Monday, March 19, 2007

Sermon: "Some Thoughts on Character (Mostly about Jerry Johnston, but a little bit about Paul Tillich)" Delivered 3-18-07

The original plan was to do a sermon this morning introducing you to the theology of Paul Tillich. The worship committee had requested I preach on this theme after a sermon last November in which I dropped Tillich’s name in a way that took for granted that you were all well-versed in Tillichian thought. And then, thanks to the many of you who pointed it out, I read last Sunday’s Kansas City Star cover story. And honestly, I felt more inspired to speak on the latter than the former. And, let’s face it: Paul Tillich isn’t exactly going anywhere.

In case you somehow missed it, last Sunday’s Kansas City Star ran a three-page story detailing the extensive financial mismanagement of the Reverend “Dr.” Jerry Johston, the Senior Pastor of the ultra-conservative First Family Church, a 4,200 member mega-church situated on fifty-one acres in southern Overland Park. The story detailed the goings on at First Family Church which include opaque finances (church leaders do not have access to details about the church’s finances), dubious fundraising (millions of dollars raised to open a Christian school were spent on a new sanctuary instead), and various other financial woes including shady land deals, hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to unpaid contractors, and the pastor’s failure on several occasions to pay his own property taxes. It is unclear whether he broke the law but his ethics are highly questionable. The story also mentioned Jerry Johnston’s lavish lifestyle and his own insistence on being called “Dr.” Jerry Johnston, despite having earned no higher degree than a high school general equivalency diploma. He has, however, been awarded an honorary doctorate from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

So, where do I begin? Well, for starters, this morning I did bring along a copy of our current budget, our balance sheet, and our last audit. These are available to every member of this church upon request.

Let me also say this: whenever I read stories like this, my first reaction (and not the most noble of reactions) is to feel a sense of Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a German word whose essential meaning is feeling joy for the misfortune and humiliation that befalls your enemies. Suppose you are a K-State fan who feels snubbed because your basketball team was not selected for the NCAA tournament. Schadenfreude would be hoping that KU gets beaten.

So, it is very tempting to feel Schadenfreude, to feel a sense of pleasure and righteousness when someone like Jerry Johnston is exposed in public for his wrongdoing. It is almost natural to feel this way. But, this isn’t a noble way to feel. For one thing, whenever a scandal like this happens – whether it is Jerry Johnston or Ted Haggard or Jim and Tammy Bakker or the covering up of sexual abuse most infamously in the Catholic Church but in a number of denominations as well – it signals an enormous harm done to many, many people. It signals an abuse of people’s trust and dedication. It signals a betrayal of people’s spirits.

[And, yes, if pushed to say so, I do admit to believing that many of the members of Jerry Johnston’s church can be faulted for their excess of credulity. But I also believe that those who would take advantage of people’s confidence and goodwill are more demonic than those whose fault is that they are easily taken advantage of.]

The joyful smugness that might be our reaction to this story is not only spiritually empty, but, for another thing, we are a long way from having laurels on which to rest. The reports of Jerry Johnston’s demise are greatly exaggerated. There is no way of telling what the long term ramifications of this front page story will be, but I doubt we’ll see the closing of First Family Church anytime soon. And whoever started the rumor that we were going to buy their property, I wish you wouldn’t have done that.

After reading all of the reports in the Kansas City Star, I can’t help but feel like they missed one big aspect of this story. Why was there no discussion at all of Jerry Johnston’s ignorant, ill, and offensive theology? Johnston’s group has been a leading church in Kansas working to deny civil rights to gay and lesbians, to oppose stem cell research, to take away women’s reproductive choice, and hinder teen’s access to true information about human sexuality. His church has been a leader in the attempt to get theocratic politicians into office, including school board members who would undermine the teaching of evolution. His message has frequently been one of division and fear, intolerance and combativeness. In one of his most recent books, entitled “Apostasy Now”, Johnston, quote, “demonstrates the errors of seventeen cults, world religions, and other belief systems.” The goal of this book is to improve the ability of true believers to, quote, “identify false teachings, and develop… [a] readiness to witness in an increasingly confused and lost world.” The book takes to task not only Scientology, Mormonism, and New Age spiritualities, but also United Methodism and Humanism and assorted world religions.

How different would an approach be, like one you might encounter here or in other mainstream faith communities, where the goal is to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of other faiths so as to improve our ability to develop understanding in an increasingly diverse world? Johnston’s goal is to get his parishioners to fight with their neighbors over religious beliefs. Our goal is more constructive.

So, let me recap thus far: The front page article of last Sunday’s Kansas City Star was a fairly damning indictment against Jerry Johnston, suggesting fiscal mismanagement, fiscal impropriety, and secrecy on top of personal egotism, deception, and greed. But, the article is entirely silent on the quality of his theology, the ethics of his message, and the impact of his church on our county and our state. The article was more focused on his own personal character, than on the wider results and consequences of his life’s actions.

And, I want to ask you a really, totally unfair question. Which of these is more important: Personal character or wider influence? And, on one level, the answer to that question is very easy. The obvious answer is that it is really a false choice. Each is important, and to force you to choose one or the other is to ask you to make a false choice. But this is the question I want to explore with you.

And, I have a great reason for asking this question about the relative importance of personal character and wider influence. Before I went and changed the sermon topic this morning, I had been planning to preach about the great theologian Paul Tillich. (He was responsible for opening up thinking about religion and religious language. He said things like, “My religion is the answer to the question that I am.” And, that God should be understood as “the ground of being itself.” And, that religion was synonymous with “ultimate concern.”) But, to tell you the truth, I was dreading preaching on Tillich. One reason I was dreading it is that Paul Tillich is an intellectual juggernaut, authoring things like a nine-hundred and forty-three page Systematic Theology, a book that weighs in at three and one quarter pounds. I tried reading Tillich’s Systematic Theology when I was nineteen and I am both simultaneously proud and embarrassed about how much of it I did read. But the sheer formidability of Tillich’s intellect is not the main reason I dreaded preaching on him. The main reason had to do with my own qualms about how much to tell you or not tell you about the shortcomings of Tillich’s character.

How much to say? Well, let’s just say that Tillich wasn’t very nice to his wife and that he had some racy stuff going on that is so shocking it would startle anybody here. If you want to read about Tillich’s character, his wife Hannah did publish two posthumous accounts of their relationship.

Which begs the question: how do you weigh character against the larger body of work, influence, impact? It is interesting to note the responses of those who have tried to defend Jerry Johnston. Of Johnston’s defenders, few have dealt with character head on. The most common defense goes like this, “Johnston is influencing politics, is reaching people with his media, is saving souls, and this newspaper article is an attempt by the liberal media to bring down a powerful conservative Christian.” You notice that this type of response is absolutely silent on the character issue. The other defense can be heard in the voice of the woman who called in to AM talk radio this week to defend Jerry Johnston. “He is a good man,” she said, “He knows my daughter’s name and says hello to her on Sunday morning.” That response also is silent on the issue of character, appealing instead to something we might call “presence.”

This appeal to presence should sound familiar. The same thing was said of President Clinton, that when you shook his hand you felt like the most important person in the room and that you had his full attention. And incidentally, the exact same thing is said of President Bush. There is the image of Bush embracing the girl whose father died on 9/11. You can find descriptions of Bush’s presence in chain e-mails, where someone writes, “I looked him in the eye and he told me...” “He put his arms around me and we prayed…”

Presence is not the same as character. Presence is having the ability to command the moment. Character, I want to think, has more to do with how your life touches those in the more immediate spheres around you. Character has to do with personal traits: honesty, integrity, humility, fidelity, kindness, forthrightness. But, I want to suggest that there is something that I think is broader than character – something that has to do with acumen, talent, and skill, but isn’t any of those things exactly. You might call it your body of work in the world.

There is presence. There is character. And there is your body of work in the world.

In some areas of life, character seems to be of diminishing importance. For example, suppose that Albert Einstein had a weakness for drink and women and playing the ponies. He’d still be a genius and his theory of relativity would be no less highly regarded. Baseball player Ty Cobb was a vicious bigot and one of the nastiest human beings who ever lived. He is still in the baseball Hall of Fame. And despite what pundits say about Barry Bonds, it is a mistake to think the steroid scandal has anything to do with character. It has to do with whether Bond’s body of work on the baseball field is legitimate, not whether Bonds has character.

I am leading you down an unlikely road here. A preacher is actually wondering out loud if maybe, sometimes, hypothetically-speaking character takes a back seat. I’m just wondering.

And for those of you who would find an idea like this shocking, I ask you, “So, what exactly do you do with Martin Luther King, Jr. then?” King, it is widely known, plagiarized large portions of his doctoral dissertation. (King’s dissertation was on the theology of Paul Tillich; it is all connected.) So, by what equation do you weigh character against the larger body of work? What equation can you use?

Having clay feet may not be a universal quality of the human experience, but it is exceedingly common. The degree to which it is common does not excuse it. But, as I see it, the main story about Jerry Johnston is less that he cruises with bodyguards around South Johnson County in a fleet of church-owned luxury SUVs. The story is less that he didn’t pay his property taxes on time or owes contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars. The story is less that he falsified his title, or raised millions for a school that never opened, or that he operates seemingly without any accountability or oversight. Rather, the story IS that he works consistently and tirelessly to make our community a less welcoming place for all sorts of people including anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist Christian, anyone who is gay or lesbian, or anyone who wants their children to learn evolution. The story is he has built his empire, his empire of fear and ignorance, on a message of hostility to every single person who is here this morning, and every single person who worshipped yesterday at a synagogue, or Friday at a mosque, or at a Buddhist center or a United Methodist church or UCC church or Quaker Meeting or those persons who participate in no religious community at all. How many of these persons of different colors, of different shapes, from different nations, who practice dissimilar spiritualities, who belong to diverse communities and denominations, are persons of impeccable and unassailable character? How many of them look out for their neighbors, participate in the community, practice generosity and compassion and tolerance? But, the content of your character means very little to Johnston. Johnston judges you by the conformity of your creed, not by the content of your character.

On this matter, I believe that Jerry Johnston’s character is very much beside the point. His presence is very much beside the point. I’d just as soon judge him on his body of work.

I can’t believe that it was only four Sundays ago that I began my sermon by talking about Ted Haggard’s mega-church and the sheer lack of empowerment that his parishioners had in dealing with the scandal he created. And here I am, a month later, and much of what I had to say about Haggard’s church can be said about Johnston’s church. The remedies to those same failings are still the same as I said last month: participate in the life and the governance of this congregation, attend meetings, serve on committees.

It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum. It is also true that secrecy and dishonesty abhor the light of day. In a democratic society our institutions are kept honest by the vigilance of an engaged citizenry. This is equally the case in the voluntary association of the church.

Paul Tillich, who I did not speak about much today, said that religion is synonymous with our “Ultimate Concern.” If our Ultimate Concern is power, power will become our religion. If our Ultimate Concern is wealth, our religion will be of mammon. “By your fruits ye shall know them,” said Jesus. But, if our Ultimate Concern is love, acceptance, and community then our religion will be so.