A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont
February 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 6: 7-13
My Pentecostal-leaning grandmother knew a good preacher when she saw one. Modeled after the televangelists with whom she spent much of her time, her standard for a good preacher was one who just “preached the Word,” spontaneously and extemporaneously, not with a sermon crafted in the week before but in a heartfelt connection with the Bible that lived from the moment. Good preachers, she would say, prayed the same way. A good prayer isn’t written out; it comes from the heart—spontaneously, with words that come directly from the Spirit in that moment.
When I was in college, the campus chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was my main community of friends, and there too the evangelical model of prayer was consistently lifted up and practiced. Good prayer was heartfelt, personal, spoken in the moment, with a generous use of the word “just” that I never quite understood—as in “Jesus, we just thank you for your love.” Good prayer finds its expression in the moment and from the heart.
Then I went to seminary and discovered a number of things, including that on the topic of prayer and worship, I was a closet Catholic. Or so it seemed, because I fell in love with another kind of liturgy and prayer. In seminary I discovered prayers that are old, standardized, and passed down from one generation to another. I discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, chock-full of prepared prayers that were used in common in many different places and many different times. I learned the art of crafting prayers carefully, ahead of time, with attention to language more like poetry than conversation. Prepared, shared, standardized prayer became authentic and good to me.
The president is at it again. This week, in a White House meeting on immigration reform, and just days before the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mr. Trump apparently let loose with disparaging comments about Haiti and various African nations suffering from natural disasters, poverty, or underdevelopment. He called them “shithole” countries, and he wondered aloud why we should want to invite immigrants from those places, instead of from places like Norway. The comments, confirmed by both Democrats and Republicans in the room, exhibit clear racial undertones, and they continued Mr. Trump’s tendency toward racially ignorant public rhetoric (think Mexican rapists and the “good people” he assumed to be among the white supremacists in Charlottesville). Rather than serving the cause of unity, the president’s remarks further stoked the racial antagonism and injustice that is our national crisis.
For the past decade, I have been writing and speaking about the need for more civility among American leaders and citizens. I define civility as the exercise of patience, humility, integrity, and mutual respect in public life, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree. Civility is a set of virtues that we need to actively cultivate in each other, in our relationships and our civic institutions, as the public ethos that guarantees the health and effectiveness of democratic politics. (My most recent book argues for a Christian version of these norms that I call forbearance.) Without this commitment to open and constructive dialogue, rooted in a genuine respect for others as fellow participants in public life, the future of democracy looks grim.
What’s in a name? When I was in seminary, my middle name understandably got a lot of attention. Professors and students alike at the Presbyterian school I attended got a kick out of a guy named James Calvin Davis in their midst, wondering aloud whether it was foreordained (get it?) that I would be called to ministry with a name like that. The reality is, at least on the surface, much different. I am proud to be named after both of my grandfathers, James Kermit McCullough and Calvin Davis. But the ironic part is that the man who gave me the name that tickles my fellow Presbyterians so much was, in many ways, the opposite of the sixteenth-century churchman—not so much pious and learned as a rough-around-the edges coal miner from which I get both my appreciation for blue-collar values and a legendary Davis temperament.
And yet that name of which I am proud has become more to me than just a testament to my grandfather. Without it, I am a generic placeholder; “James Davis” is one level up from “John Doe” on the scale of nondescript monikers. But with it, I am James Calvin Davis, professor and Reformed Christian theologian. James Calvin Davis has become an symbol of who I am, of what I consider myself to be.
The Englewood Review of Books is a weekly book review published by Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis. They “review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”
I’m honored to have my book included in their Advent Calendar, featuring “the best books of 2017”! Forbearance is the December 18 entry.
On December 15, 2017, James Calvin Davis was interviewed by the National Council of Churches for their regular podcast. They discussed Forbearance, the inspiration for the book, and how a recovery of this ethic might help bring about a return to civility in the world beyond the church. You can hear the interview on Stitcher or iTunes.
This past Thanksgiving weekend graced those of us in the church with unusual leisure as compared to years past. Often enough, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in Advent, so we no sooner carve the turkey and finish up the last football game than we turn our attention to purple candles and evergreens. Conspiring with the market and its Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, the church calendar often hurries us through Thanksgiving so that we can embrace the coming Christmas season.
But not this year. This year we have an extra week between the Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of Advent, which brings with it extra time to linger in the importance of this season of gratitude. We can savor Thanksgiving leftovers—literally and figuratively—just a little longer, before diving into the ironic frenzy that is Advent waiting.
What to do with the extra time? For me, the absence of Advent’s impatient breath over the shoulder of my Thanksgiving observance allowed me just a little more time to think about this holiday in its own right—the gratitude it encourages in us and from us, the significance of a moment of thanks in a world with so much not right, the origins and meanings of this quintessential American celebration.
The biblical idea of forbearance is an underappreciated metaphor for divine grace and an underutilized concept for capturing how Christians ought to replicate that grace in the project of living together in community. To be sure, not much has been made of this idea in classical or contemporary biblical commentary. In his commentaries on Ephesians and Colossians, for instance, John Calvin leaves the term “forbearance”—the Greek anecho meaning “to bear with” or “to hold up”— without comment, skipping past it on his way to elucidating other parts of the passages where it appears (Eph. 4:1–3 and Col. 3:12–14). Similarly, most modern commentaries do not linger on the idea of forbearance as the linchpin for these passages.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its current unpopularity is that the term sounds like a call to yield, which unsurprisingly is not what people want to hear when they are embroiled in protracted disagreements over convictions they consider essential to Christian faithfulness. A couple of years ago, in the run-up to the latest denominational battle over same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the faculties of two seminaries—Columbia Theological Seminary (GA) and Austin Theological Seminary (TX)—issued statements calling for forbearance in the debate. Insisting that schism in the church is a “profound pastoral and theological problem,” the Columbia and Austin faculties implored their fellow Presbyterians to bear with each other in the debate over amendments to the denominational constitution that would allow ordained ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. In particular, the Columbia Seminary statement notes the way tag-words like “purity” and “inclusivity” have been weaponized in an increasingly hostile ideological environment. Calling on Presbyterians to repent of this hostility and work constructively toward a healthier future for the church, the Columbia faculty modeled this attitude by disavowing their own contributions to the polarization in the PC(USA). Citing biblical authority and denominational precedent, both statements argued that a spirit of forbearance, of “endeavoring to hear and take seriously the convictions of others,” was the only way to forestall further division in the church. Indeed, they suggested that a spirit of forbearance in this controversy would testify to the true source of the church’s hope, the One who calls the church together.
A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont on October 29, 2017
Five hundred years ago this week, Martin Luther is purported to have reached his limit in his frustration over abusive practices in the Roman church, nailing his 95 Theses—his 95 points of contention—to the church door in Wittenberg, prompting the public debate that would eventually lead to his break from the Roman church and the birth of Protestant Christianity. The Reformation was a game changer in the church, remaking the face of global Christianity. But the Reformation was not only a force in the church; it represented a cultural revolution. It transformed art and music by spurring the development of secular traditions of aesthetic expression. It transformed German national identity and literacy by contributing to the maturation of German language. It led to a revolution in science by helping to usher Europe into the modern period of knowledge acquisition. It led to a revolution in politics by directly contributing to the emergence of democratic principles and ideas like freedom of conscience and human rights.
The Reformation was a revolutionary force, not just for religion but for many other aspects of human culture and society. And this morning I want to suggest that recapturing the spirit of the Reformation just may be a catalyst for the cultural revolution we so desperately need in our moment. In this mire of injustice, incivility, and mutual suspicion in which we find ourselves, faced with the dual temptations of aggressive tribalism or cynical paralysis, we need a reformation of the American character. The church can help lead that reformation. But to do so, we must mobilize around a couple of enduring truths, convictions we inherit from that great revolution of five hundred years ago.
On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther publicly protested what he considered to be profound abuses in the Roman Church by posting a list of his objections to the church door in Wittenberg. Nailing matters like these on the church door was a customary way of initiating debate in that time and place. Despite the common practice, though, those 95 Theses were no ordinary bulletin board material. Luther was calling into question deeply rooted practices in the medieval church—the paying of indulgences to buy loved ones out of purgatory, the assumption that the pope’s mediation was necessary for Christians to experience the grace of Christ, and the emphasis on deeds performed as a way of earning one’s way into God’s mercy. Dissatisfaction in the church over these practices and others had simmered for centuries in the medieval church, but in the 16th century Luther’s 95 Theses became a flashpoint for reform, igniting revolutionary changes in the Christian Church all across Europe—turning the Church upside down.
From that revolution was born Lutheran Churches, Calvinist Churches, Anglican Churches, and eventually Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, and others. From that revolution also emerged a Roman Catholic Church that was significantly different than the one from which Luther broke. Reformation Sunday—this year on October 29—annually celebrates the richness of Christian pluralism and the beginning of Christianity’s entrance into modernity. Reformation Sunday also reminds us of some of the fundamental theological convictions for which our Protestant ancestors labored so mightily. In an age in which most American Protestants struggle to define Protestant identity as anything beyond being generically “American,” it seems good to reserve a day each year to think intentionally about our Reformation inheritance. And it’s especially appropriate this year, as we commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the 95 Theses. Here, then, are seven examples of the theological legacy of the Reformers.
I love the Book of Job. Job is the place in the Bible for cranks. You may know the story, but perhaps a quick review is in order: the Book of Job imagines a little wager between God and Satan, where Satan bets God that if the fortunate and pious Job were deprived of his fortunes long enough, if he were made to really suffer, he would abandon his loyalty to God and curse God. God puts his money on Job, and the wager is on, as God allows Satan to inflict Job’s family, his financial circumstances, and his physical health with trial after trial. When Job responds, he is not the “patient Job” we are taught to expect in the story. He endures his sufferings without abandoning God, but he does not do so quietly. He complains. Job is a crank, as he goes on and on about the unfortunate, undeserved circumstances he is enduring. And God is a crank, when God finally responds to all of Job’s laments and accusations with the perfectly parental, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, little man.” The whole book is a contest of crankiness (and a fitting reflection of my disposition much of the time, which might explain my affinity for it).
Of course, I also love the Book of Job because of its substance, its preoccupation. The Book is trying to take seriously something with which we all struggle, the reality that bad things happen to good people, and the fact that it can be hard to locate God in all of that bad stuff. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? How is this fair or good? What I love about the Book of Job is that it refuses to answer the question easily—you could argue that it refuses to answer the question at all. Job asks God for a justification of his misfortune and gets from God in return a lesson in the grandness of the cosmos and the smallness of human knowledge and experience. And Job’s response is to acknowledge that yes, he is guilty of speaking “things too wonderful for me.” (Job 42:3)