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?
Can you be a Christian misanthrope? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a misanthrope as “a person who hates or distrusts humankind.” Precisely used, the term refers to someone who retreats from human interaction out of a rejection of human community. Understood as such, it should be pretty clear that you can’t be a Christian misanthrope, for that’s a contradiction in terms. Christianity’s emphases on love and community make our faith tradition obviously incompatible with someone who would declare that he is done with humanity.
So I will admit that the phrase “Christian misanthrope” is a bit of intentional literary exaggeration, an oxymoron meant to grab attention. But I also use the term because I have been called a misanthrope from time to time—kiddingly, I hope, by friends who know my strong preference for alone time and independence. Even to call it a “strong preference” seems an understatement. I often tell people that when I underwent my psychological evaluation for ordination to ministry, my tests concluded that if I were any more introverted, I would quite simply be dead. My default is to be alone; it requires intention for me to seek out the company of other people. I like quiet; I often prefer time to talk to myself over talking with others. A good weekend to me is spent walking in the woods behind my house, sitting on my porch staring at the deer in the field across the way, or tinkering with a project in my garage.
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.