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

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