Monday, March 18, 2013

Sharing the Truth - Richard R. Crocker

This sermon was preached on March 17, 2013 at Colby College on the occasion of Kurt Nelson's installation as Dean of religious and Spiritual Life.

Sharing the Truth

Colby College
March 17, 2013
2 Timothy 2:15-17a, 22-25; 4:2-5

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. ….  Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth… II Timothy 2:15-16; 22-25)

I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away for listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
(II Timothy 4:2-5)

I am pleased to be back, speaking in the Colby College Chapel, after a long absence. I last spoke here during a college worship service thirty years ago, when I was College Chaplain at Bates. As you will have concluded, there was no clamor for my immediate return.

I noticed during that visit long ago, and have confirmed this very day, an impressive plaque in the  Rose Chapel of this building commemorating 72 early Colby graduates who were missionaries. This was interesting to me then, and it is interesting now. Both Colby and Bates were founded as Baptist institutions, and I feel a particular affinity to them, for I myself, like them, was once a Baptist. Colby was the creation of the regular or Calvinistic Baptist movement in Maine, while Bates was created by the Free Will or Arminian Baptists. These distinctions probably have very little significance to most of you today.  A hundred and fifty years ago, they were central convictions about the truth, held with such passion that colleges were created to perpetuate distinctions that may now seem quaint and perhaps trivial. And so we learn and commemorate today the changing conceptions of truth – acknowledging how convictions rise and pass away, how susceptible we are to fashion, even in our religion. Of course, there are people in all religions who think that there is a core of truth, unchanging and unchangeable, that is usually the property of their own tradition. I have respect for that conviction, and in some senses I also even share it.

          Sharing the truth. I always get uncomfortable when someone tells me that they want to share something with me. It always feels like they really want to sell me something - a sales person who wants to share a new life insurance policy. But for lack of a better word, I understand when people want to share their deepest convictions, because I realize that genuine sharing is a gift and a risk. Our culture does not make it easy to share our deepest convictions; they often are seen as divisive rather than uniting. A recent New Yorker cartoon entitled “how to get space on the subway” portrays a man sitting in a subway car with an empty seat of each side of him. He is wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Ask me about my religion.”

          Yet I do not hesitate – in fact I have become rather famous at Dartmouth, for sharing, or proclaiming, five truths with my students. I share them with no apology and with no uncertainty. And, surprisingly, my students love them. Would you like to hear them? Well, of course, your answer doesn’t matter. Here they are.
1.    Alcohol is dangerous.
2.    Sleep is essential.
3.    Cuddling is good.
4.    Good things will happen to you.
5.    Bad things will happen to you.
I think these truths are beyond dispute.

          But when the apostle Paul uses the word “truth” in his letters to Timothy, we rightly infer that he is talking about something perhaps even truer. He is talking about the gospel, the good news, that will free people from the fear of sin and death. Yet, while he admonishes Timothy always to proclaim the truth,  he also  warns Timothy not to get involved in useless and stupid debates, and instructs him always to be kind and gentle in advocating the truth to which he is committed. In other words, Paul tells Timothy to be bold and clear in his advocacy of the truth, while at the same time being kind, gentle, and genuinely humble.

Many religious people have a hard time living out this instruction. Some of us, no matter what our tradition, feel duty bound to make sure everyone knows the truth as we see it; others of us are so timid in our convictions that we refuse to talk about them at all. I submit that both stances are failures to share the truth. The first stance fails to share because it assumes that the other person has nothing to give; the second fails to share because it assumes that we ourselves have nothing to give. Sharing implies mutuality.

We have gathered today to formally acknowledge and celebrate Kurt Nelson’s ascension to the position of Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at this formerly Baptist College. We are here, I believe, because we wish him well in what all of us know is an important and difficult job. But I take special pleasure and pride in this occasion because I know Kurt so well. From his having served for five years as my assistant, I know full well that he is a person of exceptional intelligence, and integrity, and, if I may say so, he is exceptionally well-trained. Kurt has convictions that he is not afraid to share. He believes in a God who is the ground of creation; he believes quite literally that he – and we – must act to save the world. He is impatient with those who ignore scientific evidence of climate change. He is willing to go to jail (for a brief time) to support his beliefs. At the same time, Kurt is genuinely interested in the beliefs of others. He has learned to listen respectfully to those with whom he may disagree, and to learn from them, and to welcome what they have to share.

          For you see, there are a few other truths that I think you will agree are indisputable. Here they are:

1.    Religion is not going away.
Despite the rapid growth of the religiously unaffiliated and alienated in the US, and, I am sure at Colby College, Islam is not going away, Hinduism is not going away, and Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism in all their varieties are not going away.  The need to feel a connection with a “higher power” is either biologically or culturally, or perhaps both, universal.

2.    Also, the critique of religion is not going away.
Nor should it. Religion is renewed and purified by takings its critics seriously. Atheists are often people who take religion quite seriously, and their critiques can be valuable. But, to the surprise of some critics, people do not always get less religious as they get smarter; instead:
3.    We believe different things.
Different people believe substantially different things, and we believe different things at different times in our lives. The general effect of a Colby education, or a Bates education, or a Dartmouth education, is to make us less na├»ve in our beliefs. We get more information, we acquire a more critical perspective, and our beliefs change. But we still have beliefs. And, contrary to those who say that we are all climbing up the same mountain but along different paths, I think we may indeed be climbing different mountains. I do not think our beliefs converge or lead us to the same destination – unless you consider death the ultimate destination. Rather, we have very different beliefs – different one from another, and different from ourselves at various periods of life. In view of this truth, I also assert:
4.    We learn and grow from talking with each other.
This is what we do best at college. We talk to one another, in an atmosphere of openness, respect, and genuineness that college – and college alone – provides.  That is why it is so important to have someone like Kurt at Colby – a person who has convictions, who does not endorse relativism, and who is open to learning, growth, and change. Because he understands that our beliefs change as we grow, Kurt is not invested in proclaiming an exclusive truth. He is, rather, invested in exploring the truth, indeed, if you will, sharing the truth, with believers and critics. And he has come to a community which, I hope, understands and supports such a dialogue.

Kurt is a graduate of Yale Divinity School. But he is too young to have known William Sloane Coffin. Many of you youngsters, unfortunately, have no idea who William Sloane Coffin was. Oldsters, like me, remember him as a mentor, as a champion of civil rights and social justice, as a wonderfully articulate and courageous Presbyterian Christian minister chaplain of Yale University. For years now, to insure that I am exposed to at least one good sermon every Sunday, I read one of his. Please allow me to close by sharing with you this brief passage from one of his sermons at Riverside Church.

 He said; “I once asked a group of Yale faculty if they thought the existence of God a lively question. Said a political scientist: ‘It’s not even a question, Bill, let alone a lively one.’ That he didn’t believe in God didn’t bother me that much. … But what did bother me was this: I can see doubting the quality of the bread, but I can’t see kidding yourself that you are not hungry – unless of course your soul has so shriveled that you have no appetite left for all that elicits astonishment, awe, and wonder. It’s this shriveling up that is so disturbing. What’s so boring at universities is not that scientists specialize. It’s that specialists generalize, insisting not only in their particular area, but in all areas of life the only truths that matter are the truths that can be proved, mysteries that can be explained. They see only those truths that they can dominate. They have no truck with those to which one can only surrender. Their minds are both powerful and frighteningly narrow. No wonder there is a widespread withdrawal from wisdom in the universities today.  __ Not that we churchgoers have great cause for smugness. We believe religion is a good thing like social security and regular exercise, but we don’t want to overdo it. It might affect the heart!” (Coffin, 2008, p. 15)

     So spoke William Sloane Coffin.[i]

And so Kurt, I exhort you: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who need not be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. … Have nothing to do with senseless controversies… Do not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. … Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” as you share the truth in this wonderful place.

And I hope for all of you that this will be, increasingly, a community in which, by your interaction, you will find the courage to express your own beliefs, the patience to listen to the beliefs and critiques of others, and thereby that you will indeed more fully share the truth. Amen.

[i] William Sloane Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Years, Volume I, page 15. Louisville; Westminster John Knox,2009

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reflections on the Good Samaritan - revised Richard R. Crocker

Reflection on the Good Samaritan - Richard R. Crocker (Revised)

Church of Christ at Dartmouth College

March 9, 2013

Luke 10:25-37, Deuteronomy 30:9-14;

Probably most of us have heard the story of the good Samaritan 100 times at least, and we have listened to many sermons on the subject. Perhaps there are some in the congregation hearing it for the first time. It would be nice if this were true. But I am assuming that all of you, like me, suffer from the problem of over familiarity. We do not really listen to the story because we have heard it so often, and we think we know what it means. So as soon as the scripture lesson starts, we may tune out. There is nothing new here for us. Only an exhortation. We listen, and we carry away from the story an admonition to “go and do likewise.’ And that admonition means that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan and be attentive to the needs of anyone we encounter – especially people we are supposed to dislike. Well, that message doesn’t gain much traction in our lives, does it? Help out anyone in need – that’s what it means to be a neighbor, right? Isn’t that what we take away? And don’t we try to do that by giving money to our church and to other charitable organizations – and by having the Friday night community dinners and giving tone Great Hour of Sharing? Now I would not for a minute discourage those charitable activities, but I have discovered after listening to the story of the good Samaritan for many years that I have been hearing it wrongly. Perhaps you have too. Because you see this story is really very surprising. And sometimes the surprise catches us. And when it catches us, it comes alive again.

We know the outline: A lawyer – wouldn’t you know it would be a lawyer? A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Since lawyers get a portion of every other inheritance, it only makes sense that they would want to know how to cash in on inheriting eternal life. Sorry – I’m being snide. Please forgive me. But it is a lawyer who asks, and Jesus says: you know all the rules. What are they? (Lawyers are people who know all the rules, and who know how to get around them.) But the lawyer answers sincerely, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Your shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus says: you are right. Just do that. That’s all you have to do.

But, of course, the lawyer has another question. “Precisely who is my neighbor, the one I have to love?” It’s a good question.

To answer, Jesus tells a story that presupposes that we know that the Jews and the Samaritans were long-time enemies. Not enemies, really; they just detested each other. Like Red Sox versus Yankee fans except much more intense. There was long-standing animosity between them. So the Jewish traveler was on a dangerous journey, and he fell among thieves who robbed him and beat him. Two other Jews come along: a priest and a Levite – both holy church-going people. Neither of them stopped to help; they both were busy, on important (maybe even divine or religious) business. Then a Samaritan comes along, and he, of all people, stops to help – not only stops but goes beyond the call of duty by taking the wounded man to the hospital and paying his bill. It’s a great story. Then Jesus asks: ”Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Now here’s where it gets tricky. The lawyer answers: “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Now, you say – what’s tricky about that? It’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re supposed to help people in need. That’s what I’ve always thought: that’s what I think whenever I pass a hitch-hiker, don’t you? I think – That man‘s in need, and here I am, a Levite passing him by. What a hypocrite I am! I better send some more money to Church world Service or Doctors Without Borders.

But that’s not (as I recently realized) what the text says. Jesus asks: which of the three was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? The man who was the neighbor was the Samaritan. And the commandment is to love our neighbor. So the commandment here is to love the one who comes to aid us in our need. It is not –in this story – that we are duty bound to go out and do kind deeds. It’s that we are to love those people who show us God’s mercy and grace; to love those who help us become better people; to love those who give to us extravagantly. The command here is not to the Samaritan: it’s to the man in the ditch. The man in the ditch wasn’t a neighbor. It was the Samaritan who was a neighbor. The man in the ditch didn’t learn a darn thing from the priest or Levite; he didn’t receive a single thing from them. But from the Samaritan, he received more than he could have expected. So who was the neighbor – the one we are commanded to love? It was the one who showed overwhelming generosity. So, if we are to love our neighbor, we are to love those who show us God’s love, often in surprising ways. Now I know in other places Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and he also tells us that if we love only those who love us, there is nothing special about that. I know that we are to love Red Sox fans as well as Yankee fans – but that’s not what this story says. This story is about who is a neighbor. And it makes the point that a neighbor is someone who risks something to help us, and we are to love them. There’s no big onerous guilt-inducing duty in that. Love people who give to you. Love because you have received grace. Give because you have been given unto. Forgive because you have been forgiven There should be nothing here but joy.

I hope I have made it clear why this story has become surprising to me --- and maybe to you too. But just to be safe, I want to drive it into the ground. The story is surprising because it does not say that the neighbor we are to love is the person in need. It says that our neighbor, whom we are to love, is the person who helps us. The neighbor is the person who helps us.

I will conclude with three brief stories that illustrate this point.

First, remember a story familiar, I expect, to all of us – Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the story of Jean Valjean. Most of us know it form movies and the musicals. Few of us have read the 1900 page French novel. It is a work of fiction, of course, but still, if you know it, it is a powerful story and you remember how it starts. Jean Valjean, a thief, has been a prisoner in the galleys for 19 years, convicted for stealing bread. Upon release, with no place to go, he seeks shelter from Bishop Myriel, and, in the night, he steals the Bishop’s silver. He is apprehended the next day with the stolen silverware, but when the police take him back to the Bishop’s residence, Bishop Myriel insists that he had given Valjean the silverware, and, indeed, he says Valjean forgot te silver candlesticks, so he gives those to the starled prisoner as well. So Valjean is now a free man, with resources. The Bishop urges Valjean to go and make something of himself.

Who is the neighbor in this story. The one we should love? It is not Valjean, the thief. Rather, it was Bishop Myriel who helped him. And Valjean, who had benefitted from grace, was set on a new path. The rest of the story is incidental, but heartbreaking. What is important here is this: the neighbor was the one who helped Valjean and thereby transformed his life. And we are like Valjean; when we receive grace, unmerited favor, we are to love the one who showed it to us, and then, perhaps, we may become channels of grace for others.

A second illustration:

I went to Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The first week-end we were there, entering students were required to participate in an experience called “The Plunge.” I am sure it would not be required now. What this plunge consisted of was that each of us was allowed $5. We were dropped off in various parts of the city of Nashville on Friday afternoon and told to return on Sunday afternoon. We had to fend for ourselves for two days on the streets of Nashville, not returning to our homes, with $5.00. I, like most of my class-mates, wandered around, became exhausted, spent one night sleeping in shrubbery at the state capitol and the next night on a construction site, making conversation timidly with anyone who seemed friendly.

The next week, of course, we compared notes. This was in 1970, a time when of unrest and deep strain in American society over the war and civil rights. Things in Nashville were still largely segregated. My divinity school class, as I recall, was almost entirely white. Each of us told how we managed; some gave up and came home. Many of us asked for shelter in churches, and were denied. But one student, who had been dropped off in a black section of town, reported that he had approached a family sitting on their porch. He told them that he had no place to stay and need shelter for two nights. He was invited in and spent, he said, a very comfortable and educational week-end. Who was his neighbor? Not the person he went out of way to help: it was the person who helped him.

What we are talking about, you see again, is grace. It is something given to us in our need, not because we deserve it, but because simply because we are. And the person who gives it to us is our neighbor – the person who shows us grace, and who thereby shows us God. Our neighbor is the good Samaritan, the one, the unexpected one, who shows us God’s grace.

What we have been talking about is grace, and Lutherans, of course, are all about grace. So I will conclude with a Lutheran story. It’s about how hard it is to really understand grace. I had this Lutheran pastor friend, who once told me about a sermon he preached about grace. He told me that he preached his heart out, saying over and over and over again that salvation comes from God’s free grace, not from anything we can do to earn or deserve it. Then, when the congregation left after the service and were shaking hands with him, one parishioner said to him, “Fine sermon, Pastor. You’re right. In the end, it’s what we do that matters.”

Grace. William Sloane Coffin often said that many people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable. I think that’s because we understand religion as duty rather than as grace, and so we are motivated more by obligation than by gratitude.

Over and over and over again I have heard the story of the good Samaritan and drawn from it a maxim of duty. Now I see that it is really a story about grace. Our neighbors, the ones who show us God, are the ones who show us grace. And we respond in gratitude, for gratitude is all we can offer – to God, and to each other. Amen.