Sunday, June 7, 2020 marked our annual Youth Sunday, in which we celebrate our high school graduates. We had six this year, and they all helped with the service! One of the, Finn Koehler, offered the following sermon. You can watch it on YouTube by clicking the video or read it below. Thanks Finn!
As many of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I along with four other youth members of our parish travelled to Maine on a pilgrimage. Despite it now being 2020, I still remember this experience as vividly as I did two years. Most surprisingly to myself, my strongest memories are not the fun times with my friends. Instead, they are the spiritual experiences.
I know that it might seem silly that I am surprised that the religious aspects of a religious trip are what I remember most, but I have to admit that I didn’t really expect them to stand out before I left for the pilgrimage. At the time, I was fifteen years old, and I valued a fun vacation over any potential religious experiences. On top of that, I was certain that the pilgrimage would be nothing more than a rebranded vacation where you happened to do morning prayer and compline every day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the course of that week in late June, my relationship with God became far closer than it ever had been before. Each day, I uncovered more of what God meant to me, and each night, I turned this lesson into a small prayer in my pilgrimage journal. When I was writing these small prayers, I only thought that I was summarizing my pilgrimage, but over time, these prayers have become a framework for my personal faith. As I read these prayers again in the present, I realize that the pilgrimage brought me closer to God than I had ever been before, and I can pinpoint the main reason why I had such a great experience… We weren’t allowed to use our cellphones.
Although I am a proud member of Generation Z, I am willing to admit that our relationship with technology is co-dependent at best. For our entire lives, we have always been exposed to screens. The iPhone was invented when I was five years old, and by the time I reached adolescence smart technology was fully integrated into the world. It is hard for me to remember a time where I didn’t use a device at some point during the day. However, I can locate one glaring exception: the pilgrimage.
For one week, we were gifted with the opportunity to disconnect from the outside world. Instead of being tethered to technology, we actively rejected it. It was a culture shock at first for sure, but after a brief adjustment period, we embraced a new world of nature and person-to-person connection. Over the course of that week, the world became much simpler. We talked to the people around us. We looked at the world around us. We lived in reality as it is, not as it is presented to us on a 3×5 inch screen. As I disconnected from the world I knew, I reconnected with God.
The goal of the pilgrimage was always to find God in nature, and it became very easy to do that when we could actually experience nature as it is. Instead of looking at every wonderful moment as an opportunity to take a picture for Instagram, we chose to live in that moment and cherish it. When we weren’t experiencing the world through a screen, the wonders of the natural world, and thus, the wonders of creation were evident everywhere we looked. When we allowed ourselves to disconnect and allowed our lives to slow down, the simple beauties of God’s creation were overpowering. The bright blue sky, the vibrant sunsets, the towering mountains and the placid lakes that we can easily ignore in day to day life were transformed into powerful reminders that God created a world of natural splendor that is full of life. We were given the opportunity to grow closer to God simply by letting ourselves notice that God’s wonder is all around us. By slowing down our lives and separating ourselves from the technology driven modern world, we were able to realize just how close God comes to us everyday. Who knew that Glenbrook North High School’s resident slacker Ferris Bueller could be saying something so profoundly spiritual, when he reminded us that “Life moves pretty fast if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
All of these memories of the pilgrimage were pulled back to the surface during this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. The creation story serves to remind us that the world we know is the product of God’s work. However, it more importantly reminds a simple fact that creation is “very good.” The pilgrimage reminded me of this very truth every day. We live in a world full of natural beauty and God’s love, yet we never truly give ourselves the chance to live in it.
Instead of experiencing the beauty of nature with our own eyes, we view it on our screen saver. Instead of connecting with God, we connect to the internet. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, but there are consequences of living a life that is always plugged in. When we view the world through a screen, we don’t get to experience the power of nature; we miss out on the very things that make creation “very good.”
However, in our current situation, disconnecting probably seems like a distant impossibility. The pandemic has left us in a world where the virtual world is inescapable. For some of us, our current days are filled with more screen time than ever before. For that reason, the act of disconnecting will likely feel more powerful than ever before. Right now, the majesty of creation is not just a sign of God’s love, it is an escape from the doldrums of the “new normal.” The dichotomy between our new virtual lives and the natural world will be more powerful than ever before, and as a result, God’s presence will be more evident than ever before.
God built us a beautiful world that is full of His essence, but very rarely do we take the opportunity to disconnect from the world in order to reconnect with God. The natural world is full of God’s love, and if we take the time to deliberately experience nature, we can allow ourselves to become closer to God. Back before I left for the pilgrimage, I would have never thought I would find a way to become closer to God during that week. However, as I look back on my experiences now, I realize that all it takes to reach out to God is to stop and look around in His creation, for if we don’t, we could miss it.