11.30.2014 Preaching Text: “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:8)
Of late, Linda and I have been spending quite a bit of time with our brother-in-law, Bill, following the passing of his wife (Linda’s sister). During these visits Bill often will reminisce about his life.
The conversation tends toward a few topics: his early days growing up near Cleveland, his stint in the Navy in the immediate aftermath of the war, his college and seminary days, as well as his earliest years in the ministry as he and Ann, his new bride, relocated from Boston to the rural farming community of Haysville, Ohio, with a population of just a couple hundred.
Haysville, in the mid-fifties, proved to be a bit of an education for this young urban clergy couple. For one, Bill was sometimes called upon to milk his parishioners’ cows, before dawn and prior to the day’s regular pastoral duties, on those occasions when the farmer was simply too ill. His compensation, he reports, was always a huge and satisfying breakfast.
Another adjustment had to do with theology. His predecessor had been removed because he was deemed to be a “communist,” despite having served as a Navy pilot during WWII!
In short order, Bill himself was under fire as a bit too liberal, given that the congregation tended toward fundamentalist. There was one particular church member, in fact, who would approach him after just about every service and tell him how wrongheaded his sermon had been. The criticism focused mostly on Bill’s failure to hew to a literalist reading of the Bible.
Eventually, due to both his and Ann’s kindness, goodness, and caring pastoral presence, the congregation embraced them heartily, even inviting them back a few years ago for an anniversary celebration at which Bill was invited to preach.
In summing up the experience of doing pastoral ministry in the conservative heartland during this now bygone era, Bill concluded that the theological focus back then had been on how bad people are. “Nowadays,” he quickly added, “we only talk about how good people are!”
This reminded me of a moment from my own childhood in suburban Connecticut during the mid-sixties, a different place and time altogether. It involved the older brother of one of my best friends (also named Bill (“Bill R.”).
Outwardly, Bill R.’s family seemed to have it all. His father was a former track star at Harvard, a lawyer, and now a well-paid executive at a Manhattan publishing firm. His mother, a former stage actress, seemed to epitomize that era’s glamorous suburban stay-at-home mom.
I used to go over to their house frequently. It was built directly on top of a large glacial rock that plunged into the glistening waters of the Long Island Sound. The view from the expansive picture windows all around the house looked directly out onto the water.
In the foreground pleasure boats would gliding by while out in the distance, just down the coast, the house afforded an unobstructed view of Belle Haven, an exclusive, wealthy enclave jutting out into the Sound. And from the house’s dock we would spend our summer days swimming and lolling about.
But all was not well in this little slice of paradise. For one thing, both parents seemed to let the kids do whatever they wanted – and not to good effect.
Bill R. was always in trouble, always doing crazy things, even though, deep down, he was a good kid. His grades were also terrible, despite his considerable intelligence, in part because he lacked respect for any and all authority figures, both in school and out.
Eventually, he earned the dubious nickname “Crash,” due to his repeated accidents involving high speeds and fast cars. After each accident, his parents would simply buy him another car.
One day, one of my two brothers, a friend of Bill R.’s, visited him at the house and noticed a strange kind of poster hanging on the inside of his bedroom door. It turned out to be, of all things, a list of rules Bill had written for himself! Absent any guidance or instruction from his indulgent parents, Bill had been forced to do it himself. I still remember my mother lamenting how sad and tragic this all was.
Because today is the first Sunday in Advent (Advent being a kind of “mini-Lent”) its themes are ones of repentance, self-examination, in preparation for the imminent, full-on encounter with God, manifest in Jesus Christ.
This is, among other things, a none-too-subtle reminder that we are not perfect, and that there are things we should and must do to not only improve our lives but to experience a closer walk with God.
Taken too far, of course, such introspection and self-examination can result in the kind of religious perfectionism Bill (my brother-in-law) encountered in rural Ohio during the fifties. Harsh judgmentalism and life-negating rule-keeping can all too often be the result, leading, at worst, to self-righteousness, and a disregard for, and lack of understanding of, the many weaknesses endemic to human nature.
To avoid this error, contemporary church and society seems to have tacked to the opposite shore. Now we would not dare to criticize, much less judge.
This new contemporary attitude, what has come to be called – erroneously – “tolerance,” is captured perfectly and succinctly in a recent magazine interview with Cory Booker, senator-elect from the state of New Jersey, whom, by the way, the interviewer likens to none other than Jesus Christ!:
“There’s too much judgment out there,” Mr. Booker told the interviewer. “Really what we need to be doing is just all of us finding our own paths towards living the best lives we can live as clearly and boldly in accordance with our own personal values. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Then again, the church of the real Jesus Christ, historically, has been tasked with a whole different set of objectives, namely that of protecting human dignity, teaching and advocating for objective moral values, defending religious liberty, and advancing authentic freedom in the face of hostility toward religious faith and religious believers. In short, the church’s job has been to take a stand.
This past week, Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament with a kind of wake-up call regarding the many threats facing our beleaguered world today.
“A Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots and of grasping their fruitfulness and potential,” he said, “will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today.”
It is not religion that causes fanaticism, he went on to say, but “man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence.”
Democracy has its enemies, he warned, and keeping democracy alive in Europe will require avoiding the temptations that can undermine it, including “angelic purism, dictatorships of relativism, ahistorical fundamentalisms, ethical systems without goodness, and intellectualism bereft of wisdom.”
In the end, the remedy for harsh judgmentalism is not no judgment at all. And this is perhaps especially evident as we enter once again into the season of Advent. Amen.