(Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)
“To what shall I compare this generation?” asks Jesus.
“What’s up with kids today?” we ask ourselves.
It’s always been a national pastime – ragging on the younger generation and complaining about their lack of this, that or something or other. “Why, my generation would never …!”
NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, however, comes flat-out and tells us who gets the nod as “The Greatest Generation.” In a book by the same title (New York: Random House, 1998), he argues that it is the GI Generation that stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II, that went to work in American factories, that bought bonds to support the war effort – that this is the greatest generation.
These are the ones, women and men, the living and the dead, who willingly gave their lives, who gave their limbs, who gave their sweet nightly dreams of childhood over to the enduring nightmare of real war – The Big One – the war that honestly and truly saved the world from fascism, the war that protected the home of the brave, the land of the free so we might grow up in safety, democracy and prosperity.
But you know what? They’re not the greatest generation. Please, hear me out.
It is difficult not to compare, for they performed innumerable acts of quiet heroism that changed history, and in the process became a stalwart population of people with tenacity forged in the battles of the South Pacific, in Northern Africa and in Europe.
When the war ended and they returned to their homes to marry and raise children, they had, by virtue of participation in a global war, matured beyond their years.
-They came home with leadership skills.
-They came home with a strong sense of personal responsibility and patriotism.
-They came home to do their duty, to work with honor and live with faith.
-They came home to a new start and to rebuild a nation damaged by the Depression. They did so community by community as active citizens, as Good Samaritans.
When we consider our parents or grandparents of the GI Generation, it’s hard for our own generational self-esteem not to take a beating. And why not? How can you top saving the world from Hitler? We honor them – and rightly so.
But they’re not the greatest generation.
Sure, they overcame tremendous obstacles. “They became part of the greatest investment in higher education that any society ever made, a generous tribute from a grateful nation. The GI Bill, providing veterans tuition and spending money for education, was a brilliant and enduring commitment to the nation’s future,” Brokaw says. The GI Bill provided opportunity unheard of in the history of our democracy.
Dan Hodermarsky, for example, was a child of poverty, an underprivileged 12th child of a blue-collar Pennsylvania family, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. Dan came home from the war suffering from what we now recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but who then rose to prominence in his field. Like thousands of veterans, “Hodo” went to school on the GI Bill. He became an art teacher and an acclaimed artist, the beloved mentor of hundreds of students. In the late 1960s, Dan, a child of poverty, a veteran of the GI Bill, founded what is reputed to be the most highly regarded art department of any prep school in America. His story is repeated in many and various forms across this nation.
But his is not the greatest generation.
That generation changed things. In fact, they unwittingly carved out more social change than many of their picket-line-walking, peace-marching children. Compare the women of these generations. Women’s Lib got started when Rosie the Riveter went to work 30 years before they thought of calling it Women’s Lib. Women serving in fighting units during the Gulf War were a direct and traceable result of women serving in the WAVES and WACS and the front-line nurses of WW II. They were ordinary women like Colonel Mary Hallaren of the U.S. Army, Women’s Auxiliary Corps, and General Jeanne Holm of the U.S. Air Force, who got their start in WW II.
Brokaw quotes Margaret Ray Ringenberg saying, “My father said, ‘I didn’t get to serve and I don’t have any boys, so I guess you’ll have to do it’” (163). So off she went to fly all sorts of aircraft in the Woman’s Air Force Service Pilots. Ringenberg was typical of ordinary patriotic women of her day. The country was in trouble, there was a need, there was a job to do, so the women stood up and did it.
And when these boys and girls came home from the war, they weren’t necessarily eager to stay put – having seen the world.
Armed with higher education, armed with a worldly sense not shared by their parents, they sensed a new freedom, and a new determination … and with those views, they relocated to distant cities. They blended the national population. They developed a new and strong middle class of mobile, success-oriented families, creating a new America, a powerful America. The social strata, previously permanent, segregated and separate, mixed in a manner unimagined … creating prosperity, creating new ideas and, of course, creating trouble.
But they’re not the greatest generation.
So which is? Which generation stands out in distinction? It’s a difficult question. Actually, it’s not that it’s so difficult. It’s a bad question. The wrong question. Because the greatest generation is not people born between a given set of years, but the people reborn in any age, at any age. The question is not of generational greatness, but regenerational greatness.
“To what shall I compare this generation?” asks Jesus. In utter frustration he bemoans the stubbornness of their hearts. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).
We all know Jesus wept. He also ranted and raved.
No matter what I do in the name of the kingdom, they find some reason to dismiss me. To ignore me. “Woe,” He says. Woe to that generation that tries to trivialize me – make me irrelevant.
Nevertheless, there was a remnant in that generation and every one that has followed, a remnant that danced when He piped and mourned when He dirged. The dance goes on today. But it’s not Generation X or Z, or Boomers, or Builders, or Millennials. It’s all those and more. It’s every person from every generation who submits to regeneration of the heart.
People who through faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength, who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
People who were stoned and sawed in two. People who went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. People of whom the world was not worthy.
That’s the greatest generation. That’s the generation here. The intergenerational church of God; marked not by the year of their birth, but by the call of the Master on their lives. Together we serve, strive, grieve, and die.
To call one generation the greatest immediately diminishes all generations who preceded it and all generations who follow it. It distracts us from the Christian truth that, before the Awesome Divine Presence of God, we are but one equal people, a single generation, a human generation.