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philippians 4 & preaching for an audience including youth & young adults – lynne baab

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In my years as an associate minister in Seattle, and in the past seven years preaching several times a year in the congregation I attend in Dunedin, I’ve had parents tell me quite a few times that their children like my sermons. In a couple of cases, the children were late primary school and intermediate school, and in several other cases the “children” have been teenagers or young adults.

I (mostly) find this to be a compliment. There’s a little part of me that wonders if my sermons are overly simplistic and perhaps that’s why kids like them. But mostly I’m simply grateful that some kids, teens and young adults seem to like my informal style and propensity to talk about the way the biblical passage speaks into my own life.

A few weeks ago I preached at my own church on Philippians 4. The heart of the passage is, I believe, verses 6-8: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

The person who, in my experience, most lives out these verses is an old friend of mine, Steve Hayner, who is the president of Columbia Seminary in the United States. On his recent birthday, he posted this on Facebook:

“Every day is an opportunity to be attentive, grateful and joyful about God’s call. But on my 66th birthday it seems to be a particularly appropriate time—not to ‘seize the day’—but rather to surrender to whatever seemingly foolish, tantalizingly creative, or audaciously loving work that God has for me. While I yet have breath, I have purpose, hindered only by my limited vision and small ambitions.”

Steve’s words in that Facebook post are all the more vivid when you take his situation into account. Steve is currently battling pancreatic cancer.

As I prepared my sermon on Philippians 4, I went back through all of Steve’s posts on the Caring Bridge website,  a site where cancer patients and their family members can describe their journey. I was in tears as I read his posts. Over and over he writes about his desire to continue to serve, love and obey God even in illness. For the sermon itself, I extracted numerous entries from Steve’s Caring Bridge posts.

Steve is a 66-year-old man. Would the teenagers, university students and young adults in the congregation that day be able to relate to his words? Should I have chosen a younger person to illustrate the passage in Philippians?

I realized the compliments I had received about children, youth and young adults liking my sermons had become a bit of a millstone around my neck. Rather than an encouragement, in my mind they had morphed into some sort of impossible standard I had to live up to. Preparing a sermon involves thinking about our audience, yes, but even more it involves listening to God’s voice to us about how to make scripture come alive. And Steve’s journey definitely makes that passage come alive to me.

In addition, I was falling into the temptation of believing that the only stories relevant to teenagers or young adults will focus on people the same age. I remember being in my twenties and loving stories about faithful people who were much older than I was. Finally I got the courage to ask a high school student about whether she learned anything from Steve’s story in my sermon. She said she doesn’t think the age or circumstances need to be the same in order to gain something from a story. She said, “I don’t have to be old and have cancer to appreciate it.”

Whew! I was relieved that I followed God’s leading to tell the story that made the passage come alive to me, and one teenager at least got something from it.

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