Kids These Days (Sermon for August 4, 2019)

Many of you know that I’m an amateur musician. I play clarinet and tenor saxophone. And while my clarinet is reserved for things like summer band, I actually practice my saxophone. It sits on a stand in my office at home. Sometimes, I can pick it up and work for an hour or so. Sometimes, I can pick it up for fifteen minutes or so. But I practice.

And if you’ve ever played a musical instrument, or if you’ve ever played a sport, or if you’ve ever been an artist, or, really, if you’ve ever done something where you have to practice, then you know one of the most dreaded parts of practicing: the plateau.

You see, there are times when you practice and practice and practice—there are times when you work and work and work—and you don’t… get… better.

And it’s frustrating. And it’s easy to say, “This is the best I’ll ever be,” and put down the instrument or the ball or whatever, and walk away.

Today’s reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the opening poem. It sets the tone for the book. And it’s about how nothing ever changes, not really, and there’s really no point:

Pffft! It’s all just a fleeting breath.
Nothing lasts.
A generation comes, a generation goes.
The sun rises, the sun sets.
The wind blows north, the wind blows south.
The rivers run, and they keep running.
What has been, will be; what has been done, will be done again.
Everything that is now, has been before.
We just don’t remember what came before.
And the people to come won’t remember now.
And the people who come after them won’t remember what is to come.
Pffft! It’s all just a fleeting breath.

And I get that feeling.

I get that feeling on a personal level. I get saying, “This is as good as I’m ever going to get. Why even bother trying to do better? It isn’t going to work. This plateau stretches on forever.”

And I get that feeling on a grand cosmic level. It is easy to look at this world, and learn its history, and watch current events, and say, “Nothing ever changes, not really. And certainly there is nothing that I’m going to do that will change anything. There’s no point.”

And I could give a thousand serious examples. But let me give a kind of silly one:

Last week, a 16-year-old kid from Pennsylvania won $3 million in the Fortnite World Cup. You might not be familiar with Fortnite, but it’s a giant online video game. Hundreds of millions of people from all over the world play it. 

And because it’s a video game, and because it’s something that a lot of kids do, there are parents and teachers who are worried about it. It’s violent, even if that violence is cartoon-like. And who knows who’s on the game’s chat. And it pulls kids away from doing homework and being outside. And it’s still more screen time.

And someone decided that there should be a global tournament. And this 16-year-old kid won it. And this 16-year-old kid got $3 million.

And my first thought when I heard all of this was, “Kids these days.” And my second thought was, “People who organize giant global video game tournaments for kids these days.”

Because I’m old.

But my third thought was, “This isn’t new.”

Way back in 1859, there was an article in Scientific American about a new fad that was sweeping the nation. The article described the fad as a mere amusement of very inferior character. It robbed the mind of time that could have been devoted to nobler pursuits. It did nothing for the body. It did not add new facts to the mind, or excite beautiful thoughts, or serve any other purpose. The writer of the article said that people should avoid it like an adder’s nest.

He was writing about chess. It wasn’t new at the time, but it was newly popular, and all of the old things used to be the new things and people complained about them, then, too.

“Kids these days,” has been a refrain for longer than we can imagine.

In 1790, Rev. Enos Hitchcock (who I’m pretty sure was a congregationalist), wrote about how novels and plays were poisoning the minds of America’s youth. In 1695, someone wrote a book complaining about how kids in the streets were cursing and swearing and calling each other nick-names. In 1330, a monk in Japan wrote about how modern fashions were debased and people didn’t talk right anymore.

Aristotle complained about kids these days. And i’m sure that some or our primitive ancestors sat around a fire at night, after a long day of hunting and gathering, and complained about the cave art kids were painting these days.

“Kids these days,” has been a refrain for longer than we can imagine. Nothing ever changes. Not really.

But…

The author of Ecclesiastes looked at the world and said,

It’s all just a fleeting breath.
Nothing lasts.
A generation comes, a generation goes.
Everything that is now, has been before.
We just don’t remember what came before.
And the people to come won’t remember now.
And the people who come after them won’t remember what is to come.
It’s all just a fleeting breath.

And, to him, the world probably really looked that way. He had tried everything to build an eternity for himself. He had studied wisdom. He had laid back and enjoyed life. He had built monuments.

And he knew that he wold die. No one would see his wisdom. No one would know that he was fantastically wealthy. The monuments he had built would crumble. He would be forgotten.

And he could have said, “Nothing ever changes, not really. And certainly there is nothing that I’m going to do that will change anything. There’s no point.” He could have given up.

But he doesn’t. Instead, he says this, more-or-less, “Enjoy life, but know that God will judge. Take life as it comes. Eat, drink, and be merry. And whatever you are called to do, put your all into it.”

And that’s good advice to someone who looks around and sees a world where nothing really changes, where what was will be again.

And, like I said before, there are a thousand serious examples of that. I’ve stood at this pulpit and preached about the terrors and traumatization of child separation, but this is not the first time that we have separated parents from their children, and I doubt it will be the last.

I’ve stood at this pulpit and talked about the reality of school shootings. But the first school shooting in the United States was in 1840. And the first one with more than ten fatalities was in 1966. And I’m sure that, at some point, I’ll be preaching about it again.

There are a thousand things that can make us look at the world and say, “Nothing ever changes, not really. And certainly there is nothing that I’m going to do that will change anything. There’s no point.”

But… the world does change. Sometimes faster than we would like. Sometimes slower than we can see.

And that brings me back to kids these days.

It’s a tradition to complain about kids these days with their dumb pastimes and vapid entertainment and uncouth language and poor fashion choices and terrible terrible music. Aristotle complained about kids these days.

And some of that is because kids these days are a lot like the kids in those days. Even the days when we were young. Maybe a little bit more than we would like to admit.

And some of that is because kids these days are different. After all, it’s kids these days who are leading the charge against global warming. And it’s kids these days who are leading the charge against gun violence. And it’s kids these days who show up to pack bags for the summer lunchbox program.

It’s kids these days—and I have heard stories to warm your hearts—who are far more supportive and accepting of their peers than kids in my day ever were.

And that doesn’t come from nowhere. That doesn’t appear out of the blue.

Kids today are kids today because that’s how kids are. And kids today are kids today because someone planted a seed of tolerance, or a seed of self-confidence, or a seed of… doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

And it doesn’t end there. God willing, kids these days will plant their own seeds, stronger than the ones we planted, and marvel at the justice and kindness of the kids to come (and complain about them a little).

You see, it isn’t just a fleeting breath. The plateau does not go on forever. Things change. Sometimes faster than we would like. Sometimes slower than we can see. But the moral arc of the universe bends towards the Kingdom of the God.

But here’s the thing: that only works if we show up. That only works if we plant and nurture those seeds. And we do that by showing up in the lives of our young people. And we do that by showing up in the lives of our old people. And we do the by showing up in the lives of our middle-aged people.

We do that by showing up for each other. Not just when it’s our turn. Not just to do our time. But every day, for every one. And a generation comes and a generation goes, and maybe we’re remembered and maybe we’re not, and maybe slower than we would like, and maybe faster than we can imagine, the world gets better and the Kingdom of God grows.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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