Sermon: Method to My Madness

10.18.2015     Preaching Text: “[But] whoever wishes to become great among you must first be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)

As most of you know, a group called the Forum meets every Wednesday morning to discuss Christianity, the church, and their relationship to our culture and world.

This past week Howard Streifford brought to our attention a newspaper article from the Wall Street Journal by a British rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, entitled “Swords into Plowshares.”

“No society has survived for long,” Sacks asserts, “without either a religion or a substitute for religion.” And yet, he says, the West in general has forgotten this most basic of facts.

The shock felt in the West by the rise of radical Islam, most recently the rise of the Islamic State, is itself “one of the worst failures of political intelligence in modern times,” the consequences of which have been “disastrous.”

It happened “because of a blind spot in the secular mind,” i.e., the inability to understand the “elemental, world-shaking power of religion,” especially when “hijacked by politics.”

“[The] challenge of religious extremism in the 21st century,” he continues, “[and] the re-emergence of religion as a global force caught the West unprotected and unprepared…”

Why? Because – and this gets to the heart of his message – “[the West] was in the grip of a narrative that told a quite different story.”

And what is that narrative? It’s the secular worldview that came out of the Enlightenment which, rejecting the vast expanse of human history, concluded that anything that isn’t rational, or perceived by our five senses, is false. If something didn’t make sense rationally, it was to be rejected.

In the intervening 500 years or so, many have come to believe that religion is a dying relic of a primitive, pre-scientific mind that sought vainly to make sense of the inexplicable. With the proper application of science and reason, however, such “myths” and “fairy tales” soon would disappear into the dustbin of history, replaced by the sunny uplands of scientific, rational thought.

As history moves forward, in other words, religion necessarily fades away.

“What the secularists forgot,” however, as Sacks puts it, “is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal.” And “[if] there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning.”

“Science,” he points out, “tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose.”

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished.”

“But,” he adds, “they do not answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

The result,” he concludes, “is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

The church’s No. 1 job, however, has always been to impart that meaning. To instill it. So, we must ask, how’ve we been doing?

If we concede Sacks’ point – that the West is increasingly secular and is largely unconcerned about religion or meaning – then I guess the church isn’t doing particularly well.

Which is why I’m constantly banging on about the ever-thorny relationship between church and culture, a relationship I consider a bit too cozy. This may be especially so with New England Congregationalism which has had a long (and storied) history of working hand-in-glove with American culture. We used to run the place, after all!

The end result of this long-standing cooperation with the wider culture is that we’ve lost a bit of perspective on exactly where modern culture is heading. And if Sacks is right, the culture is thinking less and less about the church!

Sacks’ call to action is for the West to reclaim its spiritual vitality in ways that offer, among other things, a life-affirming alternative to the excesses of radical religion. Yet because we’ve lost so much confidence in ourselves and become so enmeshed with the wider culture, that’s difficult to do.

For one thing, we’ve deemphasized the biblical understanding of life that offers profound answers to Sacks’ three basic questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

Instead we’ve relied on supposedly sophisticated, “cutting edge” philosophies to answer these questions, often without realizing it. We’ve deemphasized ‘in-house’ theological discourse and the supernatural in deference to a more somber “social justice” agenda which seeks “practical” political and social solutions.

We’ve been told by the culture that religion is purely a private matter, and that we should keep our faith to ourselves. We’ve politely obliged.

We’ve accepted the extra-biblical notion that all life-paths are equally legitimate and of similar spiritual value. Thus we would never deign to question any of them, prizing presumed courteousness and civility over substance.

But as Western culture moves headlong into its now 50-year drift away from the church and toward secularity, we are beginning to see its ruinous effects, if but only dimly. So accustomed are we to trusting the culture to do our bidding that we’ve grown complacent, having developed a “blind spot” that cannot see the culture’s increasingly anti-church, anti-Christian animus.

After our discussion this past week in the Forum, one of the members asked, “So what can the church do?”

Great question, that. My somewhat unsatisfying prescription is for the church to be the church, to reclaim its biblical, spiritual, meaning-generating heritage.

That doesn’t mean standing on street corners threatening and coercing unsuspecting passersby. Nor does it mean assuming a smug, self-righteous, ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude that both falsely and hypocritically assumes we have it all together.

Instead, we’re called to follow in the path of Jesus Christ, who modelled humility and servanthood.

What we need to do, then, in order, is to 1) unashamedly confess our historic faith in Jesus Christ, and 2) seek to live the Christian life with clarity of heart and mind, purposefully and meaningfully, and 3) share Christ’s love with others, with genuine charity and humility. Amen.