Today was the closing worship service at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. This is a denominational youth event of both the PCUSA (the denomination I serve) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Churches. It takes place every three years at Purdue University in the heat of summer. I have been to every Triennium since 1998 and hope to keep coming back for many more years. I love this event, and this was a good conference. Triennium connects youth and adults to other youth and adults in the wider church and reminds us of how we belong to each other despite our differences.
In that light, the preaching at Triennium over the years is a window into our differences and our commonality. Each year, I connect with one or two of the sermons, and one or two of them leave me wondering what it was all about. And then I talk to youth from my congregation or adults from across the wider church, and they inevitably connect to a different sermon than I did. It reminds me that in a room of 5,000 people, there is not one preacher who will appeal to everyone. There is not one preacher we could find who wouldn’t offend someone with something they would say.
I don’t expect I will ever preach to 5,000 people at once, but when I preach in worship to 150 people in the congregation I serve, I often manage to say something that doesn’t sit well with someone.
I bring all this up because the closing sermon today was not a neutral one. I did not preach it. Nor was I involved in the planning of it, but from sitting in the auditorium, I can surmise that the preacher, Claudio Carvalhaes, did not want to preach a neutral “let me appeal to everyone” kind of sermon.
He walked on stage with his back to the audience. He was wearing a hoodie. When he took off the hoodie and turned around, he was wearing a Lucha Libre mask and cape. He wore it for 95% of the sermon before he threw it in the crowd. It was performance art as sermon.
And then he preached in important message about our connectedness. He did not shy away from politics. He was not subtle about how he connected the gospel to the political realities of our day. (Here is the link to the sermon.)
If you are skilled in the ways of Twitter, I encourage you to read through the comments about the sermon. (#PYT13 should find most of them). Because some people LOVED this sermon. And other people wanted to walk out.
And if you are a Presbyterian, you will likely be hearing about this sermon. Some people will use it to talk about what is right in the church. And others will use it to illustrate how we are on a fast track to hell. (See comments below to illustrate my point.)
Which gets me back to what I love about the Presbyterian Youth Triennium. We are liberal. We are conservative. We are social justice. We are whatever the opposite of that is.
And so if you loved his sermon, great. I hope it inspired you to really be the change you want to see in the world. And then consider how you can reach out and have a conversation with the people who were offended by it.
If you hated his sermon, think about how or why it connected with others and ask if there is a way you could meet in the middle somehow?
It is unfortunate that a sermon that strong (for good or bad) was the last thing at Triennium. Because those conversations will be harder to have now that we who experienced it aren’t in the same place.
I hope the only thing people remember from the sermon is not that he wore a mask and said “shit”. I hope even the people who hated the sermon will have heard the Gospel proclaimed to them in some way. Because I heard some important words in the midst of the spectacle that was that sermon. About how we have to stay connected, in all we do, to Jesus Christ. About how we have to support and help each other along the way. About how the Gospel of Jesus Christ should cause us to see the world around us differently.
And I really hope people will remember that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not, and should not be, in the habit of vetting or editing the sermons of people who preach at their conferences. (I am not in the position to speak for the Cumberlands about this).
When a preacher gets in the pulpit, they are not answering to the people who invited them to preach, or to the personnel committee, or to anyone other than the Holy Spirit. There might be consequences. I don’t deny that preachers have been fired because of their sermons.
But, ultimately, when God gives you a Word, you have to proclaim it. Now I’m not equating Claudio with the prophet Jeremiah, exactly. That is between him and God. But I think of these words from Jeremiah when I have to preach a Word I don’t necessarily want to proclaim.
From Jeremiah 20:7-9
O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
Maybe this passage from Jeremiah explains why Claudio preached such a strong sermon. Maybe it was burning his bones and needed to be said. I hope he’ll reflect on that.
But, if you didn’t like his sermon, that’s fine. There was plenty in it for a Preaching class to discuss for weeks.
But I hope we will keep it in context for what it was–one of five sermons preached this week by one of five faithful preachers who answered the call to preach at Triennium. I am thankful for all five of them and for the reminder they give us that we are a catholic (small ‘c’) church. That word means “according to the whole” (see, Beth Johnson, I still use my Greek!) and reminds us that the way any one of us proclaim the gospel is just a piece of the story. We are an “according to the whole” kind of church and today’s sermon, for all of it’s emotion and drama, was just one piece of the whole.
I am thankful for this Presbyterian Youth Triennium and for all who worked so hard to make it happen. I’m thankful for the way I heard the Gospel proclaimed in worship (through preaching, music, and drama) and for the way I saw it lived out in Small Groups, at recreation events, and during free time. This event was about much more than a guy in a mask. Let’s not lose sight of that.