Baccalaureate sermon delivered by Jennifer Copeland on May 5 at Louisburg College.
Isaiah 2:2-4; Revelation 21:1-7; Luke 4:16-21
You are the most watched generation in history. Of course, it’s easy to watch you because everything you do is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or some other social media platform. If you didn’t put it there, someone in your family or circle of friends has surely put it there. Or maybe your ex-girlfriend. I’ve heard that happens…
Plus, you’ve been tested, surveyed, and analyzed like none who came before you. This is partly the luck of living during No Child Left Behind and the “teach to the test” methods of education we’ve thrust upon you in order to keep our federal funding. Do we have any future teachers in the house today? You know of what I speak, yes?
Then there are the surveys… Buy something from Amazon and immediately the popup screen appears — “Please tell us how satisfied you were with your online shopping experience.” Go to the doctor and before you get back home an email arrives — “Please take a minute to rate our services today for the chance to win a Target gift card.” I’d wager you’ve even filled out a few surveys or evaluations for Louisburg College in their honest effort to hear from the students and work toward improving the Louisburg community. Does the Chaplain’s office have an evaluation we can tweet right now to see how well this sermon is going so far?
Because you were tested all the way through elementary and high school and have been surveyed all the way through higher education and are constantly watched through the on-line portals where you so willingly expose your lives to the world, the experts know a lot about you.
Here’s what the experts say — you are more numerous than any previous generation, surpassing even the robust baby boomers. You are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation to date and on track to become the most educated generation in American history. You have a high regard for adults — 79% of you look up to your parents; score one for the parents.
You are history’s first “always connected” generation, steeped in digital technology and social media. More than 80% of you sleep with a cell phone ever ready to receive and send texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, and all the other things our phones can now do for us. Sleeping with your phone, you know who you are — raise your hands… And sometimes your technology addiction yields to temptation. Nearly two-thirds of you admit to texting while driving. A habit to break…
But other than texting while you drive, you manifest an array of positive social habits not often associated with the young — certainly not associated with my Gen X generation when we were young. You are focused on teamwork, achievement, modesty, and good conduct. Twelve years ago when the first wave of millennials graduated from college, experts predicted, “The Millennial generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged.”
Feeling pretty good about yourselves?
Here’s what another group of experts says about you—
- Millennials are far less likely than their parents or grandparents to volunteer or give money to charity.
- You are sure to have a less prosperous and enjoyable life than your parents did, given the depths of the 2008 recession that occurred just as the first of you were trying to enter the job market.
- We are warned that you cling to an “extended adolescence” and never, ever want to grow up.
- You are blatantly materialistic and care only about living the American dream with a large salary and large home.
- In short, you are entitled, self-centered, lazy, and both reluctant and ill-equipped to take on the responsibilities of adult life. You lack critical thinking skills, you don’t vote, and you don’t go to church…
Wow… How can these assessments of the same group of people be so very different? Well, there’s an easy sociological answer to that question that has to do with timing of the questions, size of the sample, and analysis of the data. Both assessments are likely true in some measure, but neither is true on all counts. The real question is not, how did a bunch of sociologists who have been studying your generation for the last 10 years decide to define your generation, but how do you define yourself.
And not just how do you define yourself by yourself, but how do you define yourself in community with those who are defined by God. Regardless of your own faith tradition, or lack thereof, you’ve been attending a United Methodist school for a few years. As denominations go, there’re some distinct characteristics about Methodism that you may have picked up on. For one thing we tend to start from a place of grace. Methodists think, roughly speaking, that God is always for us. Not just for us as Methodists, but for us as humans, for us the creation. God is deeply and intimately in love with us. We don’t even have to know that God loves us for God to love us. But if we do know it, all the better because we can live life as those who are loved by God. And that means we see the world a bit differently than some other folks might see it.
The three scriptures I chose for this afternoon all say something about that in different ways. From the ancient past, nearly 2500 years ago, Isaiah offers us a vision of peace where peace is more than simply the absence of violence. In the peace that Isaiah imagines, nothing in our lives lends itself to violence. Everything around us is an implement of flourishing life and mutual enrichment. Think of all the things around us that speak destruction and imagine that they are transformed into construction. Isaiah gives two simple illustrations about how that works.
Think of a sword — long flat blade, very sharp on both edges, very pointed at the end; good for cutting and stabbing with the intended outcome of killing. But if you bend that blade into a semi-circle, attach a strap from the handle to the shoulders of an oxen, then the point of the blade is used to dig into the rich, damp soil, tilling the earth, making it ready to receive seeds that will bring forth fruit and food for flourishing life. And not only that, but a sword that’s curved on the end is useless for stabbing. An instrument of death transformed into an implement of life.
Isaiah believes we can do the same sort of thing with a spear. A spear — long pole, light weight and perfectly balanced to travel great distances when properly thrown. On the end of the pole a somewhat small — in comparison to a sword — but incredibly sharp, metal point. When you throw a spear at something, the point sticks in and stays.
But if you reposition that point so that the sharp edges are on the side then you have a very long pole with a sharp hook on the end that can reach high into the branches of trees or vines to prune dead limbs. A pruning hook, used to trim fruit trees and grape vines so that the remaining limbs will produce even more fruit. And not only that, a spear with the point on sideways is useless for throwing. An instrument of death transformed into an implement of life.
We don’t have to see the world around us the way the world around us looks to others around us. We can see the world around us through the lens of faith. We can look at a sword and see a plowshare; we can look at a spear and see a pruning hook. Yes, this requires a certain degree of creativity on our part because we are used to thinking in terms of competition and protection.
Protection. We hear so much about protection these days. Lots of folks will tell us we need a handgun to protect us from all those people who are out there trying to get us, but did you know a gun in the home is 11 times more likely to be used to kill someone in your home than to kill someone threatening your home? No doubt, someone out here has a story of the one time a gun protected you or someone you know, but for your one story there are 11 more stories:
- where a gun was fired by mistake and killed a child,
- where a desperate teenager with easy access to a weapon decided life was too hard to keep living and used a gun to stop living,
- or even a crime of passion where one family member in a fit of anger pulled a gun and shot another family member.
That happens 11 times more often than the gun protects. Yet, we think guns are for protection. Isaiah’s congregation thought swords and spears would protect them, and Isaiah suggests that God has a different vision.
Can we imagine the world the way God describes its possibilities? What does your own life need in order to flourish, to look like the vision promised to John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation? In John’s vision, not only does God “wipe away every tear,” but after the wiping, we are promised “mourning, crying, and pain will be no more.” Think of the events that bring tears to your eyes and pain to your life. We all have them.
- The death of a loved one,
- the end of a long love affair,
- the disappointment of not getting a job,
- an argument with our best friend.
Painful, all of them. In those times, the best we can hope for is a sympathetic shoulder to cry on — someone to share our pain and wipe away our tears. But what if the tears and the pain stopped happening? Can you imagine your life without those painful events?
Most people chalk that up to pie in the sky, when we all get to heaven in the sweet by and by. But why are we waiting until we get to heaven to start living as people filled with grace and loved by God? Why are we waiting for someone else to make everything right before we start behaving as if things are all right?
I had a student in a preaching seminar a few years ago who talked about how difficult it is to shake off our old ideas and live into a new reality. He knew some pastors from Germany, leaders of the underground churches in East Germany when it was still part of the Soviet bloc. They told him that long after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the behavior of the people in the former German Democratic Republic, what we called East Germany, didn’t change very much. Those folks had spent two generations living in fear of the government and mistrust of one another. Over the course of those two generations, everybody spied on everybody else, looking for any crack in your absolute support of the communist regime. Children told on parents; neighbors told on neighbors; and, of course, people who didn’t like each other told on each other all the time.
One out of seven people were paid spies. So, think of a circle of seven people who share your life: people you study with, eat with, talk to everyday. Seven of you, but one of you is a spy.
- Which one?
- Who do you trust?
- What do you say?
- When do you stop saying what you really think because you don’t really know who is listening?
Imagine the level of distrust that would create among family and friends. And worse, if you happen to be the spy, you probably don’t know who any of the other spies are in close proximity to you. You’re more isolated than the people who aren’t spies, except that you know you’re the one who’s not to be trusted. Imagine living that way for 2 generations — that’s your parents and your grandparents afraid of everybody.
In 1989 when the Berlin wall came down, people had a very hard time making the switch from mistrust to trust. And even today, my former student told us, some people still live as though the eyes of spies watch their every move. They live in a world that no longer exists.
I want to suggest to you that we are also living in a world that doesn’t exist in the mind of God. We can choose to live in the world that does exist through God. Not the pie in sky when we all get to heaven in the sweet by and by world, but the world that is already God’s vision for all creation.
We take discord and violence for granted. We are surprised by acceptance and forgiveness — think of the country’s reaction to the forgiveness offered by some families after the Mother Emmanuel massacre in Charleston. The shooting didn’t surprise us — it saddened us, but it didn’t surprise us because that kind of thing happens all the time. What surprised us were the words of forgiveness.
What if the world were the other way around?
What if mistrust and revenge and exclusion were abnormal?
What if forgiveness was normal?
What if acceptance was expected?
What if immigrants were always welcome?
What if workers were all paid a living wage?
What if children were never hungry?
The new normal.
Jesus’ very own words from the Gospel of Luke, words that come straight from the first sermon he ever preached, tell us not about the future, not about what happens when we all get to heaven. They tell us about the present. Jesus clearly said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
- The captives are released,
- the blind can see,
- the oppressed are free.
Present tense — today — not tomorrow, not next year, not when you retire, not when you get to heaven. Today this scripture has been fulfilled.
What does this mean for us? It means we can live as though the swords are already plowshares. We can live as though the spears are already pruning hooks. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Isaiah saw that reality. Two thousand years ago Jesus lived that reality.
What is our part here today? How will you see the world millennial generation —
- Most numerous,
- most ethnically diverse,
- most educated generation?
Game changers, all of you.
How will you see the world? Because how you see the world will be the world we all inhabit. I hope you will live the way God shows us things already are. Thanks be to God. Amen.