Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Greed," A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Here are some temptations I was faced with as I sat down to write this sermon.

Temptation #1: Statistics. You know, about how the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and there’s no end in sight to these trends, especially if our government decides to continue with the program of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Statistics about what percentage of our children live in poverty today versus fifty years ago—just before President Lyndon Johnson embarked on the famous “War on Poverty.” Statistics about how the tiniest portion of the population owns and controls the vast majority of the wealth, and how the vast majority of the population owns and controls the tiniest portion of the wealth. Statistics about the breakdown of poverty by ethnicity, race. Statistics like that.

The problem with statistics is, they usually make our eyes glaze over. Perhaps I should just speak for myself. Statistics make my eyes glaze over. And when I hear statistics about things I already know or already believe, and about which I’m already feeling somewhat pessimistic—well, I often have the experience of feeling just a little bit beaten down by them. So, no statistics.

Temptation #2: Quotations from The Divine Comedy, Inferno section, on the eternal punishments meted out to the greedy. What sermon couldn’t be improved by the judicious insertion of some Dante? I spent a good deal of time pursuing this plan, until I remembered two things. The first thing I remembered was my sermon of two weeks ago, titled “Hell.” And I thought, well, I may have said all I’d like to say about that for a while, and why run the risk of contradicting myself? And the second thing I remembered was the fact that encouraging behavior driven by the fear of punishment is setting the bar pretty low. In fact, it can’t get any lower. Perhaps you remember your Kohlberg from psychology class in high school or college? Lawrence Kohlberg speaks of our moral development as occurring in stages. The earliest, most primitive stage is that in which we behave in such a way as to avoid punishments and to gain rewards. This is, essentially, where toddlers are. The highest stage of moral development is that in which we behave entirely according to universal principles of “right” and “wrong.” Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. At any rate, encouraging us to not fall prey to greed simply to avoid punishment or gain some other reward seems ironic at best, and self-defeating at worst.

Temptation #3: Examples of greed “ripped from the headlines.” Oh, and the headlines provide us with more than enough material. From Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme cost investors more than $18 billion collectively (which is still missing, by the way), to British Petroleum, whose corner-cutting is resulting in costs measured in marine life, an entire coastal economy, suicides among fishermen… well, we can see in vivid terms that greed is still alive and well and wreaking havoc.

Temptation #4: When in doubt, there are always movie quotes! Gordon Gekko, the fictional character from “Wall Street,” the 1987 film about corporate raiders and inside stock trading. The quote cited in the 100 most memorable movie quotes. OK, I’m going to succumb to this temptation. Here’s what he said:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save [this company], but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. [1]

And you know, that argument was pretty compelling to a lot of people. In fact, more than twenty years after the film, the actors report that people still approach them to tell them that they were inspired by their characters to become stockbrokers, which is ironic, because a lot of those characters end up in jail. The argument made in that speech can be summarized by the economic slogan, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” classic Reaganomics. And it does! The problem is, when the tide goes out, the wealthy, while they have less, are still wealthy. And the vast majority of the populace are swept out to sea by a terrible undertow which they did not create, and which they may not survive.

So. How do we talk about greed? How do I talk about greed, I who had a meltdown on Thursday of this week because my phone died and I was without Internet access? Both of which, by any rational measure, can only accurately be described as luxuries? How do we talk, in a country that is still struggling to recover from a recession—let’s face it—brought on by the greed of a small number of people who still haven’t had to pay for the mess they created, while people we know and people we will never know—millions of God’s children, all around the world—are still struggling to find work, or to keep their families together…? How do we talk about this?

Do I sound angry? It’s hard to talk about this without getting angry.

The first thing I’d like to say about “greed,” and, perhaps, about most sin, most things that cut us off from recognizing the presence of God (which is how I define sin), is this: Greed takes what is a basic human impulse or instinct and distorts it, twists it, renders it unrecognizable. In the case of “greed,” the basic instinct is for security, and not one person can or should be faulted for wanting security. To know that you will be clothed, that you will eat a meal, that you will have a safe place to lay your head at night, to know that you will have all these things even beyond your so-called “productive years,”—this is part of what it means to be human, to have these needs and try to meet them. Greed, on the other hand, takes this instinct and pumps it up, inflates it, so that we think we “need” all sorts of things that turn out to be unnecessary, or even potentially harmful, to us or to others. And the way we know something is sin, is because it results in cut-off—we are cut-off from recognizing the presence of God, we are cut-off from others, we are cut-off from recognizing that our human calling is to be in community. Greed, as does all sin, cuts us off.

Jesus tells a parable about greed in today’s gospel lesson. You all know this parable, I feel sure. A man decides to save up for the future. He plans to spend a lot of time and energy building storage facilities for grain, so that he can be ready for any inevitability, any disaster. And the minute he hatches this plan—note, he hasn’t actually torn down the old barns, or built the new, larger ones, he has simply decided this is the thing to do, and he has begun to congratulate himself on how very wise he is—the minute he commences self-congratulation, he dies. And God speaks to him, and says, Wow. That was not too swift, friend.

The most compelling words in the story, though, are the words Jesus uses to introduce the parable. He says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” [Luke 12:15].

A life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Collections of things do not a life make, whether those things are our cherished cell phones or our beloved cars or our beautiful homes and all their contents. These things do not a life make. “We know there is a vacuum inside of us that will suck up an infinite supply of thrills, goods and successes without satisfying the human heart.” [2]

All of which leads us to the question, well, what does make a life? What will satisfy the human heart? What do we do? Where do we go? I suspect that the answer to this question, the antidote for greed, has to come from our own work—spiritual work—at the deepest level. We need to work at it. I believe we can work at it, we can change and grow, and the answer lies in a single, simple word: gratitude. In the words of the prophet Cheryl Crow, “It’s not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

I heard a story this week by a woman who spoke of a truly challenging time in her life. She had cared for two small children at home while her husband had carried a full course load towards a graduate degree and held down a fulltime job. They barely saw each other for about three years. But they were working towards something. After he’d graduated they were hoping his new degree might land him a better job. Instead, the recession hit with full force and he was laid off from the job he did have, while opportunities in his field simply dried right up. Instead of paying off old debt, the family had to struggle to avoid taking on new debt, and the woman ended up finding employment and switching roles with her husband: he was the stay-at-home parent, and she was the primary breadwinner.

Through it all, fear and doubt and insecurity threatened her sense of peace and well-being. But she did not succumb, because she engaged in a very simple practice: the recital of a kind of mantra of gratitude. She would do this while walking to work. And she always started the same way, with the same basics: “Thank you God, that I can breathe. Thank you God, that I can walk. Thank you God, that I have [the use of my hands].” As she walked her normal route, and watched the people going by in their cars or on bikes or walking, more and more things for which to be grateful would occur to her. “Thank you God, that I was able to pay the rent last week. Thank you God, for the phone conversation with my mother last night. Thank you God, for the smiles I will see on the faces of my children when I arrive home tonight.” This ritual, which began with thanksgiving for the simplest and most basic things, ended up opening her eyes and her heart to the real, tangible blessings that were there all along—but which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It was as if a veil had lifted, and now she could see.

What I love about this story is how it illustrates one of the most powerful truths about any of the spiritual disciplines, whether we are talking about prayer, or reading scripture, or any other of the ways we strive to open ourselves to God’s presence. The truth is this: we start where we are. If we can’t think of anything to be “truly” grateful for, we start with the things we take for granted entirely—our feet, our eyeglasses, the hair that’s left (or, the fact that baldness is “in” now!). I’ve heard people practice this kind of gratitude under astonishing circumstances—“Thank you God, the chemo didn’t make me nauseated today. Thank you God, for that memory of my loved one.” I make no claim that this is easy. I do claim that a grateful heart is a heart that is open to the peace of God. And God is always there. God is always here. We strive to open ourselves to the presence of the One who created us, and we learn to our astonishment that we are steeped in that very presence, we are awash in it.

“Greed is good”? No. Greed is a perversion of a God-given instinct for security. Greed separates my welfare from that of others, and presupposes it is every man for himself. Greed is the opposite of the way God created us to be, which is to live in community. Greed isn’t good. God is good. Evidence of God’s goodness, and God’s good intentions towards us, are all around us. And it takes work to see. It takes the intentional work of practicing gratitude. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got. It takes work. It’s not always easy. But it is a way to live that opens us to more abundance than we can imagine, blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Wall Street, dir. Oliver Stone, perf. Michael Douglas, DVD, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1987.
[2] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 1.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Dance": A Sermon

It may seem to us an unlikely moment to break into dance. After their God had unleashed ten plagues on the Egyptians, culminating with the deaths of the first born, the Israelites had escaped into the wilderness. All their worldly possessions on their backs and in their arms, they had just shed the shackles of slavery and fled from the avenging army of the Pharaoh. They had been pursued to the shores of the Sea of Reeds. Horrified to be caught between the Egyptian chariots and the sea, seeing only death before them, they’d turned on Moses, their leader, with vicious accusations. “They said to [him], ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?’” ~ Exodus 14:11

And then, Moses had demonstrated God’s power with what was very possibly the most visually spectacular supernatural event to be described in scripture: the parting of the sea. The Israelites walked through, as it says in one hymn, “with unmoistened foot,” while the pursuing Egyptian army looked up in horror to see the walls of water closing in, utterly obliterating them.

It may seem to us an unlikely moment to break into dance. You might think the Israelites would simply collapse in relieved tears on the far shore. Instead, Miriam, the prophet, Moses’ elder sister—the one who’d watched over him all those years before, as he cried until his face got red in a basket down by the banks of the Nile—Miriam picked up a tambourine, and led the women of Israel in a triumphant, no-holds-barred dance of pure joy. It was a dance of praise to God, whose power is so utterly amazing. It was a dance of sheer gratitude for their lives.

Dance. It’s an odd thing, in some ways, for a Presbyterian Church to be considering dance as we worship together on a Sunday Morning. But contained in our hymnal is the wonderful, “I Danced in the Morning, ” whose essential theme can be found in its refrain:

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
I will lead you all in the dance, said he!

“He” is Jesus Christ: the hymn is a first person account, from his point of view. It is Jesus who is the Lord of the Dance. And as we sing through the verses, it becomes very clear: Jesus, as he is imagined in the hymn, sees all of existence—from God’s creation in the beginning through the events of his life to his resurrection from the dead and his promise to us for our lives—he sees it all in terms of a marvelous dance. And it is a dance to which we are invited.

I have to say it again: it might seem an odd thing for Presbyterians, of all people, to sing of a “Lord of the Dance.” After all, we are the church that owes its existence to John Calvin, the great reformer who approached the bible from the point of view that, if it isn’t expressly permitted, it’s forbidden. (Luther took the opposite view, by the way: to him, if it wasn’t expressly forbidden, it was permitted!). This reading of scripture resulted in Calvin claiming that dance was entirely too frivolous an activity for Godly people. Never mind that King David did it before the ark, that Miriam and all the women of Israel did it, that the psalmist invited us all to do it—for Calvin, no dancing.

In some critical ways, Calvin’s position is inconsistent with a truly Reformed worldview. Here’s how one writer expresses the inconsistency:

Reformed folks praise, value, honor, and make central the sovereignty of God [that is, God’s supreme and independent power]. The theological giants of the Reformed tradition—[including Calvin]—have put God's sovereignty at the center and heart of a Reformed "world- and life-view." God is the Lord of the cosmos; God is free from having to meet our expectations…

This writer goes on to claim that a truly Reformed world-view would “take the sovereignty of God so seriously [as to expect that you] might actually be surprised by God every once in a while. You [would be] open and expectant that the Spirit of God is sometimes going to surprise you, because God is free to act in ways that might differ from your set of expectations.”

It’s all about how God, in God’s supreme and independent power, created us. And therefore, it’s all about embodiment—the fact that we are flesh and blood creations of God’s. And embodiment is something that Christians have struggled with from the beginning. In fact, some of the defining heresies of the early Church had to do with exactly how embodied we are, and Jesus is. Though the Church affirmed wholeheartedly—Jesus is fully human, as well as being fully God—remnants of another idea remained, and those remnants are with us still: the idea that we are spirits trapped in bodies. And that somehow the spirit is the part of us that is good, the body is the part of us that is bad, and all of life is a struggle to see which will gain the upper hand.

The life and teachings of Jesus do not fall into the trap of this mindset. Jesus’ feet got dusty as he walked the roads of Galilee and Jerusalem. Jesus sat at table and ate with gusto and enjoyed wine. Jesus fed the hungry multitudes. Jesus laid his hands upon people to heal their hurting bodies—restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame. Jesus cast demons out of people whose bodies were tormented by possession. Jesus raised children and adults from the dead—never once did he say to someone, “Oh, don’t fret. Your little girl is with God now.” No. Jesus valued life, bodily life, a life of both pain and pleasure, and one he sought to make better by taking people’s hurting, hungry bodies seriously.

As we should. And taking our bodies seriously includes the serious engagement with those things that God created to give us pleasure. For instance, dance. What does it mean that life is a dance—that the life of faith is a dance? Well, what does it mean when we dance in the first place?

Think of those times you’ve either danced, or you’ve been present when others danced. A wedding, for instance, when the bride and groom and all their families dance the night away. Or, in the end zone at a football game—when the running back does a little dance after making the touchdown. Or, those moments when children hold hands and swing themselves in a circle, letting the centrifugal force spin them faster and faster. We dance because we feel good—because we’re happy, we’re celebrating, we’re feeling so full of life and joy we can do no other. Or maybe we dance all alone in the kitchen, because we know it will help us feel better, in the face of some setback or disappointment or heartbreak. Dancing comprises celebration of or breakthrough to joy.

Jesus, by calling himself the Lord of the Dance in this hymn, invites us to a life of faith that is filled with joy. Interestingly, the English songwriter Sydney Carter chose to set these lyrics to an old Shaker dance song, “Simple Gifts.” The Shakers were famous for a spirituality that took the body so seriously that their worship centered around ecstatic dance—sometimes, spontaneous, sometimes, choreographed. In choosing this tune Carter emphasizes his point: the life of faith is a joyous dance.

I read this week that Reformed worship “often treats human beings as if they are brains-on-a-stick.” We who spend our weeks living in our bodies—digging in gardens, or caring for our aging parents, or feeding our children, or riding bikes, or kissing, arrive in worship on Sunday morning and expect to do no more movement than standing and sitting and, occasionally, singing. Don’t panic. I am not proposing we adopt the Shaker order of worship. I am suggesting that we have something to be joyful about in our faith, in the love of the God who created us, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And our worship should in some sense be a dance of pure joy. It should be a dance of praise to God, whose power is so utterly amazing. It should be a dance of sheer gratitude for our lives.

I know one place that kind of joy will be on full display this week: South Bend, Indiana, the home of Purdue University, which is hosting this year’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium. Between 3000 and 5000 young people from all over the country will gather there for worship, study, service and mission projects that will move them—literally as well as figuratively—that will invite them to join in the great dance of faithful lives. If the past is any indicator, it will change their lives. So join me as we first pray for and commission our youth participants, and then as we sing “I Danced in the Morning.” And join me, as together we seek to live a faith that is on fire with the joyful love of the one who calls us to the dance. Thanks be to God. Amen.


James K. A. Smith, “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance,” Christianity Today, May 2008 []

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Hell": a Sermon

In early June I began to encourage you to share with me those topics you most wanted to hear discussed from the pulpit. I was overwhelmed by your response. I received suggestions for topics as diverse as “God: Referee or Judge?” and “Ghosts and Spirits and the life of faith.” One of you wants to hear about “American Greed,” and another, the crimes and punishments of the ancient Israelite kings and the apostle Paul. One is interested in the topics of true love and divorce, and what it means to be a success; another wonders, what exactly are “Biblical Family Values?” But the card that stopped me in my tracks, and made me wonder exactly what I had gotten myself into, said the following: “Is there a hell? And if so, how can you get out?”

I read a blog—that is, an internet journal—written by David Hayward, a pastor, artist and musician who calls himself “nakedpastor” (don’t worry, he’s talking about spiritual nakedness).[1] By sheer coincidence, about a week after I’d decided I’d be tackling this sermon topic today, David posted an original cartoon to his blog. You have a copy of it in your bulletin. The title of the cartoon is “Hell.” In it, you see the words “Tough Love,” and then, as if ablaze, the word “FOREVER.” And that, in a nutshell, is the conundrum we Christians are faced with when considering the possibility of hell. Do we believe in a God says, essentially, “Love me—or else!” Or is there some other way to understand both the scriptural roots and traditional Christian teachings on hell?

A quick read through the comments at David’s blog takes us through many of the positions people hold with regard to this topic. One person affirmed the cartoon, saying,

Funny when you have kids of your own how the craziness of literal hellfire becomes even more apparent. I can't fathom at all sending any of my kids to unbearable, eternal torture no matter how bad they were.

On the other hand, another reader said,

[The] God of the Bible is straightforward: He makes it clear that He is a God of wrath------a God of love------and smack in the middle of it all----a God of justice… What do you do with words like wrath, anger, jealous, when you read them in the Bible--just ignore it because it doesn't fit your image of God?

And, of course, we had to have the jokester, who wrote:

We had a phrase [in my church] that comes to mind, "Turn or burn" which, to be positive, was, at least, a VERY CLEAR message. It was also a helpful tip for the barbeque.

Today, I am going to do my best to share with you, first, some scriptural background for ways to think about hell, including a very brief history of the development of the idea of hell, and finally, some thoughts from a contemporary theologian on what constitutes a truly biblical understanding of hell.

I did a search for the word “hell” in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s not there. The word that is there, instead, is “Sheol.” The most ancient meaning of this term is “the abode of the dead.” Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Hebrews conceived of a place where the dead went to rest, an underworld. The Hebrew Scriptures are of two minds in describing Sheol. In some passages, such as Hannah’s canticle, Sheol is simply the place where the dead go: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). This passage is not referring to punishment at all. The righteous and the unrighteous alike go to Sheol—it is the final resting place of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Samuel, all beloved of God. In many parts of the bible, “Sheol” functions as the equivalent of “the grave.”

On the other hand, there are passages in the Hebrew Scriptures where Sheol takes on a decidedly punishing tone. Psalm 9 says, “The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.” It sounds as if Sheol is a place of punishment there. Still, in another psalm we read the words, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Psalm 139:8). Sheol is a place for the dead, but even if it is a punishment, it is a place where God’s presence still abides.

In the New Testament, we do find the word “hell,” which is often used as a translation for the Greek place name, “Gehenna.” You can visit Gehenna if you go to the Holy Land; the word refers to Hinnom, a valley that runs south-southwest from Jerusalem. In ancient days, the valley was the place of worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. This worship consisted of sacrificing children by passing them through a fire; even some ancient Israelite kings took part in this horrific practice. Later, the Babylonians used the valley as a dumping ground for the bodies of the Israelites they killed during the occupation. By the time Jesus said, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22), it was being used by the occupying Romans as a garbage dump. The fires burned there day and night.

Between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, a development had occurred. Instead of conceiving of death as a time of rest, darkness, a great leveler of the good and the bad alike, death was seen as a time in which scores were settled, a time when the evil were punished once and for all, even if they had managed to escape punishment in life.

Why did this take place? Why did a religion and a culture which had not had a clearly defined notion of punishment after death suddenly develop one? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I have some ideas. Could it have been the result of centuries of occupation and displacement, of war and persecution? Could it have been a development based on an innate sense that justice must take place some time, even if we don’t get to witness it ourselves? Could it have developed as a result of a fervent hope that God would not allow those who had killed and carried off God’s people go unpunished?

Whatever the reason, by Jesus’ day, there is clearly an idea of an afterlife in which the righteous are rewarded and the evil are punished. Jesus, in his typical take-no-prisoners fashion, threatens this punishment to those who not only murder, but to those who are angry. He raises the prospect of Gehenna for those who not only kill a brother or sister, but those who insult a brother or sister. In fact, if we look closely at this particular passage, Jesus takes the threat of hell to an almost bizarre extreme. Why? What is he getting at?

In his chilling memoir, Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel describes his first night in the concentration camp following a nightmarish death march.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever…

Now, there is a description of hell: hell as utter separation both from God and from hope. Understood in that way, is it possible that Jesus is using Gehenna as a description of what utter separation from God is like—the kind of separation that is born in despair? The kind of separation Jesus himself experiences when he cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Or, perhaps the kind of separation that is born in self-centeredness, and not other-centeredness? The kind of separation that results when we choose to cut ourselves off from God and God’s people?

Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie offers the following:

And what is hell? Not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is living forever in the loneliness that results from the inability or unwillingness to love and be loved. It is never coming to rest but living forever in the frantic, self-destroying attempt to be what one is not and never can be. Hell, in other words, is not a kind of eternal life at all; it is a kind of eternal death. [3]

In other words, “hell” is not a physical place God sends us. It is a state of being—mental? Spiritual? Existential? Eschatological?—where we choose to reside, apart from God. And it begins here and now, not at some later date. Some of us are already in hell. Some of live our whole lives in hell.

Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, in the end, had great difficulty reconciling Hell with a gracious God. He called it “the impossible possibility”.[4] Each time we say the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim that, after suffering crucifixion and death, Jesus descended—to the dead, in some translations, to hell, in the translation we know best if we are above a certain age. When we remember Jesus’ cry of agony and abandonment from the cross, that descent makes sense.

But what a hopeful doctrine that is for us to acclaim. Just as the psalm says, if we make our bed in Sheol, even there God is with us. If we take on the wings of the morning and ascend to the farthest limits of the sea, even there God leads us and holds us fast. If Jesus descended into hell, or the realm of the dead, there is no place—whether physical or mental or spiritual—where we can go where God has not already gone before. There is no place we can go where God is not. There is no place where God is not. That includes hell.

“If there is a hell, how can we get out?” What a great question. Traditional Protestant theology has held that once a person is in hell, they are there eternally. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters see it slightly differently. They still understand there to be a hell, whose punishments are eternal. But they also see another place of separation from God—purgatory—in which our sins can be purged from us. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was built by Quakers with just this idea in mind—place criminals in a quiet environment where even the architecture reminds us of God’s watchful eye, and even the most hardened criminal will repent and come to a new way of life. One of the ways in which people may gain release from purgatory, in Catholic thinking, is by means of prayer—this is why there are entire religious orders who are devoted to prayer for the whole world, both living and dead.

A great thinker said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell…” [5] The truest and most genuine sermon on this topic might just have been the words, “I don’t know.” I can’t claim to “know” the truth about hell. I can share what I believe: that God is love—as scripture tells us, again and again, through story, song, history, parable and poem. God is love, as we see in the reality of a God who came to be with us in Jesus Christ. God is love, as we recognize in the ongoing presence of the Spirit in and with the church. When we understand that God is love, the idea of hell—of eternal separation from that love—is surely something that makes God weep, and surely something God would use all the power in heaven and earth to overcome.

If we make our bed in Sheol, even there God is with us. If we walk headlong into hell, Jesus is there waiting for us. There is no place we can go where God is not. That is our faith and our hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[2] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958 and 2006), xix.
[3] Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 396.
[4] As quoted by David Hayward at nakedpastor.
[5] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 294.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Freedom: A Sermon for Independence Day

On July 2, 1776, John Witherspoon was elected to the second Continental Congress. The Battle of Lexington and Concord had already been fought, as had the battle of Bunker Hill. The Olive Branch Petition, an attempt at brokering peace with the British, had failed, and the way forward for the Congress seemed clear: to declare independence from British rule.

Witherspoon was a part of the New Jersey delegation; at the time he was elected he was the president of a small and struggling college in New Jersey called Princeton. He was also a Presbyterian minister. In fact, he was a passionately evangelical preacher, one who had called for a renewal of his church through a return to the essentials of the faith: salvation through Jesus Christ. In a sermon preached on January 2, 1758, he said the following:

“I shall now conclude my discourse by preaching this Savior to all who hear me, and entreating you in the most earnest manner to believe in Jesus Christ, for “there is no salvation in any other...” [1]

One could hardly find a stronger, more absolute statement of traditional Christian teaching than this. Salvation through Christ, period. And yet, the author of this statement, as a signer of the Declaration of Independence just two days after his election, entered wholeheartedly into a union which specifically prohibited the establishment of religion, any religion, including the Christianity he so zealously professed. The Rev. John Witherspoon, fiery preacher of the gospel as he understood it, was also a fiery proponent of freedom of religion.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says Paul in his letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” [Galatians 5:1]. Much has been made of the Christian faith of the Founders of our nation. In most cases, this is at best a distortion. Many of the great philosopher-statesmen of the Revolution, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and others were not, in fact, Christians, but Deists. Deists affirm that there is a Supreme Being, whom they might even call a Divine Architect. They also affirm that the Supreme Being created the universe and all that is in it, and endowed human beings with both reason and the wherewithal to behave morally. Deists reject, however, anything that claims to reveal the mind or will of God—and that includes scripture or prophecy of any kind. To them, Jesus was a wonderful moral philosopher whose followers got a little carried away.

One might wonder: would Witherspoon find himself on the other side of a divide from his Deist colleagues on the role of religion in public life? Would he advocate that our nation be founded on Christian principles and doctrine? Would he find the US form of government to be lacking because it wasn’t based on the eternal truths as he understood them? No, to all these questions. He said,

“Shall we establish nothing good because we know it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government because every constitution has its old age and its period? Because we know that we shall die, shall we take no pains to preserve or lengthen our life? Far from it, Sir: it only requires the more watchful attention to settle government upon the best principles and in the wisest manner that it may last as long as the nature of things will admit.” [2]

For Witherspoon, the “best principles and wisest manner” included the guarantee that he should be able to exercise his faith with complete freedom and without the fear of government interference, whether that religion was the religion of the vast majority or of a tiny minority. Freedom is not freedom, if it is freedom for some and not for others. Freedom is not freedom, if our freedom comes at another’s expense. Witherspoon knew this, and that is why he was among the founders who also could not abide the institution of slavery. “It is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others,” he said, “and take away their liberty by no better right than superior force.” [3] Freedom is not freedom, if it is freedom for me but not for you.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul reminds us. In the context in which he was writing, Paul was declaring the good news that in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we all are one. The freedoms which both Paul and John Witherspoon spoke and stood for (and lived and died for) are freedoms it is all too easy for us to take for granted. Most of us don’t know what it is like to be persecuted for our faith, though there are those who do. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, Native Americans and countless others—each of these groups knows what it is like to be the victim of sectarian violence and killing, depending upon accidents of birth and geography and timing. We are blessed—perhaps we are lucky—to be free from such threats.

But it is not enough to be free from something. Paul reminds us that we are called to use our freedom, that we have to be free for something as well.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Galatians 5:13-14].

Witherspoon knew this. After the battles and the war had ended, after the guns had been laid down, and the smoke from the cannons had cleared, and both sides had buried their honored dead, Witherspoon spoke at a service of Thanksgiving After Peace:

“To promote true religion is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people. Love to God and love to man is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do…” [4]

Love God. Love one another. As we gather around this table today—and later, as we enjoy our barbecued ribs and S’Mores—it might be good for us to give thanks for our freedom. As we recall the faith into which we have been baptized—and later, as we enjoy a run through the sprinklers or a dip in a pool or a lake—it might be good for us to remember, not just that we are free, but those things for which we have been made free. As we lift our hearts heavenward—whether to ponder the Light of the World or to gaze at the sparkling fireworks with the eyes of a child—it might be good for us to rejoice in our freedom to love God and to love one another. For these things we have been made free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. John Witherspoon, “The Absolute Necessity of Salvation Through Christ” (January 2, 1758) in The Works of John Witherspoon, Vol. V (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815) p. 276, 278.
2. Ibid., Vol. IX, "Speech in Congress upon the Confederation," 129.
3. Ibid., “Lectures on Moral Philospophy,” 81.
4. Ibid., Vol. IV, “Sermon Delivered at Public Thanksgiving After Peace,” 265.