I am preaching at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church in South Salem, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. This was edited on August 26, 2020 to correct a link.
Two things occurred in the past few weeks that I think have a profound impact on the nature of the church in the coming days. First, the Reverend Jerry Falwell died, and second, several books with an atheist viewpoint were at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And I think that society’s reaction to the first of the events is one reason for the second.
Now, I will be honest and say that I didn’t like Reverend Falwell very much; I thought his pronouncements and his attitude at times were the very antithesis of what I thought a Christian should be. In his comments concerning the passing of Reverend Falwell and its implication for society, Jim Wallis quoted David Kuo, former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Kuo wrote that Falwell “…helped define Jesus for much of America today.” He further wrote, “…his definition does not do justice to the Jesus of the Gospels. When people hear the word ‘Christian,’ too often they think not of Jesus and his teachings but of Jerry Falwell and his politics. I know a lot of Christians who don’t like to refer to themselves as ‘Christians’ because they are afraid of the Falwellian association.” (“Falwell’s Legacy”, Jim Wallis in Sojourners, July, 2007)
But as William Willimon noted in a recent article in Christian Century (June 12, 2007), Jerry Falwell was not a man to be trifled with. In his conversation with students at Duke University that prompted this article by Bishop Willimon, Reverend Falwell noted that Liberty University’s African-American enrollment was only 12% of the total student population and he was embarrassed by such a low number. But he also noted that the same enrollment at Duke, a United Methodist-supported university, was only 6% and that for many years Duke had a policy of segregation. The students who had booed and hissed at every word that Reverend Falwell spoke at the beginning of this conversation were very, very quiet at the end. As Bishop Willimon note, Jerry Falwell was no fool. If you are going to argue with someone like Jerry Falwell, you had better have your facts straight; otherwise, you are going to be very embarrassed by the outcome.
I noticed that with his passing, there were those who thought that the conservative and fundamentalist forces that seem to drive the American church were going to quietly die out as well, or at least be reduced in demeanor. I doubt that will happen, if for no other reason then that others will step up to take Reverend Falwell’s place. Only they will not necessarily be as talented or prepared and the fights they will fight will be far more “bloody.”
Against that backdrop I also noticed that there were several books, among them “God is not great” by Christopher Hitchens, on the New York Times best seller list. It was almost as if the extreme left of the theological spectrum felt the need to rush in and fill the vacuum left by the death of Reverend Falwell.
As much as I feel that those on the extreme right of the theological spectrum arrive at faulty conclusions from the facts available, so too do I think that those on the extreme left do the same. It is quite easy to conclude when all you read about in the news is war, violence, hatred, and exclusion that there is no God or, if there is a God, it is one who prefers violence over love. It is quite easy for someone to say that churches today are hypocritical when the loudest voices advocating war, hatred, violence, and exclusion are heard in churches throughout the country. For many in society, atheism and agnosticism seem to be viable alternatives when the church seems to turn its back on them. One comment to my blog for last week (“We Are Eating Our Seed Corn”) pointed out that many churches are cutting funding for youth ministries while at the same time showing absolutely no interest in the youth. If there was any wonder as to why so many youth view the church cynically, we only have to look at what we are doing.
But those who profess science as an alternative to religion often times merely replace one form of religion with another. Instead of science, we have what is called scientism, the belief that there exists only one reality and science provides the only trustworthy method for gaining knowledge about this reality. In this view, science has an exhaustive monopoly on knowledge and it judges the claims of religion to have knowledge of supernatural realities as fiction or pseudo-knowledge. But just as fundamentalism is rigid and inflexible, scientism is a sealed off world that has closed its doors to transcendence. (Adapted from http://www.elca.org/faithandscience/covalence/story/content/06-06-15-peters-1.asp; note, as of August 26, 2020, this link does not work.)
Brian Doyle wrote about a conversation that he had had with two philosophy professors and the roots of faith and whether religions are the “biological constructs” and “electrical explosions in the brain” or whether they mean something more:
I have continued to think about that conversation almost every day. I still have faith in faith, despite the philosophers’ evidence that religions are merely nutty hobbies, like being a Cubs fan. I keep thinking that under the rituals and rigmarole, there is in religion a crucial, wriggling sense of what human beings might someday be. It’s what you experience sometimes, for an instant, in patriotism or sport or family; a humor and mercy; camaraderie and ease, a grace and mercy, a warmth beyond all reason and sense. Sometimes, for a second — at a game, a meeting, in line at the bank, at a park by the rive — you get a flash of connective energy with your fellow beings, just a flick of it, a quick shiver of inexplicable peace and joy in the company of your fellow travelers.
That flash is what religions are for. Yes, we gather because deep in our mammal hearts we are in awe of whatever sparks life, and yes, we are desperate for definition so we drape explanations on the Unnameable… (Adapted from Commonweal Magazine, 3 November 2006 – in Context, July 2007)
The philosopher Huston Smith noted,
“…we are hamstrung between the fundamentalists on the one hand, who are locked into a dogmatic literalism that fails to put scripture into context, and on the other side, the liberals, who have conceded too much ground to secularism and the scientific method.
As for the scientific method, Smith noted,
When the scientific method came into being, it gave us a new window on the truth; namely, a method by laboratory-controlled experiments to winnow true hypotheses from false ones. This has yield a great many things — washing machines, microwaves, a significantly longer life expectancy, to name a few.
But those discoveries were so good that we overlooked something. We thought the scientific method was giving us omnicompetence (an understanding of all things). It isn’t.
We are physical beings, but we also have a spirit. Science relies on our physical senses, mostly our vision, for its discoveries. But there are some things that our physical senses do not detect. Nobody has ever seen a thought. Nobody has ever seen a feeling. And yet the world of our thoughts and feelings is the primary world in which we live. (Adapted from Zion’s Herald (now The Progressive Christian, tpcmagazine.org), January/February 2006 – in Context, July 2007)
There is one truth but it is inaccessible if you limit the way you seek it out or try to find it. And that is the very challenge that the church today faces. You see people today searching for the truth, searching for a new path to walk. But where is this new path? In what direction do we walk or take our lives?
With fundamentalism on one side of the theological spectrum and atheism on the other, it would seem that the middle path is the only alternative. But, as is often said in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are dead armadillos. And the middle path in this viewpoint is a compromise of the two extremes.
There are churches today that do offer some sort of compromise. They offer new forms of worship or a softer message. But changing the style of worship doesn’t help if the central message ignores the Gospel. A softer message, one that offers rewards that Jesus never promised or says that poverty, sickness, homelessness are not your fault and it is all right to ignore, is just another form of the hypocrisy that drives so many people away from the true message of the Gospel.
Let me today suggest another alternative. Let me suggest today the way we should go, the direction our life will should take is not defined by the middle of the road and compromise but rather by the simple declaration of our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior.
To follow Christ is to follow a decidedly different path and most definitely not the path that society would have us walk. But it is not an easy path to walk, as today’s readings from the Old Testament (1 Kings 19: 1 – 15) and the Gospel (Luke 8: 26 – 39) show.
In the Old Testament reading, Elijah is on the run for his life. In the previous chapter of Kings, Elijah had openly challenged King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, and their belief in the gods of Baal. Calling upon the power of God, Elijah caused the prophets of Baal in Israel to be killed. Ahab and Jezebel were seeking revenge for the embarrassment that they had suffered in this display of God’s power.
In the Gospel reading for today, a man possessed by demons approaches Jesus. Jesus breaks the power of demons and puts the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. Now, you would have thought that the people would have rejoiced because one of their neighbors had been cured of a debilitating illness. But they were angry that he had destroyed the herd of pigs.
Now, this region of Galilee was predominantly Gentile so it was permissible for them to be raising pigs. It has been suggested that the pigs raised were sold to a nearby Roman garrison and the anger that the people directed towards Jesus was because of the economic loss.
We have to be prepared to go against the grain of society if we are to walk the path that Christ asks us to walk. It is interesting to note that after encountering God on the mountain, Elijah is directed to go to Damascus and take his ministry in a new direction.
Saul leaves Jerusalem for Damascus to continue the persecution of the new Christians. But it was on the road to Damascus that Saul’s life changed and he became Paul. It was on the road to Damascus that a life of persecution became a life of ministry.
Paul also notes in his letter to the Galatians, our 2nd lesson today (Galatians 3: 23 – 29), that a life in the law, such as the one he lead before the transformation on the road to Damascus, was a life imprisoned. And a life imprisoned is a life without creativity, without the ability to go beyond the boundaries of society.
There are two types of persons who will hear or read this message. There are some who do not know what direction their life should take. To them, we remember what God commanded Elijah to do, “go to Damascus!” In this case, to go to Damascus is to take the steps that are needed to encounter Christ much as Saul did and to make the changes as Saul did in becoming Paul.
There are those who have made the trip and have encountered Christ and have changed their lives. They are like the man in the Gospel reading today. They want to follow Jesus wherever He goes but Jesus commands them to return home and tell the people there how much God has done for them.
The question that you must ask yourself today is which type of person you are and which direction you will go.