Sermon: The New Normal


Several years ago, one of my parishioners gave me a wonderful little book called: The Gospel According to Peanuts. In one cartoon, Charlie Brown is sitting under a tree talking to Peppermint Patty, who asks him, “What do you think security is, Chuck?”

Charlie Brown thinks about it a moment and then responds: “Security is sleeping on the back seat of the car when you’re a little kid, and you’ve been somewhere with your mom and dad, and it’s night, and you’re riding home in the car, asleep. You don’t have to worry about anything—your mom and dad are in the front seat and they do all the worrying . . . they take care of everything.”

Peppermint Patty says, “That’s really neat, Chuck!”

Then the ever-reflective Charlie Brown adds, “But it doesn’t last. Suddenly, you’re grown up, and it can never be that way again. Suddenly, it’s over, and you’ll never get to sleep in the back seat again. Never!”

“Never?!” asks Peppermint Patty.

“Absolutely never,” says Charlie Brown.

A disconcerted Peppermint Patty says, “Hold my hand, Chuck!”

On September 11, sixteen years ago, America lost its innocence. That was the day we lost our sense of security as a nation; as if being awakened from our peaceful slumber by the blunt force of a sudden collision. That was the day we discovered that our paternal leaders could no longer protect us from the horrors of global terrorism.

It was called the saddest day, the worst day, in American history. One that would take years from which to recover; if recovery could ever be possible. Shortly thereafter, a new phrase was added to the American lexicon: “The New Normal.”

For months Lower Manhattan was cordoned off with sawhorses for blocks around the smoldering World Trade Center [rubble]. Residents moving about in dust masks. People buying parachutes and canoes as a way to get out the next time; others buying bullet proof vests, guns and ammunition to prepare for the worst.

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A young mother wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world that had suddenly become unfathomable to her.[i]

Four years later, a Gallop poll showed that the majority of Americans believed that life would never return to the way it was before 9/11.

Absolutely never!

Americans would somehow have to adjust to a new reality for their lives; a reality now marked by an insidious sense of insecurity, increased pessimism and nagging existential anxiety; a reality that continues to be perpetuated as new traumas intrude to complicate what otherwise might be the grieving and healing process of our nation.

Last Sunday Diane’s cousins Dale and Sandy (from Indiana) stopped by for a brief visit. We were delighted to have them join us for worship that morning and then for brunch afterwards before they had to journey on.

The next day, on Monday, Sandy wrote the following post on FaceBook from their hotel; she prefaced it with the words: “prayers for Las Vegas, first responders and all of us whose daily lives are terrorized by violence.” Then Sandy goes on to share, “I’m on a trip and this morning in the coffee room the news was on. A little girl, probably around 8 years old with kitty ears on her head, was watching with her mom. In a very matter-of-fact voice she told her mommy [not to worry] that she knows what to do in “an active shooter situation.”

Sandy wrote, “Tears filled my eyes and I had to leave the room. God save our little ones who may never know innocence or safety.”

The New Normal.

This past week, when I Googled “The New Normal,” I was kind of astonished to see how – over the past seventeen years – this New Normal had spread across the American landscape and metastasized in the hearts and minds of the American people.

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said (on MSNBC) the shooting in Las Vegas that [killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500 more] unfortunately represents America’s `new normal.’ “The number of mass shootings, the pace has been increasing, and now we’ve got the worst ever.” Bratton said police are doing what they can to identify people who may have a motive to commit a mass shooting, but said another part of the new normal in America is to be situationally aware.[ii]

Answering a question from Amy Goodman about the connection between recent hurricanes and global warming, journalist/environmental activist David Helvarg said, “The reality is that when you have two 10,000-year-rain events in two years, this is the new normal. This is the new reality. And the challenge is how we address it, how rapidly we’re going to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”[iii]

“Given the depth of the “Great Recession” and the economic troubles that the financial crisis has caused, few people were under the illusion that recovery would be immediate. However, many may not have anticipated the protracted time it has taken for the economy to strengthen . . . Looking forward to 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, the Bureau) expects slower GDP growth to become the “new normal.”[iv]

And from the Medical Examiner, according to the new [Diagnostic and Statistical . . . DSM-5] manual, the odds will probably be greater than 50% that you’ll have a mental disorder in your lifetime. Americans are scoring significantly higher on neuroticism, narcissism and chronic anxiety than in decades past, leading the Examiner to proclaim: “Abnormal is the New Normal.”[v]

Even the church has not escape the dire prognosis. “The church has certainly experienced its own downward shift in the last decade or two, with yearly membership numbers declining in all mainline Protestant churches, and disdain for Christian beliefs and values being common throughout the culture. To Christians, these are signs that something is wrong, and that the church is ailing. Is this the Church’s “new normal”?”[vi]

All in all, the new normal seems to reflect an inherently negative mentality characterized by pessimism and defeatism, fatalism and fear, and even, at times, the rationalization for vengefulness and violence.

All of which brings us at last to Saul of Tarsus; who ultimately became the Apostle Paul.

Saul was born in a city called Tarsus, probably about 10 years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Tarsus was a teaming cosmopolitan seaport of the Roman Empire, home to peoples of many different religions, nationalities and languages. For generations before Saul’s birth – in  order to escape persecution in Jerusalem – many Jews had resettled in places like Tarsus. And Saul’s family was among them.

Saul was most likely born into privilege of parents who not only had wealth and standing in the Jewish community, but also possessed the rare dispensation of Roman citizenship. So, Saul was a Jew, growing up in a big city, surrounded by the influences of Greek culture and the emerging Roman Empire.[vii]

Thus, Saul received a broad education and at the same time was steeped in his own religious heritage. He reportedly went to Jerusalem to complete his religious studies, whereupon Saul entered the rank of the Pharisees during the time of Jesus’ Judean ministry. Indeed, one could easily imagine that Saul was in the forefront of those who conspired against Jesus by colluding with Roman officials.

Paul, himself, describes his life as Saul in his letter to the Philippians. “If anyone has a reason to boast,” he says sardonically, “it’s me! An Israelite, member of the most favored tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee who strictly observed the law and a zealot who vehemently persecuted renegade Christians” (my paraphrase).

And in fact, Saul was on his way to Damascus to round up some more Christians and bring them back for retribution, when he was knocked off his high horse (so to speak) and struck blind by the very One he was persecuting.

At this point, I want to let you in on a little secret. That `new normal’ we were just talking about a few minutes ago: Ain’t nothing new about it.

Man’s inhumanity to man; one tribe perpetuating violence against another; fear and prejudice toward those who are different; economic hardship and endemic poverty; anxiety concerning the uncertainty of life and an unknown future; watching the suffering of others from a distance with the unsettling mixture of empathy and relief.

Folks, that’s the same ole same ole since the world began.

If you want to know what “The True New Normal” is, take a look at what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. Look at what happens when a self-righteous, arrogant narcissist – who has contorted his own religion into a violent means of justifying his own fear, bigotry, and hatred against the `other,’ – subsequently has an unexpected encounter with the Holy of holies.

Note: at the end of the day, the world has not dramatically changed.

It was Saul who was dramatically changed.

A few days after his encounter, Saul’s eyes were re-opened for the first time; remade. He began to see the world as it really was, as Christ saw it; as Christ sees it even now.

On the heels of that profound conversion experience, Saul the Persecuting Inquisitor becomes Paul the Humble Servant. Subsequently, the Apostle Paul ultimately becomes one of the greatest advocates of Jesus Christ the world has ever known. And through him – and millions upon millions since him – little by little the world itself continues to experience its own corresponding conversion.

And that’s The True New Normal.

Now let me tell you about John Paul DiVito.

John Paul DiVito was working in his office on the 87th floor of the North Tower when the plane struck on September 11, 2001. And while most see that day of attacks in strictly a negative light, as strange as it may sound John Paul DiVito is able to see the positive in what happened.

When interviewed, he said that, of course his heart aches for the thousands of men and women who lost their lives, including a co-worker from his own office who didn’t make it down the 87 flights of stairs. Yet, as DeVito himself descended those stairs, he says he found hope.

“What I experienced that day,” DeVito explains, “was the beauty of the world, not the evil of the world.” He saw people helping strangers. He saw people passing out water. In fact, John Paul DeVito did so himself. So, when people speak about how that day was the worst in American history, DeVito says it was the best. “What individuals did that day, what firemen did that day, what police and EMS did that day—it just overwhelmes me,” he says.

It took DeVito 50 long minutes to make it to the first floor. As soon as he got there, the South Tower fell. And of course, he ran the other way. And survived the experience.

When later asked by a group of students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kansas, what he was planning on doing for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, John Paul DeVito

[i] Kleinfield, N. R., Getting Here From There, The New York Times, Sept. 8. 2011.

[ii] Kasperowicz, Pete, Bill Bratton on Las Vegas: `This is the new normal’, The Washington Examiner, Oct. 3, 2017.

[iii] Goodman, Amy, “This is the New Normal”: How Climate Change Is Fueling Massive Storms Like Harvey, Democracy Now!, National Public Radio, Oct. 3, 2017.

[iv] Woodward, Maggie C., The U.S. economy to 2022: settling into a new normal, Monthly Labor Review, Dec. 2013.

[v] Rosenberg, Robin S., Abnormal Is the New Normal: Why will half of the U.S. population have a diagnosable mental disorder?, The Medical Examiner, April 12, 2013.

[vi] Sweet, Leonard (forward) to Thomas Ingram’s The New Normal: A Diagnosis the Church Can Live With, PreachTheStory.com.

[vii] Fronezek, Adam H. (Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago), The First in a Series of Sermons on the Apostle Paul, Feb. 17, 2013.

 

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