Article | April 9, 2023
Sermon: Teenager of the Year
Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
View the Sermon on our YouTube.
“Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3).
When are you most fully alive? My friend Rhonda Magee felt fully alive when she was sixteen years old. The world was opening up, college was around the corner. Life had not been easy but she had reason to hope. Rhonda and a boy named Jake were head over heels in love. Then just before she left town for a summer university course, he told her over the phone, “My father kicked me out of the house.” She asked him why. He said, “You know why… I told you how he is. It’s because of us. He said no son of his is going to be dating a black girl…”[i]
Rhonda felt gripped by pain. She was an A student and about to be chosen as the town’s Teenager of the Year. Yet her race – a category created by others and that she felt did not capture much of who she really was – made her unacceptable to Jake’s parents. They had never met her. And yet they were willing to hurt their own son, and therefore themselves, all to teach him, Rhonda, and anyone else a lesson. They believed in white supremacy so strongly that they were ready to throw their own son out like garbage.
We all have beliefs like this. They diminish us and damage the people around us. The social theorist bell hooks assert that racism in America is a crisis of “lovelessness.” Certainly, the current anti-LGBTQ+ legislation illustrates the terrible lovelessness that has this country in its grip. The poverty in this city does too. But these are just a few of many stories we carry that poison our life, that prevent us from ever being fully alive.
The stories we tell about ourselves as individuals also can harm us. Even as a child, psychologist Brené Brown knew that “People will do almost anything to not feel pain, including causing pain and abusing power.” She realized that “very few people can handle being held accountable without rationalizing, blaming or shutting down.” As a result, “Without understanding how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together, it’s almost impossible to find our way back to ourselves and each other. When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other.”[ii]
We feel alive when we come home to ourselves and to God when we can become connected in a new way to our past and to each other. This encounter, the forgiveness we experience in Jesus, lies at the heart of the resurrection. Easter is the chance for a new story to take hold in our life. It is the beginning of a new era when everyone will belong and have the chance to thrive. God’s love dares to include those who do not fit, the ones who the powerful cannot abide.[iii] Through God, we can be free of the hold that fear and death have on us.
No one really knows what happened at dawn that morning before Mary Magdalene and the other Mary felt the earth-shaking. They saw the guards frozen like dead men by fear and watched an angel who looked like lightning come down from heaven and roll back the stone at the tomb. There is no way to make Easter fully understandable.
This does not mean it is illogical. Matt Fitzgerald remembers the Easter when his daughter was in kindergarten, and the church sent each child home with a plastic purple Easter egg. Inside was not chocolate but a little slip of paper. His daughter was learning to read, and so she sounded out the three-word message. “He is… raisins?” “He is raisins is illogical. He is risen is merely incomprehensible.” When we speak about God we have to “distinguish between things that do not make sense and things we cannot make sense of.”[iv] God cannot be contained, confined, described, or defined. But we can meet God in the person of Jesus on Easter morning.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke mention anointing, but in the Gospel of Matthew, the women come simply “to see” the tomb. The Greek word theōrēsai means to observe, analyze, and discern with the connotation that one is involved and committed. It is related to our words theory, theoretical, and theater, that onstage action helps us to better understand human life.
After meeting the angel, the two women leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. Jesus greets them with a word (xairete) that means both hello and rejoice (like the word aloha means hello and love). He says, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Mt. 28). He offers this message of comfort and forgiveness to friends who abandoned him.
In the second century, Irenaeus said that the Glory of God is the human being fully alive. Feeling fully alive often involves an experience of joy. What is joy?
Greek has the word makarios for happiness or blessedness. It is the word repeated frequently in the beatitudes as in, “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5). The ancient Greeks regarded this kind of happiness as the freedom that rich people might have from normal cares and worries. These are the people who have good fortune, health and money.[v]
On the other hand, the Greek word for joy is xara. It is related to our word Grace. It means to be fulfilled. The perfect version of xara can only be found in God. The Greeks thought that this experience did not surprise us haphazardly. Rather this joy naturally comes with wisdom and virtue. To use more modern language, it is the pleasure that comes with a spiritual connection. We do not lose ourselves in joy – we become more deeply ourselves in it.[vi]
Joy is surprisingly difficult for us. Part of the reason for this is that joy as an emotion requires us to be vulnerable. Last winter, I came across a new expression for a feeling I recognize. It is “foreboding joy.”[vii] It refers to that sense of hesitation we feel when it comes to joy. We don’t want to be too joyful because we are irrationally afraid that this will somehow cause something bad to happen.
Psychologists who study this say that 95 percent of parents interviewed have experienced this with their children. We hold back because we think it will make us hurt less later.
One man in his sixties said, “I used to think that the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you would be pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident, and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared that I didn’t fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment… I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that.”[viii]
Experiencing joy means being vulnerable in love. So how do we cultivate a propensity for joy in our ordinary lives beyond a willingness to really feel joy and to let others see our weakness? The simple answer is to practice gratitude. Gratitude is not an attitude, it is not a feeling. It is something we do over and over, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. For me, gratitude lies at the heart of my prayer life and what we do here.
Last week I was giving a tour of the archives when I found a sermon Alan Jones preached at Grace Cathedral in 1990. It moved me so deeply that I wanted just to read the entire manuscript to you. Alan refers to a French priest named Jean Sulivan, who describes Western cultures as spiritually impoverished and undeveloped, as unawake and unaware of the miracle right in front of our noses.[ix]
That miracle is the miracle of being. It is the miracle that we are. If you want a miracle, look at yourself. Our life is the love story of God trying to reach us, to help us.
Have you ever wanted to meet a famous person? I always wished that I could spend a day with the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman. He wrote a poem called “Miracles.”
“… As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, / Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, / Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, / Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge / of the water, / Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, / Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, / Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, / Or watch honey-bees around the hive of a summer forenoon… Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars / shining so quiet and bright, / Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; / These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, / The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place…”[x] When are you most fully alive? In the face of overwhelming lovelessness, and the pain that causes more pain, there is a new story. Jesus calls us to come home to ourselves and to God. So in gratitude, let us see the world with a new intent. Let us leave behind our foreboding joy and know
[i] Rhonda V. Magee, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness (NY: Penguin Random House, 2019) 11-13.
[ii] Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart (NY: Random House, 2021) xx.
[iii] Alan Jones, “Easter Day: Take Time for Paradise,” Grace Cathedral Sermons, 15 April 1990.
[iv] Matt Fitzgerald, “Thunderous Yes: Preaching to the Easter Crowds, “The Christian Century, 10 April 2014. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-03/thunderous-yes?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=dcce86669b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2023-04-03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-dcce86669b-86237307
[v] Ibid., 204ff.
[vi] Ibid., 205.
[vii] Ibid., 215.
[viii] Ibid., 50.
[ix] This paragraph and the next come from: Alan Jones, “Easter Day: Take Time for Paradise,” Grace Cathedral Sermons, 15 April 1990
[x] “Why, who makes much of a miracle? / As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, / Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, / Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, / Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge / of the water, / Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, / Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, / Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, / Or watch honey-bees around the hive of a summer forenoon / Or animals feeding in the fields, / Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, / Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars / shining so quiet and bright, / Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; / These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, / The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place. // To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, / Every cubic inch of space is a miracle, / Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread / with the same, // To me the sea is a continual miracle, / The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion of the / waves – the ships with men in them, / What stranger miracles are there?”
Walt Whitman, “Miracles,” Leaves of Grass. https://poets.org/poem/miracles