Listen to the sermon here.
Last fall, when we first moved to Princeton, my husband and I attended a couple of parties one weekend. Now, having lived in Virginia, we were used to a certain kind of party chatter. My favorite party story to share was about the time I accidentally locked myself in a trash corral while wearing an entirely pink outfit, including pink galoshes. I was 28 at the time. Other friends had their own stories of times they had embarrassed themselves or crazy things their co-workers had said. So, we were prepared with our funny party stories when we moved to Princeton. We realized there was a problem with our plan, when at the first party we attended in Princeton, we got into a long conversation with a young man who had just returned from his Fulbright year in Spain. In fact, everyone seemed to have a story about either their fabulous year in a foreign country or their doctorate or their first book or how they were developing some new economic theory. So our stories about that time our dog rolled around in goose poop suddenly did not seem that scintillating.
We started to realize that Princeton is a different kind of town. Princeton is made up of high achievers. You can’t throw a stone in Princeton without hitting someone who is an expert in their field. And if you threw enough stones you would be bound to hit a Nobel prize winner or two. About twice a week I hear some expert from Princeton pontificating on issues on NPR. The brain power in this town is amazing!
And so, as I have been following the Tyler Clementi case in the news, I’ve been really saddened to see that the two students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, accused of leaking the video that led to his suicide, were West Windsor kids, our kids. Some of our parishioners went to high school with them. I started to wonder whether our culture of excellence somehow backfired and contributed to their behavior.
Because it turns out there is a danger in living in one of the smartest towns in America. I would not call Princetonians intellectual Pharisees, but there is a drive toward perfection in this town. We may not stand in the center of town bragging about how amazing we are, like the Pharisee in our reading today, but there is a constant push towards excellence. There are at least six private schools on Great Road alone, each promising to help your child to be the smartest, most responsible child he can be. And our public schools are filled with incredible teachers and bright students all pushing, pushing, pushing to be the best. And adults are jockeying for tenure, and promotions, and seats on the quiet car on the train, all while trying to pay for the incredibly high cost of living here.
But what happens when you’re not the best? What happens when you’re not an A student? What happens if you’re just an average student? I have had several parents come up to me in the last year who were just devastated by how their beautiful children were left behind in their schools because they weren’t the best. These kids dealt with feelings of failure well into their adult years.
And our excellent students may not be getting what they need, either. News reports about Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi indicate they were really bright students. Ravi had almost perfect SAT scores, ran track, was captain of an ultimate Frisbee team. Wei was an honors student who took many AP classes.
Being smart is a wonderful thing. Smart people contribute greatly to the world. Educated people help us solve many of the world’s problems. But being smart and being educated is not enough.
Our scripture reading for today is not about intelligence, but it is about attitude. God does not raise up the person who has done everything right. This Pharisee tithes, prays, does not sin, but his heart is cold and proud. The tax collector on the other hand sees himself clearly, knows he is broken, and bows before God, humbly.
God honors the broken man, rather than the perfect man.
And this is true throughout Scripture. Jesus does not choose the head of rabbinical schools to be his followers, he chooses fishermen. God does not call the smartest of Jesse’s children to be King, he chooses David the smallest, the musician, the guy who will later do all kinds of dumb things. God does not call a sinless man to lead Israel out of Egypt, he chooses Moses, an abandoned baby who grows up to be an anxious, whiny leader, not to mention a murderer.
God chooses real, complex people to do his work. Being fully human in God’s eyes is not about how many accomplishments we rack up, it’s about having a heart that is open to God. Being fully human is about being able to see and love the other. Being fully human is about being humble and seeing ourselves clearly, and admitting our weaknesses when we have them. Being fully human is about letting go of seeking our own accomplishments and asking God what he would have us do.
If we believe God created each of us, then we believe there is something good at the core of each of us. Whether we are A students or C students, God can use us for good in this world. When we talk about our children to one another, we have a habit of talking about how they are doing in school or in sports or in extra-curricular activities.
We list their accomplishments, brag about their grades. What if, instead, we talked about their character, not their accomplishments? What if we praised the way they stuck up for a bullied kid at school? What if we talked about how quickly they accept responsibilities for mistakes? What if we talked about how forgave a sibling after a misunderstanding?
Our children are so much more than their accomplishments; they are spiritual and moral beings who need love and guidance about what it means to be a child of God. Children need to learn that showing others love and respect is even more important than being at the top of their class. Children need to learn how to respectfully disagree with a friend, how to ask forgiveness when they have made a mistake. Children need to learn how to pick themselves up after a setback. Children need to learn that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, no matter their skin color or sexual orientation. Children need to see all these things modeled in us.
But even more than a moral education, we, like the tax collector in today’s reading, need to show our kids how to actively and humbly draw towards the holy. The primary influence in a child’s spiritual life is not Sunday School teachers or youth ministers or clergy. The primary influence in a child’s spiritual life is her parents. If children see parents praying, reading scripture, making decisions based on spiritual rather than financial or practical reasons, they learn crucial skills. Paul and I are reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christians as part of our local clergy group. Dean reminds us that the skills of the Christian life: prayer, scripture reading, being in community, are skills that must be learned and practiced, just like the skills that come into play when a child is learning a sport or an instrument.
There are many different ways to start integrating these practices into your family life. My favorite recent example is the practice of my friend MaryAnn McKibben Dana and her family. MaryAnn is a Presbyterian pastor and writer who has three young children. Over the dinner table, they practice the Ignatian practice of the examen. The examen is a spiritual practice in which at the end of the day you ask yourself a series of questions about the day, you explore the gifts of the day, the reasons behind the decisions you made, where you saw God move in the day, where you saw your own brokenness interfere with the day and so on. What is brilliant about what MaryAnn and her husband are doing is that the kids have no idea. MaryAnn does not sit down and say, “OK kids, it’s examen time!” Instead, she weaves these questions into ordinary conversation. She is helping her kids learn to think theologically about their day, to take responsibility for their choices, to see God at work in the ordinary stuff of pre-school, playground fights, and homework assignments.
We owe it to our children to take our own spiritual development, and their spiritual development as seriously as we take their SAT scores. Their SAT scores will get them into college, but their spiritual development will make them loving human beings who contribute to the world.
And for those of us who do not have children, we are not off the hook. If you have ever been to a baptism here, you have promised to help uphold the baptized child’s life in the church. Adults in the church can be crucial conveyers of God’s grace to children and youth. And the children and youth in this parish are amazing. They are funny, complicated, loving, honest, shy, outgoing and all made in God’s image. We, as a congregation, have the opportunity to offer them kindness, express interest in their lives, pray for them and demonstrate God’s grace in the way we treat each other.
The pressure of developing our own, not to mention our children’s, spiritual life can seem really overwhelming! When it seems like too much responsibility, just remember the words Angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Be not afraid!” Our God is a powerful, loving God who is always in the business of drawing us near. If you take one teensy step, he will take a giant cosmic step. God is waiting for you with open, loving arms and will never turn you or our children away.