WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Like Zacchaeus, many youth “live in a world where we are concerned about how others see us,” said Chicago pastor Sandra Van Optstal during a Wednesday sermon that highlighted a lively and earnest afternoon worship service at Presbyterian Youth Triennium. “People saw Zacchaeus as someone who was not gospel material. He had everything he needed, and it’s not likely he will would turn that around.”
And just as Zacchaeus internalized who he was and the tax-collecting work he did, today’s high school students often feel under the same pressure, she said. Her own family’s expectations back in the day weren’t nearly what many of today’s students face. Van Opstal said she had three low bars to clear in those days: “get good grades, don’t do drugs and try not to get pregnant. That’s it. If I did it, then people said, ‘Hallelujah!’”
“The pressure, the pace and the anxiety you all feel is something I don’t understand at all,” Van Opstal told the 4,000 people in worship, most of them in high school. “The idea that you have to create a brand by age 16 so everyone can see who you are, what you’re about and who you will become — that stresses me out. We are not what we do and who we hang out with. If we are, we are allowing ourselves to be seen through the lens of others.”
Zacchaeus was so desperate to see Jesus — and to be seen by Jesus — that he “pulled up his skirt and climbed up a tree” while wearing no pants, Van Opstal pointed out. “He has lost complete respect for himself by this point,” she said. “Jesus is coming to town, and he’s got to see him.”
Van Opstal then described the community she pastors in Chicago’s West Side. “Our youth and our children are desperate to be seen as human beings,” she said. The young people at her church “have swum rivers and been in cages to be in our youth group. They want to know that if Jesus sees them, that they are not defined by what they see in the news.”
“Young people in our community are afraid to have contact with law enforcement and to even come to youth group,” she said. “They want to know that their lives matter.”
Jesus tells Zacchaeus, the tax collector seen as dirty whose name means “pure” or “clean,” to come down from the tree, “because I’m coming to your house today.”
“God sees the differences we have, the different experiences, the mistakes we have made, the hurts that people have done to us, and says, ‘Come on down. I’m going to your house today.’”
Jesus’ good news for today “is not that we are merely seen, but that he is using you to seek others and invite them to come down, too,” she told Triennium youth. “We want to see our generation as one that seeks and saves and is passionate about those who are lost and in pain, a generation that will seek others and stand with them in mutuality and solidarity. You are that generation. I pray that God will use you to seek others.”
Youth responded to Van Opstal’s sermon with a standing ovation.
They also appreciated other worship segments, too. Conference pastors affirmed the youths’ baptisms by dipping small branches in water and sprinkling worshipers throughout the Elliott Hall of Music.
The drama team put on an innovative Zacchaeus skit, and the Nettletons provided an exquisite a capella version of “Down to the River to Pray.”
Worshipers also came through during the week’s first and only offering. Three-fourths of the money raised will go to rebuild the hurricane-damaged chapel at Campamento El Guacio in Sebastian, Puerto Rico.
by Mike Ferguson, Presbyterian News Service