Sunday, October 30, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Rootless Generations"

Matthew 11:16-19

“To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

(Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Three

I remember my middle school years very clearly. Aside from the month or so that I had a “girlfriend” (that is to say, someone you held hands with between classes and had dates at your hallway locker), the only person with whom I regularly ate lunch while I was in junior high was an outgoing and enthusiastically genial classmate with learning deficiencies named Lance. He would show up with one of his Power Ranger action figures, put it on the table, and tell me all about it, about his day, anything—we’d just talk.

And that was how I spent two years’ worth of lunches. The only person who saw me was the person who, at the time, was simply labeled as “retarded.” But he was the one who showed the emotional intelligence to sit down, day after day, with a total introvert who was not infrequently bullied. Who was the smart one?

My experience of eating alone as a result of a Mean Girls-esque ostracism is by no means a unique one. Natalie Hampton, a teenager from California, is another kid who spent an entire school year eating alone, but decided to do something about it: she created a smartphone app called Sit With Us, which allows students to broadcast to others with the app if their table is open, allowing anyone wanting to not eat alone to have company that day for lunch.

It is an app that I could have sorely used when I was in middle school. If, you know, there were smartphones and apps back in those old days of yore. I’ll let the Huffington Post pick it up here:

She was inspired to create it after she ate alone her entire seventh grade year…the situation left Hampton feeling vulnerable and made her a target for bullying.

Hampton, now a junior, is attending a different school and is thriving socially. Yet, the memory of sitting alone and being bullied still haunts her, especially since she knows her experience isn’t an isolated one.

Hampton told Audie Cornish on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that the reason why she felt an app like this was necessary is because it prevents kids from being publicly rejected and being considered social outcasts by their peers.

“This way it’s very private. It’s through the phone. No one has to know,” she explained to Cornish. And you know that you’re not going to be rejected once you get to the table.”

When students—especially the “cool kids”—stand up to bullying, it has a significant impact, according to a study conducted by Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale University. During a 2012-2013 school year, over 50 New Jersey middle schools provided their most socially competent students with social media tools and encouragement to combat bullying, and saw a reduction in student conflict reports by 30 percent.

Therein lies the rub—as much as we may want to end childhood bullying, the most effective agents of change in that campaign aren’t going to be adults like us—they’re going to be the kids themselves, the peers of the ones both being bullied and doing the bullying. Because a time-honored tradition of any generation is to place uniquely important stock into the perspectives of their peers, not their elders, and it is a perspective that Jesus in fact saw on display in Matthew 11.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about two weeks ago, and then in chapter one, “Ministry in a Dislocated World,” last week, and now this week we arrive at the second chapter, “Ministry for the Rootless Generations,” in which Nouwen writes in part, about how he sees future generations:

Instead of (fathers), the peer becomes the standard. Many young people are completely unimpressed by the demands, expectations, and complaints of the big bosses of the adult world, show a scrupulous sensitivity to what their peers feel, think, and say about them. Being considered an outcast or a dropout by adults does not worry them, but being excommunicated by the small circle of friends to which they want to belong can be an unbearable experience.

Many young people may even become enslaved by the tyranny of their peers. While appearing indifferent, casual, and even dirty to their elders, their indifference is often carefully calculated, their casualness studied in the mirror, and their dirty appearance based on a detailed imitation of their friends.

But the tyranny of fathers is not the same as the tyranny of one’s peers. Rejecting the first means disobedience; rejecting the second, nonconformity. Rejecting the first creates feelings of guilt; rejecting the second, feelings of shame…this shift has very deep consequences, for if youth no longer aspire to become adult, and take the place of the fathers, and if the main motivation is conformity to the peer group, we might witness the death of a future-oriented culture.

Now, I urge you, with all my being, not to take either Nouwen’s or Jesus’s words today as a “kids these days!” spiel. I promise you, as much as you may have respected your own elders, you reserved a portion for your own peers as well, and you continue to today. It is why so many churches are *not* intergenerational, because the tension between younger and older generations proves to be too much when the youth do not have the same attachment to certain traditions and norms as their elders, but the elders do not want to give up those traditions and norms.

Jesus compares the generation He is in to a child playing music in the public square to which those around the child do not respond. And that really does encapsulate the younger generation’s experience of church—they have a voice, a beautiful, melodic voice, even, a voice that they are more than prepared at this point to share with the world…and they hear nothing in response. Or what they do hear is discouragement, rather than encouragement.

But then the peers are no better. Out of a generation may come someone extraordinary, like John the Baptist, whom Jesus mentions, and John is treated terribly by those with the social status to make their words matter. John even ends up dead as a result, and if you think that is too extreme a comparison to make to what may seem like run-of-the-mill bullying, consider that, say, GLBTQ teenagers are anywhere from two to four times more likely to commit suicide, in no small part because of their increased vulnerability to bullying.

Or that the double-standard the Pharisees exhibit towards John for not eating at all and towards Jesus for eating too much is the exact same double standard that so many supermodels come forward and say that they are subjected to: that they are shamed as bad examples for not eating enough, but are shamed within their industry as eating too much if they eat at all.

Which perhaps means that, considering the standards that we still place upon our women, that last week’s text on the Samaritan woman would have made a great text for this week’s message as well. And it probably would have been. The great thing about the Scriptures is that they do not contain only one lesson per story or per passage.

It is precisely the same way with people—we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that a person only is just one thing to us, or only has one thing to offer. The youth singing in the marketplace whom Jesus speaks of, whoever this youth may be beyond Jesus’s imagination is a youth who has more to offer than what we expect them to be.

That may be the greatest trap the church has fallen into—we expect people to only be certain things, to serve in certain roles: board member, deacon, elder, pastor. Perhaps, like the generation of which Jesus speaks, like John the Baptist, like Jesus Himself, people—especially our youth—do not so neatly fit into our expectations and our projections. Nor, necessarily, should they.

I would not have expected a sixteen-year-old to create an app to help classmates find a lunch table in order to avoid being alone or being bullied. Yet, here we are.

In truth, there is quite a bit of Jesus in that young girl’s invention of that app, because as Jesus says, it is His own willingness to dine with the outcasts, the so-called dregs of society, the tax collectors and the sinners, that is both used against Him by His opponents and which, in a purely positive way, utterly defines His ministry as a ministry that does indeed confound our expectations.

Let generation after generation of God’s children confound your expectations from time to time, and I think you may be pleasantly surprised by the results. For we may see them as rootless, but only if our expectation is to be able to recognize that which roots them to begin with.

For those roots can indeed be found here, in church, in God, and in Christ, if we choose to let those roots indeed be seen.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 30, 2016

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