500 Years of Protest!
October Sunday Series
“500 Years of Reformation”
10/29/2017 @ 10:00 a.m.
Director of Youth Ministries
at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.
When my sisters and I were growing up there weren’t a lot of activities all of us loved. But one of those things was playing little league baseball. Surprisingly, my middle sister Gracie played baseball the longest. She played several seasons in Babe Ruth, which is the division you play in after little league, and was the only girl in the league for at least one season. You know how the guys put on the eye black to help with the sun? She had her own version of that. She would put on thick eye liner and crazy bright eyeshadow. This was primarily to play head games with the pitchers. See unlike in Little League, in Babe Ruth the kids have hit puberty so pitching to a blonde girl in intense make up presents a whole series of issues. She was, and still is a small person and although her batting average wasn’t all that great her on base percentage was incredible. She was way smaller than most of the guys, making her strike zone a much smaller target. You combine a small target and the nerves of pitching to a girl, and you get a lot of wild pitches. She was walked and beaned more than anyone else on that team, and she’d proudly come home with bruises up and down her left leg and arm, happy to trot down to first base. And perhaps you’ve seen professional players act like they got hit with an inside pitch when it was just close to get the free base? Imagine how effective that is with gender stereotypes when the poor girl drops the bat and holds her elbow? Umpires gave her first base over and over again.
And while I’m on the topic of umpires, that to me seems like a terrible job. Trying to see whether the ball actually hit the batter or not, trying to be impartial and consistent with a strike zone? The strike zone, and human error in baseball in general, is something that baseball fans, and as we’ve seen recently managers, can get pretty passionate about. The strike zone actually provides an interesting analogy for what I want to talk about this morning, which is post-modernism. Mike introduced me to this analogy several months back. There are three different kinds of umpires, for the sake of this example. The first one comes from the ‘pre-modern’ era. When asked about his strike zone he says ‘I call them as they are’ for him, the pitch is either objectively a ball or a strike, there is no interpretation. This signifies how folks in this period thought about truth. There is no interpretation, there is truth and lies, black and white, right and wrong. You see the pitch and it speaks for itself, it is either inherently a ball or a strike. The second umpire is the modern umpire, and when asked about his strike zone he says “I call them as I see them” which might make more sense to us. He is aware that he must actually see the pitch as well as interpret that pitch, so what he is seeing might not be exactly what you are seeing, or you may not agree with his interpretation but nonetheless it is the call so his interpretation becomes the truth. Now here is where I’m going to stretch the metaphor a little but I think Martin Luther was pushing this when he nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the church in Wittenburg. So hang with me, if the Catholic church at this time was the pitch, then prior it was objectively a strike. Its truth was self evident, there was no interpretation needed. However, Luther is seeing the pitch differently and suggesting it is a ball. His strike zone is different. And anyone who watches baseball knows that different umpires have different strike zones. This challenging of authority that Luther engaged in was indicative of this time period. In the 1600s, decades later, we get into the age of reason or the enlightenment. There was faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress and human perfectibility. There were arguments between the rationalists and empiricists over whether all knowledge can be obtained through reason alone or whether it came in through our senses. Can we reason our way to a perfect strike zone or do we have to see many pitches to determine it? As an alumnus of a liberal arts college I love this stuff but I’ll spare you and move on. The main point I want to highlight about this time is that there was a profound optimism about human beings and the concepts of knowledge and truth. Faith in the strike zone, and eventually we’d arrive at a perfect strike zone.
Now the final umpire is a post-modern umpire. When asked about his strike zone he responds “there isn’t a pitch until I call it” Wait, what? No, clearly there was a pitch I mean we all saw the pitcher throw the ball, so what was it? This umpire is saying by the nature of the game, the pitch doesn’t count until it is given the designation of a ball or strike. If the umpire chose to ignore the pitch and not use it in the count, which I understand wouldn’t happen in the sport of baseball but suspend your disbelief, then the pitch never happened, and one might argue within the game and on the stat sheet that pitch doesn’t even exist.
Post-modernism is generally defined by skepticism of reason, meta narratives and really anything that the enlightenment held up as important. So, this umpire is rejecting the meta-narrative that the pitch must be a ball or a strike and realizing that the only meaning in the pitch is the meaning that he ascribes to it. So objective, absolute truth is out the window, and as seen in our baseball example even our perception of reality isn’t objective.
I work primarily with the middle school and high school students. I think the primary issue facing them today, although they may not use this vocabulary, is post-modernism. They are inundated with information on their phones nearly all of their waking hours, actually we all are. They are constantly faced with multiple versions of truth. Multiple versions of a strike zone. What will make me happy? What does being successful look like? What is right and wrong? What is a ball and a strike? What is fake news and what isn’t? What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be? This unmooring, this confusion is a residual product of the idea of truth as no longer inherently certain or rational. The idea is that the umpire creates the strike zone, not that the strike zone exists by itself. How, as an umpire, do I make a call in my life when we can’t agree that there is an objective pitch or strike zone to work from. There are so many ways to live one’s life, so many different morals and virtues to live by and the arguments for or against them are all available at your fingertips.
When a confirmand asks me ‘what is the difference between the stories in the Bible and the Greek and Roman myths we learn about at school?’ it is no longer sufficient to say ‘well our story about our god rising from the dead and us eating his body and drinking his blood on the first Sunday of every month is real and true and their stories about their gods are just simply ridiculous.’ We can no longer appeal to an objective truth.
An unfortunate outcome of this philosophical trend is the relativism that is inherent in post-modern thought. The way this philosophy trickles down into our lives is the full embrace of the ‘you do you, and I’ll do me’ concept. The way in which we can wash our hands clean of any judgement. This is a totally relative ethical and moral set. And I believe there is good intention with this not to judge others and condemn. However, one must make value judgements in this life. If there is no ‘objective truth’, we are still left with the question of how we live our lives. Sure there might not be an objective strike zone, or an objective pitch, but in this analogy the sport of baseball is our lives and we are standing there at the plate and we have to play. Where is the line between someone being free to do what they wish and someone hurting someone else? You do you only works a limited amount of the time. The first pitch might be what is our obligation to our neighbor? The second pitch our obligation the marginalized? Not choosing a path, a way of life that you believe is good and true, is still choosing because you have to make decisions. That pitch is coming and not swinging is making a decision just like swinging is. And I would argue a self-defined direction is just lying to yourself. There is a reason why we have agreed upon rules for sports. A self-defined direction is the equivalent of still playing baseball, but making up the rules as you go so they suit you well. This is my major issue with folks who gleefully claim they are spiritual but not religious. What do you derive your moral set from then? Where do your rules of the game come from? Because if I was free to interpret God any way I wanted I could say that God wants me to devote no time or money to charity or social justice and live as selfishly as I please. And I get 20 strikes instead of three. We must place our faith in something beyond ourselves. Is Christianity an objective truth? No, but it can be your truth amidst a culture full of half-truths.
So, if I am to place my trust, my faith in this God and this person Jesus, what does that mean?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
My faith cannot just be something I think, it must be something I do. This passage addresses the ‘you do you and I’ll do me’ issue thousands of years before its rise to popularity. If I’m spiritual but not religious, I am free to say ‘you do you, I won’t judge you for being hungry, or poor, but I am certainly under no obligation to help you. Have a nice day!’
My words are simply that, words. Philosophical ideas are just that, ideas. I think the current climate is one that is fed up institutions that claim objective truth, fed up with just faith. Sure, faith is important but I believe what James is arguing is not that works are a prerequisite for salvation, but that social justice is a natural expression of one’s faith. I think we’ve been struggling with orthodoxy, or the right way of thinking or the right way to think about the game, for long enough. I think we must switch our focus to orthopraxy. Orthopraxy, the right way of acting, the right way of playing the game.
Over the next several Sundays we’ll be talking about the Before We Get to Mars Project. This is Orthopraxy. This is our response to the confusion that comes with post modernism. We will act as a church, together, in undertaking a multi-year challenge faced by those in need. We will harness the incredible, diverse resources of our church to act with courage to accomplish something astounding for God and for those who need it most. This is our new way of doing church, this is where we draw the line in the sand and claim what we stand for. This is our opportunity to create a new reformation, to show our faith through our works. Our truth is that yes we are an institution, yes we are claiming authority. We say it right on the front cover of the worship order. Yes we have power and intend to use that power, with others, to make this world more like Jesus would want it to be. Yes we believe other people are great and we are willing to take years to get to know them better, yes we love children and youth and they will absolutely be a part of this project, and yes God is most certainly real and this project is how we intend to get to know God better. This is our opportunity to be an institution for transformation, to define who we are by the way in which we interact with others. Go on the church’s website, Hinsdale.church, and on the front page you’ll see a button for our second round of voting. Vote for the issues that are closest to your heart. Vote so that in mid November we have a better idea of what you are most passionate about. Vote so that we can be next reformation, finding a new way of doing church in the 21st century.