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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…)

August 7, 2017

Love Inseperable: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 9:01 pm

Nehemiah 9:16-20
Psalm 78
Romans 8:35-39
Matthew 14:13-21

The Prodigal SonEvery reader of the Bible will sooner or later discover certain tensions that are hard to hold together. We discover just such a tension in this morning’s lectionary readings, a tension that has been with the church since its very beginnings. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we read one of those classic affirmations of Christian faith: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35, 38-39).

Yet when we read the Old Testament readings, it seems that there are lots of things that can separate us from God’s love. The two Old Testament readings are shortened selections from longer accounts of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. In the Psalm we are told that after the Israelites questioned God, “when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.” (Ps. 78:21-22). The lectionary reading omits a good deal of what the Psalm says later, which tells over and over of how Israel kept sinning, and how God responded to Israel’s sin: “[T]hey tested and rebelled against the Most High God and did not keep his testimonies . . . When God heard, he was full of wrath, and he utterly rejected Israel.” (Ps. 78:56, 59). In a later section of the Nehemiah reading, we read about Israel: “they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back.” And Nehemiah describes God much as did the Psalm: “Therefore you gave them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer.” (Neh. 9:26, 27). The Psalm and the passage from Nehemiah seem to say that at least some things can separate us from God’s love.

Certainly there seems to be some kind of tension here between God’s love and God’s justice, and people have often found it difficult to hold both together. In the second century, a heretic named Marcion concluded that there were actually two different Gods – a New Testament God of love who was good, and an Old Testament God of justice who was evil. Marcion’s solution to the problem was to throw out the Old Testament completely. There have been modern Christians who have come to the same conclusion. When I was doing my doctoral studies, I once heard the wife of an Episcopal priest say that the God of the Old Testament is the devil in the New Testament, and she was quite serious. If most Christians don’t go quite so far, there are many Christians who, if they were honest, would admit that the God of the Old Testament sometimes makes them uncomfortable.

But if, as Christians, we take the Bible seriously, then we have to take the whole Bible seriously. In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons was the church’s first great theologian, and he insisted against Marcion that there is only one God, that there is one Bible with two parts, an Old Testament and a New Testament, and that the God who is the God of Israel in the Old Testament is the same God who is the Father of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. In fact, Irenaeus was the first writer we know of to use the terms Old and New Testament to describe the Bible. As Anglicans, we show that we stand with Irenaeus and not Marcion by using a lectionary that includes readings from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

How then do we hold this tension between God’s love and God’s justice together? (more…)

June 14, 2017

Bad Rulers and Worse Judges: A Sermon About Our Current Political Situation

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:11 am

Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 17: 14-20
Psalm 50
Luke 18:1-8

CrossAs a country, we have been living for the last several years in a political situation that is as divisive as anything I can remember in my lifetime, and things have only become more divisive in the few months since the presidential election. The news media make comparisons to the Vietnam era and to the Watergate scandal, to the cultural and social divisions of the Civil Rights era. I do agree that we’re living through that kind of division again. It’s also true that on the different sides of whatever political divisions we’re facing today, there seems to be a palpable disappointment in the leaders of our country, a kind of feeling among a lot of people that our leaders have failed. But also a loss of faith in the ability of politicians to make any difference.

Despite the angry divisions, there is at least one other commonality. All sides in the current divisions seem to share a common grievance, an outrage over injustice. All sides seem to think that their side has been the victim of outrageous injustices committed against them by the other side.

In this social context, I find this morning’s lectionary readings to have a kind of poignant relevance. The themes of good and bad rulers, and of justice and concern about injustice are common to all three lectionary readings.

The setting of the Deuteronomy passage is Moses’s farewell speech to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the land of Canaan. In the speech, Moses gives instructions for appointing judges and kings. In both cases, the requirements are primarily negative. They explain what is not to be done. Judges are not to show partiality; they are not to take bribes. Positively, they are to care only about justice. (more…)

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