Just a bunch of hypocrites

“It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.” – George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Many folks who remain in the churches have learned to live with poor sermons. Others have heard them and moved on.

William Sloane Coffin memorial photo

William Sloane Coffin memorial photo

One of those who had given up met one of America’s great preachers one day in a casual encounter.

“I don’t go to church any more.” he said, “They’re just a bunch of hypocrites!” To which William Sloane Coffin replied, “You bet. We are! And there’s always room for one more.”

William Sloan Coffin’s sermons always gave offense. As Chaplain at Yale, it was his pulpit that sparked and led the campus civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. It was Coffin who presiding at the burning of draft cards. It was this offensive preacher who co-founded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam and served as leader of SANE/FREEZE, America’s largest movement for global nuclear disarmament. Coffin became Senior Minister of Riverside Church in NYC, one of the nation’s great preaching churches built for Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pacifist preacher thrown out of his previous congregation for sermons that status quo maintainers found offensive.

In the parlance of William Sloane Coffin, the well known statement that “the church is a hospital for sinners; not a museum for saints” [variously attributed to Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, Abigail van Buren, and others] might be re-rendered “the church is a hospital for hypocrites; not a museum or a mutual congratulations society for the sinless.”

In a future post Views from the Edge will reflect on the American religious landscape in light of Whitefield’s observation and this retired preacher’s search for a new church home.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 7, 2015.

Out of the Mouth of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

“You’re not abandoned. God provides minimum protection – maximum support.”

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (June 1, 1924 – April 12, 2006) was bigger than life. He had a way about him. He was a great preacher who packed the Chapel at Yale and the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the nation’s greatest pulpit dating back to Harry Emerson Fosdick. Once a promising candidate for a career as a concert pianist, Coffin chose the ministry instead, but he carried his musicality into the cadences of his speech and the power and beauty of his language. A former member of the CIA, he became fiercely committed to peace, a leader in the civil rights, peace, and nuclear freeze and disarmament movements.

After many years of watching from afar, our paths crossed while serving as Pastor to The College of Wooster in Wooster, OH and Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, the College congregation-in-residence. The night of his arrival on campus, a handful of professors gathered in a home into the late hours of the night. I was spell-bound not only by his stories but by the quick repartee and personal interest in the lives of the strangers in the room. For the rest of the week Bill roused the campus with his passionate faith and wisdom.

Years later PBS broadcast Bill Moyers’ interview with him. Bill had suffered a stroke three years before, recovered his speech through persistent therapy, and was now reflecting with Bill Moyers about the recent news that he would be dead by the end of the year. It was vintage Bill Coffin. Realistic, cheerful, life-affirming, humorous, bold, loving, enjoying every moment of the conversation.

It led me to tears. “I have to call him,” I thought. “I have to tell him how important he’s been to so many of us – his close friends and distant admirers such as I.”  After some searching, I learned that he was living in Vermont and dialed the number.

Randy, Bill’s wife, answered the phone. “You don’t know me,” I said, “but I saw Bill’s interview with Bill Moyers last night on PBS. I just felt I had to call. He’s not likely to remember me but I had to call. This is Gordon Stewart calling from Minnes…” “O my, how good of you to call. Let me get Bill. I know he’ll want to talk with you… Bill…Bill….”.  “Gordon!” boomed out the familiar New York baritone voice. “We’ve thought about you many times. So good to hear from you! How the hell are you?  What’s happening out there in Minnesota?”

William Sloane Coffin was not a personal friend. He was a heroic figure I had admired and had put on a pedestal.  There are many reasons he deserved to be emulated, foremost perhaps, was that he really loved people and never forgot them. He lived freely at the end when death was knocking at his door because he believed, as he said,

“The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she who overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience.”

How I See the World

My way of listening and seeing is profoundly shaped by Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg, the late Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, completed following Zuurdeeg’s untimely death by his colleague and friend, Esther Cornelius Swenson, my undergraduate college professor.

They were those rare Christian philosopher-theologians whose work crossed the solid line between the philosophical rigors of empiricism and linguistic analysis, on the one hand, and the depths of existentialists Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and Marcel and their precursors Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.

Every day I start out with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee and read the newspaper. What a way to start a day!!! “Don’t give me no bad news, no bad news, no bad news!” But most of the news that’s printed is just that: bad news.

But good news reporting is a thing of joy and a call for celebration. My heroes include muckrakers like A.J. Muste, reporters like Edward R. Murrow, Harrison Salisbury, Daniel Schorr, Bill Moyers, Paul Krugman, and the comedians whose irreverent and sometimes coarse humor exposes the absurd and helps us laugh when we would cry: Jon Stuart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Steven Colbert.

I come at the news from a different angle than professional journalism or comedy. My ears are tuned by Willem Zuurdeeg, Esther Swenson, other beloved teachers at Maryville College, McCormick Theological Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School; the people of the congregations and campuses where I have been privileged to minister, and the criminal defense clients of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. where Dostoevsky’s world of Crime and Punishment, Dom Sebastian Moore’s The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger, and Jesus’ Beatitudes and parables helped me to hear a deeper Voice than the cries that sometimes drove them and their defense lawyers to despair.

I have always had the sense of living at the edge of existence. From the edge I listen for the spoken and unspoken convictions “where ignorant armies clash by night” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach“) to win our minds and hearts, the wars between and among ideologies, ideals, prejudices, states, nations, political parties, religions, economic convictions that shape us for good or for ill.

Lately I have been drawn back to Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being and Homo Viator to which Dr. Swenson introduced me in college but which were then beyond my experience or interest. Many years later, I find myself more and more at home in the mystery of being itself. I resonate with William Sloane Coffin’s reflection in his last years of life following a stroke.

There is a Zen paradox whereby we may lack everything yet want for nothing. the reason is that peace, that is, deep inner peace, comes not with meeting our desires but in releasing ourselves from their power.  I find such peace is increasingly mine. It’s not that I feel I’m withdrawing from the world, only that I am present in a different way. I’m less intentional than “attentional.” I’m more and more attentive to family and friends and to nature’s beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.”

– William Sloane Coffin, Credo