The title of this sermon is “Growing Up.” Some of you know that Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite songwriters and that this is one of his songs. Some of you are aware that Dave Annett has occasionally sang some of his songs in connection to my sermons. Am I going to have Earl Rivers sing the Springsteen classic “Growing Up” for you this morning? I am not. Did I consider it, with a smile on my face? I did.
The song is mostly about Springsteen’s coming of age as a rock star, so why would I bring it up in church? Well, it is a song that, though only 3 minutes long, would often be expanded in a Springsteen concert to 10 or 15 minutes as he told stories about his childhood in Freehold, New Jersey. Springsteen is a good song writer because he doesn’t tell simple or one-dimensional stories. He remembers his neighborhood, school, church and family with plenty of reference to the parts that were messy and broken: hypocrisy, alcoholism, disappointment, enduring boredom, coping with tragedy. It was the raw expression trying to find a little beauty and flavor in these ordinary things of life that have made his music so simple yet powerful. These are the stories of Growing Up. We feel those things when we’re 18, and Springsteen still plays the song because we feel those same feelings in new ways when we’re 40, or 70.
The past few weeks have been tragic. If you’re anything like me, you’ve felt overwhelmed. I will admit to not knowing what to say, and yet not to mention it in church would be completely tone deaf. Uvalde brings an all too familiar sorrow and anger over these particular young lives, and a cruel reminder that we have made no progress since Parkland or Sandy Hook. This week’s news came on the heels of the Laguna Woods shooting in a church building of our own Presbyterian denomination, and a racially motivated mass shooting just days before in Buffalo New York. These incidents are layered upon the senseless violence of war, refugee crises and violent neighborhoods and homes, and even the tragic accidents and illnesses that visit families and children with no reason and no explanation. How does a person make sense of it all?
And…life goes on. This may be the most unsettling part. The reality is that in the midst of the tragic viral stories that come to us from across the country, and around the world, we still must rise at the start of each day and go about our work and our school and the rhythms of daily life. We need to grieve, and somehow the rest of life also goes on. Not only are there routines to be maintained, but there are celebrations that are a part of our normal, healthy functioning, and they go on. Graduations and high school proms are the things of May, resuming in normal ways after two of the hardest years of our lives. Vacations and ballgames and parades and summer camps, family reunions and trips to see grandparents, all of these things—these celebrations—are returning to our lives, and we need them for our good mental health.
It all raises the question: How do our emotions hold this all together—the bad with the good, the distant with the close and immediate, the extraordinary suffering with the need for the normal, the healthy role of grief with the desperate need for healing. Jesus himself went to weddings and dinners and was accused of socializing with sinners—apparently this is how the world gets saved…
The Bible does offer us resources for navigating these mysteries of life. My mind goes immediately to the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season: A time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time for war and a time for peace; a time to weep and a time to laugh…” You may not realize it, but these aren’t just sound bites—they are not platitudes or clichés. The Book of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the best place in the Bible to read that life does not make sense. The biblical philosopher who wrote this book talks about the failures of conventional wisdom and the futility of trying to make sense of it all. If you’re looking for the closest thing the Bible has to Albert Camus or Margaret Atwood or Radiohead, go home and read the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is frustrated, dystopian writing, and it is just as much a part of our Bible as the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we should read it more.
It’s also worth talking about a sound bite from the New Testament. “Jesus wept”—according to John 11:35; it was over the death of his friend Lazarus. We know from this, that Jesus the great healer was not always in a rush to fix suffering. Often Jesus did not simply say the right thing or to make it better, but to sit down alongside a person whose suffering was real, to listen, to absorb what was going on, and to be willing to suffer alongside them, for as long as it took. Working through the stages grief may be an expression of modern psychology, but Jesus lived it long ago. Sometimes we cannot fix grief and should not try; we just have to allow it to be.
There is an additional insight I’d like to share with you this morning. I credit Eugene Peterson for this; he’s a Presbyterian minister and author, most notably he authored the version of the Bible called The Message.
Peterson loved the Book of Ephesians, which we read from today, he has studied if for decades. Ephesians is about growing up he says, and the most important thing we do in life is to be growing up in our faith. Throughout our lives, we must practice and learn what it is to know and follow in the way of Jesus Christ—it is a project that we must take seriously throughout our entire lives if we wish to face the challenges of this world with wisdom and maturity. (Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 2)
Peterson contrasts “growing up” with the more conventional Christian idea of being “born again.” Nicodemus is the biblical person Jesus says tells to be born again; but Nicodemus does not stop there. He undergoes obvious and ongoing growth in his faith as he interacts with Jesus at three different points throughout his life. Many modern Christians act as if the main thing is to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that after that, not much matters.
Eugene Peterson begs to differ. I agree with him. None of us is going to become perfect, but we have to be committed to growth and maturity, in all kinds of ways, and throughout our lives, especially in the faith that grounds us.
What are the ways in which you can be growing up in this season? Have you fallen victim to an unhealthy habit that has you stuck, an addiction, that is toxic in your life and the life of others? Are your patterns of consumption, of material things or of media and information, contributing to misery in your life? Are you so dug into one way of thinking that you cannot see the point of view of others? How are you growing in your faith? Are you growing in your knowledge of the Bible and its stories of our faith? Do examine your beliefs and think about them with intention, or have you mostly figured that stuff out? And just in case you are feeling attacked by this line of question, let me assure you: I am simply describing my own struggles to you. All of us have growing up to do.
There is also the growing up that is incumbent upon all of us, together:
I believe what I read in the New York Times about the necessity to do background checks and pass red flag laws and get assault weapons out of the hands of regular people. And I believe what I read in the Wall Street Journal that the problem of gun violence and mass shootings is related to the breakdown of family and cultural institutions, including the church. And I believe we must confront the mental health crises our nation is experiencing that are not only manifesting themselves in gun violence, but in drug abuse, and suicide, and depression. We live in a prosperous and opulent society, that is very, very sick. And we must act. I believe all of these things. What I find UNbelieveable is that we have become so dug in to our political positions that we miss chances to do everything we can to address all of these problems, so that we start to see some reduction in the times a troubled person opens fire in a public place. All kinds of strategies should be tried; we have some growing up to do.
Of course much of what I am saying applies to “the powers that be,” many of whom will never hear this sermon. And you and I, regular people who are in church this morning, are prone to feeling helpless as to what we can do. So as we gather today, I want to both convict and encourage us all that there is indeed a cultural malaise going on that is contributing to our lack of health. We all participate in that culture, and that means we all can play a part in changing it, and we should not have to feel helpless.
The good news, of course, especially here in church, is that there is Good News—Good News of Jesus Christ, a Gospel, of grace. We are not here in church to be chastised for our past or present, but to be forgiven so that we can be welcomed into a different future. Because so many of us are frustrated about where we are as a culture, we are invited by Jesus Christ to keep growing in our life with him.
I’m going to finish where I started—with music. On Friday night I sat in this Sanctuary for a concert highlighting the piano music of Korean composers. One young man played a piece by Grace Choi. Before playing, described how the piece moves between the key of E, with passages exhibiting peace and joy and movement, and the Key of D, with passages exhibiting trouble and turbulence. This is what life is like for all of us. A search for peace and joy and movement, interrupted by turbulence. We must make some sense of it. I was moved on Friday that that young group of musicians wanted to hold their recital in this place—in a church. And it reminded me that our call as Christians is to do exactly what Grace Choi’s music was doing—to negotiate the dance between joy and turbulence, between tragedy and hope, in these days we have on earth. The best way we have to do that is to be growing up in faith, to be learning the way of Jesus Christ. Let us grow together, and change our lives, so that we can change our future. Amen.