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Sun, Oct 15, 2017

A More Excellent Way

Duration:17 mins 17 secs

“A More Excellent Way”
Sermon on Philippians 4:4-9
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Several years ago there was an article in the Wall Street Journal that began with the dilemma of Amy Freeman, a Bethesda mother who could not find anything in the young adult section of her Barnes & Noble for her thirteen-year-old daughter to read. All the books available for the 12-18-year-old age group were about vampires, suicide, brutality, and self-mutilation – nothing, Mrs. Freeman said, but “dark, dark stuff.” There were no images of joy, beauty, or noble purpose. “If books show us the world,” the article’s author notes, “teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.”
The pervasiveness of such fiction, if the article is to be believed, is disturbing – and not because I think that reading about homicide will turn a person into a murderer, or that reading about the drug culture will turn him into an addict. But it does raise a question: What do these books do to a young person’s most tender feelings, her impulses toward goodness – ultimately, her potential for happiness? Librarians counter that the books validate the experience of many teens, giving a voice to those “who would otherwise be voiceless,” and provide “teachable moments for the family.” Writers say, defensively, that the books are still better than what kids can find on the internet. But what do we do to our children and youth—and, for that matter, our older selves -- by portraying a world in which simple goodness does not seem possible?
It is true that there is darkness in the world and teenagers are just as aware of that as adults – if you are a teenager, I’m guessing you don’t need young adult fiction to convince you. Your daily news feed will do the job.
It is impossible to say whether the world is darker and more frightening today than it was when Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi. We know that the ancient Mediterranean world was marked by a deep pessimism about life. Paul himself wrote this letter from prison, a place designed for maximum suffering – torture was not unusual in the prisons of antiquity. The church was being persecuted, as the Roman empire clamped down on any kind of dissenting opinion. Rows of crosses were visible on the landscape, a graphic reminder of the power of the empire to deal with anyone who stepped out of line.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that the means of doing evil are much more implacable today. We have technology that would have been unthinkable to our first-century forebears, and ever more ingenious ways of using it. In this congregation there are people who grew up seeing or reading about the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust; people of my generation, who grew up in the shadow of Vietnam and witnessed the violence against black Americans in the civil rights era; and our young people, who are growing up in a world that has been shaped by the disaster of September 11, 2001, and are now witnessing a frightening resurgence of racist and white supremacist activities. Over the last 15 or so years, we’ve all been horrified by mass shootings in schools, churches, and other public venues in our country. We have also seen a shocking decline in courtesy and civility, when much of our public discourse has been reduced to tweet-storms and vicious social media posts.
In such a context, Paul’s conditional “if” strikes us: “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Yet Paul, writing a letter from a dark place, did not doubt the reality of truth, honor, justice, and purity – those virtues he commends to the Philippians as the fitting context for rejoicing in the Lord. In fact, joy is the dominant note of this letter from prison – everything else is a variation on this theme. Because of the joy that is possible for Christians, they are able to cultivate the virtues of truth, honor, and fairness. It is possible for them to live nobly even in cruel circumstances because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ and his redemption, a knowledge that brings peace and freedom from fear. Paul and the Philippians have been “subverted by joy,” and they refuse to give in to the pessimism of their age.
It is fair to ask ourselves today: Is there any excellence? Is there anything just, honorable, and worthy of praise? It seems to me that part of our charge as the church of Jesus Christ is to hold up, especially for our youngest members, examples that point us beyond the many images of destruction and despair that are so present to us. It is part of our charge to point to what Paul called “a more excellent way” – to think about the things that are truthful, pleasing, and noble rather than those things that are ugly, false, and cruel. To do so is not to deny the reality of evil or to close our eyes to all that is not pleasant in the world. But we may choose, for ourselves and our children, examples of admirable people, people who lived lives of courage and integrity, who may not have been perfectly virtuous at all times but who lived out of a vision of what the world could be, and whose faith helped them endure through the most difficult circumstances.
I think of people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the “moral celebrities” of our age who are widely known. I also think of not-so-famous people who have showed extraordinary strength and courage in smaller arenas. I think of the people who risked their lives to pull other people to safety in Las Vegas less than two weeks ago, or the people braving floodwaters to get needed supplies to the most vulnerable people in Puerto Rico and other hurricane disaster areas. I also think of ordinary people who need courage on a daily basis: people who deal with debilitating illness with humor and a complete absence of self-pity; or people in poverty who struggle against terrible odds for a sense of dignity and a better life for their children. And I think of Paul himself, who looked in the face of brutality and death and affirmed that that was not all there was, and that evil and squalor and misery would not be the last word about human life. Such people show us “a more excellent way.”
My husband often remarks that he wishes there were more books like “Profiles in Courage” by John F. Kennedy. My husband’s father made him read this book when he was a teenager, and my husband thoroughly disliked having to do so, but the portraits of honorable people that emerged from this reading have stayed with him. We all need good examples to show us what a truthful, honorable, pleasing life looks like. We need portraits of goodness – not perfection, first because such a thing does not exist on earth and second, if it did it would only discourage us – just the kind of human goodness that points us toward an even greater goodness.
In a recent memoir in The New Yorker, writer James Wood describes the influence of his mother, a Scottish schoolteacher and a devout Protestant. She was “ambitious” for her children, he says, but “she wanted us to be morally successful.” That word struck me: we rarely hear “ambition” spoken of in that way. Our culture tells us to strive for money, possessions, and fame as the proper objects of ambition. But, of course, moral success is what we all want for our children – not only because we want them to be good people, but because we want them to be happy.
Paul says to the Philippians, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We have learned and received and heard the gospel of a love that is stronger than the forces of hate and destruction: stronger than nuclear warheads or airplanes that fly into buildings; stronger than Nazi storm troopers or ISIS militants or armed white supremacists; stronger than the abusers and haters of this world. We have a responsibility to see our suffering world in the light of that gospel and to help our children and youth to see all the possibility and promise of the more excellent way it points out to us.
So, beloved in Christ – parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders, students – “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,” pure, or pleasing, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

 

Lisa Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 15, 2017

 

 

 

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