Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
“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?
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?
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.
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)