A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck on February 2, 2014 (Presentation of our Lord)
There’s one designation in life that transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, ethnicity, and any other label you could possibly come up with: generation. You can’t control when you’re born, of course, and so your birth year determines your generation. As much as I might admire those in what we call the Greatest Generation — people who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II — I can’t become a convert from my own Generation X. And I could take computer classes and play XBox until my eyes fell out but I’d still never be a Millennial, as we call the first generation born into our hyper-connected world.
Generationally, we’re stuck. Now that’s generally not a problem because we all think our generation is the best generation. The generation before us is full of out of touch dinosaurs and the generation after us is populated by entitled young whipper snappers. It’s the generational circle of life.
This morning we encounter a coming together of different generations. We meet old man Simeon, a Temple priest who had been promised he would not die until he saw the Messiah, and his contemporary, the 84-year-old Anna, a widowed prophet. In walk Mary and Joseph with their 40-day-old infant son Jesus (yes, today is the 40th day after Christmas — you can spend the rest of the sermon doing the math). They were following the custom of the Law of Moses by presenting their firstborn son at the Temple in Jerusalem. What struck me this week is that this was truly an intergenerational moment.
In modern terms, if Simeon and Anna were of the Greatest Generation, Joseph was probably a Baby Boomer, Mary a Millennial, and Jesus would have been Generation Z, or whatever the new generation is being called.
This passage also made me think that the Church, and specifically this parish, is one of the few truly intergenerational places left in our society. For generations, multiple generations lived under the same roof but advances in transportation changed this dynamic as families scattered all over the country. This has led to a generational segregation of sorts. For instance if you live at Linden Ponds you may not see a child running around for days at a time. And if you’re a young stay-at-home mom you may go all week without interacting with anyone over the age of 55.
I love looking out on a Sunday morning and seeing every generation imaginable out in the congregation. It’s a sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth as we all gather to pray and sing and give thanks to our Creator. And I love watching this whole community come up to the communion rail with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Church School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers. But everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: Jesus.
This is precisely what Simeon was reaching out to receive in the Temple: Jesus. Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms and was suddenly filled with such a profound sense of peace that the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis — Simeon’s Song — came pouring forth from his lips. “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.” It is a moment of pure joy. The good news for us is that we, too, can participate in this joy and we don’t even have to wait until the end of our lives to hold Jesus in our hands. We can do so every single week as we reach out our hands to receive the body of Christ. If we truly open our hearts to divine relationship, this becomes a moment of transformation. Precisely how, is the stuff of mystery. But when we reach out our hearts as well as our hands to receive the living Christ, an astounding thing happens. Burdens are lifted, sins are forgiven, grace amazes, joy thrives, and peace abounds.
It was hard to think about generations this week without reflecting a bit on Pete Seeger. The 94-year-old folk singer died on Monday and his music and memories have been reverberating ever since. We even sang a few of the spirituals he helped popularize at last night’s S.W.5 service — Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, a song about making it to the Promised Land; We Shall Overcome, a song that became the great anthem of the Civil Rights Movement; and Turn, Turn, Turn!, his song based on the Book of Ecclesiastes that the Byrds turned into a number one hit in 1965.
I think my great accomplishment this week was walking into a coffee shop the day after he died and insisting they put some Pete Seeger tunes on the sound system. I mean, a coffee shop and Pete Seeger should be a no-brainer, right? They agreed and soon enough I was sitting there banging away on my laptop to the classic “Where have all the flowers gone.” Which is not, mind you, the motto for the parish Flower Guild.
Pete Seeger was an icon of his generation and yet transcended generations. Yes, his protest songs spoke to his own generation often against the previous one — that’s the basic MO of the folk singer — and many didn’t always agree with his politics. But much of his music also transcended generations. “If I Had a Hammer” is known by children and adults, even if its message has different levels of meaning and his songs have been sung in classrooms, union halls, and Carnegie Hall.
The point is faith, like music, can also transcend generations. We’re all at different points on our respective spiritual journeys, we all have different expectations and opinions and hopes and dreams. Yet our unity is in Jesus Christ.
An intergenerational community is not without its challenges. Not everyone agrees on what the church should be and do and where its emphasis should lie. People’s expectations often differ based on the experience of church they grew up with. But intergenerational community provides more joy than challenge and it is truly a gift to be embraced. I encourage you to take advantage of this by leaping over the generational divide. Perhaps this means talking to a young dad during coffee hour or striking up a conversation with an older parishioner you’ve never met; maybe it means taking a risk and teaching Church School even if you no longer or have never had young children at home.
Whatever the case, I encourage you to metaphorically embrace another generation just as old man Simeon literally did on that day in the Temple as he held Jesus in his arms. And then allow Jesus to embrace you. Fully and completely and with utterly reckless abandon.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014