Seven Questions: 1

A few weeks ago, I asked you to jot down any questions you wanted me to address in a sermon, and you did; then I asked you to pick your top seven, and you did. I had a lot of fun with the process, watching the questions come in and wondering what I might say in response, and I got a little nervous when I watched my favorite question of all slowly drop from the top rank to the bottom. I was greatly relieved to see it in sixth position when the polls closed, and in case you didn’t know, my favorite question is one submitted by Calin: “Why doesn’t God have a mommy? Everyone should have a mommy,” and I’ll join him in wondering about this deep concern on the Sunday before Christmas. Today, though, I will try to respond to this one:

What should be the role of the church versus the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society? Handmaiden? Critic? Gadfly? Partisan supporter? Evaluator? Other?

It’s a question that offers its own possible answers, and I suppose I could choose one or perhaps two and elaborate a bit on my choice, why the church should be doing this or that or the other. Handmaiden? Sure, why not, as long as she remembers that she can’t serve two masters. Critic? Absolutely, since the word of God judges our thoughts, words, and deeds. Gadfly? I love the image of a tiny fly moving a heavy bear with a single sting. Partisan supporter? No, not a good idea, unless we think of God’s people as partisans of God’s reign in the thick forest of the world. Evaluator? Sounds a little distant to me, I see people in lab coats with clip boards or figure skating judges, not a pleasant thought. Which leaves “other,” and other with a question mark invites all kinds of possibilities to describe the church’s role versus the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society. Healer? Enforcer of divine law? Jester?

It’s not that there are so many options and I just can’t make up my mind. My problem bubbles up long before I get to the first question mark: I don’t really know what the church is. There are more churches in this city than all flavors of pop tarts, jello, and ice cream combined. Which one of them is the church that is to take on some role or another? Or is it all of them together, somehow?

Growing up, I was encouraged to study the ancient creeds of the church and the confessions of the reformation, and I learned to say,

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.[1]

Sounds simple enough, but look where agreeing on doctrine got us. And I’ll spare you the much wordier and much fierier paragraphs from the Westminster Confession.[2]

What the church is has been contested since the days of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and I’m not talking about the 60’s that tend to get blamed for everything these days. In talking about the church, the best we can do is confess our faith in the unity of the church, confess our sin of fracturing that unity again and again, and proclaim our faith that nevertheless the body of Christ is alive in the world. Despite the scandal of a fractured church, the mission of Christ in the world continues and we have the privilege of having been called to participate in it. So perhaps we should ask the question differently: What should our role be, what should you and I do about the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society?

We should notice them, and not simply in others, which is always convenient; we should notice them and our own entanglement in them. We may want to talk about business ethics on Wall Street, but we also need to talk about our own greed. We may want to talk about sex and violence on tv, but we also need to talk about putting tv’s in our children’s rooms. We may want to talk about drugs in sports, but we also need to talk about our own methods of self-medicating to numb the pain or to push us on. Yes, we should notice the corruptions, and we should begin to name them, and I for one believe we should make a habit of sitting with the prophets and the psalms, and learn to lament again and cry.

Our very souls have been invaded and colonised by the forces that corrupt our life together, and we need strong partners like Amos to free our imagination from the endless commercials and silly soundbites that occupy our minds. We live in dark times, and we keep telling ourselves and each other that it’s the economy, when in truth we have lost all sense of what it means to live together.

Amos cried when he spoke to the people of the city who had done well for themselves. “You desire the day of the Lord? What makes you think it is a day of glory and light? It is a day of darkness, a day of judgment and truth.” And then the tears of Amos became transparent as God’s own tears of anger and grief:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.[3]

We live in dark times, and we keep telling ourselves and each other that it’s the economy, and we keep singing our songs or fighting over what songs to sing and presenting our offerings while God is in tears over the ruin of God’s people.

The light that shines in this darkness is the call of God to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The light that shines in the darkness is the call to a life together that embodies the commandments of God.

What is our role versus the moral and ethical corruptions of our time? We notice them and our own entanglement in them, we name them, we lament the absence of fullness, and then we respond anew to the call of God to a life of faithfulness. And faithfulness doesn’t come easy. It is much easier to draw a line, choose a side, and start shouting across whatever the line of division may be.

I recently listened to a couple of conversations Krista Tippett had with two Christian leaders from very different camps, and I was moved and encouraged by their wisdom.

Richard Mouw is a conservative Protestant who is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Since 1993, he has been president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, one of the largest centers of Evangelical higher education in the world.

Frances Kissling is best known as the President of Catholics for Choice, a post she held from 1982 to 2007, fighting to keep abortion legal in this country. Both have been involved in heated debates about difficult moral and ethical issues, both learned important things, and I want to make room for their voices this morning.

Mr. Mouw said, “The kind of Evangelical fundamentalist Christianity that formed me early on had a very strong streak of incivility. We not only had enemies, but we felt that it was essential to our spiritual identity that we have enemies. It’s almost as if we’ve always got to have somebody that we feel legitimate about really hating. A lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil, and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions, and what we really need is convicted civility.”

Then he went all the way back to Aristotle to explain that civility is about learning to live in the city, learning to live with strangers, and he added, “for Christians who take the Bible seriously, it isn’t that we have these convictions and then we also got to try to be civil, but the truth element of civility is itself one of the convictions.”

The truth is at stake not just in the positions we take, but in how we take them. Mouw continued, “[In First Peter, there’s] a verse that gets used all the time among Evangelicals, ‘Be ready at any time to give a reason for the hope that lies within you, of anyone who ask it of you.’ We’ve always had that. You know, we’ve always got to be making the case. We’ve always got to be defending our beliefs against people who disagree with us. But we seldom go on and quote the next part of that verse, which is, ‘And do so with gentleness and reverence…’ I’ve often thought how different our theological and even our interreligious disagreements would get played out if we constantly said to ourselves, I’ve got to treat the other person with gentleness and reverence.”

And then he added, “Maybe it’s time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, ‘what is it about people like me that scares you so much?’ And [then they] in turn would listen to me [as I tell them what worries me so much about what they are advocating. And then we’d] talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in despicable behavior.” That would be a very different kind of conversation.[4]

Ms. Kissling, a.k.a. “the cardinal of choice,” was very frank. “I’m not a big believer in common ground. I think that common ground can be found between people who do not have deep, deep differences. But to think that you are going to take the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Organization of Women and they are going to find common ground on abortion is not practical. But I do think that when people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. I have learned — I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last 10 years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And as a result, I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine. What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? Where do you have doubts? [We must learn to] acknowledge what is good in the position of the other, acknowledge what troubles us about our own position. The need to approach others with enthusiasm for difference is absolutely critical to any change.”[5]

I am grateful for the wisdom of these seasoned leaders. In nurturing “convicted civility” and “enthusiasm for difference” we will find better answers to the moral and ethical challenges of our time, and we certainly get closer to a renewed and faithful vision of life together.


[1] The Augsburg Confession (1530), Art. 7

[2] The Westminster Confession (1646), ch. 25

[3] Amos 5:18-24