“Let Us Reason Together” / Isaiah 1:11-18 / 11 August 2019
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Let us reason together? Would that more people in the public arena were calling for reason! When you reason together, you’re not trying to win an argument; you’re trying to find solutions for the common good. But what place does reason have at church? What does God have to do with reason? Don’t these two things belong to two polar opposite ends of the human experience: faith and reason? And yet, here it is in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God inviting sinful humanity into a rational, relational dialogue about human behavior—specifically, the grandiose worship put on by people who mistreat the vulnerable. Faith is never any good by itself. Faith without Scripture is groundless. Faith without doubt is fanaticism. And faith without reason is fantasy. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord.” It’s time to bring reason back to church.
Anytime you face storms on the dark waters of life-and-death, reason just might be one of the first heavy items you cast overboard, in hopes of staying afloat. Many think that faith and reason are at endless war with one another, and people of faith have done much to perpetuate that myth. Reason was not steering the vessel when a women I used to know was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident, and her family insisted that if they had enough faith, God would heal her. She and her husband were devout Pentecostals, and they were in the middle of remodeling their house when the accident occurred. As a proof of their faith that God was going to heal her and make her walk again, they went ahead and added steps to the new addition. They wanted God to know that they expected God to touch her body and return her to normal. Ten years later, she died by suicide—driving her motorized wheelchair full speed down those steps. It’s a sad, sad story, but I wonder what life might have become for this woman if she somehow found a way to live with paralysis instead of asking for a magic fix…and feeling literally godforsaken when that fix never came, blaming herself for not having enough faith. It is not mine to judge the despair of another, but there was a once-famous painter paralyzed from the neck down, another woman in the same condition who found a way to move forward even in that sad state. Faith without reason has had tragic consequences in our world.
I know another person who insists that we don’t need to worry about climate change, or recycling, or saving resources for future generations. Jesus is coming back soon, and he’s going to destroy this old world anyway, so we might as well treat it like a single-use soda can. Annoyingly, this fellow’s vote carries just as much weight as mine. Faith without reason is always destructive.
It’s not just faith that can make us illogical, but anything touching on issues of mortality. The German novel Das Boot is about a submarine crew fighting for the Nazis in World War II. It’s not at all pro-Nazi. Like all German art since the war, it shows deep sympathy for German people and especially soldiers, but deplores Nazi ideology. The men aboard the submarine are normal, rational people on dry land. But once they get out there in the water, they become deeply superstitious. You cannot take the Lord’s name in vain onboard the boat. It’s bad luck. If you do, you’ll have your peers to answer to. You can’t say the number thirteen. The strangest rule of all was that bad luck would befall any boat that had a virgin onboard, so every man had to be initiated before setting sail. Indeed, this may be why sailors were said to be promiscuous. One otherwise decent man who was secretly…uninitiated into conjugal ways ended up carrying out an atrocity against a woman just to keep him and the crew of his ship from dying at sea. It’s not just faith that often turns us away from reason. Mortality makes us unreasonable.
During Bower Hill week at the Chautauqua Institution last month, the excellent daily preacher was Otis Moss III—who pastors the United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago where President Obama was once a member. Moss had a fun habit each day of having the Bible reading read from the lectern, and then he would get into the pulpit and offer the Otis Moss III translation of the same text, which he called the OM3 version. In like spirit, I will reread today’s passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Brian Snyder translation, which bears the unfortunate nickname of the “BS version.”
“What to me is the multitude of your pledge cards, says the Lord? I have had enough of your potlucks and coffee hours. I do not delight in your religious billboards along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, your annual Prayer Breakfast at the White House is an abomination. Trample my courts no more until you change your ways. I cannot endure your one-hour church services with insincere hearts. Your Christmases and Easters my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. Your hands drip with the blood of the refugee, and the uninsured, the one without healthcare, the toddler taken from her parents, asylum-seekers who flee social collapse for which you’re partially responsible. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Then that most beautiful phrase of all, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
Isaiah doesn’t hate his country. He loves his nation more than life. He risks his life in order to call his country to account. He sees his own land as God’s chosen nation, holy and beloved. The Prophet Isaiah does not hate his country; he loves it enough to call it back to the better self that God had intended for it from the beginning. God save us all when criticizing a nation means that you hate it and ought to leave it. Come, now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though I hate your insincere religion, which you put on for show, and to make yourselves feel better about your treatment of the vulnerable, even you can change your ways and be cleansed of all your sin. You can change. And that’s the gospel in a nutshell: You do not have to be the way you are. Through God’s mercy and love, demonstrated in Jesus Christ, you can be transformed. But you’ve got to do justice. This isn’t about getting into heaven; it’s about showing forth God’s love and God’s way here in this life. You cannot be at peace with God when you mistreat your neighbor. But only love your neighbor. This is reasonable faith.
Faith is one of those things that can cloud people’s reasoning, but that’s only because faith speaks about life’s deepest concerns—and who can remain entirely sane when speaking about love, and meaning, and death? Faith can get whacky because it’s interested in “ultimate things,” like human dignity, and human destiny, and cosmic design. These are not things that we have proof of. We’ve all known perfectly sensible people who become a little kooky when it comes to their religious faith. But religion is just a worldview with rituals, and many of us will fight to the death to maintain our worldviews. It’s not that religion is irrational; it’s that anything that deals in question of meaning and death becomes illogical right fast. These things are too emotional for us. There are things other than faith that make humans unreasonable. Illogical thinking slips in whenever the emotional stakes are high. Gambling, war, politics, love, fear, hope, having too little money or too much: all these things can make of us illogical creatures, unreasonable people, clinging to what we wish to be true, disinclined to make compromises, unwilling to reason together. But here in Isaiah, we see God inviting humanity to be reasonable. Just as faith without doubts is not faith, so too faith without reason is not faith. It’s fanaticism. It’s easy answers. It’s shallow, trite.
About ten years ago, when Michelle wanted to leave the town where we were living and move back to the suburbs, I put my application into the big Internet database that serves like match.com for Presbyterian ministers and churches. It’s a dating website for ministers in search of a church and churches in search of a pastor. If you’ve ever served on a Pastoral Nominating Committee, then you know what an awful lot of work it is to read all the applications, reading especially between the lines, trying to get sense for the person who’s applying to be your pastor. You read mountains of applications, and you make phone calls, and do emails, and report back to the group. It’s hard work. And then, if you bring in a pastor who turns out to be unpopular, you’ve got to live with the shame of brining in a stinker. It’s not a fun process on the church’s end, but it’s also hard for the minister and his or her family. I interviewed with many congregations before getting a call from Kiri Rising at Bower Hill. Going to the website of this church I had never heard of, there was a single word that made me want to come here: reason. I read this church’s motto: Growing together in faith, reason, service, and love. “This,” I said, “this is a church I could love. I want to serve a church that names the sanctity of human reason, one that calls the human mind a holy thing, one that honors the intellect as the divine gift that it is.” Far from suspending our intellects when we come inside the church, we should be engaging them. Faith is so compatible with reason that it reaches a logical conclusion that reason by itself could never reach: it sees the mystery of life and creation and responds with a sense of wonder. Faith, when it is held responsibly, is actually more logical than pure reason because it admits to the great unknowing that is forever around us and within. Faith takes reason to its logical conclusion by admitting to the mystery that binds together all things.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Faith alone is not enough. Faith alone never accomplished anything good. The Methodist tradition highlights the four great lights by which we should live our lives. They’re four gates through which every truth must pass. Some people call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The only way to know truth and live our lives of faith is to be guided by: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. We need all four, and they have to exist in balance. We need Scripture for inspiration and to learn from the wisdom of our faith ancestors. But if we’ve got too much Scripture, we’ll end up using the Bible for things it was never intended for—as a science book, a history book, an instruction manual for modern things that it doesn’t even address. We need tradition because it gives us a vocabulary to discuss faith. Tradition gives us a toehold on the big, slippery mountainside of truth. But too much tradition gears us toward the past instead of the future. We need experience because personal experiences of faith are really the only thing that keep us coming back to church. But if we’re only about personal experiences of faith, then our religion will become subjective and self-centered. Finally, we need reason. We’re hopelessly silly without it. Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. All four, all the time, and in equal measure.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Gun violence is out of control. The cost of medical care is out of control. The climate is out of control. The treatment of people at our border is out of control. The demonization of minorities is out of control. Nations are judged for their vain religiosity despite poor treatment of the vulnerable. Sadly, much of Christianity in this nation is just meant to comfort the afflicter. Much of the church is lost in a miasma of unreasoning magical thinking and irrelevance. You and I, we must be voices for a well-reasoned kind of faith. Let us not sink from the task of living out and proclaiming a reasonable faith today. Amen.