He Is Risen!

Happy Easter! Below is the text of an Easter sermon I preached a few years ago at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont. And here is recording of the whole worship service. Hope you have a blessed Easter.

Witnesses of These Things

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?

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Podcast Interview: Pastors4Pastors

I recently had the opportunity once again to appear on my friend Ken Broman-Fulks’s podcast, Pastors4Pastors. We had a lot of fun talking about the themes running through the essays in my book:

Most pastors either embrace our American holidays without question or try to ignore them and hope our congregations won’t notice, which they always do. Our conversation with James Calvin Davis, author of American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture, is both edifying and entertaining!

— Ken Broman-Fulks

You can listen here, or wherever podcasts live (including Amazon Music!) If you’re a visual person, you can watch the interview (which also includes two of our other Presbyterian friends) on YouTube.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Ken’s podcast to get notified of future episodes.

Not in the Eyes of the Beholder

Adapted from American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture (Cascade Books, 2021)

We are coming up on what we in Vermont refer to as “mud season.” As the landscape emerges from its snow-covered hibernation, the spring ground cannot hold all the water produced by the melt, so the water sits on top, creating mud that seems to last for weeks. Every responsible homeowner possesses planks to serve as a makeshift bridge, essential for getting from driveway to aptly named mudrooms. Otherwise-routine trips into town now require a check of local traffic news to ensure roads and bridges have not been overtaken by water looking for somewhere to go. Yesterday’s farm field is a lake today, complete with ducks and geese taking advantage of the flash body of water. And in March and April most of our cars look like they have been off-roading.

But while we complain a lot about mud season in Vermont, there is more to spring here than mud. Nature awakens from its long winter nap with bright skies and crisp breezes that convey hope and promise renewal. The melt-off that creates all the mud also fills Vermont’s streams, brooks, and creeks to capacity (or beyond), and the water crashing down the falls of Otter Creek offers a stunning display of power and beauty. The warmth of the sun, the emergent grass, heck, even the mud, are beautiful sights to bear after months of frigid cold and fleeting daylight. Like every other season, spring in Vermont reminds us of what beauty looks like.

Celebrating beauty in the natural world is not just a preoccupation for flannel-wearing, granola-crunching Vermonters like me. Beauty is an object worthy of Christian celebration too, because it is how the Bible starts the story of God’s love affair with the world. The opening lines of Genesis offer a poetic celebration of creation. The world around and beyond us humans is good. We know this because Genesis not so subtly tells us in stanza after stanza of the creation ode: “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

If we insist on viewing everything with ourselves at the center of the universe, then we might think creation was good because it was set up perfectly to serve us human beings. But maybe the world is good just because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful simply because God declares it is. Its beauty flows from God’s own animating beauty. Long ago, the New England preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise called The Nature of True Virtue, in which he wrote that beauty as we normally experience it in life is the apprehension of things in “mutual agreement,” a “visible fitness of a thing to its use” that is pleasing to us, rationally and emotionally. It is the experience of things like order, proportionality, and agreement, or the delight we feel when something fits smartly as part of a greater impressive whole. Edwards believed that this beauty we experience in the world around us reflects “some image of the true, spiritual original beauty,” which he understood as “union and consent with the great whole” of Being in general (that is, God). In other words, we experience things as beautiful—physically, emotionally, or morally beautiful—when we are struck by the way they reflect the goodness of God and the wonder of God’s “big picture” in which we all exist.

Edwards is adamant that things are not beautiful because we say they are. We sense beauty in our world because those things are beautiful already, and they are beautiful because they participate in God. God is “the ground both of their existence and their beauty.” God is the source of the beauty we experience, and the beauty in our world is an experience of God. So despite the popularity of the cliché, it turns out that beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, at least not if the beholder is mortal. Beauty resides in the heart of God and extends outward to the things we experience as beautiful; in that way, beauty reflects the inherent value of the things we behold. Beauty is a gift, to the one who is beautiful and the one who regards that beauty.

To experience beauty is to participate in the divine. Listening to wind rushing through tall pines can be an encounter with God. Taking in the intensity of green on a countryside in June can be a spiritual epiphany. Gazing with wonder on the intricate camouflage worn by tree frogs is an experience of the holy. Basking in the serenity of a simple afternoon, following your lovely spouse in tow as she makes her way around a local nursery, is beautiful. Sharing friendship in a loving community is beautiful.

As with everything else in the Christian life, the gift of beauty comes with corresponding responsibility. Ecologically, we have a responsibility to protect that which God has given us as beautiful, not just so there will be an earth for future generations of people to use, but because it is God’s world and valuable as such. Interpersonally, we have a responsibility to name the beauty in ourselves and others. Especially to the bullied and harassed, to the marginalized and ostracized, to those who do not conform to what society considers right or normal, we are charged as ambassadors of God to declare: you are beautiful, just as you are, because God loves you as you are.

There is a lot of mud in the world right now—in our politics, media, entertainment, schools, and communities. Maybe what the world needs right now are people who point out the beauty in the midst of the mud. Calling out beauty when we see it, everywhere, sounds like a suitable job for the people called church.

American Liturgy — New Book Announcement

I’m thrilled to announce that my latest book is now available to order! Official launch information will follow soon. In the meantime, here is a description and link to the publisher’s website:

American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture

How can celebrating the “holy days” of American culture help us to understand what it means to be both Christian and American? In timely essays on Super Bowl Sunday, Mother’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and other holidays of the secular calendar, James Calvin Davis explores the wisdom that Christian tradition brings to our sense of American identity, as well as the ways in which American culture might prompt us to discern the imperatives of faith in new ways. Rather than demonizing culture or naively baptizing it, Davis models a bidirectional mode of reflection, where faith convictions and cultural values converse with and critique one another. Focusing on topics like politics, race, parenting, music, and sports, these essays remind us that culture is as much human accomplishment and gift as it is a challenge to Christian values, and there is insight to be discovered in a theologically astute investment in America’s “holy days.”

Also available on Kindle!

Conflict, Civility, and Roger Williams

For twenty years I’ve been writing and talking about civility, the public virtues necessary for a healthy democracy. My work on civility got its start in a dissertation and two subsequent books on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the first American prophet for religious freedom.

Recently I enjoyed a rare opportunity to talk about his importance for a podcast called Multifaith Matters, which “explores various facets of loving God and multifaith neighbors through interviews with pastors, ministry leaders, and scholars” and “models neighborly multifaith conversations with members of various religious traditions.” The podcast is produced by Multi-Faith Matters dot org, an organization whose mission is to “help evangelicals fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments (love of God and neighbor) while maintaining faithfulness to evangelical convictions.” To achieve this, they facilitate dialogue and relationships among people of all faiths.

Roger Williams is known for his religious toleration, but he was also fiercely dogmatic, and his ability to hold together deeply held convictions and respect for others makes him an interesting case study for our time. In our conversation here, after a brief biographical sketch, I delve into Williams’s ideas about the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts, natural law, religious freedom, civility, and the proper relationship between church and society.

You can listen to the podcast here on its website, or via several other podcast platforms, including Spotify.

You can also watch the interview here!

Living Like It Is Not the End of the World

A sermon preached at Hebron United Presbyterian Church (NY), November 15, 2020

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11

 If you heed the dire warnings of social media—and some conventional media outlets—you will know that we are living in the end times, for the end of the world as we know it began on November 3rd. If not the end of the world, then we are living the end of democracy. Depending on what political perspective you’re reading at the time, the end of our country (or the world) is coming as a result of encroaching socialism or persistent fascism. Be vigilant, for you know not what day the end will come, but it is coming!

This kind of dire prediction of the cataclysmic end of human history is called apocalypticism, and though the Bible didn’t invent apocalypticism, it contains a bunch of it. Some of the Old Testament prophets engaged in that end-times talk, and of course the Book of Revelation is all about the end of human history, the final battles between God and Satan, and the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom. The earliest generation of Christians thought this end of the world was coming very soon. Jesus, the Messiah of God, had come to proclaim the nearness of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was crucified, but he rose from the grave as a testament to God’s power to save. And then he ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, promising to come again to usher in God’s final Kingdom on earth.

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Worship and Communion in a Pandemic

I am leading a study for my home congregation on “Being the Body of Christ in a Socially Distant World.” We are considering the ways in which the pandemic has challenged our habits of being church, but we also are talking about the new practices we have discovered that may be useful to our ministry and fellowship even when this present darkness is behind us. This coming week, we will be talking about virtual worship, particularly the virtual practice of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. The following are resources I assembled to give them food for thought on the subject. Perhaps they will be useful to some of you as well.

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Take a look at these five short and accessible articles wrestling with the impact of COVID-19 on Christian worship, especially the celebration of Communion.

  1. An NPR story that confirms that much of our experience with virtual church—good and bad—is being felt by churchgoers all over the country:

https://www.npr.org/2020/05/20/858918339/things-will-never-be-the-same-how-the-pandemic-has-changed-worship

2. A Lutheran makes the argument for why we should not do the Lord’s Supper at home during the pandemic. Does his argument hold if we don’t subscribe to the Lutheran understanding of Communion? What is the Lutheran understanding? Wait—what is our understanding of Communion?

https://logia.org/logia-online/faith-love-and-the-lords-supper-in-the-pandemic2020

3. An “advisory opinion” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on whether it is appropriate to celebrate Communion virtually. Try to read past all of the polity references (i.e., who has authority) to understand what the meaning of the Lord’s Supper normally is in this denominational tradition, and how it can be justified virtually in times of pandemic. Does this perspective from the UCC’s “cousin” in Reformed Christianity help us think about our practice?

https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/advisory_opinion_communion_in_an_emergency_or_pandemic.pdf

4. A theological historian argues how a 13th-century Catholic theologian might help us think about the Lord’s Supper in pandemic:

https://garynealhansen.com/lords-supper-and-the-coronavirus-wisdom-st-thomas-aquinas/?fbclid=IwAR0LzPxI1XkNrUeSi7V4l9KMfJQmYe-t-HTTp93VIeG0eKIQ2tqZ3wXXZ-U

5. Finally, a “plague song” written by Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli when he was struggling with his own pandemic experience:

https://phs-app-media.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/RefSunday_full_2020.pdf

Character as Social Witness

I had the great pleasure this past Sunday of celebrating World Communion Sunday with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY. The topic of my sermon was “Character as Social Witness.” The service was particularly meaningful because joining us at the Table was Rev. Akrong from Westminster’s partner congregation—Greenwich Meridian Church—in Tema, Ghana. Thanks to the Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff for the invitation to be part of this meaningful service:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEqXbsJcK54

The Character of Beloved Community

I had the great pleasure of spending last Sunday evening with folks from the Synod of the Trinity, a judicatory of the PC(USA) that includes the congregation in which I was raised. As part of a series on MLK’s vision of Beloved Community, I spoke to a Zoom crowd of 70 pastors and lay persons on forbearance as social witness in a culture of conflict. It was great to share the evening with Susan Wonderland and my longtime friend Michael Wilson—with a number of other old Pennsylvania friends peppering the audience!

“Six Practices” Podcast, Part 2

The second part of the episode “Six Practices that Can Unite Congregations in Times of Disagreement” is now available on the Pastors4Pastors podcast. (Part one can be found here.)

From the description:
In this second of a two-part episode we continue a conversation with James Calvin Davis, religion professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Presbyterian minister, and the author of a book for just such a time as this: Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017). Joining the conversation is the Rev. Leeann Scarbrough, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Talladega, Alabama.

Dr. Davis talks about the meaning of forbearance and the six practices that can lead us back to unity even in our disagreement. James is also the author of In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

We are confident you will find this conversation helpful as you seek to bring unity to your congregation.