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God's Subversives – Br. Mark Brown

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Jer. 1:4-10; Psalm 49:1-8; Luke 21:12-15

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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18 Comments

  1. Patricia on September 7, 2016 at 05:45

    It may be that internships should include not just the “young”. Sometimes middle aged and older people have an even greater ability to “bend” the trajectory of the future. They might have power, position, leadership, mentorship, teaching roles and more where their faith can influence substantive outcomes to subvert evil injustice and poverty.

    And in itself it may be considered injustice to favor the young. It is true that their lifespans should be longer but their faith may not be as well tested and this their abilities to subvert may not be as great. Maybe there should be another level of internship? Just a subversive thought?

  2. Subversion | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on September 7, 2016 at 00:05

    […] To Read More and to Leave a Comment, Click Here […]

  3. Arthur White on October 15, 2015 at 19:48

    I am overjoyed to hear that we are progressive – moving forward through time towards the Kingdom of Peace and Love and God. But then you say : “We embrace what we believe to be timeless and pass it on to the next generation.” Which is all well and good and nice but a progressive movement ought to pray every time (and in every generation) that it is the last generation (when death, sickness, births and the cyclical nature of generations like birth, death, birth, death etc.) is come to an end. With all the respect and admiration I nonetheless shudder at the legacy of the youthful prophets (maybe except Abraham and even Abraham’s life is not anything anyone would want to emulate). Joseph’s lifetime saw his entire peoples descend to Egypt. Jeremiah (no comment) and David himself led a life of war and suffering. Jesus after all suffered terribly. If the Kingdom is to come let there not be clashes and conflicts and bloodshed for all things are possible with God then let the most peaceful and easy and joyous transition (nay sudden ecstatic revelation or materialization of the Kingdom come about).
    Personally not interested in subverting or doing anything that require too much pain/suffering (let God do that for He is able). Prefer to just live virtuously and go about loving and living fully, beautifully in God’s world.
    People who do try to subvert or change have begun to alarm me personally because they seem to always do it wrongly and unfeelingly and immaturely (callous and callow) . It is the definition of monotheism to let God do the changing (and please hasten this change for we suffer !) and subverting and the rest of us do the surrendering (particularly the misguided, callow )

  4. Lyn Millette on October 15, 2015 at 17:33

    Thank you so much for today’s “Vision”. Just what I needed for today. Isn’t it amazing what is given!

  5. Tudy Hill on October 15, 2015 at 13:29

    As the mother of an intern, I resonated with Brother Mark’s message… and I am very grateful to the community for being so open to learn from our youth.
    Also, your mature ( and maturing) presence is not lost on them.

  6. Christopher Engle Barnhart on October 15, 2015 at 08:53

    How awesome is your program!

  7. MIchael on October 15, 2015 at 08:01

    To give credit to a segment of society too often viewed as drugged and completely self absorbed is a welcomed relief. The wisdom of experience and the impulsiveness of youth are all needed if we are to make the church something vital and honorable in today’s society.

  8. Ruth West on November 3, 2014 at 00:36

    Subversive implies to me that something good and well established is being overthrown. It is true that young people are more likely to be subversive than older, more mature persons. Proverbs is filled with wisdom for the young. I see “God’s subversives”
    as somewhat of a misnomer. However, I agree with the idea that, as Christians, we need to overturn what needs to be overturned. Your sermon is definitely food for thought. I shall read it once more. Thank you.

  9. Damon Hickey on October 29, 2014 at 10:44

    A colleague once remarked, as we were hiring a young man for an important position, “The nice thing about being young is you don’t know what you can’t do yet.”

  10. anders on October 29, 2014 at 10:42

    Thank you as I reread your post and add new comments. As a young Boomer/old Gen Xer, I´m part of the bridge generation between the “churchified” and “unchurched” generations. I often think of Harold MacMillan´s quote: The past must be a springboard, not a sofa. I personally struggle with the idea of letting go of something that is not serving me without having an alternative to replace it. Thanks for clarifying my potential role as a bridge between the old and the new, with the duty of discerning between the timeless and old, as you wisely differentiate. That helps me to see the church as a vital, dynamic place, though often surrounded by rotting white picket fences. Those posts are falling, the timeless is emerging, and it´s all good.

  11. Margo on October 29, 2014 at 09:32

    Never to forget the whole Biblical story starts with a couple who were over a hundred years old! And the mother laughed at the idea. Thank you Br. Mark

  12. David D. Butler. Lawyer on October 29, 2014 at 08:22

    Youth fought for, died for, tortured for, and murdered for Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. It is further proof – if further be necessary at this late date – that Greek moderation is preferable to any enthusiasm – Christianianity and Islam emphatiiclallly included..

    • haig on October 29, 2014 at 14:44

      True, but Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were not youth. Enthusiasm without the wisdom of the Holy Spirit can be destructive reregadless of the age of actors. As the prophet Micah reminds us, we need to walk humbly with God

  13. Barbara Frazer Lowe on June 9, 2014 at 19:03

    Br. Mark – Selina from Maine put it perfectly. And thankyoufor such powerful breath of air to clear out so many stale habits of thought. Inspriring amazing.

  14. Anders on June 9, 2014 at 11:35

    Thank you. Progressive. Subversive. Not the words that immediately come to mind describing the Christian church in the US, nor words heard in my youth to mold me into a card-carrying young fogey who would suffer from terminal niceness. Too young to be wise and too old to be young, I have great hope in the future when I speak to the young, and a bit of shame for creating such a mess of misplaced values of a world we are leaving them. I look at my home church today and see how much of who we are is defined by our real estate. How to tear down the white picket fence and become a place of “restore to me the joy of your salvation”? I don´t know, but am open. And a little child shall lead them…

  15. Carol B. Clinton on June 9, 2014 at 08:48

    AMEN, ALLELUIA

  16. MZTaylor on February 27, 2014 at 05:57

    What a wonderful insight on youth. It comes to me at a time when I am especially concerned about the future of our parish and know that we lack the insights of youth to shake us up, spur us on, help us see with new perspectives. Thank you for this needed reminder.

  17. Selinafrom Maine on February 16, 2014 at 08:27

    Right on Brother Mark ! What vital life you , your interns , Brothers, and Friends bring to the Church ! I am no longer surprised , but I continue to be amazed.

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