Years ago I recall an article by the interim Dean at The School of Theology at Sewanee, where I did my MDiv, Dr. Allan M. Parrent, where he argued that the default moral position of many within the Episcopal Church (and elsewhere in the old mainline) had become a sort of default unreflective pacifism. He contrasted this with the thoughtful position of Christian non-violence as upheld by the traditional peace churches. Largely, it could be seen that these knee jerk positions were developed in a reactionary way beginning in the 1960s over against the perception of a rah-rah patriotism in more conservative denominations that seemed to forget, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, that a lesser or necessary evil taken up, is still an evil.
At any rate, all of this means that a situation like that in Ukraine challenges our ethical reflections, even as the still developing news of atrocities offends our moral imaginations. In that vein, I commend this piece written a few days ago (before the news of the war crimes in Bucha) by my Bishop, regarding the context for the Christian Just War tradition’s reflections on the use of force, and, essentially, the primacy and importance of judgement and discernment, particularly between the guilty and the innocent in contexts where no law can be easily assumed or enforced.
And, of course, I’ve been thinking, during this time, about a particular lecture by a former ethics professor who once challenged us as future priests to be prepared to challenge parishioners engaged in immoral businesses, such as being tobacco farmers or working at Boeing and making bombers. At the time I was irritated that his moral imagination only seemed to reach toward the farmers and not the corporate executives (read some Wendell Berry!), considering that my grandparents had been Tobacco farmers. But the war in Ukraine raises questions about the manufacture of weaponry. What if Lockhead/Raytheon hadn’t developed and manufactured Javelins? Flooding markets with weapons–whether handguns or weapons of war–for the interests of profit and not recognizing that indiscriminate sale and greater accessibility increases violence and death is one thing–but what of the need for weapons of war when a plow (or tractor or combine in the case of Ukraine) is threatened by a tank?
In rendering these extraordinary judgments, Christians should not forget what is true about our ordinary judgments: we are not God, and our judgments are not perfect. Whatever judgment we render is not final judgment, which is reserved for God. We trust in divine providence, approaching judgment in humility and with prayer. “In enacting judgment we are not invited to assume the all-seeing view of God. … We have a specific civic human duty laid upon us, which is to distinguish innocence and guilt as far as is given us in the conduct of human affairs. … To lose the will to discriminate is to lose the will to do justice” (47).
Christian thinking about war, in what has come to be called “the just war tradition,” is properly considered under the heading of the love of neighbor. O’Donovan points out that even in a defensive war, where a nation has been attacked, Christians look less to a claim of absolute right to defend themselves, and more to the call to love the neighbor. This commitment also involves the neighbor who is the enemy. “In the context of war we find in its sharpest and most paradoxical form the thought that love can sometimes smite, and even slay” (9).
I’ve enjoyed David Olney’s music in the past, but on Palm Sunday, thanks to all the live streaming churches around the country are doing, I heard “Hymn of Brays” for the first time. I share it below as a thoughtful piece to listen to on Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
Periodically during my ministry, or indeed in the life of our family, the need for some form of recognition for the death of a beloved pet has been apparent. I developed what I call a Pet Funeral Framework in response to this–it’s a simple selection of readings and prayers that can be tailored in length to the occasion (and to the age and attention span of one’s children).
Sermon Notes for the Second Sunday of Easter Variations of this sermon preached at 8 AM and 10:30 AM at Church of the Resurrection, Franklin TN April 28, 2019 Scripture: Acts 5:27-32 · Psalm 118:14-29 · Revelation 1:4-8 · John 20:19-31
One of my favorite church related cartoons pops up regularly at this time of year, around Thomas Sunday. It shows three men standing together, with one gesturing emphatically, a bubble above his head with the words “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran Away Naked Mark.” Why should I get saddled with this title?” One of the other men in the drawing responds “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.
The cartoon is a humorous take on a serious observation: for some reason, even as the other disciples exhibited varied flaws and sins, it is Thomas who is remembered as the doubter. Even though, in the Gospel of Matthew, we’re told that when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, they fell down and worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Not one. Some. Plural (cf. Matthew 28:17).
Sometimes Thomas is the subject of condescending chuckles, or portrayed as the embodiment of our own contemporary tilt toward skepticism: Thomas, the first Missourian, saying like the motto of the Show me state, “Show me!” Show me, and then I’ll believe. Not before.
This tendency becomes more and more strange as we examine what has been going on. Notice where the disciples are. They’re back in the upper room where they’d shared the last supper. The doors are locked out of fear. They’ve heard about the resurrection, but have they really believed? I don’t see much evidence yet. Then Jesus appears, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Thomas–poor Thomas–wasn’t around. I think a more accurate nickname for him might be Bad-timing Thomas.
Nevertheless, he’s remembered as the doubter. And yet, while it may seem rather unfair, I wonder if that’s in part because we have the wrong idea about doubt. And here I want to talk about doubt as something different from skepticism or an absence of belief. I want to suggest that doubt requires faith. You cannot doubt what you don’t have to begin with. Thomas had faith in Jesus. Remember, he was so committed that when Jesus said he was going to go back to Judea and to Jerusalem, it was Thomas who said to the other disciples “let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t think Thomas was being ironic. I think he really believed enough in Jesus that he was ready to die for him. He just didn’t understand–as none of them did–that Jesus was to die for them. For us.
The context, therefore of Thomas’ reluctance. The context for his unwillingness to believe the account given him by the other disciples, was not the context of rejection or even simple skepticism. It was a reluctance to believe the impossible. A reluctance they’d all exhibited at one point or another. People don’t simply rise from the dead. Even in a premodern, pre-enlightenment time, people knew this. Thomas was simple the latest, and so the title gets hung about his neck.
But it’s not as bad as it seems. Doubt, it turns out, is not something to be rejected or feared. It’s part of the natural process of strengthening our faith. A faith that never encounters doubt is an unexamined faith, just as a world that never leaves us lamenting or, like the Psalmist, challenging God because of what occurs, is a world we haven’t paid much attention to.
We live in a world in which people have a tendency to delight in empty skepticism. To reject belief or doctrine based on a shallow understanding or clear misunderstanding. This isn’t doubt. That’s surface level thinking. Doubt in contrast, can be seen as being like bubbles in the water as we dive deeper into our faith.
The Scottish Pastor turned English Professor and author, and inspiration to C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, describes doubt this way in a sermon on Job:
What MacDonald understood, and what we must understand, is that doubt is only a portion of Thomas’ story. It is a necessary part of the story, but ultimately of less importance than where it leads. You see, Thomas the Doubter becomes Thomas the confessor–the one who most clearly proclaims Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God!” And he never would have arrived at this place of greater understanding and deeper faith, if it were not for the reality of his faith and his doubt, his doubt in the midst of faith and faith in the midst of doubt.
What are we to take away from this today? What is Thomas’ example to us? I think it’s at least two fold. First, I think we need to understand that doubt arises from the context of faith, and, in order to be true doubt and healthy doubt it needs faith to push against. In other words, doubts are part of a spiritual dialogue that we all engage in. Outside the context of faith, they make no sense to begin with. Secondly, it is not only his own faith that Thomas wrestles with, it is the faith and testimony of the other disciples. Notice that neither they nor Jesus cast Thomas out for his doubt. The other disciples witness patiently and wait on the Lord to act. Jesus actually responds to Thomas’ request and invites him to experience the proof he desired.
And just like the situation in Matthew’s Gospel that I mentioned earlier, where they worshipped him, “but some doubted,” Jesus understands that doubts are things to be worked with and worked through. The occasion of doubt Matthew shares immediately precedes Jesus’ giving of the Great Commission to the disciples, to go into the world making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In our gospel today, Jesus points Thomas and the other disciples–and by extension us–beyond Thomas’ doubts and toward the future: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe–even in the midst of their doubts. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples’ doubts–or our doubts–let them or us off the hook. We’re called to go deeper into faith, to support one another in that process, and in doing so, to confess, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
“Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ heard the cry of the one who said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Make us a church of Thomases. A people honest and forthright in doubt, rooted in faith. We pray that through our doubts, borne and confronted in the midst of faith, we would grow ever deeper in our knowledge and love of you. Grant that we would move, by your Spirit, from doubt to confession, proclaiming, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” For we know that you have faith is us, saving us through your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
This is so central to the decline not only of the oldline churches, but of Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism in the west:
“These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.”
I once read an essay, by Peter Berger, I believe, in which he argued that the mainline/oldline had won the cultural battle, in that their inheritors in our society hold to a basically mainline/oldline protestant public ethic, but that they lost the war, in the sense that they (we) were unable to demonstrate that the Church or even Jesus, was necessary to any of it. Why would someone spend their time believing? Practicing faith? etc…
The folks at the School of Theology booth in the exhibit hall at General Convention caught me for my reaction to the opening Eucharist. I was particularly excited about “The Way of Love,” a new evangelism initiative of The Episcopal Church, in which my friend Carrie Boren Headington participated in the development of. You can see more of the Way of Love materials here.
How do we deal with political disagreements with our friends and family? What prompts the strong emotions when we disagree with those close to us? How do we maintain relationships with intense disagreement?
This presentation is intended to lay out some major things in the background of our political disagreements, and then talk about some actions we can take to maintain and strengthen our relationships.
Unfortunately the camera had both a hard time focusing, and a shorter than needed battery charge. Bear with us and we’ll get better at these things.
The full-length audio (it doesn’t have the question and answer period, however):
Sermon for the last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King Sunday*
November 26, 2017
Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Matthew 25:31-46
Image Info: Christ Enthroned, Byzantine Mosaic
*Yes, I know that Christ the King Sunday is not an official title in the Book of Common Prayer. I also know that the Collect is completely in keeping with the title, so I use it, because I appreciate the opportunity to preach on Christ’s kingship.