Homily From Service Sunday, August 27, 2023 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church…may show forth your power among all peoples… Amen. (BCP, p. 232)
I have been enthralled this week with an essay that appeared in The Atlantic. In this essay entitled “The New Old Age,” the author David Brooks explores an emerging educational offering for professionals approaching retirement [Source]. This kind of program was initially offered at schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Recently, other schools have followed suit, with programs at places like University of Chicago and University of Minnesota. These typically year-long residential programs are designed to help people who were at the top of their fields figure out what to do with their lives now that the way they have defined themselves for decades will be shifting. One business consultant quoted in the article describes this window of time for these formerly highly-successful people – people who have found their way to these programs – as a period of mourning. “They report,” he says, “feeling hollow, disoriented, empty.”
Here’s the question that really grabbed me from this piece. Brooks asks [and I’m quoting]: “How on earth did we end up with a society in which 65-year-olds have to take courses to figure out who they are, what they really want, and what they should do next?” He continues, referring to an observation made by the director of the program at Notre Dame: “How did we wind up with a culture in which people’s veins pop out in their neck when they are forced to confront their inner lives?” His response? In his estimation, and in mine, our culture in this country has become “wildly imbalanced.” Brooks offers an unforgettable image of this imbalance: imagine a bodybuilder who works out to excess on one half of their body – muscles upon muscles – picture a young Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne the Rock Johnson – on one half of their body…while abandoning the other half, leaving it to wither. Wildly, preposterously out of proportion. We overpromote, over-rely on instrumental or utilitarian logic that we develop over the course of our academic experience and our careers while losing sight of what Brooks calls gift logic or moral logic, the way of thinking and being that focuses on [and I quote] “contribution, not acquisition; surrender, not domination…You have to give to receive. You have to lose yourself to find yourself. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.” That’s David Brooks. He could almost be quoting Paul, hmm? In today’s epistle we heard:
- “Do not be conformed to this world…” (12:2)
- “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (12:1)
- Do not “think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (12:3)
- Or, if we go beyond Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear Paul exhort his readers in Philippi, for example, “not [to] look to [their] own interests but to the interests of others,” “to let the same mind be in [them] that was in Christ Jesus who…emptied himself…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:4-6).
Now, the cohort of people who might be drawn to this kind of retirement-transition program – they are, perhaps, especially prone to experience this life transition as a crisis – they have achieved such status and recognition perhaps precisely because they organized their lives around its pursuit, deploying instrumental logic over gift logic to achieve in the way they did. But I recognize what Brooks is describing. I see it more broadly – across age groups, across socioeconomic levels. I see it in the news, I experience it in the streets. I fall victim to it myself. Do you see it, too? And as societal participation in organized religion has declined, there are fewer and fewer places in which we can build the muscles that help us locate meaning… prioritize service…realize community…find our calling.
Yet, do you know where one of these programs begins? A first reading is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Sabbath. We have to slow down in order to listen. Only then can these “encore” students begin to consider their first question: Who am I? And to help think through this question, one program then uses Thomas Merton’s writings on the true self – the person God made each one of us to be — and the false self – the person we present to the world; the person we convince ourselves we are – that persona that comes between us and deep relationship with each other and with God.
Are you seeing a pattern? You see, we, the church, we carry centuries of rich tradition, of wisdom. We, with a focus on God’s love and God’s justice, on the self-revelation God offered in Jesus – we are a treasure in this world – one of the places where people can be still and listen; can, bit by bit, let the layers of the false self slip away in the presence of God and each other; where people can learn throughout all of life to bring this wild imbalance back into equilibrium – to work the muscles of compassion and giving of self and vulnerability.
Thanks be to God, we have this place of refuge and learning and beauty and worship. And with these gifts comes a responsibility. Paul in his letter to the Romans captures some of this challenge. He calls the Jesus followers in Rome to offer themselves – the whole of who they are – to God’s dream for the world – in their individual bodies and as the body of Christ in the world. He demanded that they not be conformed to this world, but that they be transformed through their relationship with God and each other. That they show to the world a different way of being. That, in the words of today’s collect, they “show forth [God’s] power among all peoples.”
Now, Paul wasn’t writing to us – he was writing to a particular group of people in a particular place about… 23 – 24 years after Jesus died. But his challenge lays equal claim to us today as 21st century Jesus followers.
We…we have been gifted this treasure – the wealth of our tradition and history, our stories and scripture, the beauty of our sanctuary and our music and our gardens, the depth of relationships and community, the remarkable gifts and skills that all of you bring to this congregation, the mystery of being bound together with Christ and each other at this table.
We are not conformed to the world. We offer a different way of being, a place to recalibrate that imbalance, a place to bring not just the instrumental, utilitarian parts of ourselves, but our whole humanity.
We have been gifted this treasure. How could we not? How could we not throw open the doors of the church and let the world know – they don’t have to wait until they’re retiring and uncertain and desperately searching for meaning – it can be here all along.
This is the challenge of Paul to the Romans…and to us. This is the challenge of the gospel. This is the challenge of our day.