Scripture: Ex 3: 1-15
The Spirit of Camp,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
He began by recalling the night his parents announced their divorce. They called him and his two little brothers into the room. They sat them down at the kitchen table and they told their three children the news that their family would no longer be that same family. Things would be different. But it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. But things would be different from now on. Completely blindsided by this news with two brothers far too young to truly understand the significance of divorce, Tim was left alone to wonder at the newly uncertain future.
He grew even more confused and concerned and angry and scared and broken as his father began to sink into a deep and severe depression. “I have terrible thoughts about what I could do to myself,” his father would tell him over the phone.
Through all of this, Tim shared, it was camp that kept him going. Even in the darkest of dark days in the middle of winter, he would imagine the faces of the people at camp and could begin to feel the spirit of that place. And, he knew that he would be ok. Thank you. Thank you. He repeated over and over again.
By the dim light of the bonfire, I watched this young man crumple up the single piece of paper that he held and toss it into the fire. He turned away from the center of the circle and found his place in the sea of teenagers that surrounded him on that last night that he would spend at camp as a high school senior.
At that moment the voices around the campfire grew out of the silence, out of the pines, out of the dark, clear, night singing:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see…
“The first summer I came to camp I was going into seventh grade and I had just become homeless for the first time.” Heart and eyes now fully opened, I watched and I listened as the next senior began to speak her story, to offer her testimony. She remembered that it was nighttime; that the day had nearly ended without a fight when she heard her mom and stepdad screaming at each other. It was the night her stepdad found out that her mother had told her who her real father was. He was enraged. He told her to get out because she was stupid and ugly and no good. So she left the house with her mom and they temporarily moved to an apartment. This happened a few more times throughout junior high and high school. Her mom kept going back to her stepdad and he would kick them out. He would tell them to leave and they would. Then her mom would go back.
The campfire continued to burn in the heart of our large circle and this young woman’s words just melted into the air, “For that one week that I spent at camp in the summer,” she said, “I could believe that I was good enough. And now, because of the weeks I have spent here in this place, I know I am beautiful and strong even though I was only ever told just the opposite. Because of the confidence that each of you have given me and the love you have shown me, I can stand here and speak to you tonight.”
When she was finished, this 18-year old woman rolled her single sheet of paper that she had been reading from into a careful ball and she threw it into the flames of the campfire and she watched it burn. I looked up at the sky, full of beautiful pinholes revealing just how far we were from Braintree or Weymouth or Quincy or Hingham and just then voices emerged again out of the darkness with the second verse of that familiar tune:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed…
Do you remember this story - Moses and the burning bush? Moses and the burning, living presence of God? Do you remember learning it as a child-perhaps one among those stories so easily forgotten? Do you remember Moses? An ordinary man. A child conceived in a time of oppression, born in a time of bondage and slavery of his people. Moses. A Hebrew born in Egypt. Right before the time of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt commanded all of his people to take every Hebrew boy that was born and throw them into the Nile River. But, Moses’ mother tenderly and secretly crafted a special basket for her baby boy and she put him inside and she set the basket on top of some reeds on the bank of the river and she left him there, alone, praying that his life might somehow be spared. And, it was.
So many years after his mother left him in a basket on the bank of the river, Moses was busy tending some sheep when all of the sudden he notices a bush that had caught on fire. He looks at this bush and he sees that although there are flames on it, the bush itself was not actually burning. Very strange, Moses thought. So, Moses stops leading the sheep and moves closer to the bush to try to understand what’s going on. When God saw that Moses had turned to see, he called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses responded, “Here I am.”
“Come no closer!” God commanded, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground.”
Then God told Moses, “I have chosen you. You will go to Pharaoh and you will lead your people out of Egypt. I have chosen you.” You. The Hebrew baby in a handmade basket abandoned on the reeds of the riverbank. I have chosen you.
Do you remember this story – Moses and the burning bush? In many ways, I found camp to be like the burning bush for the young people that found themselves there. A curious distraction at first that turns out to be a dynamic force containing the living, breathing, burning presence of God. Throughout the week and especially on the last night of camp, when I heard of the experiences these kids had growing up I was overwhelmed by where they had been and the situations that they had come from. Like Moses, some of these kids had been born into incredibly difficult circumstances – addiction, abuse, divorce, bullying – and they had every reason to believe that they were alone. Yet at camp, on the shore of the lake and by the burning flames of the bonfire, thousands of kids over the past fifty years have heard the voice of God calling out to them, speaking their name and hearing God say, “I choose you.”
One of the staff counselors who has been coming to camp for over 12 years said during one the of the Chapel messages that he gave while we were at camp, “Camp is my faith.”
Another senior camper said about camp in his testimony at the last campfire, “We don’t live here, but this is our home.”
This is grace. I was lost, but now am found. This, is amazing. Was blind, but now I see. This is the spirit of camp. It’s the living presence of God. It’s faith. It’s home. It’s redemption. It’s love. It’s holy ground. I bring these stories to you this morning because they are a part of our story, First Congregational Church. The burning bush is right here in our midst and you have offered it to countless young people in your lifetime through sponsoring our youth group to attend camp each year for the past fifty plus years. Standing by the light of the dancing flames of fire, as the seniors say to one another on that last night they’ll spend at camp as a camper, so they also say to you: thank you. Thank you.