“I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
This was a quote some years ago from professional basketball player Charles Barkley and at the time, and even now, I think it is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard anyone say out loud. Not in the sense that people ought to let Charles Barkley raise their kids, but in its total and complete ignorance of the fact that people would in fact be looking up to him and emulating him and making him a role model, whether or not he thought of himself that way. In fact, the opinion of Charles Barkley on whether or not he was a role model is quite possibly the least salient opinion on the subject because of its subjectivity.
He spoke to intention and to mission, not to fact and inevitability. Inevitably, if you present yourself to people of any age as a successful person, an achiever, a star, which Mr. Barkley certainly was, then you are, no matter what you intend, going to be a role model to the people to whom you present yourself. Just surrender to that truth.
What was really going on was that Mr. Barkley was trying to avoid any culpability for his being a role model. He wanted to strut on a public stage and be famous, but not be responsible when people started acting, speaking, playing basketball like him.
You can’t have one without the other. Be in someone’s life, in their living room as he was, and they will watch what you do. If you do something that they admire, then they will want to be like you; that is what admiration is for, to draw us into someone else’s experience so that we can strive to be like them.
You may seek to avoid that kind of responsibility as much as you’d like and many pundits agreed that parents should be the real role models in their kids’ lives and that is very true but that doesn’t make it any less true that public figures play a role in how kids grow up, especially when their parents are just as interested in avoiding responsibility as Mr. Barkley was.
How much more often nowadays do we see parents giving their young ones a cup of cold Coke instead of a cup of cold water like the bible says, not so much being a role model as pandering to their desires. Who can blame them for trying to find other role models in the public arena? And while it may not be Mr. Barkley’s job to fix the sketchy parenting in America, he cannot run from the fact that people will look up to him, and many of those people will be children.
The lectionary doesn’t give you any back story for the Old Testament reading this morning so I will. Hananiah is a false prophet. Jeremiah is a real prophet and while Hananiah withstands the prophesies of Jeremiah in the court of the king and prophesies peace and restoration, telling everyone what they want to hear, Jeremiah prophesies from the Lord, even so far as prophesying the death of Hananiah.
You see, Hananiah has been in the public eye, making friends by making popular pronouncements and calling them prophesies. The people love to hear the tales about how everything is going to be alright, about how the vessels of the temple will be returned and all the captives held in Babylon, heck who wouldn’t love the guy?
Here, have another Mountain Dew, Johnny, and go outside and play in traffic.
Prophet of the Lord, however, as Jeremiah the grumbly prophet knows all too well, is not always a straight path to popularity. Sometimes, in fact most of the time when a prophet speaks, it is to point the finger of God at someone doing something wrong, to point out the venality of culture, the announce the wrath of God that is to come and then try and get out of town ahead of the angry mob.
It sounds a lot like parenting, actually; or being a role model; or being a disciple of Christ. It isn’t all fun and games, all indulgence and pursuit of happiness. Sometimes, it hurts; sometimes, it is no fun at all and it is the long, LONG route to popularity and there are many shortcuts beckoning on all sides of the road.
But each of us has been blessed with our own role models, well some of us have been blessed and some of us have a more mixed bag of blessings and curses but we have the things that we know, and the models of how to do those things, and the forgiveness of God to relieve us from the fear of failure, so what is stopping us?
We don’t need to take up the mantle of discipleship for all to see, we do not need to make a public pronouncement of our intentions to <stentorian voice> “stand as role models for a nation of young people who should follow in our way to the land of the righteous.”
We don’t need to do that any more than we needed to stand up and admit that we were disciples, answering some kind of altar call to prove our devotion because it is not our devotion that saves but rather Christ’s.
Like being a role model, like being a disciple, like being a child of God we are called upon to do very little by way of pronouncements, very little by way of grandiloquent speeches and personal puffery, leave that junk to me, and occasionally those who step forward to speak when I am away. It is honestly more of a burden than you know but it is a calling and in many ways I have done what we all must do, what Charles Barkley must do, what parents must do.
Nothing more than admit, confess, surrender to the truth. Answer our callings and move on with our lives in light of our confessions. No speeches make it real. No grand gestures make it effective.
We have to admit that as His disciples, He is judged by us and our behavior to all who see us and the whole world sees us.
He is judged in the eyes of the young people who see us say one thing and then wait to find out if we are going to act according to our words or act in another way. In the eyes of the young people who inhabit our lives in church and in the world outside these walls, He is judged when we seem not to treasure the gifts we have been given and act profligately or self-indulgently.
Jesus Hizzownself can withstand the weakness of our witness, the clay in our feet.
But what about the world that watches? What about the kids who see us and treat us as role models not because we asked them to but simply because we are the people in their lives, the adults to whom they look up until they get taller than us. What is their inheritance from us if we do not take the mantle onto ourselves and admit that we are their role models? What is to become of their faith in such an event?
Put another way, how can they grow healthy on a diet that is all Coke and no cold water?
When we take the gift of God, the grace it takes for us to be saved and to believe, and then as Paul says, “present our members to sin as instruments of wickedness,” which is to say take grace for granted and act as we did before we knew right from wrong, before we followed our role models in the faith to a better way, before we felt the peace that passes all understanding? What can we expect those who see us as their role models to take away from their experience of us and our lives?
Whether or not we like the idea, whether or not we want to take it on and inhabit it and accept our calling we do owe a debt to the generations to come. God invented paying it forward, you see, and so for all we have been given, including the next few generations, ours is the task of providing for them the very best in Christian living so that they can see what it looks like and not shy away because nobody ever taught them it could be tons of fun.
Seriously, tons of fun.
Whoever tried to make faith something you mourned instead of celebrated, I’m looking at you northern Europeans here; you know who you are, robbed us of the chance to live lives that are joyous as well as righteous. Somehow righteous and self-righteous became conflated and righteousness only counts if you are pointing your finger and tsk’ing in judgment.
I think kids get enough of that in the rest of their lives, don’t you? They deserve it, don’t get me wrong, that’s how learning happens but still, if faith is experienced as a constant series of accusations and judgments, and never is grace felt, never is forgiveness seen taking place, then why would we expect them to make their home with us? Why should they pitch their tent alongside ours?
We owe them better than that and the best part of paying off on that debt is that it doesn’t require that we do anything other than live the way we speak, and pray, and worship. All we have to do is live the way we believe and we will be grand role models for all the world, not just our kids.
And when we screw it up, notice I said when and not if, when we screw it up and do something selfish, or express inappropriate anger, or fail to live up to a promise that we make, then very best we can do as a community of faith is to confess the wrong and seek forgiveness.
If we’ve taught them at all well, they will grant it and we can move on.
You won’t always be popular. You won’t always be honored and praised for your work. I bring not peace but a sword Jesus said recently and that means that sometimes there is strife when you introduce something new, the good news is something new to a lot of people.
We’re embarking on a new round of confirmation this week. Some are coming seeking the classes, some are being brought here by their parents, we have four so far and some have not returned messages. But here’s the thing. It is not going to be an exercise in me making them memorize passages from scripture and then regurgitate it back. It is not going to be a fun-filled program of movie clips and one-size-fits-all programming from the Midwest.
What we are looking for is a relational model where I will occasionally ask some of you to sit with some of the students and talk about your personal lives, engaging them in conversation so that they can see how faith lives and not just how it sounds, how it mourns and works and rejoices and speaks and serves.
Each of you has gifts and some have stepped forward to lend a more intensive hand, but none of us will be let off of the hook, we can all serve in some capacity because that is the calling, that is what we do whether or not we admit it, we are role models.
In this next year, I only ask that we be intentional role models, presenting our members to God as instruments of righteousness. And not just to God, but also to each other, to our young people, and to the world.