Twenty Years Later
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
September 12, 2021
Isaiah 50: 4-9 Mark 8: 27-39
On September 11, 2001, our daughter Sara Caitlin was in Fifth Grade at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School in Kensington, MD, just off the Washington, DC beltway. Her teacher was Mrs. Shahan. She liked Mrs. Shahan. School had only just started when the teacher started acting funny. Some teachers who had TVs on in their classrooms turned them off. Mrs. Shahan kept running in and out of the classroom to the teachers’ lounge, where a TV was still on. She seemed agitated but was saying reassuring things. Sara’s fifth-grade ears immediately caught the tinny falseness of the strange reassurances. The reassurances meant something was wrong.
There was an announcement that all the kids needed to stay in their classrooms. Parents began to arrive and kids started leaving school. By then word was out that something was up, something in New York and now, something had happened nearby, too, at the Pentagon. The principal came on and announced that school was closing early and that their parents would be by to pick them up.
By the time we picked her up from school, Sara and her friends had already pieced together the main parts of the puzzle.
My wife Margaret was working for a big PR firm at their main offices in the city, just a couple of blocks from the White House. Everyone watched with horror on TV. People rushed out the door; probably a lot of them had friends or family at the Pentagon. Margaret ran out on the street with the rest of them. She remembers how surreal it seemed to be walking the streets. It was still fairly early in the morning, and many people were standing on the sidewalks with their morning Starbucks in their hand completely oblivious. The people flooding out of the office buildings knew what was happening and the folks on the street stared at their stricken faces with confusion perhaps wondering if they were mad. The metro line had stopped running and Margaret tried to flag a cab to get home. She had to walk all the way to P Street before she could catch one.
And so it began.
What followed the next three years in the DC area runs together in my memory like it all happened within just a few weeks. There was anthrax in the mail. There was the ramp-up to war.
And there were the DC snipers, a man and a boy who killed 10 people and wounded three in a month-long spree. Their rampage was terrifying to us parents because one of their targets had been a school. Our house was right next to the school bus stop, and all the neighborhood parents would gather in our living room with their kids. We’d close all the blinds and peek through them to see when the bus would arrive. Then we’d encircle them as they got on and wait on pins and needles ‘til they got back, when we’d repeat the same routine.
We moved from the DC area to Fort Worth as much as anything to get away from all the stress of living and working inside the Beltway.
But it doesn’t seem that the stress of 9/11 has alleviated over the last twenty years. With global warming, the longest war in US history, school shootings, the riot at the Capitol, and the pandemic lock-down it just seems to have stretched out and morphed into an ongoing process.
I realize some of us are wishing I wouldn’t bring all this up. I hear you. If you’re feeling that tenseness in your chest, imagine what it has been like for the generation raised in it. It’s commonplace for us to think of them as spoiled, but we’re really, really misreading them. If we wonder at their cynicism and disaffection, if we don’t understand why they can’t see the good all around them but only what’s wrong, well, there’s a good reason for that. They don’t have a memory of a better time, a different time to fall back on. It’s only been this.
One difference between my generation and my kids’ generation is that I can think back to a time when things were different, when things were better, and so I wish for a return to what was.
But millennials and Gen Z don’t have that to fall back on. They have a frustrating present, and so they demand and dream and fight for what could be, for a better tomorrow.
Let us celebrate their optimism—their belief that things can change, that things can be better—and their activism, their drive to make that better world a reality.
It is a good Biblical principle that one generation has to pass so that a new one can rise up to do God’s will. Often the older generation’s desire to return to what was normal in the past blinds us to God’s new reality opening before us. And so a new generation, raised in the hardships of the present reality, can more readily grasp God’s dream for what could be. That’s what happens in the Exodus, when God requires the children of Israel to wander in the desert forty years; and a new generation, familiar only with the hardship of the desert, can lay claim to the Promised Land.
That’s what happens during The Babylonian Exile, when God’s people spent seventy years exiled from their homeland, and a new generation had to arise to make the return to the Promised Land possible.
It is during the Babylonian Exile that the prophet Isaiah is writing. The passage we have read for today is one of the famous “Suffering Servant” passages that we Christians today view as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the suffering servant, crucified for our sakes, bearing the sin of the world—we hear this passage and we think, Isaiah is predicting Jesus.
Well, it might be that God was predicting Jesus THROUGH Isaiah, but that’s not who Isaiah thought he was writing about. Isaiah was presenting the Suffering Servant as a
metaphor for Israel and Judah, the exiled people of God, suffering and shamed under the rule of the Babylon. Their suffering would not be for nothing, the prophet promises. God who vindicates is near. Isaiah and other prophets of the same period emphasize that the fiery trial of exile will refine and sharpen God’s people, that their suffering is actually making them into the people they need to be to face the moment that is before them and to grasp God’s promise.
Our friend pastoral counselor Wayne Menking writes in his book When All Else Fails about how critical it is that we own our own suffering; and rather than try to alleviate or end it, trust that God is there in the midst of it challenging us to change and to grow. He points to the mistake we often make thinking that happiness and joy are what God wants for us; when the truth is that what God really wants for us is change, growth, and the willingness to take responsibility for our lives and the world around us.
Wayne writes about the Great Reformer Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. “For Luther,” he writes, “a theology of the cross is always a theology of paradoxes and opposites… God is hidden in the depths of our humanity and our human experience—in suffering, death, and cross in whatever form those take.”1 The opposite of this is a theology of glory, which “cannot trust one’s humanness or human experience as the place where God is revealed. In a theology of glory, anything human must be transcended in order to attain God and goodness.” In other words, Wayne says, “a theology of glory is always about pretense, illusion and deception;” whereas a theology of the cross “is a theology of truth.”
We see exactly that dynamic play out in the story of Peter and Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter declares Jesus the Messiah. So far so good. Peter’s got the right idea. But then Jesus tells “them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus tells them that he will live the theology of the cross, and later makes it clearer, when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Peter balks at all this. He tries to get Jesus to take it back. He rebukes Jesus because Jesus is professing the theology of the cross rather than the theology of glory. He rebukes Jesus for not saying reassuring things like follow me and I will make you successful and happy and everything will be sunshine and unicorns. In that moment, Peter is all about the theology of glory.
But Jesus slaps him down. That’s completely wrong, he says. To follow me means that you need to see life for what it is, to be real about its challenges and frustrations and hardships as well as its joys. To deny this is to close the door to the way God can change us and make us new through the harsh realities of lived experience—how we can find God in trouble and suffering.
That’s why I have hope for our young people. Because they see the world as it is, and long for what could be.
I am fascinated by the theories of Strauss and Howe in their book Generations, where they posit that there are four generations that that cycle through American history over and over again. According to their model, millennials and Gen Z— people my kids’ age—are the next generation of civics, people who have seen hardship and respond to it with a determination to make things better than they are. The last generation of civics was the GI Generation—who went through the Depression, fought and won WWII, and then built the successful, idealistic America my generation grew up in. Believe it or not these young people today have many of the earmarks of that greatest generation. They are civic-minded and engaged, impatient with the way the world is, hungry for progress and very community minded. They don’t see why change isn’t possible and so they speak out for it. I’m actually quite optimistic that sometime in my own lifetime these young people raised in the shadow of 9/11 will take us into a new and exciting direction. If the Bible is any guide, then like the generation of Jews raised in the Babylonian Exile, these young people honed by hardship have what it takes to build the future we need.
I know that as a parent I sometimes tried to hide the kids from the harsh realities of the “real world” as they were growing up. My generation of parents virtually invented helicopter parenting; we certainly fine-tuned it for the 21st Century. But just like all those elementary school kids at Kensington-Parkwood, no matter how much we tried to shield them from the bad news, they have found out anyway. Our attempts to give them a feel-good theology of glory with false ideas of sunshine and roses has all come to naught. And that’s how it should be. We can’t deny reality or hide from it, and they can’t either. And now their time is coming to contend with the world, to be its movers, shapers, and leaders. Sometimes we don’t like their tone, whatever that means. But we have to resist the temptation to be like Peter and rebuke them or try to silence them for telling the truth.
Here’s the thing that’s hard: they’ve fallen away from the church. It’s because the church has promoted a theology of glory during this time of difficulty and uncertainty. It has told them everything will be okay and that God will magically make all their troubles and the troubles of the world go away. That hasn’t happened. They need to hear again about true Christianity, the Christ of the Cross, who meets them in the real world of their doubt and disillusionment and says, you can find me there—in your pain, confusion and frustration, that is where I am. In the demand for change, for a better world, that’s where I am. We need to meet them in the real world bearing the cross of Christ, and maybe they’ll see that Christ has been there all along.
We’re far better off as followers of Jesus Christ to take up our own cross –and to help them to bear theirs.