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Once upon a time comedian Bill Maher poked good-natured fun of religion and the church. My family and I love watching old clips from “The Tonight Show” back when Johnny Carson was the King of Late Night. Among the ones we’ve seen is the first-time appearance by a very young Bill Maher. He gently joked about having a mixed religious heritage and of being part Jewish, part Catholic such that although they would go to confession, they’d take a lawyer with them. “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I believe you know Mr. Cohen . . .” He also joked that the Catholic Church had nicely modernized of late, adding a salad bar to go along with the standard communion wafer.
That’s pretty funny stuff and pretty mild. But if you’ve seen Mr. Maher of late or watched any HBO specials of his stand-up routines, then you know the days of salad bars and confessional lawyers are long gone. Now Mr. Maher fairly howls his disapproval of all things–and most certainly of all people–religious. Granted, he can regrettably find examples of these attitudes in real life but he broad-brush paints every person of faith as being retrograde, spiteful, hateful, and finally just plain stupid human beings. It’s not pretty and not fair but as folks like Richard Dawkins have discovered, there is a goodly audience who will cheer on such caricatures (and I am honest enough to admit that, alas, some of my fellow believers are pretty good at caricaturing non-believers, too, in ways I find likewise deeply troubling and unfair).
In any event, all of that is a set up for a funny thing that happened to me last week. One of my weekly tasks in directing Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching is posting new content every Monday to give preachers some jump-start ideas on upcoming Lectionary texts. The portion of my website devoted to these sermon-starter essays is the single most heavily visited part of the larger site (and yes, given the Sunday deadline for sermons, Saturday is the website’s busiest day every week, too!). Hence, a time or two each week I check my website dashboard of statistics to see what the traffic has been like of late.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that on a single day last week my website received more visitors, page views, and hits than the website typically gets in an entire month! At first I thought I had been spammed or that some really aggressive web bots had been trolling the site for some new search engine or something. But no, turns out the larger-than-usual influx of visitors were all landing on a sample sermon I posted a couple of years ago on Noah and the Ark. And it turns out they all came from a website called Cracked.com because as part of a posting debunking bogus documentaries, the person named Amanda who posted there noted the inaccurate claims in Bill Maher’s documentary “Religiulous.” Among the disputed claims Mr. Maher put forth was the idea that “original sin” as a teaching had nothing to do with the Bible. By way of refutation, Cracked.com linked to my Genesis 9 sermon.
Alas, the (shall we say) colorful language used on a lot of that website means I am unlikely to trot this out to my donor base as a sign of how successful the reach of my website has become! But how odd are the crosscurrents of the worldwide web that Bill Maher’s work and my work would get connected in such a fashion! I have no idea what to make of this and am just “blogging out loud” here as it’s mid-August and I am not sure what else to talk about.
Still, thousands and thousands of people who never read the content on a website like the Center for Excellence in Preaching landed there. They did so because someone who has probably little-to-no interest in defending Christianity nevertheless found the inaccurate claims of a religion-basher to be too egregious to let pass by quietly. I guess it’s an odd grace that gave my website that much traffic from such an unlikely source.
Then again, given the nature of Mr. Maher’s claims about all of us troglodyte Christian types, I hope that maybe a handful of the thousands who clicked into my sermon got to the sermon’s last line. Because I view the Flood story as an example of God’s turn from grief to grace, from a reaction to human sin that centered on punishment to a plan that centered on forgiveness coming from God’s side. And so that sermon concluded this way:
“We need grace in the everyday, grace where we are, grace in the midst of our pain. We need to know again and again that the Son of God died in our place so as to open up a fountain of grace that will never run dry, a good floodtide, a flood that saves. Now as much as ever, the world needs the gospel’s rainbow of hope. We, too, grieve over how things go in this world. But even our grieving is done with the knowledge of God’s overarching grace. It’s our privilege as God’s people to let that grace in us shine forth from us, displaying that rainbow of grace so that more and more may be touched by its holy radiance. “
Maybe nobody got that far in glancing at or perusing that web page. But if anyone did, here’s hoping it put in a good word for grace, a good word for people of good faith, and a good word that I’d be happy to repeat to Mr. Maher’s face if ever he were interested.