Sept 12 — I Won’t Call you a Sheep


The pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a metadiscourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol . . If theology no longer seeks  to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology:  for the necessity of an ultimate organizing logic cannot be wished away.   –p. 1, John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

Luke 15:1-6

There’s an old joke I want to begin with, and I apologize if I’ve told it before —

One Sunday a pastor was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children. He started, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ … but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”

This sermon is particularly for the children in the congregation this morning.  And I told this story because long before I ever heard it, I knew it.  It was one of the things I disliked about going to church.  Those children’s stories.  I hope the one’s that we tell are usually more interesting — and that indeed the answer is not always ” Jesus.”

In fact, like many of you, I lost interest in the church, at the age when many children lose interest — sometime shortly after confirmation.  Why exactly I checked out is not entirely clear to me even now.  Some of it, I suspect had to do with the foolish idea that I was smarter than the thousands of years of thinking about questions that are far more complicated than many of us can manage.  I simply presumed since I thought I was a smart kid, and that since so much of what went on that seemed good did not require Jesus, the answer for everything, that I did not need all the other stuff that came with it.

I could talk about humility at this point, but I’ll spare myself the further embarrassment.  Except to say that humility in the face of God is one thing – a fine and honorable thing. But a false humility that surrenders its claim to any kind of higher discourse is stultifying and is another thing entirely.  John Millbank, by pointing out this false humility calls us to be real, to stand up and think and to have real conversations with the other, and to try, together, to put our finger on some ultimate and organizing logic, as he puts it.

So, I want to try to be clear here.  My reasons, and the reasons of many other people, for quitting the church might be because the church simply wishes away the necessity of an ultimate organizing logic.  In place of an ultimate organizing logic, it claims final revelation.  And in order to participate as a person, any kind of person, that revelation must be accepted even if it flies in the face of an ultimate organizing logic.

Toward the end of July an event happened that might seem, at first to be insignificant, or even silly.  The one time horror writer, Anne Rice, proclaimed  on Facebook, of all places, that she was “quitting Christianity.”

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

On occasion a public figure makes a statement which stirs up public conversation.  This happened with Anne Rice’s statement.  The conversation, in some circles at least, turned to the question about the relation between commitment to Christ and being Christian, as she put it.  One one level, her actions parallel the actions of many children.  She “discovered” Christ ten years ago.  And now, following her conscience, she has “quit being a Christian.”  There are many parents who recognize this trend.  It’s called growing up. It’s called stretching your intellectual wings.

In response to this statement by Rice, the UCC launched a Facebook campaign called “You’d like the UCC,  Anne Rice.” Again, this may sound silly — but obviously their intention was not simply to woo Anne Rice, but to point to the larger picture, to seize the teaching moment, to say to the millions of others who have “quit the church, “if you quit the church because you are tired of being told how to think, tired of being told the same story about Jesus, whether he was eating nuts or rescuing sheep,” then you should try the United Church of Christ.

Years ago, when our denomination was beginning it’s “God is Still Speaking” advertisement campaign, it came out with a trial poster, which it did not end up using which said in bold letters, “We won’t call you a sheep.”  Below in the fine print it said, “Because sheep are dumb. And you’re not. You’re a thinking, searching, spiritual person, and no matter who you are or where you are on your search, you’ll find a home here.”

Many years ago the United Church of Christ launched a campaign to inform others of our church. One of their print posters said, in bold letters, “We won’t call you a sheep.”  Below in the fine print it said, “Because sheep are dumb. And you’re not. You’re a thinking, searching, spiritual person, and no matter who you are or where you are on your search, you’ll find a home here.”

We have all heard the good news preached – be it from me, from the television, from generally credible people to incredible pastors in Florida – where Jesus finds or Jesus saves, or Jesus heals because Jesus is superman, not bound by the laws of the universe –where the Jesus in question requires you to suspend your disbelief in order to be a Christian — where the Jesus in question calls you to behave despicably toward others.

And yet, when these stories were first told about Jesus, they seemed to be told by so many different people in so many many different ways precisely because in their encounter with Jesus they discovered the opposite – they discovered the freedom to think, the freedom to stand with the other, and not burn his holy book, the freedom to come home and be at peace.

I just finished reading a book about Cape Cod, written in the 1920’s, in which the author, in one sentence describes the task of living that lies before us.  He writes, “Man can be either less then man or more than man, and both are monsters.”

We worship today, in the name of Jesus, because his call is not a call to be like sheep, dumb before her shearers.  His call is to discover they way you and I can be true to the humanity we are. To do otherwise is to be lost. Amen.


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