –
the perception that today’s youth are somehow sheltered by parents who come to their rescue too often and never give them the space to learn how to pick themselves up when they fall or to take responsibility when they fail.

But as much as we’d like to blame Helicopter Parents for the rising rates of seemingly vulnerable teens, those of us who have teens, work with teens – and who are teens – know that even the most resilient of our youth are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by the growing complexities of their lives and the world around them.

We may envy Jesus’ followers, living in first century Palestine, who came of age in a much simpler time with simpler expectations.
But when we factor in things like poverty, disease, tyranny, and oppression, we realize that every age has its challenges to endure.

The reality is, Jesus’ message of hope contained in the Beatitudes is one that applies and appeals to human beings of all ages in all times.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and revile you, for you have a place in the Kingdom of God.”

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of saying,
“Things may seem bad now, but just wait….it will get better.”

In many ways this is the human condition -
these ups and downs that we experience in life.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor likens it to riding a Ferris wheel.
At times we’re arching over the top marveling at the view with our hands in the air, and other times we’re swooping back towards the ground,
and end up with our feet dragging through the dirt.

Like any good preacher, Jesus made sure his Sermon on the Plain included a much needed dose of hope while also acknowledging the painful realities of his listeners lives.

Too much hope and they may have tuned him out for being out of touch with reality.
Too much reality and they may have walked away in despair, and never opened their hearts to the healing that God longed for them to have.
The Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, with its blessings balanced by woes, are in many ways an ode to human resiliency.

We struggle with that at any age, don’t we?

Resiliency is even harder to master as a teen.
When we’re young, we don’t yet have the life experience to understand that situations which seem completely hopeless or permanent are actually not.

When I was 15, I was one of those statistics that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon.  
I was wrestling with social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
(I’ve shared this some of the teens and parents in our youth group who are dealing with similar challenges.)

Several of the girls at my high school took note of my vulnerability and fear - and took to taunting me about my overall oddness.
My unstylish clothes, my mass of frizzy hair, my social ineptness….all the things that make a teenager feel unworthy of inclusion, and compassion.

The taunting I experienced was not new.
I was born with a cleft palate that had me navigating the world with a speech impediment from the time I learned how to talk until the age of 16 when it was finally repaired.
Sadly, kids can be relentless when they encounter a difference that makes another child stand out in such a way.
But that level of scrutiny, which sends you home in tears at age 7,
can become unbearable when you’re 15.

Like many teens who experience depression, anxiety, and fear, at one point I refused to return to school.

My parents brought me to a counselor, who prescribed medication to help with my anxiety.
Which I secretly stowed away in my dresser drawer,
keeping them for the day when I would take all the pills at once and finally end the pain I was in.

But thankfully, I never did.
I’m standing here today because someone once took the time to tell me repeatedly to hang in there, to keep going, that it gets easier the longer you keep at it.

It wasn’t just the guy who rode circles around me in the park one day while he shouted encouragement.

It was the friends I made who saw that I had value and worth years before I recognized it myself.

It was the boss who gave me my first job out of high school – a job at a bike shop that gave me so much joy that I ended up working there for 16 years.

It was my mother who took notice of the one thing that seemed to draw me out of the darkness that had descended upon me. She bought me my first real racing bike for my 16th birthday.

And it was our loving and awesome God, who works through each one of us so that we might serve as messengers and harbingers of love and compassion for those who desperately need to hear that are worthy of this wonderful gift of life.

If you are a young person – or a not-so-young person - who is struggling right now - with depression, with feelings of low self worth, with an addiction, with the breakup of a relationship, with the loss of your job, your independence, your identity –
If you’re struggling with anything that is causing you to feel like the walls are closing in around you.
Please believe me when I tell you, “It gets better.”
However isolated and alone you feel right now, it will get better.

Because one day you will realize that this great Communion of Saints -
all of us who make up this crazy broken and beloved thing we call the church, has been with you all along.
In Senior High Youth Group, in Woman’s Association gatherings, in small group meetings, in Sunday Morning worship, in the million different ways that we reach out to one another, listen to one another, and care for one another.

You are not alone.
You are never alone.
You may not see it now.
But someday you will.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are all of us who are poor – in spirit or otherwise –
for the Kingdom of God is ours.