Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Warren found an interesting little news story about a Rembrandt exhibit in Philadelphia. Art historians tell us that Rembrandt was one of the first artists who depicted Jesus as an ethnic Jew, as opposed to the more “regal, lean, blue-eyed, wavy-haired” savior of the common imagination. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has put together an exhibit of as many of Rembrandt’s depictions of Jesus as could be located. The exhibit bears witness to a significant shift in iconography. To quote the Museum of Art’s curator Lloyd De Witt, “the painter’s smaller, olive-toned Christ looks sullen and beatific, thick-lidded, alert and strong, stoop-shouldered and muscular like the carpenter he was.” In the mid 1600’s, when Rembrandt painted, Christians were not impressed. In fact, many believed Rembrandt’s depictions to be blasphemous. There was, in 1650, a right way to imagine Jesus and Rembrandt missed the boat. By 1650, the artist had to declare bankruptcy since buyers were not interested in a Jewish-looking Jesus. Isn’t that an interesting little insight to ancient Christian dialogue?
Christianity is going to be widely discussed and examined in the U.S. over the next, oh, ten to twelve, even fourteen months, because we are in an election season in which the particularities of the Christian faith of many candidates is at issue. Christian progressives, as many of us in the UCC are, tend to want to duck such public scrutiny behind the wall that separates church and state, rather than engage in the uncomfortable critique and evaluation of the faith claims of those running for public office. Unfortunately, the separation clause doesn’t provide good cover for people of faith, of any faith. The burden to keep the wall between the church and government strong, thick, and high rests with the government. Those of us who participate in religious life have the constitutional right to bring our particular faith perspectives to bear as we shape public policy, as we evaluate legislation, as we consider the repercussions of the decisions being made at town meetings, in Concord, and in Washington. More than the constitutional right, we have, I believe, a Christian responsibility. What we do as governed communities should reflect what we believe. This may surprise you, but I have no quarrel with politicians who directly connect their religious convictions to their public policies on that basis alone. In fact, I admire the link. Too many of us surrender our religious convictions when they are the least bit exposed by public debate. I remember hearing, some years ago now, a candidate for high office proudly say that when he steps out of his church and into the public square, he leaves his religion at the church door. It is a private matter, he said, between him and God alone. Shame on him, I thought. Does he think God only hangs out in church pews?
A caveat may be appropriate here. I am not talking about practices of personal piety, verbal prayers in noisy restaurants, genuflections before coming up to bat or following touchdowns, or even congressional prayer breakfasts. “Do not pray like them,” Jesus told his disciples, “when you pray, pray in secret.” No, I’m talking about the direct link between what we believe and what we do, how we vote, where we spend our money, and to whom we allow access. For people of faith, public policy ought to reflect our religious convictions. Think for a minute of some of the social issues swirling in and around us in the public square - marriage equality, reproductive health care, the expansion of the death penalty, the lottery to fund public education, bottomless financial support for Israel, stringent restrictions on the financial support of the arts, or reduced funding for social services and increased funding for enhanced security measures – if we ignore the particular religious beliefs that lead to those kinds of decisions, we do so at our very great peril, as both public citizens and as Christians.
I’ve referred to our public political process several times in sermons lately. It does seem to be on my mind and in my heart in significant, some might even say obsessive measures. I am sorry for that. It’s like trying to make a symphony out of trombones. But it’s public policy that keeps me up at night these days – not the election process so much as the way we seem to be moving as a nation, a huge ship of state whose passengers, many of them, are clinging to fraying safety ropes suspended over a dark and very cold sea.
There is such a thing as bad public policy, just as there is such a thing as bad religion. In fact, it could be argued that one pretty much grows out of the other. A couple years ago, here in our church, I heard our wonderful former UCC President Avery Post say something about bad religion. It was following the viewing of “All God’s Children”, the documentary about the terrible abuses suffered by children of missionaries separated from their families and sent to a “Christian” school where they were physically and psychologically battered and beat. It was a triple betrayal for those children – abandoned by their parents, abused by trusted adults, justified by religious doctrine – they kept the secrets for years and years. After seeing the film of their story, Avery reminded us that there is such a thing as bad religion. It seemed like an obvious conclusion at the end of such a story, but I remember feeling relieved that a church leader for whom I have nothing but the deepest admiration and respect would say those words out loud. I don’t know where or how I internalized the lesson that I shouldn’t critique another’s religious walk but it’s down there somewhere. Some Christian perspectives are not only wrong as in inaccurate, they are wrong as in dangerous.
The thing is, before we critique other religious perspectives, and for the sake of this sermon I’m going to talk about Christian perspectives, before we question the public policies that are the logical outcomes of vicious Christian viewpoints, before we seek to translate our own Christian perspectives into particular behaviors, policies, or laws, we have to know what we’re talking about. And this is where I think progressive Christianity has lost its way. We know what we think Christianity isn’t or shouldn’t be, but we’re not very good at saying what it is.
Which brings me to today’s reading from Matthew and its reference to Peter, good old flawed, impulsive, passionately in love with his savior Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he would build his church. From a literary perspective, Peter stands as a character device essential to the gospel narrative. Jesus’ story needed a foil, a rock, so to speak, upon which he could make his points. A foil is not a bad guy. Rather, the foil, in this case Peter, is the one who gives the main character a point of reference, a firm object or personality that allows the main character to make a particular point. Think how often Peter functions in just that way. Peter leaps over the edge of the boat and runs to Jesus across the water, only to realize a few critical moments later what he has done and begins to sink. Peter gives voice to the argument between the disciples - which one would get to sit shotgun with Jesus when he came into his kingdom. Peter swore his undying love and allegiance to Jesus, only to abandon him in his darkest hour. And Peter to whom Jesus gave his most tender and important forgiveness when, during breakfast on a lonely shore, the resurrected Christ told Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I do.” “Feed my sheep.”
Peter serves another important function for us, we who are trying to emulate our savior, we who are trying to live the kind of life he taught us to live. Peter reminds us that we are the very foundation upon which the Body of Christ stands. While not as exalted a place as the spire, think of the importance of a foundation, the rock upon which the whole structure is constructed. It must be strong and impermeable. While its edges are worn smooth with so many storms of ice or sand, freezes and thaws, winds and rains and the natural erosion of times, its substance will not fail to do what is required, to carry on its back the weight of the building itself. Peter, the rock, upon Peter did our Savior build his church.
It matters therefore what kind of rock is made the foundation, does it not? If the rock is brittle, it will fail. If it is too soft, it will fail. If it is made of only one kind of mineral, it will fail. If it is dug too deep into the soil, it will fail. If it rests on top of the soil with no substance deep and invisible beneath ground level, it will fail.
So what kind of rock has Peter become, do you think?
Those of us who have devoted our lives to the well-being of this rock all have worries about its condition. Some of us fear the foundation is no longer relevant since the world seems to have turned into a virtual community via the Internet. Some of us fear that the foundation has lost its purpose in the cacophony of the culture wars of this age. After all, a foundation is only a foundation if it serves to support something above it. Too many of us have begun to act as if the foundation is itself the church, that its primary, perhaps even its only purpose is to serve itself, to be certain its own members are cared for, nourished, and well organized before it worries what is the condition of that which is built upon it and around it. Not to beat this metaphor to death, but what good is an excellent foundation, supporting a strong and healthy church if everywhere around its perimeter is rubble and ash and toxic air. After all, we can’t stay inside this gorgeous sanctuary forever.
What is good religion? What makes for a healthy faith foundation? Well, that’s for another sermon, I’m afraid. Actually, it’s for a lifetime of sermons, not because it is so complex, but because it is so rich and nuanced and essential. My point today is simply this, don’t shy away from looking carefully at the religious underpinnings of the public policies being debated today. And more importantly, be sure you know your own religious perspectives, motivations, and convictions. And if there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you do or support, well, then maybe it’s time to do a little foundation work. Amen.