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The Crucial Distinction and Our Choice


American Christianity lives now in a time of upheaval and crisis. The gospel of Jesus Christ is being perverted by a “prosperity gospel” and by so-called Christian Nationalism which is, more accurately, angry and resentful cultural whiteness growing increasingly belligerent. The traditional Protestant churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) are fading. Fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves as Christian, and I find that being identified to newly met people as a Christian minister more and more frequently draws negative reactions ranging from suspicion and unease to visible disgust and even open hostility. I understand such reactions, unpleasant as they are to experience. When I read some of the horrid judgments pronounced by ministers upon large numbers of our fellow human beings, I can hardly blame strangers who find out I am, in their minds, one of that type.

I want to make a distinction but not one simply between tolerant and intolerant, respectful and rude, kindly and cruel, or magnanimous and judgmental. The needed distinction goes far deeper than differences in personality and temperament. The distinction is between Bible and Bible, gospel and gospel, Christianity and Christianity, and even between Christ and Christ.

Today on the church’s ecumenical calendar is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Eleven years ago I preached my final sermon as pastor of a church for the Sunday so designated. Today I reread it, and my own sermon nudged me to re-present it. The crisis in American Christianity was smoldering already those eleven years ago, but by now the anger and resentment have been stoked and fanned into open flames. If we are to be the church of Jesus Christ and represent him faithfully to people, we have choices to make, and those choices strike to the very heart of the matter.

Here is the sermon. I invite you to click the link on the word “sermon” and see what you make of “First Things First.”

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Making It Real


I joke that since retiring I preach only in Paradise. That’s Paradise, Pennsylvania where the Leacock Presbyterian Church gathers for worship. Yesterday, I filled in for the church’s interim pastor and preached a sermon called “Making It Real.” The link below connects to a PDF (Portable Document File) of the manuscript form of my sermon.

The book to which I refer in the sermon, Trauma and Recovery, written by Judith Lewis Herman, MD, is available through Amazon (and perhaps elsewhere) second-hand in its hardback version or in its digital format. I found the book very helpful and quite readable.

Following is one paragraph the sermon explaining its title.

<< By “making it real,” I mean representing in our own humanity the gospel of Jesus Christ, representing him to people in ways that are honest, authentic, faithful, and decidedly respectful and humble. Making it real requires listening and not just for an opening we can exploit with our arguments. In biblical terms, to listen is to understand with sympathetic feeling, to walk with, to enter into the other person’s situation without trying to take control of it, to stand with the person and let ourselves become vulnerable. A church or a Christian that will not become vulnerable with people who are vulnerable cannot faithfully communicate the gospel. We do not share gospel when we have nothing to say beyond, “We know, and you don’t; we’re right and you’re wrong; we’re saved and you’re lost unless you submit to our authority, accept our truth our way, and become one of us.” That’s not gospel. >>

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Headlines and Memes that Inflame


Our then local paper’s news article had offered a reasonable view on a controversial topic, but its headline was inflammatory. Plus, one sentence in the article itself interrupted the article’s flow and contradicted its sense. I emailed the young reporter who had written the piece. He told me the editor who had written the headline had also inserted the malignant sentence. Both were designed to trigger anger in the reader and to stoke resentment of immigrants, while the article itself promoted understanding and recognized progress toward a more harmonious community.

This trend in headlines is now both common and dangerous. The article may inform the reader, but only the one who actually reads it. The New York Times online now includes an estimated reading time, presumably in the hope that people will do more than glance at the headlines. But do they, even in the Times? The excuse for inflammatory headlines may be a marketing tactic of attracting attention and encouraging the headline reader to delve further, but if the anger affect has already been triggered, might not the more likely thought be, “That’s all I need to know! They’re at it again, damn them!” The anger affect differs greatly from the interest affect. The former lights an emotional match; the latter leads the reader to look further into the matter.

I’m confident that a comparison of headlines in various newspapers and supermarket tabloids would reflect the polarization in our country. That so many Americans read little if anything beyond headlines and social media posts bestows inordinate power upon the headline writers and meme fabricators.

A second affect biased headlines and memes seek to trigger is fear. A third is disgust leading to contempt. Together in a toxic mix, feelings of anger, fear, and contempt encourage bigotry and hate while stifling desire to understand others, show respect, or feel compassion.

This morning, our now local newspaper explains a study detailing the shortfall in local incomes as they rise more slowly than the costs of housing whether purchased or rented. This problem is real for many people here, and it produces real distress, making it easy for opportunists to inflame resentment of already disliked targets who are not truly the cause. When people fear homelessness or find themselves forced to choose between the rent and healthful food or heat for their homes as winter deepens, they become vulnerable also to the wiles of people who hope to incite them to rage and maybe even violence.

Meanwhile, memes and even sermons (or what pass for sermons) offer platitudes of false, easy comfort or escape. Yes, I know, other sermons or religious rants aggressively join the manipulators fueling anger, resentment, contempt, and hatred – polarizing “them vs. us” – but my concern here is more with the insipid or airy than the bellicose.

In short, we need deeper thinking, broader understanding coming from listening as well as reading, better questions, and more trust in God than certitude about God’s likes and dislikes. Faith needs to do better than headlines and memes. We need to speak to people’s minds and not only their emotions or wallets. I’m not asking for detached intellectualism but for honest thought and for willingness to enter people’s confusion, doubt, and vulnerability (and maybe also hostility) and stay there with them.