Free To Think…Bound to Serve
Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine: Half of every relationship with God is the individual. God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live. We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives. And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other. Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases. We each have our own perspective. Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive. Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations. Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma. Our tradition takes a different approach. We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs. This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God. We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life. We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world. We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others. Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life. We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God. The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character. For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.” THIS MONTH’S
ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR
The movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was released in 1951. In it, a human-like
alien arrives in Washington, D. C., in a flying saucer. He says he has an urgent message for
earthʼs leaders, but is stymied by political rivalries and suspicions. He thinks taking on the
life of an ordinary human will give him insight into how to approach his task, and has a chance
to do that when he escapes from guards assigned to him by the presidentʼs secretary. He
purloins a set of clothes from a cleanerʼs and adopts the ownerʼs name: John Carpenter.
A studio censor was uncomfortable with the characterʼs likeness to Christ, and made
the writer change the alien from someone with control over life and death to a being
acknowledging that such power belonged only to “the Great Spirit.”
At the end of the story the messenger, feared and mistrusted, has been killed by earthʼs guardians, to be revived
at least temporarily by a giant, omnipotent robot in order to complete his mission. Earthʼs
discovery of atomic power has unnerved alien races, who fear that the Earth may misuse it
and threaten their worldsʼ well-being, so humanity is warned that it faces destruction by
otherworldly powers if it canʼt resolve to use the atom wisely.
At least one critic identified the movieʼs message as slightly subversive. Perhaps
thatʼs the reason that a studio censor had tried to obscure the alienʼs parallels with Christ. It
may have seemed presumptuous to make a Christ-figure cautionary with regard to nuclear
weapons, which were, and were to continue to be, regarded as essential to national
I thought of the film while the nation was abuzz during the Popeʼs visit to the U.S.
There he was in Washington, and then on to the worldʼs representatives at the United
Nations. He had a similar itinerary to the alien from the movie.
There wasnʼt any slipping out of character, borrowing duds from someone with the
initials “J.C.” and blending into the crowd. He sported the papal regalila, and didnʼt disguise
the gestures of benediction. This pope, however, has become as popular as he has by
more closely approaching the ordinary person. He forgoes luxury, and sympathizes, in
unguarded ways, with the troubled. He seems more motivated by compassion than
scrupulous about doctrine. He has the merit and the menace of an outsider to his own
institution. His simpliicity and gestures of withholding judgment endear him to everyday
people, while alarming subordinates who prefer authoritarianism.
Iʼm sure the Pope, without presumption, has sought to confront the powers and
priorities of a fallen world. Heʼs been borne into Washington like Jesus was to Jerusalem,
to be adored by crowds and resented by the hard-nosed and ambitious. Godwilling, no
harm will come to the old man. Unlike the Jesus he serves or the alien from the movie, heʼll
live to preach another day.
He wonʼt be shot by those defending the status quo, wary of his power to change.
Thatʼs good and thatʼs bad. Itʼs good for him to live on, doing the real good a spiritual leader
can do, even when thatʼs only reminding people of the realm of the spirit. Itʼs too bad, in a
way, that those who resist his message of accountability for one another and the world arenʼt
afraid enough to kill him. It means theyʼre confident that, once the visitʼs over and the throngs
have gone, the interruption of business-as-usual will be past. Persons not afraid to serve
Mammon, or act on pride, will resume their lives.
At the end of the sci-fi movie the world was left with an ultimatum and a decision.
Then the credits roll, and the excising-from-time permitted to stories leaves the viewer, for a
while, challenged. Big events frame themselves, but time goes on, and after the Mall has
been swept and mown again, only those favored by God to have been willing to listen will
continue to be affected by what Francis said. People who come from a very great distance
and draw on a very different source of power make us suspect our own world might be
different, but for that to happen we have to believe more in their perspective than our own.