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Lizards and Leadership

Relevant Lectionary Readings

Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen

“The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

 The fear of the unknown and the pain of their hunger had had a sort of amnesiac effect on the Israelites, and there they were, dusty from the sand in the desert, wistfully yearning for their life back in Egypt. A life that, only chapters before we heard described as “bitter” under masters who were “ruthless.” 

Sometimes we are so quick to laugh at and scorn the Israelites. As if they were a bunch of ungrateful,spoiled children. We forget that this was a people that had been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt. This thing called freedom… It was new to them. And while their past lives in Egypt were anything but comfortable, there is some stability, and comfort in the known. 

 When I was a little kid we used to go down to Florida about once a year for Spring Break and visit my grandparents there. My grandparents lived right on a lake and there were all kinds of little critters running around. I was a curious kid, and so whenever I would come, my grandma would have a little terrarium cage waiting for me there so that I could catch lizards. These were tricky lizards. They didn’t want to be caught. In fact, if you caught them by their tail, their tail would pop right off and they would just grow a new one. 

They weren’t made for captivity. They were made to be free. 

The problem is, I was bigger than them you see, and so I did catch them. And I would put little leaves in there and feed them little bugs and pieces of fruit. I’d keep those lizards for a day or two, which in lizard time, I’m sure feels like a hundred years, and I’d watch them. And then my dear parents would remind me that little lizards aren’t meant to be kept in cages, and they would urge me to set them free. So I would. I would open up the little plastic top latch and set the terrarium down on the ground. And the lizards wouldn’t leave. I pulled the whole top off the cage. The lizards stayed right inside. It came to a point where, every time, I would literally have to reach on into the cage, set them down on the ground,and shoo them away before they would go free. 

You see, even though lizards aren’t meant to live in cages, they forgot that. They forgot. They forgot that they were meant to be free. 

The big, wide world is so vast and so bright. Sometimes the walls of our cages help us feel a little more contained. Even if those walls make us miserable. 

The Israelites are murmuring and grumbling and complaining because THEY. ARE.TERRIFIED. New things are scary. Vastness is scary. Freedom is scary. And do you know what my favorite part of this Exodus story is? God’s response. God is not exasperated. God is not frustrated. God does not lecture them. God does not punish them. The people come to God with their all consuming hunger and God responds tenderly and God fills them. God comforts them. God listens. God provides. 

I see something really similar when I visit churches and have conversations with people about the new direction that God is taking the church and, specifically, youth ministry. There are people who grew up in a time when church-going on a Sunday morning was the norm. There are people like me who grew up in the church a decade or two ago, a time of bean bags and ski trips and laser tag…

There are people who look back at that time and harken it as a golden time for youth ministry. We look back at these times which, if we are being honest with ourselves, were both beautiful and broken, and yet we look back and we idealize the past, clinging onto it as if our lives depended on it. It’s not even that those times, or those models of doing church were perfect or even always that healthy or good. 

It’s that that is the model of church that we know. It makes sense to us, a church where people worship faithfully on Sundays. Where children and youth fill the pews. Where youth groups were bursting at the seams. We understand that model.It was nice. It was….contained. There were boxes to check. There were calendars to be filled. And it worked, for a while, it worked. 

But now God is doing something new. I’m sure you can feel it, you can see it. In our church and out in the world we are on the brink of a huge shift. And with change comes growing pains and uncertainty. 

The youth culture has changed and shifted in such a phenomenal way that it makes a lot of people nervous. It makes me nervous sometimes too, wondering how the church is going to fit into all of this. 

But then I spend some time listening to the youth. 

The youth that I have talked to are hungry. They are wide eyed, and they are ready to let God take them by the hand and venture out into that big bright world. They are unafraid of God’s boundlessness, of God’s newness,of God’s continual dance of rebirth. They are unafraid of a wild and untamed church. They welcome it. 

So when people sometimes come to me,murmuring and wondering, “Where are our youth?!” I am so blessed to be able to tell people that I have seen the new way that God is providing and it is NOT through bread from the sky, it’s through our youth. Our youth are out there, out in the world, doing church. 

They are having conversations about justice at their lunch tables at school. They are leading and serving in their communities. They want to feel connected, to lead, to have a voice. They are chasing after God in new ways. And the church? 

We would be wise to follow them. 

Amen. 

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