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From Generation to Generation

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

February 3, 2019
Luke 2:22-40

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

It feels like we talk about generations a lot these days. A few weeks ago, CBS news ran yet another story talking with such broad strokes about what it means to be a Millennial and they accompanied it with this very convenient network-news sort of chart, in which they summarized the Pew Research Center guidelines on generational definitions: Silent Generation, born before the end of the Second World War; Boomers, born between 46 and 64; Millennials; born between 81 and 96; and now, our newly-christened post-millennial generation Z, born sometime after 1997. Oddly, as you may have noticed, CBS news managed entirely to forget the generation in the middle, Generation X, usually born between roughly 1965 and 1980 — but, if you want to go with the stereotypes, forgetting Generation X is a very Generation X sort of thing to have happened. It fits the bill.

For my own part, I have never entirely known where to put myself on that chart. I was born in 1979, so the Pew Research Center thinks I’m very young Generation Xer, but my childhood had a lot more to do with computers than it did with Watergate. On the other hand I can remember our household getting our first computer; I can remember handing in assignments that I had produced on typewriter; I look at the broad generalizations about Millennials and technology and I don’t entirely recognize myself. There is a little bit of research to suggest that those of us born between 77 and 83 actually compromise a little micro-generation — the Xennials — and when I read the characteristics of that group I feel deeply known, but, I also suspect that making up a super-boutique micro-generation in order to feel special might be kind of a Millennial thing to do. So I’m stuck, and I suspect I will remain stuck.

I think the reason we talk so much about generations is that we can feel ourselves in this in-between time, this moment where we know enough to know that we’re not staying where we were, this moment where we don’t quite know enough to know where we’re going. It feels uncomfortable. It feels uncertain. And the only thing we can possibly agree on is that it’s some other generation’s fault. In the church, too. In the church, too. I hear all the sides. Millennials don’t show up and don’t respect traditions. Xers shrink from responsibility and won’t accept the mantle of leadership. Boomers hold the grips too tightly and they’re the ones who broke it in the first place. And the silent generation can’t conceive of something broader than the church it grew up with. Good luck to Generation Z, coming into a conversation as old as time and yet somehow newly tender and newly raw and desperately urgent. Good luck indeed.

Into all of this I submit the first young family Jesus ever brings to church, namely, his own. To be fair, we really don’t know anything about Mary and Joseph’s worship life before our text today —we certainly know that Mary has theological language at her disposal as evidenced by the singing of the Magnificat. But we have no idea whether either of them have been really involved in “the life of the church.” Has Mary jumped onto the finance committee? Has Joseph volunteered to lead Bridge to Worship? On these critical questions scripture remains unfortunately silent. All we see in the text is the two of them obliging Jewish tradition — first with the circumcision of the baby, and now, at the appointed time, with his presentation into the Jerusalem temple. Now, Jerusalem would be a pilgrimage, and the folks in the temple there would be used to seeing strangers streaming in from the countryside. But nonetheless there is a sense in this text almost as if you can hear the regulars in the pews looking back at the door and whispering to each other during the prayers — who’s that new young family in church today?

And among the whisperers, to be sure, are Simeon and Anna. Simeon and Anna have been around for a long time, and they have seen just about everything there is to see in the Jerusalem temple. Simeon is a regular, “righteous and devout,” the text says — Simeon has been doing what the law tells him to do for about as long as anybody can remember, and he has been clinging to this promise — a promise from the Holy Spirit — that if he hung around long enough he would see the Lord’s Messiah. So Simeon has been there every worship service, week in, week out, waiting, for a very long time. And then there’s Anna. Anna likes church so much she lives there. Anna lost her husband a few years ago and just decided to get into a relationship with liturgy; she is there, day and night, in worship and fasting and prayer, and  I guarantee you, there is not a piece of stray gossip that goes by in that temple without Anna getting a hold of it. Simeon and Anna could tell you stories. Simeon and Anna are a heritage ministry team unto themselves. Simeon and Anna know where all the bodies are buried. Simeon and Anna have seen just about everything.

Except Jesus. They’ve never seen anything quite like this child at all. “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,” Simeon exclaims. It’s the thing he’s been waiting for all this time and also it takes him completely by surprise. Anna, too — right after the text says that is fast and pray it then notes that she sees Jesus and begins to worship; she begins to worship like this woman who has been worshiping 24/7 for the last decade and most of the life before that, but now she is worshiping like she has never worshiped before, because God has done a new thing. In this child. In this new generation. Simeon and Anna see a new thing; and meanwhile, Mary and Joseph get to see a very old thing. Luke says that they return home and Jesus grows strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God is upon him, as if only in this encounter, in this moment between the last generation and the next, in this sacred exchange where one Millennial family brings their kids to church and this one sliver of Silent Generation gets to lend its voice, now, God’s work really begins.

There’s something beautiful about this encounter. In some ways it is deeply traditional; it happens within the confines of the most basic and elemental Jewish ritual. In others of course, it is breathtakingly new, as Simeon and Anna are forced to acknowledge in this child God breaking into the world. Nobody in this story gets to have church entirely on their own generational terms. Except for the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit seems convinced that every one of these generations has to be here for the whole thing to work.

A few weeks ago I received a gift which was a day spent in group conversation with a Presbyterian pastor named Pat Bacon. Pat is not someone I had ever met before or even knew of; she has been for the last twenty-seven years the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Pat is an old black woman, pastoring an old black church in a denomination that most days of the week doesn’t know what to do with either one of those things. It is the only church she has ever served; she has been there most of my lifetime, and she has seen just about everything. More than that. Pat can tell you stories. By the grace of God, listening to Pat tell stories was the order of the day, and we heard them. Stories about growing up black and poor in the postwar south. Stories like the day the white police came for one of the men in the factory where her father worked and they never heard from him again. Stories like the one about her father out planting trees in the garden even when his body was failing, because he wanted to give everything he could for the folks coming along behind. Stories upon stories upon stories. I could listen to Pat tell stories for days on end.

As this day went along, the conversation shifted more and more away from the postwar south and into the United States in 2019, and somebody in the room asked Pat how she felt looking at the various advocacy movements around racial justice that have sprung up over the past decade. And what she said, with the full authority of the room and the full authority of the day, what she said was, “You know, I like Black Lives Matter a lot. I respect the work. I respect the cause. But they still need me. They don’t always know it, but they still need me.” Now I don’t pretend to speak for any of those movements. But I think Pat’s onto a broader truth. I think we all still need each other. I think I don’t get very far without her, not really. I think she doesn’t get very far without me, not really. I don’t think either one of us gets very far without the folks coming up underneath us who seem to get younger every day. I think the Gospel is that the grace of God moves from generation to generation — and that means talking to one another — even when we don’t always speak the same language.

It’s one of the reasons why church is so critical. Church is one of the very few places left in the regular social fabric of America where inter-generational conversation happens as a matter of course. I bet almost everyone in this room has a story of the person your parents’ age or your grandparents’ age who modeled for you what being part of a worshiping community felt like. And whether you know it or not, almost everyone in this room has also helped usher a new thing into the life of someone who thought they’d seen everything. We have so much cultural anxiety about generations and church can and should be one of the places where we repair that breach. It matters that we talk to one another. It matters that we inspire one another. It matters that we see the elderly clients who come through the door at UPLift. It matters that we see the thousands of college kids who walk down our sidewalk in front of the church, and those of them who join us for worship. It matters that they have something to learn from us. It matters that we have something to learn from the kids. It matters that this is sacred space where the grace of God goes from generation to generation. It matters that in this sacred space, God can get to work.

So here’s my invitation for today. In just few minutes, we are going to convene our annual congregational meeting to receive the budget and vote on terms of call and elect a new slate of officers and to be sure I invite you to celebrate in the gifts of leadership in this church that pull from every generation. But my invitation is broader than that. After the meeting today, there will be some cookies in the courtyard and a time for fellowship, and during this time, I invite you to find somebody in the church of a generation different than your own, and I invite you to thank them. I invite you to find somebody who has touched you, or inspired you, or challenged you, or called you into being — not a family member, not a staff member, but somebody who might have never heard you say thank-you before. If you feel like Simeon, I invite you tofind Mary. If you feel like Joseph, I invite you to find Anna. And before you drive away into the week. I invite you to share a moment of gratitude together. We talk a lot about generations these days. Let’s take a moment to talk across generations, too, with God’s help.