Ann Atwater was a poor, black woman, born in a small town in North Carolina in 1935. Married at the age of fourteen, she followed her husband to Durham, where they had two children. Ann’s husband, however, abandoned the family shortly thereafter and she became a single mom, struggling to make ends meet.
One of the joys of being a chaplain at Harvard was that I worked alongside more than thirty other chaplains, representing most of the world’s major religious traditions. And while I collaborated most often with my fellow Christian chaplains, I also had a close relationship with my Jewish colleagues at Harvard Hillel. Occasionally, I would join the rabbis and their students for Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings; and, when I did, I was always eager to learn something new about the ancient Jewish practice of shabbat.
“I came to bring fire to the earth. . . .” Luke 12:49
Any sensible preacher would have planned to take his vacation this Sunday, as today’s gospel text is among the most disturbing of the entire year. If your image of Jesus is of the meek and mild ‘Prince of Peace,’ always turning the other cheek, and spending his days blessing and cuddling up with small children, you are in for a shock this morning.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
The famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once said that when a preacher steps into the pulpit he or she should have the Bible in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other so that, equipped with both, the preacher could bring the truth of God’s Word to bear on the harsh realities of our world. Few of us who preach are able to meet such a lofty goal with any consistency. But try we must, for there is wisdom in Barth’s words: too often, preaching consists either of abstract and boring discussions of Biblical texts, disconnected from what is happening in our lives, as if God has nothing to say to us right here and now.
“Far be it from you, Lord, to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked. . . .” Genesis 18:25
The moral philosopher Michael Sandel is one of the more engaging teachers at Harvard, and his course on “justice” consistently ranks as one of the most popular courses for undergraduates. Among his many gifts, Sandel is able to introduce complex moral theories to new students of philosophy through the use of very down-to-earth hypotheticals.
Some time ago when I was a new priest, a young mother (I’ll call her Lisa) sought me out for a pastoral conversation. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop during a very brief window in Lisa’s complicated schedule. She had coaxed a friend into watching her two children for an hour, so that she could hurry off for our conversation.
One of the more challenging things I’ve ever been asked to do is to teach an ethics course to eighth graders, which I did for many years during my days as a school chaplain. It’s not easy to get the attention of fourteen-year-old boys and girls amidst the rush of hormones coursing through their bodies, and harder still to get them to reflect meaningfully on something as uncool as their moral obligations to others.
Jack Nicholson is one of my very favorite actors, and among his many memorable performances on screen, the scene I want to recall for you this morning is from the 1992 film, A Few Good Men. A suspenseful military courtroom drama, the movie revolves around the court-martial proceeding of two Marines who are accused of accidentally killing a fellow Marine at Guantanamo Bay during a ‘training’ exercise gone awry. Tom Cruise plays the young, inexperienced JAG lawyer assigned to defend the two Marines, and Nicholson plays the surly, ‘old school’ Base Commander who, we ultimately learn, had secretly ordered the two Marines to engage in the brutal training episode that resulted in the accidental death.