Ansley Coe Throckmorton's Sermon: The Essence of the Gospel
Hammond Street Congregational Church, Bangor, Maine
Dr. Mark Allen Doty, pastor
September 25, 2005
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Ansley Coe Throckmorton
"The Essence of the Gospel"
From the time I was a small child I loved hearing the Bible read aloud. Of course I had the distinct advantage of first hearing it in the majestic/poetic language of the King James Bible. And I had another unique advantage. My father, who was the minister of a church in Oak Park, Illinois, read scripture in worship with commanding eloquence. And both my mother and my father read it aloud at home from time to time. So early on I was exposed to the wonder and mystery, the beauty and poetry, the images and stories of the Bible.
Later when I left home I went to Wellesley College. During my years there, a new translation of scripture began coming out known as the Revised Standard Version. It was based on the King James Version but the language was modernized and because of decades of scholarship its texts were brought in line with the correct translation of early manuscripts and the discovery of new early manuscripts. At Wellesley I had the benefit of brilliant teaching of the Bible, which opened up its mystery, and meaning and which really set the direction of my life. Is it any wonder that I married a New Testament scholar?
Before I describe the bearing all this has on the sermon today I want to tell you a story that will illustrate the place the Bible has in my life. One day a few years ago I had to get a new license plate for the car I drive. I was in line at the Motor Vehicles office waiting my turn for the license plate. I consciously dreaded having to force into my head a new meaningless number along with the countless phone numbers, zip codes, pass words, user names, and id numbers that were a part of my life. The woman who took my application turned to a shelf and brought out a new plate. When she uncovered it there before me I saw 1611, the date the King James Bible first came out. Had there not been a counter between us I’d have hugged her. I was elated. And you will find in your parking lot today a red Buick with the date of the first King James Bible, 1611, on its front and rear bumpers.
At this particular time in our lives, in the cultural and religious life of our nation and world, there is a matter related to the Bible that troubles me and that needs to be addressed openly. The concern I have is this: The Christian faith in our time is being represented widely by persons who are selective fundamentalists, who take verses out of their context in scripture that match their views, and who then interpret those verses literally to justify those views. In short, they defend their extreme ideologies by proof texting. In doing so they misrepresent, or better said, distort the meaning of the whole and make a mockery of the Bible and of thoughtful faith.
Recently I have found an eloquent ally in John Danforth, “a conservative Republican three-term senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal minister” (BDN, July 14) who has warned, “that the Republican Party has been taken over by the extreme religious right.” In an April 5th editorial in the Bangor Daily News he is quoted as saying that that “by a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.” He goes on to say: “It becomes extraordinarily divisive, and legislatures get themselves entangled with writing religious documents into legislative form. It’s exactly what the constitution says we can’t do if we want to keep the country glued together.” He added: “I’m surprised people have been so mute about this. I thought if no one was saying this, I should.’ (April 5, 2005) In short he has disputed the claims of “conservative Christians” that they hold the one authentic Christian perspective, that that they alone know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through government action.
My concern today is related to the roots of that issue, namely how should scripture be interpreted so that one is faithful to its spirit and variety? How can we listen to God’s word in a way that doesn’t make an idol out of English words? What are the roots of the arrogance and folly of the so-called “Christian Right” to which John Danforth points? To put it bluntly the root cause is fundamentalism. And the proof texting that arises in fundamentalism is dangerous in any religious guise - Muslim, Jewish or Christian. It always leads to arrogance that excludes, that makes doubt a dirty word that often makes violence its method of choice.
King Abdullah of Jordan says that Muslim fundamentalism has highjacked the Koran. Just so Christian fundamentalism, with all its arrogant claims to doubt-free literalism, has highjacked the Bible
William Sloane Coffin, long time minister of Riverside Church in New York said it this way: “Why am I so hard on fundamentalist preachers? Because it is right to be stabbed by doubt. ‘Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt’ (Rollo May). It is wrong to be clearer than clarity warrants, to write off intellectual and moral ambiguities simply because you haven’t the security to live with uncertainty. It’s wrong to require certainty to the point of blind stupidity. And it’s dangerous. If God is like a marine sergeant who has been handed a bunch of hopeless recruits, then those who believe in such a God will become like soldiers prepared to do almost anything they’re told, no matter what, no matter to whom. To me that is diametrically opposed to Jesus, whose central theme was that there is something intrinsically sacred, intrinsically deserving of respect, intrinsically…. entitled to love in every human being. Seekers of truth can build communities of love. Possessors of truth have too much enmity toward those who don’t possess the truth or possess some other truth.” (Coffin, Credo, p. 157)
We see the terrible consequences of all this daily in events not only around the world born of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism but in our own country born of Christian fundamentalism. John Danforth is concerned for the body politic. I am concerned for the integrity of of the Bible, of the faith and of truth itself.
And radio and television don’t help at all. In fact they have exacerbated the problem. For some reason they continually confront us with the most fundamentalist preachers they can find and imply that they represent the Christian faith. Larry King had four of them on last month at one time. You’d think he’d know better.
There is a little novel out last year that is a gem. Its title, Gilead. It is the simple and eloquent story of the minister of a little country church in Kansas who reflects on his life, his parishioners and his ministry. With regard to radio and television he says it all: “Two or three ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly on sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I wonder where it will all end.” (p. 208)
That’s the question that I pose today: Where will it all end? The penultimate end is alarming. In many states, including Kansas itself, it is required by law that religion in the guise of ‘creationism’ (sometimes known as “intelligent design”) be taught in the public schools as an alternative to evolution. And the latest howler is that they’ve discovered that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. Well it would be hilariously funny if they weren’t going to teach it to our young people as fact. That’s a nightmare. And who is speaking up in opposition? Well scientists of course. Where are the voices of religious people whose understanding of creation is grounded in the mystery and wonder of faith that in no way is threatened by the science of evolution? (Einstein knew that.) That’s the penultimate end - the nightmare that confronts us daily in daily life in education, politics and in the misrepresentation of our precious faith.
But the ultimate end of all this is surely, for us, a renewed and ever deeper conviction that God came in Christ as the Word, as agape, as love itself, not as human words in whatever language. The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, Professor and Minister in the memorial Church of Harvard University said this of the Bible. “Because it is not intended to be a substitute for science or history or politics or even religion, it can neither be made or destroyed by these agencies for it is at the same point both less and more than all of these. It is in the whimsical phrase of Krister Stendahl, once dean of Harvard Divinity School, ‘Not history minus but poetry plus.’…
“With the Bible, then, our work is not done but just beginning, for in its penetrating light we must now live our lives even as our ancestors lived theirs, working out our own salvation in fear and trembling.” (Sermons, pp 209-210)
There is a wonder and a mystery about this faith of ours that we call Christian. The only certainty I have about it is that it is all about love - God’s love for us, which calls on us to love one another and to love God’s creation. St. Augustine said, “The Lord loves each of us as an only child.” (Gilead, p. 245) Out of that amazing assurance we can live lives that reflect that love. Bill Coffin has said, “Christians believe in the word made flesh, not the Word made words. Christianity is less a set of belief than a way of life, and a way of life that actually warns against absolute intellectual certainty”. (Coffin, p. 40)
I close with two passages of scripture, which tell it all. From Paul’s letter to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unreachable are God’s judgments and God’s ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of God?” (Romans 11:33-34)
And that magnificent 13th chapter of First Corinthians which concludes:
“Faith hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)