The Kids Get It
My wife, Kate, is currently teaching a course at Hendrix College. Her day job, though, as many of you know, is serving as a priest at Christ Church in Little Rock. She also has an academic background in theology and likes to stay current. Traveling back and forth to Conway a couple times a week has meant some busy days for her this fall, but on the upside, she brings home fascinating insights into a generation of young adults that tends to be absent from our churches. The course is entitled, “Gender, Sexuality, and Religion,” and these 18 to 21 year-olds have a lot to say about the topic. While Kate is able to introduce a historical framework for the lengthy and varied conversation about sexual ethics in the Church, the students often teach her a great deal about how the conversation around sexuality is rapidly changing today, including how sexuality and gender is personally expressed. Her students identify as being any combination of gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and others. Use of the correct pronouns is important–every effort is made to honor and respect one another for who they are and for whom an how they love. Kate reports that their honesty and vulnerability are inspiring. This gives me hope.
What gives me pause, though, doesn’t have to do with sexuality and gender, but rather with how the students characterize their generation. During a recent class, they apparently had a rousing conversation about their age group in relation to that of their parents and grandparents. There are a couple of names out there for the current generation of college-age students, by the way. Most commonly, you might hear them referred to as Generation Z or GenZ. Millennials are next, followed by GenXers–my generation–and then Baby Boomers, The Silent Generation, The Greatest Generation, and on up. The overwhelming sentiment among GenZs–at least the ones taking Kate’s class–is one of anxiety. They report having no expectation of “climbing the career ladder,” as the proceeding generations did. The ability to finance and own a home in their 20’s or 30’s isn’t a given. They don’t expect to build a 401K or receive Social Security when they retire. They anticipate making less money than their parents, and they know that they’ll be the ones to deal with climate change in the years to come. I’ll admit, my own anxiety goes up when considering the challenges these kids face, particularly since my own children are just slightly younger members of GenZ. I realize that every one of us has real anxieties regardless of our age, but these particular worries seem unique in a country where the American Dream seemed to be alive and well just a few short decades ago. I wonder, might this younger generation reveal the gospel to us in a way we might otherwise miss given our way of thinking about the world?
You’ve got to love the disciples. They never seem to quite “get it,” and Jesus’ frustration shows every now and then. I don’t blame him. Over the past few Sundays we’ve heard Jesus’ wisdom on some difficult topics. “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out,” he says. Know your temptations and take action to curb them. And, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The desire for money and power inhibit a meaningful relationship with the divine. And in today’s passage, it is as if James and John had been drifting in and out of sleep during their teacher’s lessons. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they ask. Or, in modern parlance: “Since we’ve been such loyal companions in your rise to power, surely we deserve a place in your cabinet when you become president. James could be your secretary of state and I could be your chief of staff.” You can imagine Jesus taking a deep breath to calm himself. “Alright, let’s see if I can make this really clear. Here’s the way it works: Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
For those of us who have grown up in the church, we’ve heard Jesus proclaim the “great reversal” countless times–the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But how often have we paused to consider just how irreconcilable this core Christian tenant is with modern societal values? It can be a bit jarring, really, when you think about it. We’ve been steeped in the sentiment–our generations in particular–that if we work hard, if we put in the time, we will ultimately get a pay-off, be that a good job with prospects of upward mobility, or a house, or a 401K, or, at minimum, clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Now, I’m not saying that hard work is not important. Sure it is, and I pray that every member of every generation comes to know the satisfaction of a sweaty brow. The trouble comes–the temptation is–when we begin to think that we deserve something because of our efforts, like, say, a place of honor in the president’s cabinet.
Over the past century we have lived in a society–many of us in a social class–that has more or less validated the thinking that work equals reward. It’s what the American Dream is all about. But things are changing. The gap between the rich and the poor is expanding rapidly. The middle class is dissolving. And now we’re to the point where college students, of all people, no longer have confidence in the work-reward model that their parents and grandparents did. What you and I might have considered a promise, they’ve come to regard as a myth.
I want to suggest a way that you and I might hear today’s gospel. Could it be that, given these societal changes, the members of GenZ aren’t preoccupied with the same particular temptation that James or John, or you or I might struggle with? They don’t expect a position in the cabinet, no matter how hard they might work. They can’t bank on the American Dream as a means of measuring their personal worth or societal value. Instead, I wonder if the members of GenZ have recognized another way to determine that they’ve “made it” in the world. One that does’t have to do with status or wealth at all, but rather with love. They may not expect to get a raise every time they take new job, but what they do expect is the freedom to love–to love themselves and to love one another. They want that love to cross racial, sexual, and economic boundaries. They’re passionate about it. They insist on mutual respect and tolerance in every aspect of life. In this world of anxiety and uncertainty were pensions and promotions are a myth, they’ve found love as their promise, and their hope. And isn’t this what Jesus was after all along? Isn’t this what he hoped his disciples would “get?”
As a GenXer raised on the idea that work results in reward, and as a beneficiary of the economic and social trends of the past century, I am humbled to recognize that my preoccupation with “getting what I think I deserve” may have obscured the gospel work that Jesus teaches about. I’m grateful to this younger, love-led, generation for revealing the Good News in a new way. It’s a gift, really. I have value. We have value. And it has nothing to do with bank accounts or career prospects. Rather, it has everything to do with love. God loves us beyond any worldly measure, and, if we’re to “get it,” as the disciples clearly did not, then we’d do well to take a cue from our kids.
Proper 24, Year B