“But John left them and returned to Jerusalem.”(Acts 13:13)In the name …
Getting to Perga in Pamphylia at the time of Paul was not a very pleasant journey.It was located about ten miles above the mouth of a river that emptied into the Mediterranean Sea.We’re told that Paul and Barnabas had set out from Antioch in ancient Syria, and that a young man by the name of John Mark was assigned by the church as their assistant (Acts 13:5).Antioch was a very comfortable and cosmopolitan city.At the time of Paul it was the third largest city in the entire Roman Empire.We also learn from hints in the Bible that John Mark is from a prosperous family (cf. Acts 12:12).Put this together and we can sketch a picture of John Mark as a young man of a strong and pious faith, but also a young man accustomed to a comfortable life in a comfortable city.
John Mark travels with Paul and Barnabas across the island of Cyprus.After preaching the gospel across this island state, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark board a boat and sail toward Perga in Pamphylia.They arrive and it’s miserable.The ten miles between the port and the city is swamp at the mouth of the river.It’s hot and humid, and the bugs must have been horrendous.John Mark is an enthusiastic believer, and he was sent off with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey by the church at Antioch because they saw a great deal of potential in him.His faith was undeniably strong.But John Mark was also young and privileged.He was simply not prepared to huff it all the way across the island of Cyprus.He was not prepared for sailing the Mediterranean in boats that were dark, odorous and dangerous.And the last straw for our young John Mark were the swamps below Perga in Pamphylia, and he left for home.Paul and Barnabas continued forward to preach the gospel, but John Mark returned home because for as much as he thought he was ready, young John Mark was just not sufficiently prepared for what he had to do.
There is something serious taking place here, a lesson we need to pay attention to, a lesson we need to pay attention to as church, parents and adults because we have a serious responsibility to our young people to prepare them spiritually and morally for the world that awaits them.The Gazette newspaper published a survey last week of the number of students suspended and expelled from four local schools, and they found out that South Hadley disciplined their students much more severely than in some other local school districts.All of the publicity that South Hadley has endured since the suicide of Phoebe Prince has shown the spotlight on the youth culture in that school, and a lot of it has not been pretty and a lot of it cannot be limited to South Hadley, but simply doling out punishment doesn’t seem to have made a difference.This past week the South HadleyHigh School principal and the superintendent of South Hadley schools gave interviews to the media.The principal was quoted as saying, “We have to work on some cultural ownership for kids.”I don’t even know what that means, if it really means anything at all.The superintendent said, “Our schools must do a better job of fostering a culture of respect.This is not a job we can do alone.”These quotes may be just teacher-talk like “cultural ownership,” or it may be shifting some of the blame around like “we can’t do it alone,” but they may also address an important issue.
Our young people need our help, our example and our encouragement.By the time these kids are in high school, punishment is not the most effective means of fostering moral behaviour.Punishment tells a kid they got caught; it doesn’t necessarily tell them they’ve done anything they consider to be wrong.The school administrators can speak of “fostering a culture of respect” in order to counteract all of this selfish and unsympathetic behaviour.They probably can’t speak of “fostering a strong moral culture.”But I can.God is a main focus of religion, but equally important for religion is how we treat each other.This is why a strong moral compass is such an important part of respecting each other.Half of the Two Commandments of Love deal with treating our neighbours with respect.The Golden Rule teaches “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”When Jesus was asked what must be done to get into heaven, Jesus lists the commandments that deal with how we interact with each other and is amazingly silent about the commandments dealing with God. (Matt. 19:16+)Morality is the business of the church.It flows from a life with and for God, but it is also just as much about a life with and for each other.When that superintendent said that the schools can’t do this job of fostering respect alone, I absolutely agree with him.And I absolutely believe that what’s missing in the lives of too many of our nation’s youth is religion and all of our efforts to teach our young people of morality.
You can’t suspend, expel or arrest these young people into the kind of people who can empathize with others, who stand-up for those abused, who can see how they are hurting other people with their taunts and threats and rather than feeling proud of it as some sort of sick accomplishment – feel bad about it.But from their childhood on, we can expose them to another example and another set of rules of behaviour.We can help introduce them to the Good Shepherd of this morning’s Gospel, the one who says to us:“‘My sheep hear my voice.’” (Jn. 10:27)We can let them hear a different story about what’s important in these shared lives of ours.Returning to the example of John Mark, he was not ready as a young man to head out with Paul and Barnabas. He wasn’t prepared.We as church can help make sure that our young people understand what “a culture of respect” means.We can expose them to the moral teachings of our God and our faith, which are subjects our schools can’t do and shouldn’t have to.We can prepare them better for life than those who never have the opportunity of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd.As Jesus has said, “Let the children come to me.”This is our responsibility to both Christ and to our youth.May they come to know of morality through our efforts and examples, through our Sunday School, our summer Retreats and Convos, through our worship and through the faith we live in our homes, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen.