Thursday, June 23, 2011

Forever Young

Sometimes when a bible passage is fairly familiar, a word or phrase that I didn’t remember being in it really sticks out. Just such a word is found in this morning’s gospel lesson (Luke 22:24-30). This is the familiar scene in which Jesus finds his disciples talking amongst themselves about who will be the greatest. He rebukes them gently, offering a counter-intuitive assessment of what “greatness” and what “authority” really are. In Luke’s version, Jesus says it in a way that clanged like a wrong note blasted into a quiet symphony: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”

Perhaps you know this passage well enough that the word “youngest” doesn’t stick out to you, but I just can’t get past it. It’s a huge word. I suppose that etymologically it’s related to “least,” which is probably how we’re used to hearing this passage—“Let the greatest become the least…” But “youngest” really puts it into the context of age. What does it mean for the greatest to become as the youngest?

I’m in the middle of the Sawyerville Day Camp—an annual ministry of the Diocese of Alabama. During the camp, we invite the children of Hale County to come and play with us in a bible-school-themed day camp, which involves singing, arts & crafts, story time, activities, etc.. The real magic here is that around 100 volunteers—most of whom are teenagers—give up their week to minister to around 100 children. Apart from that, our day camp isn’t that special. It’s just your average, run of the mill day camp—the kind I hated being subjected to when I was a child. But, because our people are kids themselves who give of themselves for the children of Hale County, something powerful happens.

These youth succeed in serving the children of the day camp in ways that adults can only mimic. There’s something intrinsically giving about the ministry of a teenager. I’ll admit that it can be a little hormonal at times. And, yes, without older leaders to guide them, the youth would probably neglect their bathroom cleaning duties. But none of these adults could give these kids what their teenage counterparts can give. There’s something pure, immediate, accessible about the love they give.

That servant-heartedness is symbolized in lots of ways this week—a teenage girl’s hair in thin braids, a high-school boy’s neck clung to in the swimming pool, a spontaneous hug between a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old who have very little in common yet who share so much. The adults (like me) get invited into that action only by the leadership of the youth, for whom it comes more naturally. Without youth, this project would fall apart.

When Jesus says that the greatest among us should become as the youngest, he didn’t have pimple-faced teenage angst in mind. But he was thinking about the accessible, enthusiastic, tireless service that only a young person can give. He is calling me back into my teenage years. He’s asking me to let go of my self-importance. He’s telling me that if I am to serve in his kingdom I need to get beyond my age and rediscover what it means to love with a child’s heart.

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