Jesus talked much about power dynamics, money and violence, but yet those topics are not things we tend to discuss in church today. It’s interesting to look at 1st Century Palestine to see the similarities and difference of the time when Jesus walked the earth.
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-14 & John 1:1-14
As readers of the gospels, there is much we often overlook about the time in which these books were written. First century Palestine looked very little like the modern world, although we might stumble upon a few similarities. Bear in mind that both women and children were still considered property. Male children became “human” at a certain age when they passed into adulthood and were counted as citizens.
The entire New Testament must be understood as a Jewish writing. Jesus was born into a Jewish family and was, himself, Jewish. Even as the books of the New Testament were being written, after the life of Jesus, the authors were writing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the importance of Jesus. While there is plenty of talk about Jews and Gentiles, it would be quite some time (a couple hundred years) because Christianity would come to be understood as a religion separate from Judaism.
The temple in Jerusalem was the central (and “authentic”) place to worship. Jewish people were expected to travel to Jerusalem annually (or as often as possible) for Passover, and the Sadducees were the resident religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. However, since the Jewish people were scattered, there were also synagogues (sort of like local churches), led by Pharisees. Jesus appears in a number of synagogues but (at least in the synoptics) visits the temple in Jerusalem only at the end of his early ministry.
King Herod worked rather hard at ingratiating himself to the Jewish community. He married into a Jewish family. He restored and improved the second temple (can explain) in Jerusalem. However, he was a brutal leader who held none of the values that the Jewish people theoretically observed.
The Roman empire was in charge, and they had a comfortable collaboration with Jewish religious leaders. As long as Jewish people behaved themselves, so to speak, they were permitted to worship and carry on relatively unscathed. However, this was not the vision that Jewish people had for themselves. They desired to be, once again, a proud and independent nation, not a people subjugated and dominated by the Romans. At this time, there were many people who came along claiming to be “the Messiah.” They typically attempted a violent uprising against the Romans and this often resulted in considerable loss of life and a tightening of restrictions on the Jewish people. (See, for example, the Maccabean revolt.)
How was Jesus different from other so-called “Messiahs” who had come before? What were the people expecting? Does this help us understand anything about how they responded to him?
Talk about the notion of the Roman Empire and its values. What do we make of the fact that Jewish religious leaders had quite a good arrangement going with the Romans while everyday people found it to be oppressive and something from which they wished to be “freed.” Does this remind us of anything in our own time?
The US has often been called the new Roman Empire. What does we make of that?
We do not typically think about the issue of violence when we talk about Jesus and the gospels. But much of the difference between his ministry and the prevailing will of the Romans had to do with the exercise (or non-use) of violence. Where are we with the issue of violence today?
Our scripture readings today are from the beginning of the two gospels that do NOT have birth narratives. How do the authors of Mark and John introduce Jesus? What do they want us to understand about him?
Do you feel it? Do you smell it? You know the feeling you get, the chill that is in the air when a summer storm is brewing? The smell of rain. The wind turning over the leaves and the sky turning shades of green or yellow. The ground will rumble, and you know it’s coming. That is exactly how our country feels right now. After reading Steve Argue’s blog “When their storms become ours: closing the distance between leaders and young people,” I just had to share and include my thoughts.
I love the storm image he uses because, as I stated at the beginning, I feel it, don’t you? No matter where we stand politically on gun violence, these teens have an opinion, and I don’t think it is political, just ask them.
It’s vital that we do not stand back and watch the storm from a distance. I would add, it is not just the youth leader/pastor, but the church that needs to engage teenagers in their storms of life. Not only do we need to engage in discussions at youth group, but also pastors need to address these things in sermons. It’s not pretty, but these kids are having the conversations, with their peers at the lunch table, or on social media. They WILL go there WITH or WITHOUT us. What we have to give them is a safe space to talk and offer a way for their faith to intertwine with these real-life answers to their tough questions.
Steve offers three suggestions for youth workers to enter into a more engaged relationship with their teens.
“Moving closer means letting your heart be broken.” Friends, we need to stop comparing ourselves with any other ministry in our community. For those who are paid workers, you worry about how “cool” your youth ministry is, so that your numbers can continue to grow, so you are not out of a job. I get it. But guess what? If you are not engaging this generation in meaningful conversations, it doesn’t matter how many pizzas you buy them or how much laser tag you play, they need you to truly get to know them, their fears, their passions, their hurts. Take the time to allow your heart to be broken for them.
“Moving closer demands that you look beyond excellence toward empathy.” This goes back to pizza and laser tag parties. I love the questions Argue asks here, “What do young people need from us? How do we shift to ensure we are addressing the most essential needs of our young? Where do our young people need support, protection, education or resources? Who must we partner with and who must we confront?” This is a shift in thinking. Can you answer these?
“Moving closer requires you to stop collecting and start emptying.” This is a hard one. Steve says in the blog that we need to empty our ministry of the systems and accolades we’ve worked so hard to earn. We can no longer fit youth ministry into a neat little box. It can’t happen in your time, on your schedule, with your programs. We must go to them; we can’t expect them to come to us. I love this quote, “Your job is to shrink the distances between young and old so that young people are seen, understood and supported.” He says we are bridge builders, not wall builders. I would add, it is also our job to help teens understand the older generations in our congregations. It is a two way street, we must be the bridge. Be their advocate wherever you are, whatever meeting you attend, and whenever you are in conversation.
So, it is our move. “Let’s build storm-chasing youth groups.” If we do not give them the spaces and places where adults are engaging in their lives, teens will go elsewhere to find it. May young peoples’ storms become ours.
The Youth Leader’s Network in East Ohio is working to help you do just that. April 15th is a day for youth leaders to come hear a panel discussion around responding to tragedy. Youth Annual Conference will have break-out sessions for teens and leaders on how to have hot topic discussions with people who disagree and still love one another. In the fall, we are planning on another day of training on how to create a safe place to initiate and dive into these topics.