Kids these days…

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Over the last few years, what one might call the “kids these days” genre has proliferated on the internet. It seems that every few weeks, there is a new article, video, or blog post that decries the entitlement, ingratitude, or laziness of the younger generations. While some of these raise legitimate concerns about how young people are interacting with the world, the vast majority have a tedious and scolding quality. For one, these manifestos often fail to describe reality. The best example of this is the frequent complaint that “kids these days don’t read anymore,” when the younger generations actually read more words more frequently than anyone in human history. Moreover, these complaints about the self-centeredness of “kids these days” are, ironically, awfully self-centered. The fact that individuals armed with nothing but an internet connection and an opinion can presume to lecture an entire generation of people for their perceived failures is a sure sign of narcissism. Of course, it’s not the inaccuracy or the egotism of these complaints that make them problematic. It is their assumption that any shift in the way we experience the world is automatically wrong. While we may rightly remember the “good old days” with fondness, nostalgia is often a way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are called to conversion. Indeed, our eagerness to criticize “kids these days” may well be a sign of our refusal to do the work of self-examination.

It would appear that Jesus has adopted a “kids these days” attitude in today’s gospel reading. After only one of the ten lepers he heals returns to give thanks, Jesus complains, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus seems to be channeling Miss Manners, or Emily Post, or a parent dutifully encouraging her child to write a thank you note to his great aunt. “Kids these days never say thank you anymore,” we might imagine him writing on his Facebook page. It seems that Jesus has a clear expectation of what one should do when one is cleansed from leprosy.


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As a matter of fact, the Jewish Law had a clear expectation of what one should do when one was cleansed from leprosy, which was to be examined by a priest at the Temple and make an offering to God. Under the Law, a priest was the only person with the authority to declare that a person no longer had leprosy. So when these ten lepers go to show themselves to the priest, they are headed off to get their clean bill of health. This was much more than a formality. According to Leviticus, those who had leprosy were required to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, live outside the city walls, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” as people walked by. People with leprosy were utterly excluded from society. The only way they could be reintegrated into the community is if an agent of the Temple pronounced that they no longer had the skin disease. It’s no wonder that the lepers whom Jesus healed made a beeline for the Temple; they were thrilled that they were all about to get their lives back and return to the community.

Well, almost all. Luke tells us that the leper who prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him was a Samaritan. This is not an insignificant detail. We all know that Jews and Samaritans have a long history of not getting along. To the Jewish people, Samaritans were covenant outsiders: they did not share the promise Abraham and were not numbered among God’s chosen people. In practical terms, this meant that Samaritans were discouraged from having table fellowship with Jews, and, more importantly, were not allowed in the Temple. As the other nine lepers trot off to receive their clean bill of health and return to society, in other words, this Samaritan realizes that he will remain excluded from the community. Since he is unable to show himself to the priest, he returns to Jesus to thank him for making him clean, even though he can never be considered clean according to the Temple tradition.

The Samaritan’s quandary makes Jesus’ concluding declaration profoundly resonant: “Your faith has made you well.” Versions of this statement are repeated so often in the gospels that it is easy to lose sight of its impact. But it is important for us to recognize how revolutionary this proclamation is. In this statement, Jesus fundamentally rejects the authority of the Temple system. Jesus implies that belonging to the people of God is not contingent on the accident of our birth or our adherence to a tradition or the mediation of a religious authority. Instead, Jesus insists that we belong to God on the basis of faith.

We tend to misunderstand what this means. In the popular imagination, “faith” is usually synonymous with “belief.” If “faith” is just “belief,” however, it assumes that our membership in the community is somehow predicated on our affirmation of God’s existence. This doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the passage we heard from Luke’s gospel. The lepers do not make a statement of belief before they are cleansed. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, it is not to say, “I see now that you are the Messiah.” Rather, it is to offer thanksgiving and, more importantly, to recognize what God has done in his life. There are many places in the New Testament where faith refers not to belief, but to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul suggests that it is Christ’s faith, his faithful obedience to God’s purpose, that saves us. When Jesus tells this Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is referring to the Samaritan’s recognition that he had been transformed by God. This moment of recognition is nothing less than conversion. While the other lepers went off to be declared clean according to society’s standards, the Samaritan realized that he was defined, no longer by what society valued, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.

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Life is about more than this.

This invites us to do the hard and important work of self-examination and conversion. It’s awfully easy to assume that our faith is portable, a tool that we can pull out when we need encouragement, but can otherwise keep in storage. When faith is relegated to this utilitarian status, we can continue to live as though we are defined by what society values: how much money we make or how many degrees we have or how many people follow us on Facebook. When we understand faith as something that informs and enlivens everything we do, however, we experience the same conversion the Samaritan experiences. More than anything else, conversion is a shift in our perspective. It is a recognition that we are defined not by what society values, but by the grace of God, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. This recognition empowers us to change the way we experience the world: to put away resentment and entitlement, to give up our nostalgic desire to go back to the “good old days,” and to live our lives animated by a profound sense of gratitude, a faithful acknowledgement that everything in our life is a gift from God.

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Identity

Over the past several months, a certain type of questionnaire has proliferated on Facebook and other social media platforms.  These quizzes are ostensibly designed to help us discover who we are.

All of them begin with the same kind of seemingly rhetorical question: Which character from Harry Potter are you?  Which city should you actually live in?  How much would Ron Swanson (a misanthropic character from the NBC series Parks and Recreation) hate you?  Which mid-twentieth century Anglican theologian are you?  (That last one is, astonishingly, not a joke).

Following this initial question is a series of multiple-choice tasks that are only vaguely related to the premise of the quiz: Pick a midnight snack.  Choose a hashtag.  Select a first date.

After responding to these, you are given the answer to the title question: Hermione.  Portland, Oregon.  Ron would have a grudging respect for you and might even shake your hand.  William Temple.

enhanced-28690-1395109813-6These quizzes are bizarre in a variety of ways.  Of course, the answers have no bearing on reality; there’s no way that a random computer algorithm can know where I am actually supposed to live.  The most surreal aspect of these quizzes, however, is how many people take them.  Some of my friends on Facebook  seem to take every single one of these quizzes, whether or not they are acquainted with the subject matter.  There always seems to be someone who posts their results with some version of this comment: “I have no idea who Eminem is, but he apparently encapsulates my identity.”

I think there are two primary reasons for the popularity of these quizzes.  On one level, they indulge the Internet generation’s twin passions: non sequiturs and nostalgia.  The answers to these questionnaires allow one to say, “Remember Shaggy from Scooby Doo?  Apparently I’m just like him.  Isn’t that way out of left field?”  On another, much deeper level, however, these quizzes are symbolic of the fact there are many people who struggle with their sense of identity.  Much of the sociological research of the last decade or so indicates that more and more, people are grappling with questions of identity and are turning to a wide variety of sources to help them understand who they are.  And it seems that these questions are becoming more and more of a challenge, as traditional markers of identity gradually lose importance and relevance in the wider culture.

Lent is a chance for us to engage these questions of identity in a more meaningful way.  On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are part of God’s creation.  After we hear this reminder, the rest of Lent becomes an opportunity to renew our understanding of our place in the world God created.  The only question of identity that ultimately matters is who we are in God.  So instead of taking an online quiz to tell you who you are, I invite you to look at yourself in the mirror every morning during this holy season and affirm your true identity: “I am a beloved child of God.”