Over the course of six days at National Youth Conference, July 19-24, Brethren youth heard from 10 outstanding speakers who brought messages for morning and evening worship services each day. Here is an review of the messages for NYC 2014, written by NYC News Team volunteer Frank Ramirez:
Saturday, “Right Now”:
Samuel Kefas Sarpiya, a Church of the Brethren pastor and church planter in Rockford, Ill., preached on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10.
The opening worship for NYC 2014 ran the gamut, from heart-felt music that brought people to their feet, to heart-rending emotion at the shared struggles of sisters and brothers in Nigeria. It was all about “Right Now,” as Sarpiya prayed, “As your Spirit moves in our midst, our earnest prayer is that we will encounter you right now.”
“Wow!” Sarpiya said as he stepped up to the pulpit. “Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Right Now!’”
His challenge was clear. “Think for a moment what matters to you right now. The discovery holds a very important key to your future.”
Sarpiya unwrapped his scripture, Luke 10:38-42, the familiar story of Martha and Mary, which he described as “Martha’s discovery of the one necessary thing.” Jesus, he suggested, really desired Martha’s undivided attention.
“Life’s distractions happen to the best of us–including social media!” he warned the youth. “We are consumed about what other people say about us rather than what God says about us, but what God says about us is more important than anything anyone else says about us… Let us seek this week that you will let the Spirit talk to you.”
Morning worship featured youth speech contest winners Alison Helfrich of Oakland Church of the Brethren, Southern Ohio District; Katelyn Young of Ephrata Church of the Brethren, Atlantic Northeast District; and Laura Ritchey of Woodbury Church of the Brethren, Middle Pennsylvania District.
“What if you had to make a choice to save your life or the lives of thousands of people?” Young asked, speaking about the dilemma that faced Esther, the hero of the biblical book of the same name. “Esther was a teenager. She was just like you and me,” Young reminded her listeners. Esther asked her fellow believers to pray and fast together, creating a community of prayer, then she answered God’s call and asked the king to spare lives. “I’m not going to say you’re going to…become a superhero,” Young said, but she insisted that all of us can make a difference. “The call is a big part of Esther’s story, and a big part of this week…. Esther is an example of how nothing is impossible with God,” she concluded.
Ritchey called to mind “the various ways we arrived [at NYC]. For many of us (including me) this is the biggest journey we ever embarked upon. We as Christians follow a path that leads to Christ. What does it look like to follow the calling?” She suggested that Christians are meant to follow a different path than the world, one that leads to Christ. Love, peace, the word of God, and Christ Jesus are all signs we are on the right path. “We must all strive to forgive one another and mend fences. When we take a stand for Jesus we take a stand against the world…. Let us live up to our calling, glorifying the Lord, with our vast array of talents.”
Helfrich began her speech with the story of a time when no one else was home to answer the phone. She took the call, which was from an old family friend who suggested she probably didn’t know who he was. “I’d know your voice anywhere,” she replied, adding, “It never occurred to me I wasn’t listening to the correct voice.” She suggested that although we may wonder what God’s voice sounds like, we will recognize God’s voice when it comes. “When we hear God calling we have a choice. We can ignore his voice and hope he stops calling us, or we can answer the call.” She concluded by saying she believes we all receive a calling from God. “God tells us before we were even born, he calls us, and we receive our work.”
The Sunday morning service also featured an original song from Sam Stein, winner of the youth music contest, with his group Green Eggs and Ham.
Rodger Nishioka, who holds the Benton Family Chair in Christian education and is an associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., preached on Sunday evening on the story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man from Luke 5:17-26.
Nishioka guesses most people have a list of people they want to meet when they go to heaven. He wants to meet the three friends who lowered the paralyzed man through the roof to be healed. They had to lose a day’s pay in order to take care of their friend, he noted, in an era when if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid, and if you didn’t get paid, your family didn’t eat.
Those friends skipped pay and food to carry their friends. “We’ve got to carry each other!” he told the NYC youth.
Nishioka spoke to laughter, cheers, applause and tears as he told youth that although the world tells them “you are not enough, not enough, not enough…. that is a lie!”
He told the story of a girl in a junior high Sunday school class he taught, who startled everyone when she said she wanted to be a teacher. She hated school, but she told Nishioka’s class that she had been bullied every single day, and every one one of her teachers, when she approached them with her problems, had been no help at all. As a teacher, she looked forward to helping students who were bullied, and telling the bullies that in her class everyone would be respected and treated with kindness.
The most telling part of the story was that this revelation led one of her Sunday school classmates to say how much she thought of this student, who replied that she wasn’t surprised. After all, this is the church. “That’s why I’m a part of this youth group. It’s supposed to be different.”
“We need each other,” Nishioka said. “Carry one another. The call of the Lord is for you and I to be carriers, carrying people to Christ, because all of us need healing.”
He concluded with a challenge: “It’s been four months since your sisters have been kidnapped just for trying to go to school.” He listed other kidnappings and deaths that have occurred in Nigeria and other troubled places. “Every single day the nations of the world spend more on warfare than welfare. You are the Church of the Brethren. For 300 years you are one of the three historic peace churches in the world. C’mon! This is your job! …Carry us to Jesus. We need to be healed!”
The morning worship presenter was Ted Swartz of Ted & Co., a Mennonite comedy troupe. Swartz’s theatrical world is peopled by a host of beings–human, angelic, and divine–most portrayed onstage by him or else unseen. But on Monday morning during worship at NYC he shared the stage with Jen Scarr, a Bethany Seminary student intern with Ted & Co., and with a Brethren favorite Ken Medema as well.
Medema, a Christian musician who has performed at many NYCs, played two roles: Isaac, a blind blues piano player, and God (yes, the math works out if you know the biblical story). Scarr played Abigail, a somewhat ditzy factotum who played a mean game of biblical “Who’s On First” with Jacob. Swartz played both Jacob and Esau, and also himself, depending on whether he was wearing a scarf or not.
At the heart of the drama was Jacob’s struggle with his family, his faults, and himself, and God. It was a heart rending story as Swartz called to mind the suicide of his theatrical partner Lee Eshelman. “You don’t grow or change without conflict,” Swartz said. “Wrestling with God sounds good, but it hurts. And God is not afraid of our pain, our grief, our anger. He wants our wrestling. When you wrestle with God you are touching something holy. You may come out of it with a limp. You may come out of it with a new name. So keep wrestling. Keep wrestling.”
Preaching Monday evening was Kathy Escobar, co-pastor of the Refuge mission center and Christian community in North Denver.
She always imagined that Christians would finally become comfortable once they had struggled with their faith, Escobar told NYC. But that hasn’t proven to be the case. Noting that her church is “dedicated to being a safe place for struggle,” she admitted that everyone there “is safe but no one is comfortable.”
Using the story of Peter’s acceptance of outsiders into the early Christian church as a springboard, Escobar compared that struggle centered around the issue of clean and unclean, with our own issues of acceptance and rejection. The Refuge is open to everyone, for example, she said, but there is great diversity in matters of politics, economics, gender, and race. Howaever, “the barriers between Christians can be broken with Christ at the center.”
Struggle is key, and struggle never ends, because people are people. “Faith is a struggle. Struggle is defined by Webster’s as ‘contending with opposing forces.’ There are all kinds of contending forces working against us all the time.”
Admitting that sometimes she longs for the life of faith to be comfortable, Escobar reminded the youth that when Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we sometimes forget those last two words. She has always struggled with the tension between self-love and self-rejection, she said, but we must embrace all the tensions in our lives.
“We show up with all of our strengths and all of our weaknesses,” she concluded. “The work of our lives is to wrestle with the struggle and never expect it to be gone.”
The morning worship service was led by Bethany Seminary student Jennifer Quijano, who serves as youth and worship director at Cedar Grove Church of the Brethren in Ohio.
“What a blessed moment it was! To answer the call means risk and stepping into the unknown,” Quijano told the youth, speaking about her choice to go to Bethany Seminary, which required a move from New York to Indiana. “Be courageous disciples,” she said. “Claim your call in the body of Christ.”
Quijano brought to life the Old Testament story of Esther, and wove into it the story of her own call. She praised Esther’s choice to create a community of prayer and fasting to seek God’s will together, and suggested that when we claim our call we may find strength in shared prayer and Bible study. She has found the strength she needs in the supportive Bethany community, which made possible the transition from Brooklyn.
She reminded youth that Esther was told that God’s will would be done whether or not she claimed her part in the story. Perhaps all youth, she suggested, are called as Mordecai told Esther, “for such a time as this.” Those words were part of the theme of the National Youth Conference Quijano herself attended in 2002.
Tuesday evening worship was led by Katie Shaw Thompson who pastors at Ivester Church of the Brethren in Grundy Center, Iowa, and helps lead Camp Pine Lake in Northern Plains District.
“I wonder how anyone claims anything in the midst of the struggle and confusion,” Thompson commented, in a sermon that emphasized belonging, calling youth to claim their place and their identities as children of God.
“We have been living, loving, and learning together this week. Whether you know it or believe it, we all belong here,” she said.
When Thompson was introduced to the NYC, she thought it important to list her faults as well as her strengths. Nor did she sugarcoat the great difficulties facing youth today such as characterizations and cruelties that divide youth into separate groups, the pressure of belonging or not belonging, and the social media assaults on youth that never cease.
Just as the Ephesians struggled to find a unity in Christ that would trump their differences, so we share the same struggles today. The solution is found in the words of Ephesians 4:1-7, to lead a life worthy of the calling. Our differences can seem great, she said, but the answers are to be found in Jesus.
Prior to the evening’s service of anointing–a tradition that is offered at every National Youth Conference–Thompson challenged everyone present, saying, “Tonight I invite you, I beg of you, claim your part in the story, in the call, and your identity. You are a blessed and called child of the Living God. Don’t let anyone tell you, you don’t belong. You belong. You belong. You belong. You belong. You belong.”
Leah J. Hileman, who is pastoring Lake View Christian Fellowship in Southern Pennsylvania District, led the morning worship.
“We serve not because it’s the right thing to do,” said Hileman,“but because God’s Spirit is in us and we can’t help it!”
Unpacking Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, focusing on 5:16-20, she agreed with the apostle that we are called to be ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ. Hileman likened Paul’s transformation from someone “on fire for the law of Moses,” to one who could see–even in his chains–an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with his guards.
For herself it began with naming what Paul calls “secret and shameful ways,” and rejecting them for a new life in Christ. “To be reconciled with God brings us into right alignment with God…and each other,” she said. She then addressed her former life, saying, “Secret and shameful ways! You suck! You are ruining my life! …You are robbing me of blessing! I am evicting you from my spiritual house. …I’ve got Jesus on speed dial. You don’t own me anymore!”
Speaking on the need for reconciliation and right relationship, to one wing of the church she said: “It is not enough to preaching without service,” and to the other wing: “It is not enough to serve without preaching. Our ministry as Ambassadors of Jesus Christ has to include both parts. It has to include our good works with the message of who Christ is.”
She closed with a second original number titled Walk In Me, in which the refrain “Make me like Jesus,” was intertwined with lyrics calling upon God to breathe life back into us and mold us in the image of Christ.
Jarrod McKenna made a return appearance at NYC as speaker for the Wednesday evening service. He is a teaching pastor at Westcity Church in Australia, where he and his family live with 17 recently arrived refugees at the First Home Project. He also serves as World Vision Australia’s national advisor for Youth, Faith, and Activism.
“Who’s in?” Following a minute of silent prayer, these two words led to an avalanche of youth coming forward, responding to McKenna’s challenge to commit to radical discipleship to Jesus Christ.
It was an altar call, with a twist. Having described how much the example of the early Brethren inspired the intentional Christian community in Australia of which he is a part, McKenna explained the combination of the Anabaptist strain of the Brethren tradition, and the mystical and practical Pietist sense of Jesus in our midst.
This combination ought to lead Brethren to be a part of what McKenna calls the “mustard seed conspiracy” of Christlike living that leads to radically surprising changes in our world–but some Brethren have strayed far from that radical faith, he said.
It only takes eight people to change that, he told NYC, recalling the first eight whose baptisms started the Brethren movement. He asked for eight youth to respond. “Who’s up for radical revolution?”
As one, hundreds of youth and adults rose from their seats and streamed forward in a quiet, orderly, but determined fashion.
Then McKenna invited the congregation to pray in small groups, as a time of mutual encouragement for the commitment they had just made. He spoke of things the youth can do following NYC to continue this commitment, specifically to find a small group with whom to regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, and to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. “When you love your enemy and love your neighbor as yourself, you will find your call in Jesus,” he said.
Morning worship focused on the appropriate theme of “Journey” as youth gathered for a final time of worship, singing, prayer, and blessing led by Bethany Seminary president Jeff Carter.
Carter reviewed the different speakers throughout the week of NYC, and their messages, and then turned to a message of his own for the Church of the Brethren. “We have a ministry of the heart. We have a ministry of the hand,” he said, emphasizing the way the Brethren tradition combines spirituality and service.
He also noted the fast pace the youth had been through at NYC, and contrasted it with the steadfast persistence required for the Christian life of discipleship. “We have been sprinting all week. The Christian life is not a sprint. It is a marathon. A marathon in which we don’t run alone.”
Carter told the story of preparing to run a marathon, and receiving encouragement from a bystander after he “hit the wall” because he had started out the race at too fast of a pace. He praised that bystander for taking a step out from the crowd to give him personal encouragement. “It’s not about having. It’s about giving,” he said. “Step out from the crowd. Make a difference.”
He concluded by telling the youth: “My last story is about you. It hasn’t been written yet. So what’s your story? How will you make a difference?”
The closing service ended with a time of blessing for the youth and adults present. Carter invited each to go to one of the stations around the arena, and identify themselves to the people sharing the blessing, so that each might go home having been blessed by name.
— Frank Ramirez is a volunteer writer on the NYC News Team.
NYC 2014 News Team: Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services. Eddie Edmonds, NYC Tribune editor. Photography: Glenn Riegel, Nevin Dulabaum.Writers: Frank Ramirez, Mandy Garcia. Question of the day: Britnee Harbaugh, Maddie Dulabaum. Web and app support: Don Knieriem, Russ Otto.