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November 2, 2019

Signs of Hope and Cracks in the Armor: An Ordination Sermon for a Secular Age

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 10:00 pm

Preached at the Ordination of Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer to the Priesthood

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 145
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 10: 1-9

Angelus

One of the things I enjoy most about having been a seminary professor for awhile is that I get to go through the “entire process” with my students, from beginning to end. Nine years ago, I saw a young couple arrive at Trinity, having recently finished their undergraduate schooling in Chicago, now coming to study together – Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer. There are no typical seminary couples these days, but Greg and Noel were not typical even at Trinity. He was a Starbucks barista. Sometimes it seemed like his sense of style was stuck in the 90’s — the 1890’s. She sometimes worked as a swimming lifeguard. They read fantasy literature, especially Tolkien, and they hung around with a group of students who called each other “The Scooby Gang.” They lived with some other students in a kind of intentional community. Both Noel and Greg took courses from me, and while faculty are not supposed to have favorite students, I confess that I developed an especial fondness for Greg and Noel. I had the privilege of directing Noel’s thesis on Gregory of Nyssa. I saw both of them graduate in 2013. Noel’s hair was the same color as her graduation hood that day. In August 2013, Noel used her secret connections to get me invited to give some talks on Reformation Anglicanism for the first CANA West Diocesan Synod in San Antonio, Texas. Among my other jobs, I am on the Commission on Ministry for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and I was on the committee that interviewed Greg and Noel to enter the ordination process – one week before their son Elian was due to be born. And today I am privileged to preach at their ordination to the priesthood. I am honored and grateful to be part of the end of this journey, as I was at the beginning. It is, of course, a truism, to say that this is really not an end, but another beginning. But while it may be a truism, it is not trite. Noel and Greg will now be exercising the ministries that they first came to Trinity to begin studying for. Noel, Greg, I thank you for this opportunity to speak at your ordination to the priesthood. I have not taught any students of whom I am so happy to see this moment arrive as I am for you.

Greg, Noel, as I speak to you this evening, I can’t help but wonder about the path you have chosen, as I am sure you probably have yourself. To take the path of ordination to the priesthood these days is to set out on a hard road. Why would anyone want to be a priest today? The culture seems to be going through what is called a process of “secularization” that began in the 1960’s, but it finally seems to be reaching its apex. In the last generation, church membership in the United States has plummeted. From 1937 through the 1990s, membership regularly averaged around 70% of the population. From 1998 until now, church membership has dropped to just around 50% of the population. Since the turn of the 21st century, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has doubled, from 8% to 19%. The shift is also generational. Among millennials, those of Noel’s and Greg’s generation, only 42% are members of any church. And, of course, church attendance is lower than church membership. Only about a third of the population attend church weekly, but among those aged 18 to 29, only 17% attend church every week.

Along with the decrease in church membership, respect for clergy as an occupation has also dropped. A recent study found that among those who attend church regularly, 75% view clergy positively. However, among those who attend church only once a month, only 52% think clergy are trustworthy. And if you attend church less than once a month, the chances that you consider clergy to be honest and intelligent is only 27% to 30%. The population as a whole views teachers, doctors, scientists, and members of the military more positively than clergy. Only 42% of average Americans have a positive view of clergy. In terms of trustworthiness, clergy are viewed about the same level as lawyers.

So how should the church respond to this changed situation? Noel, Greg, perhaps this is a time to rethink. You already know how to make coffee and coach swimming. It’s not too late to change your minds. I really don’t want you to change your minds though. If anything, clergy are more needed now than they were a generation ago. There was a time when the local pastor or priest was something like those doctors who used to give house calls. Someone you could depend on, just part of the way things were, but not someone you thought about much until someone got sick. In the current situation, the priest is something more like an emergency medical technician in the midst of a major catastrophe. Clergy are more necessary now, not less. Matthew 9:36 speaks of an event in the life of Jesus: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When the sheep have lost their way, we need shepherds to find the sheep and bring them back into the fold. There is a passage in the gospel reading this evening that is right on target. Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Greg and Noel, the church has called you to be laborers in the harvest.

(more…)

September 27, 2019

Unjust Stewards and Unrighteous Wealth: A Sermon on the Gospel According to Robin Hood

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 11:50 pm

Amos 8:4-12
Psalm 138
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

St. GeorgeOne of the most popular of traditional stories is the “Robin Hood” or “Cinderella” story. The story begins with a setting of injustice. There are a group of powerful and usually wealthy figures who are in charge – the “bad guys” – who are unfairly oppressing someone else – an individual or a group of people who are poor, powerless, and unable to defend themselves. In “Robin Hood,” the bad guys are Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. In Cinderella, they are the wicked stepmother and the ugly step sisters. In the midst of this injustice, a previously unknown, poor, and apparently powerless figure appears out of nowhere, but this figure surprises everyone by defeating and overcoming the powerful and wealthy villains, the poor are delivered, and everyone lives happily ever after. Robin Hood and Cinderella play this figure in their versions of the story, but the story is still very much with us in contemporary culture. Orphaned teenagers Peter Parker and Harry Potter are Robin Hood and Cinderella respectively in our own day.

There are lots of ways to tell the biblical story, and the Robin Hood/Cinderella variation is one possible framework. Jacob’s son Joseph is the youngest of twelve brothers, who is sold into slavery, but eventually rises to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, to deliver Egypt from famine, and to save his own family, including the brothers who had betrayed him. Jacob’s descendants are slaves in Egypt, but they are delivered by Moses, himself the son of poor Israelites, who was pulled out of the Nile as a baby floating in a basket. In the New Testament, we are familiar with Mary’s prayer, The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-48, 52-53)

The Robin Hood story can provide a kind of common framework for making sense of this morning’s lectionary readings. Turning to Amos, we find that the theme of the reading is the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. Amos is historically the first of the writing prophets, written between 760 and 740 BC. The book is a judgment on the sins of the nation of Israel, and, unlike later prophets, Amos’s message is entirely negative. He offers no message of hope or forgiveness. Amos threatens that Israel will go into exile, and that is exactly what eventually happened. (more…)

June 10, 2019

A Sermon on Engaging Theological Conflict

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:26 am

This is a sermon I preached at the 2019 Ancient Evangelical Future Conference at Trinity School for Ministry.

Luke 20:27-21:4

St. GeorgeThis morning’s lectionary reading from Luke’s gospel consists of a number of stories about conflict between Jesus and different opponents. Each one of these could be the subject of a sermon in itself. In Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Cyril preaches three different sermons on what for us this morning is a single reading. I don’t have time to preach three sermons, but I don’t intend to focus on only one of the conflicts in which Jesus is involved in this passage either. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of conflict itself. Each one of the conflicts in which Jesus is engaged is essentially about a theological disagreement, and I am going to suggest that in this morning’s lectionary reading, Jesus provides an ideal example of how to deal with theological disagreement. We live in a culture that does not handle conflict very well, but, more to the point, this is a theological conference in which Christians of different theological traditions are gathered, so there are certainly issues of theological disagreement among us. Yet, this is also an ecumenical conference, in which, despite not agreeing on everything, we presumably believe that we agree enough on some things that we can meet together both to engage in mutually beneficial discussion and to worship. So how does Jesus address theological conflict in these stories?

In the first conflict story, Jesus encounters some Sadducees, a Jewish group who disagreed with the Pharisees in that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ Sadducee opponents engage in a reductio ad absurdum argument. They try to discredit the notion of resurrection by showing that if taken to its logical extreme, resurrection would lead to absurd results. They tell the story of a woman whose husband dies. Under the principle of levirate marriage, found in Deuteronomy 25, the brother of a man who had died was obligated to marry his brother’s widow in order that the man would not have died without heirs, but also as a form of financial security for the widow. The central plot of the book of Ruth in the Old Testament revolves around this practice. As the Sadducees tell the story, the woman marries the surviving brother, but he dies as well. The widow keeps marrying brothers, all of whom die, and then finally she dies. This leads to a question with all of the sophistication of a social media debate: If there is a resurrection, out of the seven brothers, whose wife would the woman be?

So how does Jesus address the conflict? (more…)

April 19, 2019

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:17 pm

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4-14
John 12:1-8

Lamb of GodWhen I was a child I used to watch a television game show called “Let’s Make a Deal!” I was really surprised as I was writing this sermon to discover that it is still on television. “Let’s Make a Deal!” had two premises: first, the initial premise had to do with beginning with nothing followed by having something good. Contestants would get recognized by the host – Monty Hall – for doing things like wearing ridiculous costumes or waving signs. They would then trade some insignificant personal item like some postage stamps or a silly hat to Monty Hall for something slightly better, perhaps a few hundred dollars,  in order to make a deal – that’s the beginning with nothing part– and the something good part was that they would win what was behind the curtain or the door, which might be something valuable like a new automobile or an expensive vacation.

The second theme of “Let’s Make a Deal!” – and what led to the tension of the show – was the problem of what I am going to call “genuine value” over against “apparent value.” After Monty Hall had traded something of genuine value in exchange for postage stamps or a silly hat, he would inevitably offer the contestant a choice. Would they be willing to trade their newly acquired treasure for what was behind “Curtain No. 1”? The contestant would then have to make the hard choice of keeping the good thing they had just acquired for the unknown item behind the curtain. Some would keep the money, but most would choose what was behind the curtain. Sometimes the trade would be worth it – even more money or some more expensive item like a new television would be behind the curtain. However, sometimes the viewer would find when the curtain opened that they had just traded away their deal for a goat and a bale of hay. The viewer had traded something that had real value for something that had apparent value, but turned out not to have value at all.

The two themes of “Let’s Make a Deal!” are also common themes in the four lectionary readings this morning: lack or loss followed by gain, and real contrasted to apparent value. (more…)

January 16, 2019

A Sermon on the Connection between “Ought” and “Is”

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:32 am

Eph. 1.15-23

TrinityThe Scottish philosopher David Hume introduced a famous ethical distinction between “is” and “ought.” Hume claimed that you cannot get from “is” (the way things are) to “ought” (how things should be or the kinds of moral behavior we should practice). This is-ought distinction is a common modern assumption, and is also reflected in what is called the difference between “facts” and “values.” Facts are about things of which we can be certain, like the physical sciences. “Values” are merely matters of opinion: ethics, politics, religion. We can argue about whether something is a fact these days, but arguments about “values” won’t get us very far. There’s a popular slogan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

This distinction between “is” and “ought” or “fact” and “value” would not have made any sense to pre-modern people. Pre-modern people believed that there was a correlation between what we believe about reality and the kinds of things we ought to do. And a moment’s thought will show that the pre-modern understanding is self-evidently correct. An illustration: You might be surprised to hear that there are 123 McDonald’s restaurants in India. However, it should not be surprising to find out that McDonald’s in India does not serve hamburgers, but only vegetarian burgers. If you’re a Hindu and you believe that cows are sacred animals, you do not eat hamburgers. In the USA, we literally do not believe in “sacred cows,” and McDonald’s serves hamburgers here.

In the epistle reading this morning, we find in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians a perfect illustration of how this works. In Paul’s prayer, he lists a number of activities – things that he is doing or that he expects his listeners to do. For example, Paul “gives thanks”; he prays that his hearers will “have the eyes of their hearts enlightened.” However, Paul does not do the things he is doing – “give thanks” – or instruct his hearers to do certain kinds of things, for no specific reason. Rather, Paul draws a connection between the specific activity and some reality for which it is the “fitting” response. So Paul begins by saying that “he gives thanks for his hearers,” and he “remembers them in his prayers” because of something he has heard – that they have “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15-16).

The same pattern appeals in the way that Paul mentions four basic activities, which we could also call virtues or patterns of moral behavior: they are the three traditional “theological virtues” of faith, love, and hope, with the additional virtue of “knowledge” or “wisdom.” In each case, Paul correlates a specific activity or virtue – an “ought” or a “value” – to something that is true about reality – an “is” or a “fact.” (more…)

September 21, 2018

When Good People Make Bad Things Happen: A Sermon

Filed under: Ethics,Sermons — William Witt @ 12:20 am

Exodus 19:3-8
Psalm 15
1 Peter 4:7-11
Matthew 16:24-27

CrossThe lectionary readings this morning are Ember Day readings. Historically, in the Western church, Ember Days are a set of days set apart for praying and fasting and for the ordination of clergy. These readings all have an ethical focus, and they strike me as particularly appropriate given events that are happening in our culture right now.

Our country is in the midst of what can only be called an ethical crisis, the center of which seems to lie in an inability to discern whether there is such a thing as a common cultural good. Here are a few examples.

You can attend a conference in Washington D.C. next week called the “Values Voter Summit,” where you can hear speakers like Dr. Ben Carson, Kellyanne Conway, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talk about moral values. Meanwhile, the subject of the news the last several months has been how much their boss, the President of the United States, did or did not know about a hush money payment made to a porn star, and how one after the other of the president’s associates keep pleading guilty to various felonies. So much for voting your values.

The other big news in the secular culture over the last year or so has been the “me too” movement, in which various famous men mostly connected with the entertainment industry have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. It turns out that household names that people once admired have a dark past. You know the names so I don’t need to mention them. The list keeps growing longer, and Time Magazine has a regularly updated online list of 141 names so far.

If these kinds of things were only happening in the secular culture, outside the church, perhaps Christians could afford to be glib. After all, what do you expect of those people? What should give Christians reason to pause are recent revelations of moral misconduct by Christians in places of leadership. Last month, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report accused 300 Catholic priests of sexually abusing over 1,000 children, and of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church engaging in a massive cover-up of this abuse.

You might think that this does not concern those of us who are not Roman Catholic, but that would just mean that you have not been paying attention. While perhaps not as widespread, sexual abuse is not confined to Catholic clergy. I could tell you what I know about cases of sexual abuse by Anglican and Episcopal clergy,

And there are other areas of moral crisis within the church, particularly the ongoing crisis about sexuality that has led to a kind of slow motion dissolution of the Anglican communion over the last decade and a half. At its General Convention this summer, the Episcopal Church laid down an ultimatum that will make it even more difficult for orthodox clergy to stay within that church. If the clergy go along, they will be forced to compromise their consciences and to allow in their churches what they understand to be a violation of faithfulness to the Scriptures as God’s Word, and to their ordination vows. If they refuse to go along, they may find themselves subject to deposition and to losing their congregations. Those who have left or are considering leaving will face law suits over property and the pain that comes with division as some go and others stay.

What, if anything, do these incidents have in common? I would suggest three factors.

First, in each one of these cases, the people involved are good people. (more…)

August 23, 2018

Why Everything (Does Not) “Stink”: A Sermon on Suffering Delivered to New Seminarians

Filed under: Sermons,Theodicy — William Witt @ 10:23 pm

Job 1
Acts 8: 26-40

Agnus DeiThere are certain questions that people ask generation in and generation out. They are the “greatest hits” of the generations. Who am I, and what should I do with my life? She (or he) loves me or loves me not? Did I forget to turn off the light or lock the door or did I remember to unplug the iron?

One of the oldest of these questions is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” There’s a guy on Youtube who just put out a video entitled “Why everything stinks” (except that he doesn’t say “stink”), and you would imagine listening to him that he seems to think that he’s the first person to have ever noticed that life just isn’t fair. But of course this is not a new observation. There are religons and philosophies (like Buddhism and Stoicism) whose whole starting point begins with the observation that “Life is hard.”

I am always somewhat amused at people like the guy in the Youtube video who seem to assume that Christians are naïve or polyannish about suffering, that somehow Christians do not recognize that there is any tension between believing in a good God who created a good world, and yet sometimes life stinks. Have these people never heard gospel spirituals like one of my old favorites that has the lines “Talk about suffering here below, and talk about loving Jesus, Talk about suffering here below, and let’s keep following Jesus.”

Have these people never read the Bible? (Well, of course they haven’t.)

This morning’s lectionary readings begin with the story of Job, and we will continue to hear Job’s story for the next several weeks. The whole point of the story about Job is to ask the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (more…)

April 20, 2018

Why the Resurrection of Jesus Makes a Difference

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:37 pm

Acts 3:12-19
Luke 24:36-48
1 John 3:1-7

Grunewald Resurrection

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Evangelicals were not known for writing great systematic theology. What they were known for was apologetics, which fit in with their focus on evangelism. My first introduction to the realm of Christian thought was in the field of apologetics. I read everything I could get my hands on by writers like C. S. Lewis, but also by writers I’m sure most of you have never heard of. When I first started reading real Systematic Theologians, it was largely because of their apologetic value. I liked Thomas Aquinas because of his Five Ways to demonstrate the existence of God. I liked Wolfhart Pannenberg because of his arguments for the resurrection of Jesus.I was rather proud of my abilities as an apologist and was convinced that I could prove that Christianity was true based on irrefutable arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

One summer I was working one of those temporary jobs you get to pay your way through school and I got to know a young man my own age who had grown up Episcopalian, had been an acolyte when he was a teenager, and was now an atheist. I was trying to convince him that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was fairly solid, and he blurted out “What if someone could come up with a good argument that John F. Kennedy had risen from the dead? What difference would it make?” As you can imagine, my apologetic arguments had no influence whatsoever on this guy, and after the job ended, we lost track of one another, and I never saw him again.

I teach a course in Christian Apologetics here at Trinity, but my approach is now very different from what it was then. Karl Barth is supposed to have said somewhere that the best apologetics is good systematic theology, and I have come to agree. The problem with the apologetic approach that I first studied as a teenager is that it makes no real connection to the central subject matter of Christian faith. These days I am not particularly interested in the question of whether someone can make a rational argument for the existence of a first cause of the universe. I am much more interested in the question of whether the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ and who raised him from the dead exists. It’s not that I think that the traditional philosophical and historical arguments don’t work. They are probably as valid as they ever were. However, I also think that young man who compared my apologetic arguments for the resurrection of Jesus to the case for the resurrection of John F. Kennedy had a point. The most important question is not whether there is a strong historical argument that a first century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth turned out to be alive three days after he was crucified. The really important question is whether the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ the Son of God raised him from the dead.

(more…)

January 30, 2018

Eating and Idols: A Sermon About the Church in a Post-Christian Setting

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:00 am

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

St GeorgeI am going to begin my sermon by saying something controversial. A shift of what is called “epic proportions” has been taking place over the last several generations in Western culture: the collapse of Christendom. Christendom is the Western culture that existed after the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. For the next several hundred years, Christianity spread, sometimes by mission and sometimes by conquest. The spread of Christianity was so effective that, even after the rise of Islam and the breaking up of the church in the Protestant Reformation, it was generally assumed in the Western world that almost everyone in the culture was in some sense Christian, even if they were not necessarily committed Church members. We see this in all kinds of ways that we don’t even think about. Our calendars are dated from the year that a sixth-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus placed the birth of Jesus, which became the normal way of dating in the Gregorian and Julian Calendars. Christmas and Easter are semi-official holidays even if some people think that the decorations on Starbucks cups are part of a “war on Christmas.” There are church buildings in most town centers, and states like Pennsylvania still have “blue laws” that place restrictions on such things as the selling of alcohol on Sundays. (You can now buy alcohol on Sunday in Pennsylvania, but apparently it is still illegal to sell an automobile or to hunt on Sunday.) Our money says “In God We Trust,” and even the New Atheists are very clear that the God they do not believe in is the Christian God. And, up until recently, most people identified themselves as belonging to some kind of Christian church – whether Protestant or Catholic.

But this has been changing. Since World War II, fewer members of each generation have been identifying as Christian, and more and more identify as “unaffiliated ,” or “nones,” not spelled N-U-N-S, but N-O-N-E-S, as in “none of the above.” In recent surveys, 80% of the World War II Generation identify with some kind of mainstream Christian denomination: Roman Catholic, Evangelical, or mainline Protestant. Only 11% identify as “unaffiliated.” With the Baby Boomers, those numbers begin to shift, and the percentage of unaffiliated rises to 17%. For Generation X, 23% are “unaffiliated,” and, among “younger millenials,” 36% do not identify with any historic Christian tradition.1

All traditional Christian churches have lost membership, including both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, but the group that has lost most is mainline Protestants, who account for 22% of the World War II Generation, but only 11% of Millennials. Significantly, “nones” are now the largest single group. While you’re more likely to be some kind of Christian than a “none” if you’re a millennial, you’re twice as likely to be a “none” as to be an Evangelical or a Roman Catholic, and you’re more than three times as likely to be a “none” than you are to be a mainline Protestant – a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian or Anglican, a Congregationalist or a Methodist. Among millennials, while some raised in Christian traditions become “nones,” the reverse is seldom the case. Those who are raised with no religious affiliation whatsoever stay that way. Growing up in a home without any religion is a good way of never becoming a member of any religious group.

I had to say earlier that this post-Christendom claim is controversial because just yesterday several of my friends on Facebook pointed to a new study that indicated that versions of Christianity that attract seriously committed Christians are not shrinking. However, I don’t necessarily see a contradiction here. This could simply mean that the part of the population that was only nominally committed to Christian faith no longer sees the need to keep up the pretense.2 Regardless, it appears that with each upcoming generation, a larger percentage no longer identifies with historic Christian faith.

In the last five to ten years, there has been a kind of cottage growth industry of experts who are giving the church advice about how to survive in this new post-Christendom setting. For example, the Eastern Orthodox writer Rod Dreher last year published a book entitled The Benedict Option, in which Dreher argues that Christians need to recognize that the dominant culture is now hostile to Christian faith, and we need to create a kind of neo-monastic Christianity whose goal or purpose is to preserve and pass on the faith to the next generation in the midst of this hostility.3 Evangelical philosopher James K. A. Smith has written You Are What You Love, in which he argues that post-modern secularism ultimately cannot satisfy basic human needs and that Christians need to recover a liturgical and catechetical spiritual formation that will provide a life-giving alternative to secularism.4 While it might seem as if Dreher and Smith are on the same page, they have engaged in a rather public and nasty feud with one another recently with Smith strongly criticizing Dreher’s new book, and Dreher saying that Smith is just angry because he didn’t publish with Smith’s publisher.5

So how might committed Christians respond to this new situation? I would suggest that St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides some very helpful advice. (more…)

October 27, 2017

The Difference of God and the Difference it Makes: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 6:55 pm

Psalm 96.1-9(10-13)
Isaiah 45.1-7
1 Thess. 1.1-10
Mt. 22.15-22

TrinityOccasionally the lecture readings so clearly focus on a single topic that only a really clever preacher can find a way to preach on something else. This morning seems to be one of those occasions. If I were to summarize this morning’s lectionary readings with a single title it would be “The Difference of God and the Difference It Makes.” Since I’m not a really clever preacher, I intend to preach on that topic. What do the readings say about God, and what difference does it make?

To do that, however, I am going to begin with some background. Sometimes in order to understand a topic, it helps to contrast it with something else. And this morning’s lectionary readings do that. They contrast faith in the one true God with its opposite – belief in false gods, or idolatry. The Psalm declares “All the gods of the people are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes to his readers: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living God” (1 Thes. 1:9).

Belief in many gods was a common characteristic of ancient cultures. Not so much today. You have to look far and wide to find a genuine polytheist or someone who worships actual physical idols in contemporary Western culture. There are still polytheists of a sort in Asia. Traditional Hindus and at least some Buddhists believe in “gods” (plural) rather than in one God. And there are still gods (plural) in a lot of traditional tribal religions. But the problem in contemporary Western culture is not a literal belief in many gods, but a lack of genuine belief in any god – what I would call “unbelief.” This is not necessarily atheism, but it is a way of living in which belief in the one God has nothing to do with the way that people live their lives day in and day out.

I am old enough to have lived through several different variations of “unbelief.” Before terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York City, something called “pluralism” was popular. Often associated with “New Age” Religion, and what is sometimes called “Therapeutic Moralistic Deism,” pluralism can be summed up in the saying, “All roads lead to the same destination.” Former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Kathrine Jefferts Shori put it this way: when Jesus says in John’s gospel that he is the way, the truth. and the life, what that means is that Jesus is the way for Christians, not that Jesus is the way for everybody. The primary assumption of pluralism is that there is nothing unique about the Christian God.

The New Atheism appeared right after the fall of the Twin Towers. While pluralism might be willing to admit that there is at least some kind of God, the whole point of the New Atheism is to deny that any God exists. The New Atheists thrive on ridicule, combined with silly arguments that they think are really clever arguments. (more…)

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