May 31

A Recession Theology

By Marsh Chapel


With most of our students now away on summer break, we may hazard a reference to Donna Reed as the sermon begins.

The Marsh pulpit, historic and delightful as a setting for preaching, demands weekly illustrations or combinations of illustrations accessible to four generations, 20, 40, 60 and 80 years of age, or thereabouts. This quadrilateral in illustration is true in other, in many other places, but heavily true here, where our youth group mailing list has 25,000 names on it. On a Sunday during the school year, I would think twice about dear Donna, and whether or not 20 year olds would know her, and whether 40 year olds would connect with her.

‘I has been a long time since any of us boys have seen a woman, so we are writing to you in hopes you’ll help us out off our situation…We would appreciate it very much if you would send us a photo of yourself’ (NYT, 5/25/09). So wrote one solder in 1944 from the Aleutian Islands. From New Guinea, a month later: ‘The boys in our outfit think you are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to’. A year earlier my wife’s uncle had died on the next island over, New Britain, a hockey star and recent graduate of Mount Hermon, age 20. In 1943, someone asked her to dance because ‘I really felt like she was a girl from back home. She was from a smaller community, and we were more or less the same age, so I felt she was the kind of person I could talk to’. ‘We think you’re swell’ wrote six marine sergeants.

Other generations will know her, not by photograph, but by cinema and television. They will remember her as the bright light of George’s ‘Wonderful Life’, the woman whose stairway banister can never permanently hold its top. Or they will remember her as the woman ever standing in televised living room or kitchen, always perfectly dressed, from 7am to 7pm.

Donna Reed, it turns out, kept her WWII letters, 341 letters stored up in an old shoebox. Remembered, by so many, it turns out, she remembered many. The letters sat undiscovered for 65 years, kept in a shoebox kept in a garage. Donna Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, discovered the letters early this recession. They made her feel ‘really proud’. Many of the letters she saved from GI’s overseas came from fellow Iowans, some from friends near her family farm in Denison, Iowa. Her daughter discovered the shoebox and letters earlier this recession. It happens that the Mary Owen was employed, pre-recession, by Bear Stearns, a company, as we know see, neither bearish enough nor stern enough, its name notwithstanding. In 1942, Reed wrote to a friend, ‘my effort to win the war has not amounted to much…I wish I could find more to do’.

In preparing this sermon, I did not fish out this newspaper story from earlier in the week only to continue my ongoing personal support for the beauty and power of the daily newspaper at its finest. Although, now that the subject has come up, the power of the daily paper to open the world, to expand the horizon, to challenge the mind and to warm the heart, it might be noticed, is a great and gracious good. When Karl Barth said, in days of Donna Reed, that the preacher speaks with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, he had little sense that one of his two hands might fall empty, or that the endangered document would be the paper. No, the sermon about the press and freedom is for another day. Nor is the point her to recall the power of a hand written letter to form memory and meaning and to call up the very presence and person of the writer to our minds and hearts. Again, another sermon for another day. I mention the story because Donna Reed’s shoebox opens up today’s gospel, a recession theology well fit for Pentecost, in two ways. The 341 letters, saved by the generous mother, and their discovery, made by the newly unemployed daughter, recall for us a recession theology that honors those in need and out of work, and a recession theology that drives us back to the glory hole of spirit, the shoebox of longing, the recessive, recessive depth of saving faith. A recession theology: we are our brothers’ keeper. A recession theology: return to the forgotten love you had at first.

One: The Spirit Helps Us In Our Weakness

Romans 8, a jewel and a beauty, reminds us on Pentecost that our voice in need is our voice in deed. When we are weak, then we are strong enough to see more clearly. The spirit helps us in our weakness. On my prayer list in these months are nearly two dozen people without work, mostly men. I look forward to their re-employment, and I look forward to a day when as a people we may more effectively mitigate the effects of recession. Then we shall rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Then we shall see what we avoid, that the person on the corner, wearing the sign, ‘jobless, homeless’, another time may be us, or our relative. Then we shall work for the common good with a shining zeal and ferocity like that you see in the photographs of servicemen in 1942. Then in the common good we shall find the moral equivalent of war.

For Romans 8, as the choice verse on hope reminds us, is yet another point in Paul’s apocalyptic desire for heaven, a heaven of earth and and earth of heaven, that which ‘we wait for with patience’. It is not, this hope, what now we see. We have miles to go before we sleep.

Maybe you do to: I keep a little statistical list in my journal. Here are some of the latest entries. They are only numbers: 47, 58, 50, 87, 10, 266, 28, 40.

40% of babies born in the USA in 2008 were born out of wedlock.

58% of male Harvard graduates who entered the work force in 2007 went into finance.

50% of recent Afghani applicants for police positions tested positive for drug use.

87,000 Iraqis have died violently since 2005.

10,000,000 species live on earth right now.

266 uses of waterboarding, a kind of torture were inflicted on 2, just 2, detainees.

28% of all US adults change their religion.

40% change their denomination.

You see? Every now and then arithmetic can be ever so interesting. Today I mention the number 84. 84% of the jobs lost this recession, thus far, have been lost by men. For all the spirit gusts of Pentecost, or perhaps precisely out of that holy wind, today upon the heart we feel the hurt of the unemployed.

Why Dean Hill do you present us this number, amid these numbers, on Pentecost? Is this not the church’s birthday, Dear Dean. Are we not to adore the birth of the early church, in red cloth and sparkling songs? What has the spirited holy catholic and apostolic church to do with a few redundant men?


A long time ago, Augustine of Hippo started into Bishop work, in North Africa. He had many troubles. He fought fundamentalism, for instance, as we do in our time, shouting,
‘love understanding wholeheartedly’. He also argued and wrestled with the Donatists, an ancient, spirited and disciplined form of Christianity. One side of the spat was the question of the extent of the church.

How much real estate is church and how much is not? How much humanity is church, or potentially so, and how much is not? Should the church focus on quality or quantity? Are only those baptized by good Bishops baptized well, or at all? What makes the hotentot so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Is the church, as the Donatists argued, a select remnant, a pure priesthood, a leaven in the lump, a company of resident aliens, a band of holy Methodists fleeing from the wrath to come? If so, then church is always and ever separated from, alienated from the culture in which it exists. Christ against culture.

Or is the church, as Augustine argued, and as I do today, itself a mixture of wheat and tares, saints and sinners, holy and not yet holy, yet all and objectively founded upon and protected within spirit, divine grace, a set of networks and invisible relationships in the world to redeem the whole world, to transform culture, and the society from which culture comes, and the language that is the very root of that society? Christ transforming culture.

Is church us in worship or does it include unemployed men, whether in worship or not? Is the church the circled wagons of resident aliens? Or is the church found in all humanity, ‘nothing human foreign to us’? How you answer, on this Pentecost Sunday, the church’s birthday, will determine whether you think Christ and his church have anything in common with men without work.

Not all of our unemployed are people of faith. But very few are socially located very far from a baptized brow or a consecrated marriage or a social hall covered dish dinner. Not all of our unemployed are of great moral strength. But very few are living in towns and cities without good people doing good things. Not all of our employed are people who give to anything, any cause or institution, on a regular basis. But very few have received no help, support, forgiveness or grace from someone, somewhere, somehow, sometime. The parables of Jesus are almost all about men and work and troubles. I do not find Augustine invariably helpful. Yet his view of the church, in argument against the purists, and his respect for its well nigh universal, invisible expanse—this I preach, this I affirm, this I love. Nothing human is foreign to us. The issue of work, of honorable work, is as shot through with Pentecost spirit and sacramental wine as every curiosity about prayer, parament, liturgy, music or pardon. The word liturgy, in fact, means ‘work’.

I left an exit ramp in New York on Tuesday, and passed that man wearing that sign, ‘jobless, homeless’. For many men, the job is the spiritual home. His job is his home and his home is his castle. So I pull out my statistics list when I read that 84% of the job losses befell men. We can do better by our brothers in Christ, and one day, we shall have built a society that better smoothes the inevitable collisions between growth and value, and better smoothes the inevitable tensions between liberty and justice. The hurt of this recession will prod, goad, teach and inspire us to do so. One of two announcements in recession theology is this, that we are our brothers’ keeper, meant to watch over one another in love. Donna Reed symbolizes this shared effort, this common good, this love of neighbor.

Two: The Spirit of Truth Will Bear Witness to Me

Yet there is a second flame flickering in the fire of Pentecost and its, our, recession theology. For heaven and full employment are not the same thing. Heaven and guaranteed employment are not the same thing. Heaven and employment are not the same thing. Your job may be your home but it is not your soul. A friend, savingly, asked me recently, ‘have you been long enough in your new job to have a sense of humor about it?’

John 16 is striking for how strikingly strange it is. Sin is not what we do. Sin is not believing. Righteousness is not what we do. Righteousness is Jesus’ absence and the longing absence creates. Judgement is not hellfire. Judgement is the victory of things invisible over the god of this visible world. The Counselor, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth—perhaps the least historically understood figure and figure of speech in the New Testament to this day, by the way—guides us, guides us still.

There is more to life than work. Very few people, come dusk, say, ‘I just wish I could have spent another Saturday afternoon in the office’. There is more to work than earning. Very few hearses come equipped with a trailer hitch ball, neither a 2 inch or 1 ¾ inch variety. I know these are trite preacherly truisms. Yet why do we live as if all we needed were work? Yet why do we live as if our hearse will pull a trailer?

A Spanish poet: ‘while others strive vainly for impermanent authority, let me lie down in the shade of a tree, singing’.

Donna Reed’s daughter found meaning, power, memory, love, a depth she did not before know, on an unemployed day, rooting around in the garage. She found glory in the glory hole. She remembered, as she learned about her mother’s own memory lane. Maybe we can remember some things hidden in our spiritual shoeboxes, in our personal garages. Do you remember what you were taught?

See ye first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these will be yours as well.

Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but store up treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust consume, nor do thieves break in and steal. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Prize your time, now you have it, for God is a consuming fire.

When she died in 1986 at age 64, Donna Reed wanted to remember that at least 341 servicemen, many from Iowa, had found comfort in her photo, counsel in her response, truth in her letters, spirit in her correspondence. Did we not just read that in John 16? I believe we did.

We treasure what we love, and love what we treasure.

I want to ask you flat out: where is your treasure? What is it that you want to keep dry, preserved for the benefit of another generation, tucked in a shoebox literal or figurative, stored in a garage actual or virtual, kept as a badge of honor in the spirit of truth? What do you hope someone, a daughter, a great–great nephew, might come upon, about your life, which might make them, as Mary Owen said of her mother, ‘feel so proud’?

For a recession theology—I am sure you guessed the turn we would make here—is a recessive one. It seeks out the recesses of mind, heart, and soul. Faith plumbs the deepest recesses of your inner being. In a recession, we have more opportunity, and more need to climb down into the recesses of our lives. In this way, recession is a necessary prelude to salvation. The Spirit is given to us in our weakness, not in our dominance, but in our recession. When we need love, we know love, and know how to love. The second announcement of good news in a recession theology is just this. Grace meets us not just when we succeed, but also and more so when we recede. And in place of prowess, to replace prowess, grace gives love.


“In thee
is the fountain of life and in thy light we shall see light. Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns. Give me one who is hungry. Give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about” (S Augustine, sermons).

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

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