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You asked for a sermon on How to Approach the Twenty-Five Year Old About Coming Back to Church


Mark 12:28-34

 It can always be argued that the 25 year-old should come (or come back) to church for precisely the same reason that any person of any age should come (back). In this respect the 25 year-old is no different from the 85 year-old. God is to be worshipped; God is to be worshipped in the company of his people; God is to be worshipped as a public witness to his public activity. Why does the 25 year-old think she’s different from the 85 year-old?

At the same time I appreciate the sermon-request as it came to me, since a 25 year-old is different from the 85 year-old. The concerns and questions and opportunities and expectations are very different for each age-group.

For years I wondered why wars have always been fought by 18 to 20 year- olds. And then one day, as I was reflecting on car insurance rates for 18 to 20 year-olds, I had my answer. People of this age are heedless of danger. They feel themselves to be invulnerable. They’re reckless. They have a sense of adventure that eclipses any awareness of risk.

By the time someone is 25, much has changed. Several years have been spent acquiring an education or gaining work-experience or both. Recklessness has been tempered with wisdom. The sense of adventure remains, but now it is moderated by sobriety and a realistic perception of life. (By the time I was 26 years old, for instance, I was ordained and the spiritual advisor to people three times my age; by age 26 my cousin was three years past graduation from medical school.) How, then, are we to approach the 25 year-old concerning the church, its message and its mission?

I: — I’d start with the issue of truth, truth in the sense of reality. The 25 year-old is old enough to ask herself, “What is, ultimately? What is reality? And therefore what is worth pursuing?” To ask this question is also to ask, “What is merely seeming? What is deceptive? What is it that promises more than it can ever deliver?”

In response to the crucial question, “What is, with what (or whom) do we have to do ultimately?”, the materialist insists that reality is material, or at least rooted in the material. One form of materialism tested over and over in our century is Marxism. Now we mustn’t dismiss it too quickly. We must never forget that iniquitous class-distinction has been more pronounced in Britain than anywhere in continental Europe. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital out of his immersion in the horrible social consequences of industrialization in Britain. If we had been immersed in those social horrors, could we have prevented ourselves from joining anything that promised social amelioration? Can you imagine the spectacle of five year-old children raging not on account of a temper tantrum but on account of the “DTs”? (A child with the DTs was a common sight in 19th century England.)

At a meeting of Maritime Conference in 1971 a retired coal miner from Cape Breton addressed us young United Church clergy. With tears in his eyes he told us of the horrors of coal-mining in Nova Scotia when he was a young man. The men worked seven days per week for a pittance, amidst dangers that no mine-owner or government body attempted to minimize. He told us the men were desperate and looked everywhere for help in changing their conditions. They looked to the church, and were given no help; they looked to the communist party, and were promised everything.

There are several problems with the materialist philosophy of Marxism, chief of which is, it simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t deliver what it promises; in fact, it delivers the starkest contradiction of what it promises. Marxism promises freedom but finally enslaves. It promises foodstuffs for the masses but fails to provide so much as a loaf of bread. It promises the classless society but requires brutal secret police to maintain social rigidities. It promises the tranquillity supposed to emerge in the absence of ruthless capitalistic competition but issues in the savagery of black market competition. In our century no experiment has failed as notoriously. Need we say more to our 25 year-old friend?

Marxism is only one kind of materialism. There are others. Another one (or at least an aspect of another one) is epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism maintains that mind is reducible to brain; it maintains that what we call thinking is nothing more than the “steam” thrown up by lightning-fast movement of brain cells (i.e., of matter.)

To be sure, no one denies the connexion between mind and brain. No one denies that brain is necessary for mind. No one denies that physical alterations to brain produce altered ideation. (Ponder the effects of alcohol or head-injury.) Yet to admit all of this is not to admit that mind is reducible to brain, reducible without remainder. For if mind is reducible to brain, then what we call thinking simply isn’t. If thinking isn’t, then what we call imagination, creativity, genuine newness; all of this isn’t. What we call “ideas” is no more than the exhaust fumes of an underlying biological state. If mind is reducible to brain, not only does thinking disappear; so does responsibility, so does reasoning. (And the sermon should stop here, for a sermon is an attempt at persuading people, by means of reason, that they are responsible creatures accountable to the God who made them to love him with their mind, their genuine mind.) Is our 25 year old going to accept the form of materialism known as epiphenomenalism?

What are the alternatives to materialism? Humanism is one alternative, humanists affirming that ultimate reality is the profoundly human, the uniquely human. Humanism venerates cultural riches transcending the merely material as culture fashions us and informs us. Culture renders us most profoundly human.

Humanism was recovered in the Renaissance as the learning of ancient Greece and Rome was recovered and added to by the Renaissance thinkers themselves. It thrived throughout the Renaissance (15th through 17th centuries). Then the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers dealt it some hard blows. The 19th century discoveries of Darwin, Freud and Marx (yes, there is a measure of truth in Marx) dealt it still harder blows. And historical developments in the 20th century have all but killed it. When, soon into the 20th century, the most sophisticated nations slew each other, day after day, piling up scores of thousands of corpses each day (I speak now of World War I); when the nation most advanced in medicine, science, philosophy, theology and music perpetrated a hideousness so hideous that the world is always wanting to deny it (I speak now of you know what); when the nuclear age dawned and the two mightiest nations looked at each other with fingers poised on the buttons that would vapourize millions instantly, leave many more millions to die slowly of radiation sickness, and render the earth uninhabitable — when both nations pursued their policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (“MAD”); when all of this unfolded in the 20th century, humanism withered.

We have come at last to the alternative to materialism and humanism; namely, the notion that Spirit is reality. Spirit isn’t vague or fantastic; Spirit isn’t ethereal or ephemeral; Spirit is without parallel for its density, solidity, opacity, weightiness. Spirit is reality. When we think of “spirit” we should spell it with both an upper case “S” and a lower case “s”, for “Spirit” refers to God, and “spirit” refers to our God-forged capacity for God and our human uniqueness of being uniquely related to him. At the end of the day the context in which all of life unfolds and the truth that drives world-occurrence is S(s)pirit. Because Spirit is ultimate reality, to ignore Spirit is to discount spirit; and to do this is to will one’s life to unfold in unreality. To persist in unreality is to court falsity, and to court falsity is to end in illusion. Then why not declare forthrightly that Spirit is reality, Spirit is substance, Spirit is the environment that surrounds us at all times and in all places? Spirit is the environment apart from which we shouldn’t be human. Flee it? Escape it? Can you imagine a fish that, by dint of very hard swimming, could finally escape water? Every time such a fish exerted itself to swim beyond water it merely reconfirmed water. No wonder the psalmist remarks, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps. 139:7) Once we’ve recognized that Spirit is substance, Spirit is reality, we find everything in life reconfirming the truth.

Where is Spirit recognized as ultimate reality? In the church. Where is Spirit-incarnate cherished and honoured and obey? In the church. Why should the 25 year-old come back to church? We’ve already dealt with this question.

II: — The 25 year old is likely soon to be a parent. Parental responsibility is awesome responsibility. While scripture insists that God has set parents in authority over children, it also insists that there is one ground, and one ground only, for the authority that parents have over their children: parents are to model for their children the relationship that God has with his people.

Two conclusions can quickly be drawn. (i) Apart from their mandate to model with their children God’s relationship with his people, parents have no legitimate authority over children. (ii) Not to nurture a child in the things of God is a terrible dereliction on the part of parents. This morning we are going to think about the latter, the responsibility parents have to provide spiritual nurture for their children.

I used to be amused (I’m now merely dumbfounded) at parents who say they aren’t going to provide any Christian edification for their child, preferring to leave the child’s mind uncluttered (they mean unprejudiced) so that the child can make up her own mind when she’s older. While such parents assume they are the acme of wisdom, in fact their stupidity would be instantly evident anywhere else in life. What should we think of the parent who said, “I’m not going to send my child to school when he’s five years old; I want him to make up his own mind; then he’ll be able to decide for himself whether he wants to bother with this intellectual stuff”? Such a parent thinks she’s keeping open the greatest number of options for her child, when in fact she’s closing options for her child. Her child won’t read, will likely never learn to read, will be scarcely employable if employable at all, will be socially isolated and psychologically traumatized. What are we to think of the parent who says, “When winter arrives I’m not going to insist my child wear an overcoat when he plays outside; he can decide for himself whether the encumbrance of winter clothing is finally ‘worth it’. We don’t want to encumber him unnecessarily.” Thinking she’s expanding the child’s options, she’s foreclosing them. Soon the child will have pneumonia and won’t be playing anywhere. What are we to think of the parent who says, “I’m not going to have my child vaccinated. I don’t want to impose on him something he might find unpleasant. I’ll let him make up his own mind when he’s older.” Make up his mind when he’s older? He won’t be around to make up his mind. He will have succumbed to diphtheria or something like it.

The folly of such parenting is evident in such matters as schooling and clothing and hygiene. It should be obvious with respect to matters of Christian nurture. It is obvious as soon as we know Spirit to be substance. The folly is self-evident.

There’s more to be said. If parents say, “We’re going to allow our child to make up his own mind on …”; the parents who say this in fact aren’t allowed to do it. The state won’t permit parents to exercise their folly. The state insists that children be schooled. The state insists that children not be neglected. If the parents are found guilty in this respect, the parents will be charged with a criminal offense. The state insists that schoolchildren be vaccinated. If the parents prefer not to have their children vaccinated, their children will be removed from the classroom. Why? Lest their children infect other children.

Do you think it’s possible for children to infect other children with something besides microbes? Do you think it’s possible for young people to infect young people? If so, what’s to be done? Where do we turn?

When parents say, “We want to keep an open mind; we want our child to make up his own mind”; when parents say this in everyday matters, the state intervenes and overrides the parents’ folly. Should the state intervene and override parental folly in matters of spiritual nurture? I’m not going to debate this point today. But the fact that the state intervenes where it does and doesn’t intervene where it doesn’t indicates much about the society’s failure to understand the nature of reality.

The 25 year-old is soon to be a parent. Children have to be nurtured. Enough said.

III: — Another consideration for our 25 year-old. I want to speak briefly of a German poet, Heinrich Heine. Because Heine was a poet his friends assumed if ever he needed comforting profoundly, he would find all the comfort he needed, indeed all the comfort possible, in the realm of cultural excellence. When tragedy overtook Heine his friends sent him off to the arts. He listened to the German musical genius. He probed literature. Standing in front of the famous statue of Venus, that beautiful sculpture whose arms have unfortunately been broken off, he cried, “It’s beautiful; but it has no arms!” No cultural excellence could finally touch his grief.

How different is the conviction (a conviction born of experience) of the unnamed writer of Deuteronomy: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27) We mustn’t think that because the everlasting arms are ever underneath us life is therefore ever rosy. The everlasting arms are always underneath just because life isn’t always rosy. Neither should we think that “everlasting arms” means that God has reached down and remotely given us a hand, only a hand, while all the while remaining above our frailty and fragility. His arms are around us, rather, just because he shares our frailty and fragility. It is a Hebrew prophet who asks, “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”, only to go on to speak of “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:1,4)

When we are 18 years old it’s hard to imagine life ever turning down; when we are 18 we think that the world is governed by reason and is ultimately fair. By the time we are 25 we know that fairness isn’t found in life: unfairness proliferates everywhere. By age 25 we know that many things control the world: prejudice, hatred, fanaticism, hunger for power, ambition, folly — and reason? Reason is the last determinant, the slenderest determinant, of how the world unfolds.

Then what are we to do? Where are we to look? What can we expect to find? If the “what” is capricious and borderline chaotic, then whom can we expect to find? Isaiah looked up and heard, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

IV: — My last comment to the 25 year-old is a challenge: “Do you want to help what our Jewish friends call, Tikkun Olam, the mending of the world? Or do you merely want to profit from the inequities that riddle it now?”

I have informed this congregation many times that the congregation sees only part of my work; it sees chiefly that part which pertains to the people who come to worship. The other part is known to virtually no one else. This part of my work occurs among people who don’t have the good fortune and grand opportunities that we take for granted. Naturally enough, we tend to make ourselves the measure of the universe. Therefore we assume, unthinkingly, that we in this congregation represent life in Canada. In fact we don’t. We think we’re a cross-section of the Canadian people, or at least a cross-section of Mississauga’s people. Cross-section? We’re the skim off the top; we represent the top 1/10th of 1% in terms of income and education and opportunity. There are strugglers all around us who don’t have our good fortune and privilege. There are legions whose sheer bad luck or upbringing or genetic coding has excluded them from so much of what we lucky people take for granted. We in Streetsville are so very privileged we’ve lost sight of those who aren’t. Compare the average Canadian family-income with that of this congregation; compare the average formal education with that here; compare the average retirement package with that here. Compare the average social opportunity and employment opportunity and recreational opportunity and intellectual opportunity with those here. If we are hard-hearted and spiritually inert we might recite that wretched hymn, “The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” To be sure, we can always resolve to continue to benefit from our extraordinary privilege, determined not to think of anyone else lest our tummy become upset. On the other hand, we can soberly, truthfully, conscientiously admit that much will one day be required of those who have been entrusted with much. We can pursue Tikkun Olam, the mending of the world.

Our Lord came upon a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. He didn’t say to her, “Why are you bent over? Is it your fault?” Neither did he say, “Eighteen years already? What are two or three more? Besides, you don’t have much longer to live.” Instead he became angry, but not angry at her; angry at someone else. Our Lord hissed, “Satan has done this.” And then he freed her.

And so my challenge to the 25 year-old is, “Are you big enough for this? Are you willing to be made big enough? Or do you want to take your self-indulgent ease within the cocoon of unusual luck and privilege, all the while thinking your exclusive cocoon to be the product of extraordinary virtue?”

I’d like to talk with some 25 year-olds.


                                                                   Victor Shepherd       

February 1998