Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
June 14, 2020
Genesis 21:1-7 – Romans 5:1-8 – Matthew 9:35-10:8
I am a big fan of the book Generations by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss. I have often used their theories to teach incoming officers of the church. Basically the theory maintains “that American history unfolds in boom-to-bust cycles of roughly 80 years.” They say that four generations of Americans cycle through that period and each generation has specific characteristics that are shaped by their place in the boom-to-bust cycle and also by the characteristics of the generation that preceded them. I know it sounds kind of mechanistic and deterministic, but many of us, once we hear the characteristics of the generation of which we are part, go “Wow—that describes me!” or “That doesn’t describe me—but it sure sounds like a lot of my peers.”
The book has had vast influence since it was published in 1991. It is from Strauss and Howe that we get the term “millennials” to describe the generation who came to age in the year 2000. And since it claims that American history follows this “boom and bust” cycle, one test of it is, “How well does it predict the future?”
And so you may be shocked to discover that in 1991 Strauss and Howe predicted what they called “the Crisis of 2020.”
As a recent NYT story describes it, the Crisis of 2020 is “an unspecified calamity that ‘could rival the gravest trials our ancestors have known’ and serve as ‘the next great hinge of history.’ It could be an environmental catastrophe, they wrote, a nuclear threat or ‘some catastrophic failure in the world economy.’”
To be fair, the date 2020 was meant more as a marker rather than absolute prediction. It was based on the fact that 2020 was about 80 years after the last ‘great hinge of history,’ the Depression and World War II. And the key here is their prediction that it would be a “generation-defining crisis that would force millennials into the fire early in their adulthood.” This crisis forces millennials and their younger siblings, Gen Z, to become who they are in the cycle of generations. They are what Strauss and Howe call “the civics.” The civics are the innovative and creative community-minded people who reshape our nation in a positive way as a result of the crisis they faced. The last generation of civics was the World War II Generation, who built not only post-war America but also the post-war world through programs like the Marshall Plan. The civic generation, say Strauss and Howe, is “outer-fixated”—meaning they care about community interests rather than self-interest—“grows up as increasingly protected youths…comes of age overcoming a secular crisis; unites into a heroic and achieving cadre of rising adults;” and “sustains that image while building institutions as powerful mid-lifers.”
Strauss and Howe’s prediction that we would reach an inflection point about this time seems to be bearing out in the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis it’s created, and in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a distinctively young adult-based movement. In theological terms, we might call this a “Kairos time.” Kairos, says Wikipedia, “is an Ancient Greek word meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment.” Jesus uses the term early in his ministry when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). For us Christians, Kairos means a pregnant moment, a moment that, if met with faith in the goodness of God, can give birth to the Kingdom of God.
Our lectionary scriptures for today are strikingly appropriate. In the Genesis passage, we hear about Sara, the wife of Abraham, giving birth in her extreme old age. You remember the story: one day Abraham and Sara were visited by three mysterious men whom they do not realize are some sort of divine creatures, like angels. Abraham and Sara show them hospitality, and in gratitude the divine men promise that Sara will have a child, just as God had promised them years before. Sara, hiding behind a curtain, laughs at the absurdity of the idea. “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” But one of the angels hears her laugh and confronts her. “I didn’t laugh,” she lies. And later, when she gives birth, she names her son “Itzak,” which means “laughter.” It’s kind of like she’s saying, “The joke’s on me.” I like her for that, for her ironic self-awareness. She’s like a lot of us older folks, looking on the protests and wondering “How will this possibly do any good?” And then at some point later in our lives—one hopes—we can look back on how history was shaped in this moment and laugh at ourselves for not believing that God can bring good out of any crisis.
And I like God in this story, too. When the angel confronts her that she laughed, and she lies, the angel isn’t judgmental. God doesn’t see a need to punish or even make fun of Sara for not believing. God allows her room for self-discovery, to learn the lessons of life, to grow in new ways even in her old age when you’d think all the growing is done. She has experienced a Kairos moment, a moment of supreme crisis that she misinterpreted, but at the end it comes out for the good. It strengthens her trust in God, about whom the apostle Paul says, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28).
I think I understand Sara a little better these days. I’m an older person, and there are times when I think, “I really am tired of changing, tired of dealing with new ideas. I’ll just rest awhile and leave all that changing to the young people.” But especially in these days of outrage over the death of George Floyd, I’m being forced to discover new things about myself, about my own racism and privilege, that in many ways are turning my world upside down. But I believe it is all to the good. A new birth at an unexpected time, whether of a baby or of nationwide societal change, will inevitably change us, too, hopefully for the better, and cause us to look upon our old ideas and old perspectives as at best quaint and at worst unconsciously cruel. Thank God that God does not judge us by our worst moments but by grace and mercy. As the 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson says,
Not that We did, shall be the test
When Act and Will are done
But what Our Lord infers We would
Had We diviner been –
When we hold on to this grace, the grace that views us not as we are but as we are meant to be, we keep coming closer to becoming who God intends us to be; and holding on to that gives us the courage to meet both the outward and the inward challenges of this Kairos moment. We don’t need to fear honest self-appraisal. We can be honest with ourselves about our failures and the often unconscious but very real ways in which our prejudices have shaped us, because we trust in God’s mercy and grace.
The Apostle Paul speaks to this in our reading from Romans. Paul tells us that instead of having an attitude of gloom and doom in times of crisis we should instead boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
For while we were still weak, at the right time—at that Kairos moment is what he means—Christ died for the ungodly. In other words, at the very worst moment in human experience, at the crisis point of all of history, when everything looked as bad as it could possibly get—that’s the exact moment that God sent Jesus to save us.
Paul is telling us that it is at the worst times, the times when we are suffering, the times when we are fearful, the times when our world seems to be falling apart, the times when we are at the end of our rope—that time is in God’s eyes a Kairos time, that time is the right time for God to act and bring about a great good. And so he tells us that the Christian attitude toward the worst times in our lives is to have faith in the certainty that God will use that moment to bring about something good. Maybe the world will benefit from this moment. Or maybe it’s simply that we ourselves grow and change, become stronger in our faith, develop new insights that make us better people. And so we know in these times when things seem their worst that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and that hope doesn’t disappoint us because we know that God loves us no matter what. Our hope in God enables us to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel even if where we are it is pitch black. Our hope in God enables us to engage in the hard work of self-examination, of fearless self-inventory, because we know that to struggle with our own demons is the best way to reach a new level in our relationship with God and our fellow humans. Our hope in God is unquestionably tested when it seems like the world is turned upside down, as it is today—but according to Paul such times are the right time, they are the Kairos moment that gets us closer to the Kingdom of God, in our lives certainly, but perhaps by the grace of God for the world as well.
I know it isn’t always easy to believe this. I know protests can look like chaos. I know that these stories of police violence can make us fearful. I know that calls for defunding the police make some fearful of disorder and chaos. I know that a lot of us thought racism was solved and it’s frustrating and disturbing that it’s still an issue. I know that living in a time of pandemic is stressful and uncertain. And I don’t want to be pie-in-the-sky and say, “Oh everything is going to fine in the end.” I want to be careful not to say that.
But I do want to remind us that Strauss and Howe can look back on all the every- eighty-years boom and bust cycles as net positives for our country, times when we’ve leapt forward in human achievement and self-understanding, times that have made our nation better. I do want to remind us that we hope in God, and that hope doesn’t disappoint because it assures us that no matter what, our lives are in the hands of God, and God loves us. I do want to assure that scripture demonstrates time and again that God takes the worst of times and uses them for good. The worst times are the right time. When we were sinners, that’s when Jesus died and rose again to save us. When Sara was ninety years old and past all hope of having that child, Isaac was born. The worst time turned out to be the best time. I imagine Sara going through the worst pregnancy imaginable—after all she was ninety!–and then holding that baby in her arms and laughing. The new thing God had done obscured all the pain and doubt that preceded it. She was laughing at herself, at all her distrust and doubt, and how God proved her wrong, and she should have known better. You can always trust God.
I pray that there is a time in our not-to-distant future when we too will be laughing at ourselves. We will be embracing some newborn reality and laughing at ourselves and saying, “I should have known better. You can always trust God.”