A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018
Texts: Luke 3:1-18; Philippians 4:4-9
I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”
“The war to end war” or “the war to end all wars”—Woodrow Wilson’s borrow from H.G. Wells to justify World War I was met with cynicism even during the First World War, and since then has become a sardonic lament. Here, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, we know it ended nothing. The culmination of that conflict directly contributed to the rise of the Second World War, the end of which fed the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, which motivated interventions in the Middle East, and on and on and on…. World War I ended nothing; instead it contributed to the bloodiest century in human history.
The persistence of war in our world prompts the question for Christians: should we even expect the end of war? Is war a scourge to eliminate, or is it a necessary evil that we sometimes endure or even actively utilize? Should Christians be opposed to war, even when undertaken in the name of justice and peace?
Convention suggests that what makes a miracle a miracle is its magical quality—something that is otherwise inexplicable, that bends the logic of time, space, or causality. That’s literally the definition of a miracle: “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” I know, because I Googled it. There are plenty of accounts in the Scriptures that follow this definition, and there are plenty of people today who believe in these kinds of miracles and wait on them in their lives. But if you struggle with the idea that God regularly works by suspending the laws of nature, then these miraculous stories may become less compelling to you. We may be tempted to ignore or dismiss them because they seem so fantastical, because they run counter to the way we understand the world to work. No less a thinker than Thomas Jefferson famously rejected the biblical miracle stories for just this reason, literally cutting them out of his Bible. And if we find the stories themselves unbelievable, then we may not be persuaded that the point they’re trying to make with tales of wonder is compelling either.
Davis presents his work on forbearance in a packed workshop at the 2018 annual conference of The Colossian Forum. The conference theme was “Moving from fear to hope: Christian practices for polarized times.”
A review for Forbearance recently appeared in the AAR’s blog “Reading Religion.”
James Calvin Davis reacts to the Red Hen incident and the trivialization of civility in our current political climate.
Truth be told, after thirteen years of fatherhood, I have to admit that I still am not used to thinking about myself in the context of Father’s Day. Father’s Day doesn’t feel like it’s about me, at least not intuitively. On Father’s Day I reflect on my own father. I remember the very good moments with my dad, moments that in some ways get more poignant as he and I get older and the relationship roles reverse just a bit. I think about the ways in which I am shaped by being the son of an Appalachian coal miner, influences that go down to my core, accidental on his part, but molding who I am as a person and as a professional. These days I spend a little of Father’s Day telling myself I’ll be more faithful this year in calling home and visiting. On Father’s Day, I think like a son. It continues to catch me a bit by surprise that this day could also be about me.
And yet, being a father is who I am, and with every passing year it becomes as formative to my character as being a son. My sense of self and my responsibilities in this life are defined in large part from the duties of parenthood; my calendar certainly reflects that I have two jobs now. I think as a father now, too. In the classroom, I approach many of the ethical issues I teach with different eyes. In the airport, my heart beats faster when I hear a small voice crying. I know more about circumstances we broadly refer to as “special needs” than I ever did before. I am more invested and interested in a place and culture on the other side of the world (where my sons were born) than I ever was before. I watch baseball and NASCAR now; as it turns out, there are sports other than football played in this country! I am father now.
Last month Tammy Duckworth made history, becoming the first U.S. senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a baby in her arms. It took some doing; the Senate first had to change a longstanding rule that prohibited babies on the floor of the Senate, and changing Senate rules doesn’t happen easily. Duckworth and others worked for months to change the rule, answering questions like whether this would mean diapers could be changed on the Senate floor, or whether the baby would have to adhere to the Senate dress code. Ultimately, though, the rule was changed to allow senators to bring their newborns onto the floor and even to breastfeed them if needed. And so Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senator and mom, cast a vote with her child right there with her.
Of course, the news media covered the moment with enthusiasm for its rarity. It was a rare moment in large part because of the limited number of women who have exercised privileges on the floor of the United States Senate. In the history of the body, only fifty-two women have been members; twenty-three of them serve today, an all-time high. So the sight of Senator Duckworth bringing her baby into the Senate was a symbol of the way tradition has been forced to evolve under the pressures of gender equity. But beyond the celebration of justice and progress, I was struck by the power in the juxtaposition—one individual holding together in a single moment four distinct identities: woman, veteran, political leader, mother. And the infiltration of mothering, with all of the connotations it brings—nurture, protection, love, sacrifice—into a body that frankly is regarded by many Americans as mired in futility, impotence, and destructiveness, spoke a word of prophetic protest to politics as usual. Insisting on bringing her young child to the halls of government, Duckworth did more than demand workplace accommodations. She offered a display of mothering as an act of resistance to disordered power.
The Presbyterian Outlook recently surveyed their readership, asking for compelling and transformational recent books. In Defense of Civility was mentioned in response to the question, “What is the book you keep going back to and why?” Andy Kort, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, Indiana, shared that in the book Davis “highlights issues like war, abortion, marriage, separation of church and state, and more in a way that not only helps me articulate my own thinking, but also is very helpful in allowing me to better understand the opposite view. He does this all while making the case for a civil discourse.”
You can find out more about all of the readers’ choices for captivating books here!
A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont
April 15, 2018 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Text: Luke 24: 36-49
I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”
Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?