You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (16: 18).
Many of you know that I traveled with the youth mission team to Alaska this summer. I hoped our trip would be an adventure; oh, it was. I prayed it would be safe, meaning no grizzly bear confrontations, and there were none. While we did not spy a bear or a bald eagle, we did see a few moose, known by the locals as swamp donkeys, a porcupine, a beaver and countless sightings of the Alaskan state bird, the mosquito. I wanted our work to be rewarding and good for the soul; it most certainly was. I also wanted our kids to have a blast, and they did! Most important, I hoped the members of our team would be upstanding disciples, recognizing the face of Christ in one another and in everyone we met. Despite a few knucklehead moments during the trip, our team made me proud.
Our mission was to build a camp for the youth of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. This was no ordinary camp. We traveled 170 miles northwest from Fairbanks to a crossroads called Manley Hot Springs. For the last 80 miles of that trip, pavement gave way to a dirt road topped with shards of shale. Our vans blew tires coming and going.
Manley Hot Springs has a trading post, a roadhouse, an airstrip, a tropical greenhouse covering four concrete tubs that constitute its hot springs, and 30 or so residents. Its most recent claim to fame is that it is home to two racing kennels where Iditarod mushing dogs are bred, raised and trained. Manley Hot Springs has nothing else–except breathtaking natural beauty. It sits on a tributary of the Tanana River, where we bathed each day.
The Diocese of Alaska has little money to build this camp, so it is being built piecemeal, with man- and woman-power from churches like ours. Our primary jobs at the camp were to put up log siding on two cabins, and to lay the foundation for what will become the chapel. Our community service project for Manley was to spruce up the town cemetery, located in the woods off the river. The tradition of both the native Athabaskan Indians and the local white people is to erect white picket fences around the graves of their loved ones. They also laminate photographs of the dead and decorate their graves with personal belongings and mementos. It was heartbreaking and sobering to see that a disproportionate number of graves were of young Indian males who had committed suicide before their 25th birthdays. We painted the fences and stained the natural wood grave markers to protect them from the elements. My favorite days were spent painting in the cemetery, kneeling on the mossy floor, among the skinny trees, in the peace and quiet.
Our work days began around 8 a.m. and finished around 4 p.m. so we could bathe in the slough before it got too cold. Before dinner, we would play Frisbee, cards or softball with all five of the local kids. After dinner we would have evening prayer and talk about what experiences we had had during the day, what they had meant to us, and where God was in those experiences. I sympathized with one of our crews, which was hauling, mixing and laying 55-pound bags of cement into the foundation for the chapel. These guys did this for four straights days with no complaint. There weren’ t many God moments found in mixing concrete for them to share with us at Evening Prayer. But what did occur to me was that these boys and girls were doing exactly what Jesus had called them do: to be the foundation on which he will build His church.
Now, if you knew who comprised this motley crew, you might scratch your head and chuckle. Would Jesus anoint Hans Kalkofen, Courtnay Midkiff, Taylor Irvin, Hunter Otterson, Coleman Cann, Brian Hoffmann, Jordan Webber, and all the others as he anointed Peter? Would he say, you are Sarah Lisk, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it ( 16: 18). Absolutely! Let me tell you why.
In each and every one of our team members I saw the light of Christ. Not only were they hard workers, they were decent, moral, loving and forgiving people. Granted, they had a few immature, rowdy, knucklehead moments as I said, but that’s to be expected when a team consists of two teen girls and 10 teen boys. I can’ t tell you how many times I found myself saying, If you were not so funny I would have drown you in the river! These kids are witty, sharp, and comfortable in their own skins.
The last morning we were in Manley was a Sunday, so we planned a Eucharist on the hillside in the woods. Two of our guys volunteered to preach a homily. They picked the Scripture, the psalm and each preached for five minutes. Frankly, I was shocked by their poise, their confidence, the way they could string one thought to the next without stumbling, their intense spirituality and love of Christ.
Robert Molster shared with us a recent time in his life when his spiritual life was barren. He admitted that some of this barrenness was self-inflicted. As he described his own heartbreak, his feeling of abandonment, I thought to myself, Wow, I didn’ t know this. This pain must have been going on for years. But then he explained how it had lasted for two weeks–two full weeks!–and how this was just too much to bear. I had to chuckle under my breath. He said to us, “I would not recommend it.”
Thomas Jenkins then took the pulpit, and in that same vein he preached about how we should never take anything for granted, most especially the love of Christ. He quoted John 3:16. He recited a litany of what and whom he and his peers should not take for granted: their parents, their siblings, their friends, their educations, the opportunities the share, like their mission to Alaska, all of God’ s creation& I can’ t remember all he said, but I do remember him saying that while he and his friends may be absent from church and perhaps not spiritually fed by the formality of its worship, they do feel connected to the Lord in their own personal ways, in settings such as a mission trip where they can find God on their own terms, and in the people they are with. I’ m telling you, I was sitting there in astonishment on my log pew in that morning sun trying to hide the tears, knowing that if they saw me crying I’ d be mercilessly teased.
But you know, it just wasn’ t that moment with those two boys. It was eight days of the same sentiments from each of the 14 other team members. There is so much to be said about their happiness, their youthful curiosity, their energy, their creativity, their innate generosity and hospitality.
The church that the Lord began with Peter, and that we are a part of, is a holy and a sacred thing. It is a divine mystery, greater than we can see or imagine stronger even than death itself, vast in time and space. It is built of stones, or rocks; and these stones are laid one atop the other. They touch, so the building is a single structure that continues through space and time. That continuity is a continuity of persons, each connected to those who went before. We constantly re-live this Gospel story. It is a continuity of faith that reaches from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, to Richmond, Virginia and to Manley Hot Springs, Alaska. Through our children, even the motley Alaska crew, Christ continues to build his church. I saw firsthand that through our youth Christ continues to be present to his world and that is a sacred thing.