Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during a visit with two parishioners. Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War. They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults. In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow in change, as faith intersected with life.
During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him. On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war. At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany. His plane had been shot down once. He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived. He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself. He was honored and decorated when the war ended. 30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home. He was 22. Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.
I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket. It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper. At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket. He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly. Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be dead, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together. With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man. Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.
Some moments stand frozen in time. Our son in Bill’s jacket is one. Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22. Which leads to a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?
Sometimes a culture’s generalized apperception of something or someone needs to change, to be changed. A culture which values one group of people as only 3/5 human, needs to change, or, by force of arms, to be changed. A culture which covers over, literally or figuratively, the humanity of one gender, or another, needs to change, or to be changed. A culture which will not see patent, enduring, difference, between children who grow with one innate attraction and children who grow up with another, needs to change, or to be changed. Sometimes a culture or sub-culture just needs to change, in order to accommodate lived experience, stubborn facts, lasting substantial truths.
Perhaps that is what Paul saw in Timothy.
Timothy was a youthful associate of Paul and Silas. The NT letters written by later teachers, were written in his name and in his honor, even as his name honors God, meaning ‘one who honors God’ (1 Thess.1:1). Paul trusted Timothy with the gospel. Associate, servant, brother, emissary. The Corinthians wanted someone older, less bashful, more confident, less diffident. They wanted the head man, not the assistant. (As one School Principal asked me after my appointment to a formerly strong city church at 29, ‘Brother Hill? You the head man up there?’) Timothy failed in 1 Cor. Titus succeeded in 2 Cor. All the Pauline letters mention him: a faithful companion, a guide to the Gentile churches, a son to a father: ‘my true child in the faith’. His mother was a Jewish Christian, his father a gentile. “Do not be discouraged by your youthfulness” (1 Tim. 4:12).
When he was alive, my Dad used to say, ‘I love to come over to Boston to be reminded that there are so fine many young people in the world’.
Jesus meets us today in the Word. He greets us. He greets us a real human being, fully human.
How shall we say this, today?
You know, for a long time, people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.
To an unruly church, Matthew said: “Hold it. Jesus was a teacher.”
To a suffering church, Mark said: “Remember. Jesus was crucified. He suffered too.”
To a settled, more comfortable church, Luke said: “Wait a minute. Jesus loved the poor, those outside”.
To a philosophical church, John said: “Stop. God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
You know, for a long time, groups of people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.
In 1848, over in Seneca Falls, Jesus was well remembered as an advocate for, a friend of women.
In 1862, in the autumn, as Lincoln pondered the Emancipation Proclamation, Jesus would have been remembered as a person of color, semitic, dark, today we would say black.
In 1933, the only worth saying in Berlin and Tubingen about Jesus was that he was a Jew. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said then that the Christian church in Germany either would be found standing next to for and up for the Jewish community or it did not exist at all.
Humans have always had problems with Jesus’ humanity. The rude manger, innocent and innocuous, we can accept. The empty tomb, divine power and victory, we can accept. It is what lies between Christmas and Easter that is harder for us.
On October 24, 2010, at Boston University Marsh Chapel, amid 4400 freshmen and women, and 40,000 people in a community of learning, what shall we say about the humanity of Jesus?
Just this: He lived and died a young man. So he is, as a classmate once wrote, ‘perpetually ripe’. Our Bible is not written to record the history of Jesus but to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of the details of his life are enmeshed in the great, larger project of the New Testament, the announcement of divine love. Still, our Gospels carry the understanding that Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his death (4bce to 29ce, on the most common understanding).
His relative youth may seem strange to us, as youth often does seem, new and strange to each new generation. The joy of faith lies in crossing boundaries and bridges into formerly strange territory. Today the very technology of communication, that meant to bridge one to another, can become the very boundary meant to be bridged.
I once watched a man on the subway find and open a used church newsletter. Like almost all church newsletters it had one to two standard titles: the Visitor or the Carillon. He read through the pages, with some interest. He is my own favorite interlocutor: someone outside, not on the mailing lis
t, not regularly in attendance, not unmindful of the church nor unmindful of the church’s failings, still ready to listen. The stranger, the secularist, the singular—I have loved working with these far more than with others. So, here I am in Boston. In the heart of a post-Christian, utterly secular culture. In the belly of the University whale where for single students, the younger among us, 11am is the very middle of the night come Sunday. In the hearing of those afar, a radio congregation, a phrase that is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. You should be careful what you pray for.
His relative youth includes his singleness. Do we reflect at all on this? We repeat often enough that at Cana of Galilee Jesus’ blessed the married state, the partnered condition. But he meets us in all the youthfulness of single life. He never married. He blessed the state of single adults by taking this path himself in his tabernacle days. This I take to be excellent news for the many young and not so young single folks listening this morning. The true light that enlightens every single person came into the world. He lived by himself. He went up the mountain alone. He rebuked Peter solo. He prayed without help in Gethsemane. He died deserted on Golgotha. Cradle to cross he entered, wore and blessed the single life, as do many young adults. His communion creates fellowship, real friendship, apart from family ties.
His relative youth includes his worldliness, his secularity. Youth in all its strange, single, secular power. Harvey Cox wrote a long time ago about the Secular City of the modern age. His great forebears, predecessors might have writing about the Secular Christ. They knew their Calvin: “Christ now lives his glorious life in our flesh”. They knew their Wesley: “By a most amazing condescension he was made flesh and united himself to our miserable nature”. Jesus has not forgotten the secular city. In fact, he may be more alive there than in the church.
My daughter once asked me if Jesus went to church. You can pick up the undertone, overtone and inclination of the question. Well, He did. In Luke 4 he went, and there was a riot. In John 2 he went with a cat of nine tails and there was further trouble. He walked into the great holy feast of Passover, Mark12 and all, and, a week later, it cost him his life. So, yes, he went to church. He knew religion. But he loved the world. You will not find his youthful countenance neither in sacrament alone nor in Scripture alone. He is risen, he is not there. You will find him loving the world.
This summer, driving, I heard a radio advertisement for a Sunday morning radio program. The communication listed the many things one might be involved with on Sunday morning: waking, walking, talking, swimming, hours on the beach, hikes in the woods, family gatherings, picnics, sports, meals. Of course, you know what I expected or waited to hear on the list. But it did not come. With no particular polemical edge, with no venom or spite or even irony, the advertisement spoke happily and sunnily about Sunday morning, utterly free of religion. Whether or not the theological movement so-named has any ongoing verve, ours truly is a Secular City.
Forever young, he advances toward us. Will you love this Stranger Messiah? Will you love this Single Lord? Will you love this Secular Redeemer?
Jesus lived and died a young man. Most scholars he may been thirty or a bit older on the day of his passion. He too knew the rhythms of youth, of young life. He was single. He was secular. He was a stranger. I wonder how regularly those of us who discuss the incarnation pause to notice, let alone announce the incarnate Young Man Jesus?
We need not be naïve. Youth culture can often be a narcissistic age and place. Christopher Lasch, now dead, put it best: “American youth culture is not a medium that initiates young people into adult life, nor even prepares them for it, but is a quasi-autonomous culture organized around the pursuit of fun and thrills.”
But neither need we lack hope. John Denver once sang this song: ‘What can one man do?’ ‘What one man can do dream. What one man can do is love. What one man can do is take the world and make it young again.’ We can harbor hopes, dreams, excitement and expectation. I am told that in 1990 18% of 20 year olds wanted to do something to make the world a better place, and today 50% do. In the four years we have been at Boston University, having raised three children of our own now in their late 20’s, I believe I can say a positive word to parents: you can be confident, you can have faith that your son or daughter will be well, will be capable of doing good, even great, things, will be fine. You can let go. Good news: in the tradition of the Young Man Jesus, you are free to embrace a little less and expect a little more.
We can and should expect young adults to achieve a high level of personal morality. We can and should expect young adults to use time wisely and frugally, beginning with public worship on the Lord’s Day. We can and should expect young adults not to use or abuse another’s body, particularly with regard to sexual activity: the body is the temple of the Lord. We can and should expect young adults to know the value of a dollar: to earn all they can; to save all they can; to give all they can, especially to avoid debt, to avoid debt like the plague that it is. The notion that young men and women can perhaps be persuaded to fan idealism with occasional forays into justice related projects, but cannot be expected to be continent, sober, and frugal is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more sinful than their parents. They just have less practice.
We can and should expect young adults to develop keen social consciences. We can and should expect young adults to develop the capacity to imagine the pain of others, particularly those who are well below them in income. We can and should expect young adults to develop an awareness of the power of forgiveness, to let loose their inner socialist before their later, inner Tory arrives. We can and should expect young adults to think in multi-generational frames of mind, especially with regard to irreplaceable gifts of the earth and sea and sky. The notion that young men and women can perhaps gain some minimal individual discipline, but cannot be expected to do justice, love mercy, and walk the earth humbly is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more selfish than their parents. They just have less money.
Our publican, the picaresque favorite in today’s Gospel, enters formal religion with only one feeling: ‘god be merciful to me’. He goes home justified.
One early Saturday morning, I jogged down toward Massachusetts Avenue. Beacon street comes west above a pond, along the river, beside the school, beneath many layers of concrete overpass. They are a tangled collection of roads, as viewed from underneath, on Beacon Street sidewalk, at the intersection of Charlesgate. I must confess that before this particular Saturday AM, I had not found much of anything to celebrate in the gruff Charlesgate sub-bridge aesthetic. To my surprise that sunny Saturday, right in the darkest reach of the underpass, there stood a painter, easel to the west, eye to the river, hand held with brush pointed. He even wore a painter’s smock and beret, though I did not see any gotee. Out through all the concrete slashes between his easel and the river, when you followed his sight line, you could see the beauty of blue, dozens of shades of blue, in water, on river, in sky, in air. He could see the power and beauty of the carved up blue, and he was setting out to paint it. I wonder what we see amid all the crisscrossing, countervailing, perspective carving
chaos between us and younger people? Do we see the blue? The height? The depth? The breadth? The beauty?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”(TR).
Ghosts visit me in this nave today. They are people who in youth lived their dependence upon God and their gratitude to the mercy of God. Mark Baker at age 20 setting of alone for mission work in Honduras. My wife Jan following me at age 25 to the very frozen Canadian border. John Dempster planting Boston University in 1839. My dad bicycling with the Youth Hostel movement through Europe in 1946. And others, and others, and others…And you?
“Even if the world should end tomorrow, I shall plant my seed today” (attributed to Martin Luther King by Greg Morgenthau, 9/24/10).
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel