July 25

With Fidelity and Novelty for All

By Marsh Chapel

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John 6:1-21

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       A few years ago, there was a common news trope that began “Millennials are killing.” Over the years, millennials have been accused of killing many businesses or industries. Exact dates range for classifying the millennial generation but millennials were born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s. For a while, it seemed that millennials were killing off an industry or product every month. Listen to just some of what millennials were supposedly killing, the restaurant chain Applebee’s, starter homes, the institution of marriage, napkins, cereal, golf, diamonds, department stores, football, oil, and American cheese. Most of the news articles that began with “millennials are killing” noted shifts in general shopping trends among the avocado toast-loving generation and made predictions from those trends. Despite the plethora of articles claiming these industries were being killed by millennials, most have continued or adapted.

Attached to the writings about millennials killing thing, were articles that made even grander claims about the millennial generation. Most of these articles were quick to point out supposed flaws in the rising generation. Articles lamented that millennials have a problem with authority, reject corporations and institutions, are addicted to screens and video games, and do not possess useful skills. These types of articles become a type unto themselves. They took off the same month I graduated college with a May 2013 cover story in Time Magazine titled “The ME ME ME Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitle narcissists who still live with their parent.” The article critiques the so-called participation trophy, entitled, feelings oriented, math averse, Iphone loving generation. At least, the author of that article did mention positive attributes of millennials and ended on a more rounded note. Other sensationalist articles went further lambasting millennial culture as destructive to civilization and predicted that a collapse was imminent. With all of the claims about the millennial generation, it is sort of a wonder that we have made it to 2021 given these dire assessments.

While it is true that millennials and the younger generations are different from their parents that has been the usual way of the world throughout history. Younger generations have a harder and harder time accepting the inherited ways of being and doing. It is also not uncommon for older generations to complain about younger ones. This tradition can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks had to walk uphill both ways to school in the snow, after all. We have all likely heard the phrase, “well back in my day we did it like this” or “when I was a kid, we played outside.” Generational differences are not easy to navigate. It can be hard for waning generations to see waxing ones. Older generations tend to have nostalgia for the way things were, especially when traditions or methods worked for them.

Younger generations sometimes have a hard time listening with empathy to the perspectives of those older. In the present situation, millennials have struck back with the phrase “Ok Boomer.” The phrase “Ok Boomer” on social media and news articles was employed in divisive manners to suggest that the boomer generation was out of touch with unfolding new realities. “Ok Boomer” is a way of dismissing the perspectives and insights of the older generation. It can be hard for waxing generation to engage with waning generations too. There seems to be a present generational cultural conflict. Like many conflicts, this one thrives by arguing on uncommon ground. Talking past each other results in more clicks, likes, and subscriptions than talking to each other. The unfortunate result though, is that strained conversations around dinner tables have gotten even harder, phone calls and zoom sessions have gotten shorter, work-place meetings and memos are accompanied by eyerolls, and apathy has ensued. When apathy reigns though, everyone loses. Even when there are significant difference that need to be addressed, generational conflict should not resort to apathy. Nor should it resort to a winner take all approach.

To my mind, much of the generational angst, on both sides, revolves around anxiety over the future and questions of authority. Many are anxious about the future of the environment, the economy, the world, faith, and a myriad of other areas. This anxiety is increased because many of the traditional houses of authority have fallen in the wake of the postmodern age for younger generations, while older generations can still meaningfully cling to them. Many of the sources of comfort and hope no longer speak transgenerationally. It is almost as if different languages are being employed which speak past each other. Little effort is made to translate across differences in mutual manners. The seams appear to be bursting as what holds us together lessens and what brings us apart grows.

There is still time though. We may be in a moment of crisis but moments of crisis have a way of bringing more out of us than we otherwise thought possible. There is time to listen across the age gap for mutual understanding and mutual care. There is time to stop reading sensationalizing articles that exist for profits rather than to inform. There is time to move past indifference toward mutual accountability that empathetically listens to the perspectives of others. There is time for fidelity and novelty. When novelty meets fidelity productively, genuine encounters can take place. Both novelty and fidelity are necessary ingredients to a well-rounded culture and to a well-rounded faith.

Fidelity reminds us that a core essence of knowledge and wisdom is passed down from generation to generation. Fidelity reminds us to heed those who have walked where we walk. Fidelity is a reminder that the God of those who have gone before us, is still with us today. Novelty calls us to consider the present moment with care. Novelty reminds us that we tread on unsodden soil that has never been walked before. Novelty calls us to consider the situation which fidelity arises from and speaks toward. Novelty listens to the new things that God may be doing by discerning through fidelity what God has done. Today, no matter what generation you are born to or feel you belong to, let us listen to ancient voices from scripture with fidelity and novelty together.

Turn with me and consider with me the story of David and Bathsheba. To understand the dynamics of this narrative, we need to understand a bit about King David. King David looms large in the biblical tradition. He is most remembered as the person who killed Goliath when no one else would fight the giant. Despite coming from humble origins, he is often considered the hallmark king of the United Israel. Most of the biblical writers look upon David with favor. I Samuel tells us that God anointed David king over Israel. David is said to be a man after God’s own heart. The biblical narrative tells us that God entered into an eternal covenant with David that his line would rule forever. Christians interpret this covenant from an Christological perspective. Jesus is viewed as the promised messiah in the line of David.

But the story recounted today, of David and Bathsheba, is not a story of triumph but one of terror. It is an instance of abuse of power, position, and sex. II Samuel begins this narrative by saying it was spring when kings would go out to battle. It seems that David, the mighty warrior decided to stay in Jerusalem. Instead of going out with his army, he sent generals in his stead and stayed behind. One afternoon, he saw Bathsheba bathing and sent men to bring her to the palace. Despite knowing that she was married and with no indication that she was given any choice in the matter, the texts says she was brought to David and he laid with her. She became pregnant from David’s actions. Again, with no indication that she was consulted, David devised a plan to hide the fact that the child was his by bringing Bathsheba’s husband back from battle. His hope was that Uriah would lay with his wife and think the child was his. Rather than be accountable to or for his actions, David attempted to create a situation where Bathsheba would have to live a lie for the rest of her life. Bathsheba would have been destined to wake up every day and pretend the child belonged to her husband. David offered gifts to Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, but the plan did not work. Uriah slept at the entrance of David’s house.

David questioned Uriah about why he would not go back to his house to be with his wife. Verse 11 says “Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’” Uriah shows his character here, which is in direct contrast to David’s. He refuses to engage in the comforts of home when his brothers are on the battlefield. Uriah even made an oath not to do such things. What intrigues me about his oath is that he involves the king to give it a stronger sense of sincerity. Uriah does not say, as surely as I live I will do no such things he says, “As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Uriah invokes an oath as a servant of the King binding himself by life the King. Uriah trusts in David’s character but that trust is misplaced. David tries to get him to break his oath by getting him drunk and when that fails, he signs death papers.

David wrote orders to his general for Uriah the Hittite to be placed where the battle is most fierce and then for the army to be pulled back. The intention is clearly preserved in the last line, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” I am no legal scholar, but the plan seems to amount to premediated murder to me, even if David is not the one holding the weapon. It seems that David got a little too used to killing on the battlefield and resorted to it as a means of disposing a loyal fighter. Uriah the Hittite who trusted David, was disposable to David. There may be a variety of reasons for why he was disposable but it intrigues me that the text preserves Uriah’s ethnicity. The text tells us so little about Uriah but it mentions multiple times that he is a Hittite. He is a Hittite, presumably from Anatolia or modern-day Turkey. We aren’t sure what he is doing in Jerusalem or what he is doing fighting for David, but his loyalty to David and his fellow soldiers is well attested in the text.

To David, Uriah was an outsider, a foreigner, someone David could more readily dispose of, perhaps, because of his status as a foreigner. No ancestral family would come looking for the body or asking questions about what happened. No protests on the street corners of Jerusalem. No chalk or candle vigils at the site of the murder. David sent him away to be killed and made the man carry his own death certificate. Cold, cold blooded through and through. In state sponsored killings, the state too often gets away free.

It is hard to sit with this David, especially when most biblical writers do not. Biblical writers gloss over these actions of David to emphasize the regal king. The story of David and Bathsheba is one that tends to be missed. Or, if it is told, it is an example of how even a great man like David can sin. It is often an object lesson on the potential pitfalls of lust and the importance of repentance. Bathsheba tends to be made out to be an opportunist, if not a seductress in these readings. These readings, like versions of history told by and controlled by the victors, gloss the perspective of victims. Rarely is this narrative considered from the perspective of Bathsheba as a real person and not an object of David’s desire. Rarely is this story considered from the perspective of a woman made a widower by a King who brought her out of her home multiple times. Rarely is this story considered from the perspective of a mother who lost her child or a husband who lost his life.

This perspective is hard. It stands in critical contrast to how much of the biblical narrative portrays King David; yet, it is a voice calling out to be heard. It is a voice that should no longer be neglected within our tradition and within history. These perspectives should not be ignored or silenced any longer. The negation of the oppressed, the drowning out of these perspectives, leads to cynicism and apathy. It leads to rejection of the structures which preserve powerful perspectives. The listening to the oppressed can lead to critical accountability. Critical accountability can be a source of change. Critical accountability may be what we need in this present age.

The younger generations are generally skeptical of power, wealth, privilege, and authority. While some of this extends from cynicism, part of it also comes from hope for more equitable ways of living. The cynicism is widely discussed and talk about. It is often a source of conflict but there is also the possibility of hope when accountability mediates cynicism and involvement. Cynicism is strong, hope can be stronger. There is strength left in the older generations for this critical accountability as a place of common ground with younger people. Novelty and fidelity are not without expression in pockets of the world, but the pockets need to be nurtured to grow. Critical accountability can be scary. It might look like challenging cherished notions and asking hard questions when it is easier to stay silent.

This summer, it is hard to remain silent concerning those people who face food and housing insecurity when we are in the midst of a billionaire space race. When some have billions to frivol away and others have little, questions need to be asked, especially when tax codes allow billionaires to avoid paying an equitable share. Wealth inequality needs critical accountability. This summer, we are also all too aware of voices crying out from unmarked graves on school and church properties. The church and history need critical accountability. This summer, we are too aware of what happens when systems and structures lack transparent accountability. Apathy and cynicism are the easy way out. Generational conflict that prevents meaningful change and dialogue serves no one. But, fidelity and novelty can meet in critical accountability through God’s liberating Spirit. This is a vulnerable place. It requires people and generations to be exposed to one another. To find common places to work together for common good.

Countries around the world, including Canada and the United State are undergoing a historical reckoning. This historical reckoning is looking at glossed over acts and policies of domination and violence that have been dismissed and covered up. While some chalk this up to generational or culture wars, it is actually an attempt to be honest about what occurred in the past and how it continues to impact the present. In the present time, we are tasked with assessing not only intent but also action. We are aware that words can be cheap and action can be costly. We assess not as judge and jury but as voices bearing witness to a Gospel seeking to be expressed to each time and place. The Gospel calls us to truthful telling and genuine justice. May we hear with fidelity and novelty for all.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

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