Today we remember St. John Chrysostom, the 5th century Bishop of Constantinople. John Chrysostom, John “golden mouth” was celebrated for his eloquent preaching. So, with a tip of the hat and a salute to the preacher, I’ll preach on one of the texts appointed for today, from the prophet Jeremiah:
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”[Jer. 1:6-7]
Some of you may be subscribers to “Brother, give us a word”—our online feature that sends a few words from the Brothers to your email inbox every morning. I was recently sent a few words from myself, reminding me of something I had said: that the Church is essentially progressive. That is, the Body of Christ is essentially moving forward through time, moving toward the greater fulfillment of God’s vision for human beings on this planet. The Church is part of God’s forward trajectory into the future. We have deep roots in the past, of course, and much of what we do we’ve been doing for a long time—but we are not antiquarians, we are not curators of a museum or preservationists. We are keepers of a vision, keepers of a flame. We, the Church, keep things in motion toward what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God on earth. We, the Body of Christ, are essentially progressive, moving into God’s future, implementing God’s future. We make a distinction between that which is timeless and that which is merely old. We embrace what we believe to be timeless and pass it on to the next generation.
If we look at the witness of Scripture, we may detect a divine preference for youth. Jeremiah exaggerates when he calls himself a mere boy, but the implication is that he was still quite young when he experienced his call to be prophet. And if we look at the New Testament, we see that some of the most astonishing, world-changing events involve what we would call “young adults”. The Virgin Mary comes to mind. And, of course, Jesus himself.
The youthfulness in itself is a bit subversive, as ancient Judaism, like so many traditional cultures, valued the wisdom of the elders—and rightly so. The elders have their rightful and necessary place in the scheme of things. But, so do the young. Like the “boy” Jeremiah. Or Joseph. Or David. Or the mother of Jesus. Jesus. Probably the apostles, whose parents were still living in an age of short lifespans. To take a few Biblical examples of youth.
What is it about youth that is so necessary to progress, to forward motion? Sheer energy and physical vigor, to be sure. Less aversion to risk, perhaps. But also youth’s natural inclination toward subversion. Subversion in a positive sense of overturning what needs to be overturned. Gospel subversion: casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, as the young Virgin sang in what we call the Magnificat.
Now, I don’t want to be simplistic: plenty of elders can be wonderfully subversive, and there is the phenomenon of what we might call “young fogies” (i.e., young people who adhere too readily to the status quo). But subversion comes more naturally, on the whole, to the young. Natural, in that the young are not so heavily invested in the status quo. Natural, in that in the process of self-definition and individuation, young people usually experience some level of resistance to their parents’ generation, even rebellion. Some Oedipal competition between generations may be a contributing psychological factor.
If things are going to progress, to move forward, things can’t be too entrenched or ossified. If the Kingdom is to come, things can’t be too entrenched or ossified. If God’s vision for the human enterprise is to unfold in all fullness, we need a people ready, willing and able to embrace that which is timeless and carry it forward. And people ready, willing and able to subvert what needs subverting.
Hatred needs to be subverted by love. Injustice needs to be subverted by policy that recognizes the dignity of every human being. Poverty needs to be subverted by equitable distribution of resources. War and violence need to be subverted by peace. God’s future needs subversives. And—as God seems to have noticed in the past—young people are good at this.
Today’s younger generation is uniquely equipped with technological facility that the older generation can only envy. Thoughtful young people will express ambivalence about Information Technology, but this is not based on fear of the unknown. We may very well need to learn to use technology wisely, but its usefulness is beyond question at this point—there’s no going back. The enormous shifts underway in the Middle East and North Africa are testimony to the power of technologically equipped youth to spur whole societies to change. Stability may be a long time in coming, but things will never be what they were before.
Some of you may know that we Brothers have, shall we say, increased vocational options to our community. We’re calling it “internships”, but that may not be the best word. We recognize the fact that few people are drawn to make life commitments in a monastic community. But we are also aware of significant interest today in what we might call temporary vocations: people who feel drawn to live alongside a monastic community for a season of life and share in their work. (This is a longstanding practice, I believe, in some Buddhist communities.)
I was asked by one of our new interns a few days ago why SSJE has launched this new initiative. We’ve had an active ministry with students and young adults since our founding in Oxford in 1866. And we’re here in Harvard Square because we recognized a vocation to continue this ministry. At a more immediate level, the presence of six bright, capable, spiritually attuned young people in a community has a wonderfully leavening effect.
This is all important. But I think what is most compelling about this new program is an opportunity: an opportunity to bend the trajectory of the future, if only just a little. To invite a younger generation into our life, as we have, gives us the ability to shape the future beyond our lifetimes. Where does the desire to shape the future beyond our lifetimes come from? Presumably this is the Holy Spirit working in and through us, the creative energies of Christ himself working through the generations.
I think it is the Brothers’ deep desire that all the young people we come into contact with will recognize here something that is timeless, embrace it and carry it forward to future generations. And that for God’s sake, for the Kingdom’s sake, for humanity’s sake, they will be subversives. Subverting everything that is small, hurtful, degrading to our humanity. Subverting hatred, poverty, injustice—and replacing them with those things that are rightful for humankind.
We hope that they, too, will become keepers of the vision, keepers of the flame. That, in God’s good time, all things may be brought to fulfillment, reconciled in Christ, and made new in his glorious Kingdom.
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