Grace, mercy and peace to you in Jesus name, Amen.
There is a place where I love to go. It came to be part of the Lutheran church in SoCal in the mid-1950’s when some congregations discerned: “We need a camp for our young people to experience God’s creation, connect even more with one another, learn about the bible, and serve in Christian love.” And with that, they were able to acquire a remote ~ dozen acres of land in the San Bernardino Mountains, and they named of the place, at that time, YoLiJWa, which was meant to sound Native American name, but also cleverly stood for Youth Living Jesus’ Way. Fundraisers in churches took place all over Southern California. And more than just financial resource poured in: work parties assembled, as members of churches, many of them youth groups and men’s work parties, outside groups and other charities, and the synod and national church all rallied together to build cabins, a dining hall, outdoor chapels with logs for pews...eventually a pool and some other recreation spaces were developed, and before long Camp Yolijwa of the Lutheran Church in Southern California was an active, thriving, booming ministry of the ELCA.
Some of you, in this congregation were involved, even as kids. Judy Ellingson was a counselor there! Some of you sent your kids there. Heather grew up going to Camp Yolijwa every summer and in the fall for Apple Days...great memories!
But the glory years of the 60‘s, 70’s and 80’s, the energy and excitement around the camp—as other newer and flashier camps became better options for church families—the hype and the involvement and support faded as the years passed.
The 90’s were really tough for Yolijwa. A rivalry even with the other Lutheran Camp started to form. Camp staff, congregations, even pastors, would talk trash about which camp was better. “Yolijwa’s a waste of time & $,” I even heard.
By the early 2000’s, when I became a pastor, Yolijwa was hanging on by a thin string. (A camp that was a made-up “Indian” word, didn’t rub well.) A few loyal supporters were coming out for work days, but the writing was on the wall: death was inevitable. Everyone who had once been excited about the place had died, or turned their attention and financial resources somewhere more interesting or promising. In short, Camp Yolijwa was a valley of dry bones.
I remember talks about the place needing to close, selling the land for new ministries in the church. But there were also some ideas about reimagining, redeveloping, reviving the place. But that would have to mean lots of faith in God and lots of newness. This wasn’t just going to be a resuscitation. It would need to be a resurrection. There’s a difference...[pause]
Anybody ever watch The Walking Dead? [pause] The AMC action-drama TV show about zombies? The idea of zombies is that after they die, they come back to “life”, but they’re still dead. They limp around and groan horrifically, and basically just eat flesh and cause more death.
The leaders of this project were not about to just resuscitate the camp, to limp around for a few more years (great lesson for redeveloping congregations too)..Yeah, it’s alive in that it moves, but God is about resurrection, not just resuscitation...
For camp, that meant 1st a name change, and a daring, new concept...which at the 2013 Synod Assembly in San Diego got boo’ed actually. I’ll never forget the executive director, Pastor Egertson getting up to the microphone to announce this exciting new, bold, daring endeavor of our churches, together with God’s guidance and the Spirit’s breath, resurrecting a dying camp, announcing that the new name would henceforth be “Luther Glen”...and he got boo’ed! “Now, now,” I remember him calmly responding, “let’s not let nostalgia be the death of us...
It’s time to step out boldly in faith, to trust the Spirit’s movement, to give thanks to God for what was, and to lean now into what is to come, this new project, which includes the camp, retreat center...and now a farm!” Luther Glen was developing a new concept of hiring a farmer and raising animals, crops, having chickens. Maybe even a brewery one day! The retreat center could become a venue for weddings, solo retreats, and outside groups. Children could learn those bible stories about sheep and goats, and pigs...while actually petting real sheep and goats and pigs! It was risky, no one in Southern California knew anything about farming, but the Spirit was stirring — a shoot from the stump was growing. The valley of dry bones was rattling. Resurrection-not-just-resuscitation, doesn’t always get cheers.
Well, it took off from there anyway, even with some resistance. Energy, new life, new leadership, new connections, and new baby animals all the time!!... You can see pictures and read about the blossoming LG farm on their blog. Some of the animals are coming here actually on Thursday, for our first ever live nativity! Staff members like Nate — who btw is the head camp director of Luther Glen now! — are all over Southern California and Arizona and beyond, building relationships, dreaming up new programs, including trips to Mexico to serve in orphanages, day camps in our churches, retreats all over, surf camp, farming and gardening instruction for our young people to learn about the abundance of God’s creation and where our food comes from...even a Brew Boldly beer-brewing weekend in the fall! I’m just scratching the surface here…
(And it’s not always pretty either. Farming is tough…)
But what occurs to me, thinking back on this long, resurrection story of Luther Glen, that needs to be told (our kids only know as a rockin’ place, looking forward every summer to going up to camp, our quilters go up there every year)...
What occurs to me, is that death needed to happen in order for new life to emerge. There had to have dry bones to make dancing bodies. Resurrection comes, Christ comes when we’re the most dried out, empty, even dead.
When things are falling apart, even dying, sisters and brothers in Christ — that’s precisely where the Holy Spirit is stirring the most. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones coming together, is a vision of hope amidst despair, life coming out of death. He prophesied this when his people were in exile, far away in Babylon. (How’s our Advent song go? “O Come, O come…”) “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” God says to the bones.
When the Holy Spirit gets involved, when God’s very spirit breathes into our bodies, mourning, loneliness, even death cannot stop us. And that doesn’t mean we just get a pulse back. That means something new comes forth! God connects our bones together in a new way! God covers and sews us together with new muscle and new flesh. And we are not the same as we were. (Just like the camp.) We’re even given new names, names that might just elicit a “boo” because they’re not names that we’ve known, and we don’t like the unknown sometimes. But God give us the right name for a new day: “Child of God. Beloved. Baptized. Sent-to-welcome-the-outsider-and-love-my-enemies.” That’s your new name that is right for this new day. Boo!!!! “Let’s not let nostalgia be the death of us.” It’s time...to step out boldly in Advent faith, to give thanks to God for what was, and to lean now into what is to come.
A baby arrives, born on a farm, amid goats and sheep and pigs. New hope, new life, resurrection. God comes down to be with us...in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, AMEN!