Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 14 October 2007. (This has been edited since it was first posted.)
It was a time tempered by the First World War and the disillusionment that came with war. It was the time between World War I and World War II when a group of American writers felt that America had lost its identity and become, in their words, the place to go to start a business. It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. America was no longer a place where creativity was valued more than materialism. Authors and artists such as T. S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway sought the meaning of life against a backdrop of the First World War. They became known as “the lost generation”. (See http://ok.essortment.com/whatlostgenera_nkj.htm and http://users.rowan.edu/~lindman/lost_generation.html for additional information)
As the fifties began, another generation of writers and authors took their place. Jack Kerouac called it “the beat generation”. It’s not immediately obvious why he chose that term but it was not because of the music of that time. Perhaps it was because the word “lost” can be used to describe defeat, that he coined the term. It quickly became slang for “exhausted” or “beat down”. Still, its motives were the same as those who affirmed membership in the lost generation. There was a rejection of middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest. (See http://www.rooknet.com/beatpage/index.html or http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages/page.jsp?what=LostBeatHip for additional information)
As one born just as the fifties were beginning, I did not participate in either of these generational shifts in culture and time. Rather, my generation benefited from the works of these two generations. Of course my generation also was faced with the civil rights movement at its peak and the Viet Nam war at its loudest. Society was showing its worst at a time when it wanted its best. It seemed clear to me that my future was pretty well going to be determined by what I choose to do and not what society or the prevailing power structure said it would be.
I have written before about being 18 and facing the draft. I took a hit when I characterized the military as a less than honorable profession. (See “Study War No More”) Those that have read my writings and have heard me speak know that I am a second generation military brat. My grandfather retired as a Colonel in the United States Army and my father retired as a Major in the United States Air Force; I was prepared to walk those same steps and would have joined the officer corps of the Air Force. But I was also brought up to make my own decisions and the one thing I objected to the most was being told that I had to serve and if I didn’t choose to serve, I would be drafted. And then when the inequities and inadequacies of the draft became evident, it was clear that the draft was not an honorable path.
To ask me to serve in a military that was fighting a war of questionable outcome and was willing to sacrifice the blood of thousands of young men for a dubious political goal was also not honorable. I was lucky; the bureaucracy didn’t get me and when I got the call for my physical, my acne and what it did to my back kept me out.
There are those today who call for a return to the draft. I am not one of them. The reasons for the war in Iraq not withstanding, if a draft is instituted there will be those who will find ways to avoid service and the same faults that dominated the draft in the 60’s and 70’s will dominate the draft today. Those who can escape the draft will do so; those who cannot will be called to die on foreign soil far away from their loved ones in a war that is fought for reasons no one can recall.
And just as many of the best and the brightest of one generation were lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia, so too will the best and brightest of another generation be lost in the deserts of the Middle East. My concern today is not about a war that is fought without reason or cause; my concern is for the generation that must follow us and who, whether they wish to or not, must bear the burden of decisions that our generation and the generation before us have made for this society and this country.
Earlier this fall, in my message (“Who Shall Be Invited?”) at First United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY, I stated that we have lost the present younger generation and possibly lost the next generation as well. Our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions as a church have driven many of today’s young people away from the church.
As I was preparing that sermon and after I had written those words, I added the words that Martin Luther King put into his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King also wrote of a generation that the church has lost because of its actions and deeds, its words and its thoughts.
And now we learn that others are making the same conclusion. The Barna Group has recently completed and published a study that shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than previous generations at the same stage of life. (See http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=280) What is possibly worse is that the percentage today is lower than ten years ago. How can that be?
With the dominance of fundamentalist viewpoints and the call for family values, why are the youth of today turning away from the church? The answer comes from John the Baptist and his encounter with the Pharisees and scribes when they came to the Jordan River to watch his baptisms? (See Matthew 3: 7 if you forgot) What drove people away from the church during the sixties? Very simply, hypocrisy drove them away and it is hypocrisy that is driving them away today.
This is not just a report of nameless teenagers and young adults. The thoughts expressed in the report are thoughts of one of our granddaughters. Despite all the evidence we can show her and our encouragement to see for herself what is going on at our local church, she says she finds the church hypocritical.
For her, church is a lost cause because it hasn’t spoken out against the killing of innocent people in Iraq. She wonders why the people killed on September 11, 2001 are more valuable than the children killed in Iraq. She wonders if the American lives are worth more than the lives of Iraqi citizens or the citizens of other countries.
She also sees the church as driving gays away, excluding them from regular lives and from even entering a church. She knows of one and possibly other classmates who think they are gay but are afraid to say anything because they fear what actions their parents will take.
But what our granddaughter has encountered is nothing new. There were many of us who sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and watched our parents actively and passively support segregation and racial discrimination. You can’t say that we are all brothers and then have us go half way around the world and kill those same brothers.
Those of us who grew up in southern churches where the brotherhood of man and the love of Christ for all was preached on Sunday saw many congregants and pastors fight to maintain the status quo of legalized apartheid in this country during the rest of the week.
The Barna report only puts into words what many of us have understood and spoken about for the past few years. You cannot preach the Word of God and then not live it to its fullest and expect people to listen to you, let alone follow you!
This report will be and is being welcomed with great shouts of joy and acclamation by those on the political left. They see it as the death knell for fundamentalism and the political right’s alliance with the church. I am a little leery of such joy or expressions of glee. The feelings that young people have expressed when it comes to the church may apply to fundamentalist churches and those who attend such churches but the young people do not necessarily make that distinction.
The people being described in the article are leaving the church, not leaving particular churches. They see all churches, no matter what may be happening in individual churches as being close-minded, bigoted, and exclusive. While they may express a belief in the need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build homes for the homeless, and free the oppressed, they do not see those words or thoughts as being at all connected to Jesus Christ or the mission of the church. They speak the words of Christ without knowing that they do. They are seeking a place in which to live lives that they know are right but the church has put up walls and shut the door to them.
We have created a new lost generation and we must work to bring the lost ones home. We cannot do it by creating modern worship services that simply transform church materials into the vernacular of the age, though having modern music wouldn’t hurt. It isn’t a matter of what you wear. It is what is said and how it is said.
When the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people about living in Babylon during their exile (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7), he told them to live their lives as normally as they could.
The Israelites had two choices when it came to living away from the Promised Land. They could accept the lost and meld into the culture around them or they could maintain their own identity even though that meant being treated as “strangers in a strange land.” To meld into the culture around them would mean losing their own identity and almost certainly the loss of their souls. But to maintain their culture was to maintain their identity and when they returned to the Promised Land, as they had been promised by God that they would, they would be able to continue their lives.
The church has always walked that fine line between the secular and the sectarian. The church lives in a secular world and it must fight to avoid being swept up by that world. But, when the church lives in a sectarian world, with walls built to protect and defend the faith, it becomes very difficult to live at all. For walls that protect people from things on the outside also keep the people inside and prevents them from growing spiritually.
But a church (or any institution for that matter) that speaks the truth and encourages people to see the truth for themselves can maintain its identity without being caught up in the world around it. Paul warned Timothy that there would be wrangling over words but if he, Timothy, presented himself to God then he had nothing of which to be ashamed. (2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15)
Some years ago, I wrote a note to myself about today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 17: 11- 19) I was going to call the piece “Did the others say thank you?” Ten lepers, spiritual and physical outcasts of that society, approach Jesus in an effort to be healed. Jesus cures them by having them go to the local priests and be declared healed and ritually pure. Only one, the Samaritan, returns to say thank you to Jesus. In turn, Jesus tells him that it was his faith that healed him. Does this mean that the others were not healed?
I don’t think so. Jesus healed without distinction. Those who came to Him received the benefits of His touch and His words. Would the other lepers lose the healing that they sought? It is possible that they might for leprosy is an infectious disease and it is possible that the other nine might continue to live in the same areas that they had been living and thus were subject to re-infection. The Samaritan chose to walk another way and truly gain his freedom.
The church as a whole has put up barriers and it is these barriers that are driving people away. We may say that “our church does not have those barriers” and it is possibly true. But sometimes we do not even realize that there are barriers that keep people out of our church.
Some will say that the decreasing membership of the United Methodist Church is a failure of the church to be modern; in other words, the church is not up-to-date. Some will say that is a failure to be true to the words of the Bible; in other words, the church is too modern. But the words of Christ are timeless; they mean the same no matter what age we might live in. The question for us becomes one of where are we.
The Barna report is another warning that we are not living in Christ and the presence of Christ is not living in us. It is a call to each one of us to find Christ again and bring Him back into our lives. And then take Christ into the world each day.
We must live our lives so that we show the presence of Christ. It is not easy to do this; ask Paul about the life he lead when he chose to follow Christ. We are reluctant sometimes to do that. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we chose to live differently. We choose to live in a way that breaks down barriers that are built in our society because of nationality, gender, religion, or education.
The lost generation today is not a generation of writers or poets, artists or thinkers. The lost generation is that same generation that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of the shepherd who would go seeking the one lost lamb when the rest of the flock was safe. The lost generation are those who, no matter how old they may be, have turned away from the church. They will not return unless we seek them and they will not return if what we offer is what drove them away. These are not easy words to write; they are even harder to speak. But, if we fail to live with Christ in us only means that we will also be lost.
The invitation today is to let Christ into your heart so that you may be found. The invitation today is to let the Holy Spirit come into your heart and empower your life so that you may live with Christ and Christ may live with you and you may help others to find that singular joy and peace.