Be Strong, Wise and Gracious

The following is roughly the sermon I gave at Chalice Christian Church on December 27, 2008.

Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. We certainly did here at Chalice. For those of you who were here for the Christmas Eve service you got to finally enjoy the Christmas carols that Linda wont let us sing during Advent. And of course, last Sunday we enjoyed the Chalice tradition of Improv at the Stable. How great was it to see so many of our young people participating even if some of them were pressed into service? Well, following up the pageant, I thought we would have a little quiz. So, here we go, in what order did these events occur. If you know the answer just call it out.

The quiz is basically what is contained in this old post. The punch line that today’s scripture doesn’t fit into the classic pageant.

Examination of the Scripture

Okay, so why do this exercise? Well, first off, if you recall when James preached on youth Sunday that he occasionally spars with his eighth grade classmates over matter religious; you will be shocked to learn that I have found myself in similar discussions with coworkers. So, I want to make sure you all are also equipped for such confrontations. The more serious, more important reason is that this examination demonstrates these stories cannot be read as a newspaper story or a biography. Once you realize that these were not written as factual recounts, you have to ask yourself why did the authors write what they did. And, that is the question we need to go after today.

Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer.

First, there are hints in this story of what is to come. Jesus the social and spiritual revolutionary is foreshadowed in this story. For example, the sacrifice they bring is that of two pigeons, which according to the Old Testament is an exception for the poor from the requirement to bring a lamb and a pigeon.

Next, as with the rest of Luke, there are several examples of parody between men and women. The story says that they were purified, when the law only required Mary to be purified after giving birth. Jesus’ greatness is declared not just by a man, Simeon, but also by the woman, Anna. Mary and Joseph are doing everything together. You may start to have visions of the woman at the well or Mary & Martha.

Finally, while we have all this discussion of the temple and the law, we have Simeon say, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” this might bring you to the clearing of the temple and hearing him tell Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul” may bring you all the way Gethsemane.

So floating around in the mix are these images but we can’t let the subtext overwhelm us. Remember, that while Matthew follows the birth in Bethlehem with Herod behaving like Pharaoh, and Jesus first going then coming out of Egypt, Luke has the holy family doing pretty ordinary stuff, as the author writes, “everything required by the Law of the Lord”.

Role of Customs & Rituals

This group assembled has in a real way inherited a tradition of rejecting tradition. As Christians, at some point after the fall of Jerusalem, we rejected Judaism. As Protestants, we rejected Catholicism. As Disciples we have rejected even Protestant doctrine, with Barton W. Stone declaring that he professed the Westminster Confession of Faith “As far as it is consistent with the word of God.” (Which I’ve always thought was a kind of non answer.) We like to say that we have “No Creed but Christ.” It seems clear from today’s scripture that Luke didn’t share such a stark few of tradition.

Now, a quick story. When Mom and Dad were first married, he bought a set of encyclopedias. He did this when, as I understand, they were eating peanut butter for lunch everyday because half of his Air Force salary went to their rent. Evidently they a little fight over this choice. As a result, years later whenever we had a question Dad would send us to the encyclopedia—thus justifying his purchase. Well, Pat & I didn’t fight about it, but I have a set of books called The Great Works of Western Civilization, and I like to get them out whenever I can. So, lets start with Plato.

Plato praised “the particular training in respect of pleasure and pain, which leads you always to hate what you ought to hate, and love what you ought to love from the beginning of life to the end” and just hated novelty. In fact, he praised the Egyptians because their current art was exactly the same as there ancient art.

There is something to this. In some sense, our scripture this morning is a story of preparation. Surely part of Jesus’ growing in strength and wisdom and being full of grace comes from the practice of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines like studying: he could not have fended off the attacks from church leaders to Satan in the desert if he was not familiar with his scriptures. At age thirty when his ministry began, he could not have simply turned on empathy for all those who he healed—empathy is an acquired skill, it is I think one of the greatest advantages of coming here to pray for others. How could he have recognized the need for the rich to surrender their material belongings, if he had not himself experienced the joy that his charity.

Likewise, we cannot expect to be a force for good in the world, an agent of change if we don’t likewise practice spiritual discipline.

Of course, I suspect some of you cringed at the idea of teaching children what to love and many of you cringed about teaching children what to hate. And the dialogue has some stuff that would make even the strongest champion of back to basics education blush, when it says that the populous cannot be asked to judge what is best. Nor the children or women, nor the young men, but obviously what the old men think is best is what is best. (Which is easy to sell when you’re only speaking to old men.)

On Sunday, I cut out some citations, which are italicized below, in the interest of time.

Recent thinkers are more in line with liberal ideology seeing the often destructive effect of over emphasizing tradition. Freud wrote, “its ordinances, frequently too stringent, exact a great deal from him, much self-restraint, much renunciation of instinctual gratification.” It becomes therefore one of the main aims of psychoanalytic therapy to release the individual from the bondage to custom.
Indeed, the fight over marriage equality is largely about adhering to old traditions without recognizing the reality of love. Much racism, both attacks against African Americans and those against recent immigrants, are justified with references to custom and culture. Likewise, much of the economic injustice we see in the world today is a product of traditional behaviors. It is tempting to throw it all out. Indeed, this is exactly the reason guys like Sam Harris wrote the End of Faith, wherein he blames religion for successfully transferring accountability to allow devastating injustice.

Francis Bacon wrote The first of these is the extreme affecting of two extremities; the one antiquity, the other novelty … one of them seeketh to devour and suppress the other; while antiquity envieth there should be new additions, and novelty cannot be content to add but it must deface: surely the advice of the prophet is the true direction in this matter, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths. Where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16

Spring board to changing from within

But it is not just for our own well being that we are versed in our culture. It is not just for the sake of gaining the benefits of spiritual disciplines. We must be engaged, I believe, in order to bring about change within the larger Christian Church. This is my fear: that thinking people are falling away from the church. Now, I think this church can be a vehicle to continue to bring such people into the Church. And the Church needs them. Those are the people who can be an agent for change in the church universal.

And that as a result, we are increasingly talking past each other. We see our holy scriptures brutally misinterpreted. Read in a way that is absolutely inconsistent with the words on the page. We see prophesy transformed into fortune telling instead of social commentary; faithfulness turned into a suspension of disbelief instead of fidelity to the teaching of Jesus Christ. We can’t let it happen. There is too much to be lost.

9 replies on “Be Strong, Wise and Gracious”

I like the topic and the execution.

I disagree with Bacon. I understand his point, but I don’t think novelty must always deface.

I see your biggest obstacle being the fundamentalists and literalists. They are shockingly at odds with your scripture, and are way further afield from it than is a moral atheist. I wonder how such a thing can be combated, when it’s such an easier message…

I guess what I would like to see, and what I want to work for, is to encourage thinking people to join the church–which means to engage thinking people in discussion of and pursuit of spiritual fulfillment and good works–rather than convert fundamentalists or literalists to another point of view.

In the comments section of the letter to the editor, one commenter writes that there are no contradictions within the New Testament. The commenter put this in all caps. It’s remarkable.

Just catching up on reading after the holidays. Good stuff, Jim. I did have to read the second chapter of Luke for background. There's enough content here for several posts! You did a good job with it — wish I could have heard the sermon.

Not long ago you asked a question about the role of tradition — my response was that tradition reminds us who we are, it contains & transmits our Story (into which our individual stories fit). I think this may apply to spiritual disciplines as well.

I wonder if the value of circumcision and purification and blessing in Luke's story was seen as effecting some change, like magic or a miracle, or if it was for the purpose of reminding the parents who they were and who the child was.

A contemporary example of this is singing Advent hymns during Advent to help us remember the long time of waiting — the deliciousness, even, of the apertif — the joy of postponing gratification.

I liked your "closing argument" best — the last paragraphs.

I also really appreciated Matt's comment: "I see your biggest obstacle being the fundamentalists and literalists. They are shockingly at odds with your scripture, and are way further afield from it than is a moral atheist. I wonder how such a thing can be combated, when it's such an easier message…"

Indeed, Matt, it is an easier message. It rings more true. It feels more liberating and life-giving. It could be considered good news.

And what I understand you to have been saying for a very long time, Jim, is that the defining criteria for engagement are thinking, curiosity, interest in spiritual development and good works. Christianity not required. And here I hear you saying that such engagement will transform the Church! I think you're right. It's a fascinating prospect.

I would ten times rather sit for an hour or so with someone who would wrestle honestly with issues of the soul and society than with someone who is unwilling to consider alternative ideas to the ones they already hold.

Congratulations on establishing a forum for such engagement. I wonder if we will ever convince reasoning, curious, non-religious people to come into the church building for conversation.

Or will we always have to find another place?

Congratulations on establishing a forum for such engagement. I wonder if we will ever convince reasoning, curious, non-religious people to come into the church building for conversation.

I will disclose a secret, in many ways I see Chalice as my last effort to do this. I think if Chalice cannot bring in those who are outside the Church, than perhaps it cannot be done. And perhaps, the Church cannot help them, and they cannot help the Church. If that is the case, well, if that is the case than more terrifying questions will have to be asked.

For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”

Do I need to walk into Chalice?

Not that I am unwilling. Jim, when we finished our interview with Steve Gibson, I was struck by how much I would like to do that regularly. I can’t imagine it being Sunday morning in pews, but a regular discussion of those kinds of topics is something I would really like to get into.

I am awed by your confession, Jim. And I confess to you that that's why I'm still there. I think, too, that it really might happen here.

Yep, Matt, that's what he said –Jesus is right there, in the bar over beers, on the blog.

You don't have to walk into Chalice — but I would love it if you did. Because I enjoy your mind. Because your presence would make us better.

I also really did ask the question in earnest, and your response, Matt, leads me to think there's merit in asking again — will we always have to find another place? It's not a new idea. There are way more stories about Jesus outside the temple than in it. John tells the story of Nicodemus, who was a leader in the temple, who, when he had something important to ask, went looking for Jesus away from the temple, at night.

So is it a mistake to put up big buildings & expect people to come to them for stimulating encounters? (I'm truly grateful for the building we have, & dream of others)

I just think we might also need to be available for deep conversation in other places. But I do so long for such dialogue in the church — I do hope we can be transformed. As I understand it, that's what Jesus was hoping for, too.

Jim, when we finished our interview with Steve Gibson, I was struck by how much I would like to do that regularly.

I can tell you that in our adult Sunday school classes you would experience conversation very similar to the one we had with Steve. Pat has had the chance to go for the last year and has really enjoyed them.

When you ask do you have to walk into Chalice, I’m not sure if you’re asking can such enrichment be found elsewhere, or if you asking if the only way to know what is going on is to walk in.

As to the former, my dad used to say you can find God on the golf course on Sunday morning, but you’re not usually looking. I think churches are an established forum for having such discussions, but just like you can become knowledgeable without attending a university, you can surely find the enrichment available at church elsewhere. It’s just more difficult.

As to the former, I would like to turn it on you. If you take my word for it that in our adult Sunday school classes you will have the kind of discussion we had with Steve, and therefore if it was close to your house I assume you would enjoy having such discussions on Sunday mornings, how could I communicate to someone like you that such conversations were going on? How could I let you know that you were welcome?

I suspect a giant sign saying, “Theists and Non-theists Welcome” would not do the trick.

LIN: will we always have to find another place?

My suspicion is that the answer to this is almost certainly ‘yes’. I would go to Chalice a good number of Sundays if I lived nearby. Could I find a comparable experience in Chicagoland? Almost certainly, Chicago is a big place. It wouldn’t feature Jim and Pat, which is big for me, but I could find the exploration I’m looking for.

But the effort I would have to go to to find it is enormous, and the price of a mistake, meaning I hit a church without the qualities I’m looking for, is a lot of conversation, exposition and admonitions I don’t want. A waste of time is not the biggest price to pay, but it could be a *lot* of Sunday mornings blown for something I can simulate in bars with my friends. And I think I’m pretty rare in being a non-theist who is actively interested in seeking these kinds of conversations. So it may be impossible to bring in people in any kinds of numbers.

LIN: There are way more stories about Jesus outside the temple than in it.

Indeed, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that temples (and mostly the accompanying social/hierarchical structure) were the source of a ton of his ire. It’s not a minor irony that so many Christianities are so organizationally strict. It would be like my friends gathering after my death and celebrating my life by fasting.

JIM: When you ask do you have to walk into Chalice, I’m not sure if you’re asking can such enrichment be found elsewhere, or if you asking if the only way to know what is going on is to walk in.

Very much the former (or more properly I was asking rhetorically why Chalice’s building matters in light of this blog and our conversation with Steve, etc.), but the latter is maybe the important question if you’re trying to gather non-traditional-christian folks into the conversation.

The hard question is what you asked later on: how could I communicate to someone like you that such conversations were going on? How could I let you know that you were welcome?

This is super hard. I’ve known you forever and that’s why I know what you mean when you invite me. As I wrote above, I would consider it an enormous hurdle to try to find a church like this.

So how can you attract me? How can you communicate to someone like me: “Hey, we’re going to spend a lot of Sunday mornings talking about Jesus, the implications of his life and teachings, the church, and all that the church can and does do in society, we’re going to hit theology, epistemology, philosophy,and history. We’re going to do all of this in a church on Sunday morning but we’re not going to try to get you to believe in Him or His father.”

It sounds impossible to me, but I’m willing to continue trying to find it out. In our interview I said something like “Go ahead Jim, destroy Christianity from within”, and now it looks like I’m going to try to help you recruit atheists into your church.

JIM: I suspect a giant sign saying, “Theists and Non-theists Welcome” would not do the trick.

No, it wouldn’t. Plenty of evangelicals welcome me, too. But they don’t want to talk with me about Jesus’ stance on church hierarchy, our theist/non-theist dual partnership in shaping the nations’ morals, the nature of knowledge and how Jesus’ teaching may be a path to a socratic form of reasoning. They have a mission and their welcome to me is sincere but not what I want.

You need to convey the notion of that that the discourse will be something like a partnership of ideas, not a conversion message. Perhaps you *do* want a conversion, ultimately, even though we’ve talked about it specifically, I still don’t 100% know if you’d like me to believe in God. But whether or not you want it, if you want open-minded non-theists in your building, you’re going to have to say you don’t want to convert them, and if you want them to come back you’re going to have to at least pretend hard while they’re there that you’re sincere.

Of course I am not doubting your sincerity, but I’m trying to be really honest about what I think this is going to take. How do you put an ad in the paper that will keep them reading? How about an assumption-busting opener:

“Looking to stay an atheist forever? Not looking to be converted? Then we are the church for you. We want to talk, laugh, discuss and try to make the world a better place, and we know we can’t do it without atheists. If you want to talk about the issues of church, God and morals with Christians in an environment where you will NOT be asked or encouraged to convert, then come and help us try to make the world a better place from a mutual exploration of ideas.”

Something like this is your only chance, I think. Oh and if you can partner with a secular church you’ll have a great resource–something like the North Texas Church of Freethought. If you could advertise with them (or speak at their services), you might really win big.

Hey, Matt — I’m not sure you’ll pick this up — it may be lost among old posts. But I wanted you to know that this thread of conversation was very meaningful to me. I will keep it. I continue to reflect on it.

If you came to Chalice I would not try to convert you. I would celebrate you being who you are. I would (and do) want to learn from you. Because of what I am learning from you I realize that MANY conversations about such matters as these begin with the presumption of the existence of God. I confess that I struggle with how to fashion words into sentences that don’t perpetuate that bias.

I confess that as a person who embraces the idea of God, living in a culture that casually throws around the idea as though everyone is on board with this notion, it is not an easy thing to establish neutral dialogue. You make me want to try.

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