Monday, July 16, 2018

Sermon: "The 'Me' Generation", Deuteronomy 32:1-7, 15-18, 28-29/Mark 6:14-29 (July 15, 2018)



“Millennials. Am I right??”

There’s a popular trend these days—it’s nearly impossible for you to have missed it—which involves complaining about anything that the Millennial Generation does. I’m talking everything from refusing to move out of their parents’ house to “killing” department stores to their overwhelming social media presence to their infamous penchant for avocado toast. If a Millennial has done it, someone somewhere has complained about it.

Of course, many of these complaints are related to how Millennials’ choices and preferences impact those around them. They’re not afraid to leave a job that they’re dissatisfied with,[1] they often don’t support the institutions and industries that are important to older generations,[2] and they aren’t having kids at a rate that’s acceptable to aspiring grandparents.[3] To many observers, they seem to be more concerned about what they want than about what’s best for those around them. It’s for these reasons, among others, that in 2013, Time Magazine dubbed Millennials the “Me Me Me” Generation.[4]

But wait a second…doesn’t that sound familiar? Oh, that’s right: Baby Boomers were called the “Me” Generation back in the ‘70s because of what the older generations perceived as THEIR narcissism.[5] This is not a new phenomenon, people! Older human beings have been vilifying younger human beings for putting themselves first since time immemorial. In 1907, “The Atlantic Monthly” ran a story about how the institution of marriage was doomed because “kids today” were consumed by the cult of individualism.[6] In the 11th century, Peter the Hermit is quoted as saying, “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no respect for their parents or old age,” although why a hermit priest should be considered an authority on “young people today”, I’m not exactly sure. Socrates is said to have opined in the 5th century, “The children now…have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to chatter in place of exercise.” Optimistically, the 8th century B.C. poet Hesiod said, “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.”[7] Millennials, it seems, are in good company.

Now, my point here isn’t to redeem Millennials by showing that they’re the same as generations that have gone before them. In fact, quite the opposite; as a good Calvinist pastor, my intention here is to demonstrate that we are ALL—Millennials and Generations X and Y and Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation; even the GREATEST Generation—we’re all totally, completely, unequivocally depraved. We’re all egomaniacs.

I could have easily chosen almost any passage from the Old Testament to illustrate this point, but I find this passage from Deuteronomy to be particularly poignant. It comes at a point when Moses knows he’s about to die; he’s already appointed Joshua as the new leader of the Israelites and is essentially giving his final instructions to the people. Standing before the entire assembly of Israel, he rebukes them one last time:

“God’s degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a twisted and perverse generation. Is this how you thank the Lord, you stupid, senseless people? Isn’t God your creator; didn’t God make and establish you? Ask your father or the elders, THEY will tell you…”[8]

His final words in this passage are, “They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern what the end would be.” These words are the most intriguing to me because of their ambiguity. Depending on how they’re interpreted in context—and remember, we didn’t read verses 19 through 27—they can be (and have been) interpreted as referring either to the enemies of the Israelites OR to the Israelites themselves. “If they were wise…they would discern what the end would be.” Frankly, the target of Moses’ scorn here isn’t all that important to me. In fact, his vagueness reinforces my point: Universal. Total. Utter. Complete. Depravity. All of humanity is so self-centered that they routinely forget the very God that gave them life, and Moses felt the need to use his final speech to remind the Israelites of that.

Let’s call them the “B.C. Me” Generation.

You may be thinking, “Well, sure, being self-centered is a rotten thing to do, and it can damage relationships, but it doesn’t really *hurt* anyone. What harm is there in making sure I’m taken care of first?” And this may be the case in many situations. But the truth is, when we’re prioritizing ourselves, it can have deadly consequences.

Consider the beheading of John. It’s easy to paint Herodias and Herod as enemies of the gospel who were evil for evil’s sake—the token “bad guys”. But it’s the gravest of follies to write any human being off as one-dimensionally evil. We were all created in the image of God, and we all have our reasons or justifications for our sins. Herodias was the wife of the king; she didn’t need to pay any heed to this weirdo prophet who wore camel’s hair and ate bugs. But John had wounded her pride and threatened her position through his truth-telling, and she couldn’t stand for that. “What right does he have to tell ME what to do?” she may have thought. “It’s fine for him to pedal his prophetic garbage elsewhere, but not in MY house. This is an outrage! There must be consequences!” I can almost hear her demanding to speak to his manager, as other, more modern “me” generations might have done in her situation.

The justification for Herod’s selfishness, on the other hand, had nothing to do with John’s criticisms at all. In fact, the gospel tells us that Herod LIKED to listen to John, in spite of his condemnations. He recognized John’s righteousness. And yet, Herod’s self-devotion ultimately won out. He made a careless oath to his daughter, and rather than admitting that he had been wrong to make such a promise, rather than standing on the side of righteousness at the cost of his pride, he chose to carry out her grisly request. All for the sake of his reputation. But of course, I’m sure he justified the choice to himself easily: “A king can’t be seen to be weak! I certainly can’t say I’ve made a mistake. I didn’t have a choice!” Quite a politician, that Herod. He’d fit right in to our government today, regardless of which party he chose to affiliate himself with, wouldn’t he?

So maybe we call them the “murderous me” generation.

The “me first” attitude has a high cost, and not just for ourselves. Herodias’ and Herod’s “me first” attitudes cost John his life. Humanity’s “me first” attitude costs many animals their habitats through global warming. Our national leaders’ “me first” attitude costs the U.S. a place at the global community’s table. A CEO’s “me first” attitude costs employees a chance at a livable wage. An indignant customer’s “me first” attitude often costs other customers their time, and sales associates their dignity.

Now, let me assure you that I’m truly not trying to take sides or be political here. I’m simply trying to bring to light the consequences of our choices. John didn’t tell Herod anything controversial or debatable; he merely pointed out a fact: “what you are doing is against the law.” What made it controversial is the unpleasant truth that it forced the king and queen to confront. You might feel that the cost of these things that I’ve named is worth it, and it’s each person’s right to discern that for themselves. But the fact remains that there IS a cost, and when we make choices, we need to be honest with ourselves about the consequences.

I suppose I should mention at this point that our total depravity and our “me generation” tendencies don’t mean that we’re irredeemable, worthless, or evil. Herodias was beloved by God. Herod was beloved by God. The pharaoh that enslaved Moses and the Israelites was beloved by God. Even Judas was beloved by God. And each of them probably believed in the very core of their being that what they were doing was right or justifiable in some way. It is entirely natural for us to want to look out for ourselves. That’s part of the danger in painting biblical villains with such broad strokes: it makes us unwilling to see ourselves in them, unwilling to learn from their mistakes, and unwilling to confront the darkness within ourselves. We all fear being forgotten, ignored, or stepped on. We all fear having our needs overlooked in favor of someone else’s. We all fear being seen as “less than”. And so, we put ourselves first in order to quell that fear. It makes perfect sense.

And yet, as reasonable and understandable as it is, that’s not the life to which God calls us. God calls us to a life of courage in the face of fear, serving and caring for others even before we’re assured of our own comfort. Don’t get me wrong; Jesus doesn’t insist that we invite others to walk all over us: in the verses immediately preceding today’s Mark text, Jesus encourages his disciples to “shake the dust off their feet” if any refuse to welcome or listen to them. But there’s no room in the Gospel for us to make ourselves the priority. Christ was and is the antithesis of “me first”: Christ lived for US, Christ died for US, Christ rose for US, Christ reins in power for US, and Christ prays for US. No, we’re not Jesus—but shouldn’t we strive to live as he lived?

It’s definitely not easy. TOTAL depravity, remember? But there is good news. Our narcissism and self-centeredness cannot stop the gospel, no matter how hard it tries. Upon hearing of Jesus’ works, Herod immediately knows that John’s message lives on, in spite of the selfishly motivated efforts to extinguish it. He may have gotten the details wrong, but in that moment, he must have realized that he was not, in fact, the priority. That there was something larger at work that his own needs and desires paled in comparison to. Although I’m under no misapprehension that Herod suddenly abandoned his “Me Generation” attitude, I wouldn’t be surprised if that moment profoundly humbled him. It forced him to recognize that God’s plans are greater than he imagined, and they extend beyond the nose on his own face.

Moses knew this, too. Yes, some of his final words to the people include harsh condemnation, but he concludes on a more positive note. Later that same day, Moses blesses each of the Tribes of Israel, one by one, recounting God’s marvelous plans and promises for them. Although they were an inward-looking generation (like all of us) God’s mercy is great and God’s goodness will not be stopped. The challenge before the Israelites, then, was to live up to God’s expectations as best they could. Some times, they were better at it than others, but they knew what they had to do.

How will THIS generation live up to the challenge? The first step is to be honest about where each of us is going wrong. Which “Me” generation are you a part of? The “I’m right so I don’t have to listen to others; they should listen to me” generation? The “I’ll bend the rules a little bit; it’s just me” generation? The “I don’t want to think about the horrible things in the world because things are going well for me” generation? The “I don’t care; it doesn’t affect me” generation? Some other “me” generation? Yup, me too.

Now, sit with that self-understanding. Decide whether it’s who you want to be. Be honest about whether it’s who GOD wants you to be. Today, together, let’s accept God’s challenge. Let’s fight against our human nature, our total depravity, and let our imago dei shine through. Let’s pray for the wisdom and courage to see others as Christ sees each of us. Let’s choose to be the “Us” Generation. Amen.









[8] Paraphrase of Deut. 32:5-7 based on the NRSV and CEB translations.

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