Sunday 5 July 2009

The trouble with kids today: a baptismal sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Text: Luke 18:15-30

“The trouble with kids today…” “When I was their age…” “Remember the days when…”

Get the picture? Old people talking about young people. And ever has it been so between one generation and the next. Old folk look back and see the time of their own youth if not as a golden age, then certainly as a better age than the world of today’s little creeps. We tend to view time from the then to the now as one of decline and fall. And young people, in turn, look at grown-ups and see people out of touch, who don’t understand them, who don’t understand anything. One word sums it up: we’re “boring”, and, if you’re parents, you’re “embarrassing” too. “The young think the old are fools, and the old know the young are fools” – that’s one George Chapman, writing four hundred years ago! Plus ça change, plus la même chose. “Whatever,” teenagers would add!

Me, I think this is a healthy state of affairs – at least for the young. Kids who don’t go through a period of viewing their elders with – well, the range is from condescending hilarity to lofty contempt – kids who don’t go through a stage of alienation and – yes, rebellion – they’re missing out on an essential part of the human experience. Indeed a younger generation that doesn’t set itself against their elders bodes ill for the time when they will become the older generation. For does not every generation of young people have something to be angry about and rebellious against? Has not every generation of parents left their children a world in a worse state than the one that was bequeathed to them by their parents? Do we not therefore warrant the accusation that we have screwed things up, and today, given the ominous state of the ecology, screwed things up big-time? The rebellion of the young, I’m suggesting, is, at heart, of moral significance, with its idealism, energy, and can-do optimism, in contrast to the quite immoral cynicism and complacency that, alas, inevitably seems to set in with thinning hair and sagging bottoms.

Which is why I am a worried man. No, not because my hair is thinning and my bottom has long since sagged and dropped – though that is true! No, I am worried by what I take to be a distinct lack of rebelliousness in today’s young people. Instead of repudiating and bucking the system, the system has sucked them in. They’ve become its biggest fans. The in-your-face self-expressiveness of young people, always an essential element of their identity – it strikes me as so conventional, conformist even, it smacks of the manufactured and manipulated. By whom? By us older people, of course! By the marketers, advertisers, and commercial providers. Young people have become, fundamentally, economic units, consumers, defined, indeed defining themselves, by their spending power.

(Are you aware, by the way, just how recent a phenomenon youth culture is? It only started after the Second World War, and only began really to kick in during the late-fifties and sixties. Pocket money and ever-increasing amounts of it – that is, available capital, purchasing power – and the rise of a distinct youth culture: they go hand in hand.)

Does the irony escape you? We lament that children today grow up too fast when in fact the whole project is being funded by adults! Check out the magazines kids read: they’re adolescent versions of the glossy world of fame, fashion, and ersatz beauty that obsesses and drives the twenty-to-fifty-somethings. And so the advertising industry quite rightly treats the purchasing public as such as children. For the flipside of children growing up too quickly is adults not growing up at all – we have become infantilised. That’s what money and ennui will do to you. But savvy kids should know better.

Which leads me to point out the interesting juxtaposition of passages in today’s New Testament reading. On the one hand, there is the story of Jesus blessing the children who come to him; on the other hand, there is the story of the rich man who walks away from Jesus. The juxtaposition is hardly arbitrary, and it’s one of contrast and critique.

Jesus is talking about how a person enters the kingdom, or reign, of God. Not how to get to “heaven”, but how to become part of the world God wants it to be, a world of peace, justice, and love, the world Jesus came to announce and inaugurate. How? Answer: by receiving it like a child. But what particular childlike quality does Jesus have in mind? Not, I can tell you, innocence or humility. We’re talking real kids here, not Teletubbies! There was nothing sentimental about Jesus’ view of children; Jesus was no Victorian romanticist. Indeed if the text suggests anything about children it is their weakness and helplessness – they have to be brought to Jesus. No money, no possessions, no position, no power – these are the things that make them role models for the kingdom. Interesting that. We’re always banging on about children needing adult role models, whereas our Lord thinks just the reverse: it’s adults who need children as role models.

And this interpretation – that it’s children’s pennilessness and powerlessness that make them role models for the kingdom – this interpretation is confirmed by the following story of the rich man. For here is the proverbial man who has everything – and observe that he is a good man too, he keeps the commandments, he is a pillar of the community, a member of the Rotary Club or the Round Table – yet so possessed is he by his possessions that he is quite unable to enter the kingdom of God, which demands dis-possession – demands weakness, not strength, demands helplessness, not control.

But as I have suggested, today’s kids would seem to have more in common with the rich man than the child. Just look at the possessions – from designer clothes, to mobile phones, to personal computers. And odd though it may at first sound, they’ve got the power to go with them – and it comes by via the tacit permission of their parents. Just think of the manifesto of the famous Spice Girls – Girl Power – and think of their target audience, the target audience, for that matter, of all girl and boy bands: ten-to-twelve-year-olds. And think of how parents, in oblivious obeisance to the market economy, and to keep the domestic peace, collude in turning their children into shoppers.

I know, I’m beginning to sound like the old man I began with: “The trouble with kids today …” I don’t mean to. Rather I’m simply trying to sketch out the reality of youth culture today, which strikes me as virtually the same as the virtual reality of adult culture today. Consumerism is the common theme: the commodification of everything that moves, the itching and scratching of restless, insatiable desire, the celebration of ever-expanding choice, choice, and more choice. Isn’t this our common reality? It is little Matthew’s reality too.

HOWEVER: whenever we baptise a child in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, baptise him/her into Christ, we initiate him/her into a different reality, an alternative reality, a counter-cultural reality we call the church. At least that’s the theory. Because you and I both know that, in practice, on the whole, Christians are as mesmerised as non-Christians by the idol of consumerism.

NEVERTHELESS: here you are, and here a few of us come, week by week, to see and hear the church “fess up”: to laugh at the pretensions of consumer capitalism’s ridiculous little gods, to expose the lies the world lives by, to tell it like it is to each other in love, even when it hurts, and to practice the quaint and lost arts of forgiveness and peacemaking when violence and vengeance make all the running with the good guys and bad guys alike. And there is no bouncer at the door. All are welcome here without distinction – saints and sinners, losers and winners, the poor and the wealthy, the ugly and the beautiful, the queer and the supposedly normal. Because here the good news of God’s foolish, prodigal, disarming love is proclaimed, as we try to keep alive the rumour of an altogether different God from the one you will find anywhere else, the God who passes judgement on wealth and power, valorises the vulnerable, and calls us into a community of belonging, need, and care.

And so today we not only baptise little Matthew, we also hold him up as the very embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we want to enter the kingdom of God, we will get in line behind him.


tw said...

"...a different reality, an alternative reality, a counter-cultural reality we call the church [i.e., theoblog]"

John Hartley said...

The trouble with baptismal sermons today ... just kidding?

What always strikes me about Luke 18-19 is the way it almost deliberately avoids any mention of baptism. OK, maybe you'd expect the bit about babies not to actually have Jesus ducking them, seeing as they only brought them to have him touch them. Maybe you can excuse Jesus not telling the young man to be baptized, seeing as he can't say everything all at once and the question seems to lead into a discussion of the ten commandments? Maybe the blind beggar had already been baptized so no caveats about "your faith has healed you provided you go and get baptized" were necessary? Maybe Zacchaeus was privately baptized behind closed doors while the people were all muttering outside, so that Jesus did not need to say "Today salvation has come to this house provided this man gets baptized" ...?

If baptism is integral to entering the kingdom of God, then to lose it from one of these incidents would seem to be a misfortune. But to lose it from all of them?

Don't get me wrong - I agree with Kim about the place of pennilessness and the welcome to all without distinction and so on. All that is good exegesis.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

kim fabricius said...

You are right, of course, John, that this text - nor any synoptic text except Matthew 28:19 (and Mark 16:16) - speaks of the church's rite of baptism, let alone paedobapism. Take "a baptismal sermon" as an abridgement of the more accurate "a sermon at a service of baptism".

roger flyer said...

Are flaming consumers welcome? Are these the new prodigals the Father welcomes home?

'How much' to get a ticket to the banquet?

kim fabricius said...

Hey, Roger, over half the congregation were "flaming consumers" (the baptismal party was very upmarket - and huge) - and only a few walked out on the sermon. ;)

roger flyer said...

That will be a fine day. 'Tis a powerful principality, the demon of consumerism. I need more, bigger, better than you--and it strikes at the heart of even the aging Thoreauian as well as the young agrarian, apocalyptic christian.

John Hartley said...

Dear Kim,

Thank you for your reply - you are an unbelievably gracious chap to deal so mercifully with a rotter such as me!

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

a. steward said...

As Cake says, "Excess aint rebellion - you're drinking what they're selling!"

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