By Faith: A Nathan Kirkpatrick sermon

It was 1922
when Harry Emerson Fosdick
the famed New York City preacher
climbed into the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church
and delivered what
would become his most controversial — and most memorable — sermon.
It was called, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

In the background was a theological and philosophical fight
between a group of people called the Fundamentalists
(these were the original fundamentalists)
and another called the Modernists.

In that age, defined by its “new knowledge” —
by scientific discovery, historical revelation,
by new understandings of other peoples, places, and religions —
the Fundamentalists said that these were threats.
That, if you weren’t careful,
science and history and technology
and anthropology and humanity could dismantle faith.

But for Fosdick — and for the Modernists —
the “new knowledge” of the age —
well, none of that was a threat to faith,
instead, all of that could inform our faith;
There was a way to be a faithful scientist, a faithful interrogator of the universe,
there was a way to be a faithful historian, archaeologist, anthropologist or
just a faithful thinking person,
there was a way that research and reflection
illuminated the great gifts of this Creation.

They were willing to say with that great passage in Acts
That, whatever in this new knowledge was of God, would thrive,
And whatever wasn’t, would pass away.

What Fosdick and his fellow Modernists worried about
was that they saw the church getting insular in its thinking,
that there were those in the church who were starting to say that
there was only one thing to believe and one way to believe it.
That there was THE true faith, practiced in THIS way, and that was it.

And in the wake of the First World War,
when so many had been undone by the violence of the world,
a simple faith wrapped in pretty paper and topped with a beautiful bow
sounded pretty nice.

But, Fosdick knew, though, that simple, tidy faith,
collapses under the slightest weight of life,
a little pressure and simple conviction becomes a disorienting question.

What Fosdick also knew was that the Fundamentalists were forgetting their history —
the story of the people of Israel; the story of the people of the Church.
The story of the people we heard cataloged in the letter to the Hebrews.

What Fosdick knew was that the Fundamentalists of his age
were peddling something that fundamentally wasn’t Christian.

See, faith has always been held in millions of hearts,
spoken by scores of voices and
practiced by countless hands.

There has never been a single simple faith practiced in a single correct way.
We heard it in the letter to the Hebrews.

By faith, Noah built an ark.

By faith, Abraham left home and ventured to a land unknown.

By faith, Sarah had a child.

By faith, Sarah’s baby Isaac blessed his sons Jacob and Esau.

By faith, Isaac’s baby Jacob blessed his son Joseph.

By faith, Joseph saved Egypt from a famine. And when Egypt forgot Joseph,

by faith, Moses endured slavery and led his people to freedom.

By faith, the children of Israel crossed the Sea, and Miriam sang.

By faith, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

By faith, Rahab lied to the powers-that-be

and saved a group of spies.

By faith.

In every age, there have been those who have known
that faith transcends the content of any creed
and is about entering a relationship with the One the creed points to.

Faith is about the thing that lies beyond the thing.
Faith is about relationship with the One who exists beyond the liturgy,
The One the Eucharist points to, the One this body represents but does not completely contain.

What does the letter writer say?

I would run out of time if I told you about

Gideon and Barak,

Samson and Jephthah,

David and Samuel, all the prophets. But. By faith.

There has never been a single, simple faith practiced in a single, correct way.
But by faith, the people of God in every age
have carried forward the work of God
for the sake of the world.

I was struck by that phrase in our reading from Jeremiah.
The word of the Lord is “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”
Had no idea what that meant
until I started reading what the rabbis said about that phrase.
The ancient rabbis said that
this was a way that the Scriptures acknowledged
the various honest, faithful interpretations of the Scriptures themselves.
The word shatters the rock into a million pieces,
but every piece has been touched by the word.
There is no single, simple faith practiced in a single, correct way.
But by faith, the word of God moves in our midst.

The problem is that there is still
no clear answer to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s question:
Shall fundamentalism win?
(Not Fundamentalism with a capital F but
the fundamentalism that draws the world and faith smaller and smaller.
The kind that says that these are the six criteria, that these are the five practices.)

And that kind of fundamentalism still stalks our landscape.
Again and again, we hear that the world is imperiled by new knowledge in our midst.
We hear that what we have learned about creation is a threat to faith.
We hear that our knowledge about people and places
and other cultures and other religions —
and for that matter, that other cultures and other religions —
threatens your life and your soul.
We hear that, in a world that is full of complexity, that simplicity is blessed and best.

And that a single, simple faith practiced in a single, correct way is the way that God intends things to be.

We could all get amnesia — and forget that this has never been our history.
We could forget that
By faith, Noah built an ark. By faith, Abraham left home.
By faith, Sarah had a kid. By faith, Joseph, Joseph saved Egypt.

In our own day, the question remains: shall a fundamentalism win?
Not while we are here to live the story.

For by faith, you marched in Raleigh for the dignity of all people.

By faith, you walked into your first AA meeting seeking change.

By faith, you packed a bag of food and gave it to the food pantry.

By faith, you held your friend as he cried.

By faith, you went to the courthouse and got your marriage license.

By faith, you picketed the wall that is a shadow of shame standing at the border of nations.

By faith, you adopted a child that had never had a chance.

By faith, you read your Bible. By faith, you prayed.

By faith, you come to church even when you’re not sure what you believe or that you believe.

By faith, we Advocates are the noun. By faith, we Advocates are the verb.

 

So, shall any fundamentalism of our own day win? Not while we are here to carry forward the story.
Beloved, we have nothing to fear, for we live by faith.
We live with hope. Amen.

Joe Sroka: Sermon from August 4, 2016

What is the most memorable story you have ever heard?
A favorite book of mine is The Lord of the Rings. Many of you may recall that fellowship of hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, and men seeking to destroy the One Ring in Mordor. And with the Olympic games upon us, the Catholic Worker where I live recently watched Cool Runnings on movie night. It is the story, albeit the Disney version of a true story, of former Jamaican track athletes teaming up to compete in the four-man bobsled. They began in a country without snow, ice, or even winter as poor, black Jamaicans and qualified in a sport dominated by countries with winters and better- funded, white athletes. Both of these stories have a group of people on a journey. Throughout their journeys, they are changed and become something they could not have been on their own.

Another kind of story that was important to me for some time was that of triathlon. It had a community of training partners, learning from each other’s strengths and aware of each other’s weaknesses. And it had a terrific chase. Rarely does a triathlete excel at all three disciplines—swimming, cycling, and running—on race day. There was always motivation to get better.

We also have other stories. Stories of life, careers, and relationships. Even our current political elections have become a dramatic narrative where each side appears to itself to be on the side of justice while it combats evil.

Although these stories shape our lives in some way or another, and some may for the better, these stories ultimately fall short. Should these stories influence us as much as they do? As the Church, we are participating in the story. It is a story first and foremost about God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God chooses us, not of need, but out of his divine desire for genuine relationship. Today, the Psalmist tells us: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! / Happy the people he has chosen to be his own!” Today’s collect reminds us that “that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live.” This is the story of generations of Israel and the Church being sought out by God, culminating in God himself coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Holy Eucharist that we celebrate today calls us to continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present today, and the Eucharist is the way in which Jesus unites us to his one offering of himself. Now, that is some story. In fact, it is the story.

Today’s lessons show us that we know our story—our relationship with God—is founded on faith and gift, and we know what faith and gift are through the Eucharist.

The story of Abraham and the Lord was based on faith and gift. “The word of the Lord came to Abram.” The presence of God, revealed in his Word, is a gift to Abraham. It comes to him. It seeks him out. And this Word still speaks to us today. In response to this Word read aloud in the liturgy, we respond “Thanks be to God” acknowledging the gift.

The Lord says to Abraham, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham pleads for the gift. “O Lord God, what will you give me?” And again “You have given me no offspring.” Abraham does not ask for riches as a greedy person. He does not ask for long life as one who fears death. Rather, he asks for an heir worthy of his relationship with the Lord. Abraham desires the gift of offspring who will inherit the faith. He wants descendants who will inherit the story.

Then the Lord takes Abraham outside. And where else could one see the stars but outside? By taking him outside we see Abraham following the Lord. He steps, not only literally outdoors, but, through faith, he steps outside himself, now able to see and hear the Lord. “And he believed the Lord.” Abraham’s faith and the Lord’s gift shape the story.

The Letter to the Hebrews further clarifies the relationship between faith and gift in our story. In fact, it presses an important point that faith and gift are ultimately about God, not us. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the Lord and set out for a place, not knowing where he was going. By faith, Abraham and Sarah conceived Isaac although he was too old and she was barren. This was possible because they “considered him faithful who had promised.” Our faith depends on the faithful one. It is God’s faith toward us that makes our faith possible. Therefore, with this faith, God is not ashamed to be called our God.

How, then, do we live faithfully to this story? How do we put our faith into action so to speak? It seems like one thing to claim Abraham as part of our story, but how do we claim the challenging words of the Gospel too? We are shaken by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.

“Sell your possessions and give alms.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Although these words appear frightening and we may feel helpless, let us return to the story. Let us turn to the stories of the Church. ‘Sell your possessions and give alms’ is just a necessary part of the Lord’s story—a part that we have witnessed throughout. By faith, Abraham left what he had and set out. By faith, the first disciples left their boats and followed Jesus. And this Wednesday we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon who was martyred in 258. After the death of the pope, the prefect of Rome demanded the treasures of the church. St. Lawrence quickly distributed as much Church property as he could to the poor. When ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, exclaiming that these were the true treasures of the Church! “Do not be afraid, little flock” for our story already embodies Jesus’ words. Abraham, the disciples, the saints—by faith received the gift and in turn gave of themselves.

When we gather every Sunday for Eucharist, we are reminded of this faith and gift. Through faith, we receive Christ’s gift. The preparation and posture for the Eucharist cannot be missed in today’s gospel.

Jesus says “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” The priest is most obviously dressed for action. And we did light a couple of candles. But we too are ready for action. This is in fact the liturgy. As we heard at the beginning, the liturgy is the work of the people and it is what it is because each of us contributes to it.

Jesus also says “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him.” As the Lord brought Abraham outside, we too anticipate meeting him as we sing praises, read his Word and open the Gospel, and confess our sins. The Lord comes down from the heavenly banquet to meet us, right here. The Eucharist is a big deal. It is the most important story that we tell.

Jesus goes on “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” And this is where the story climaxes. Having dipped our hand in the waters of baptism and making the sign of the cross over ourselves, we are alert. Then, we offer our gifts at the altar. Gifts of financial treasures, gifts of food resources, but we also return to Christ the gift he gave us – our selves, our souls and bodies. Only through Christ’s gift do we know how or what to give. And only by faith can we “Behold what we are. May we become what we receive.” Amen.

Sam Laurent: Sermon from July 10, 2016

People of the Advocate, my sisters and brothers, we are, on average, roughly 90% chimpanzee and 10% honeybee. At least in terms of evolution. Those are estimates. You may be a slightly different mixture of the two, on any given day. But roughly speaking, mostly chimp. A little bit bee.*

That is to say, according to recent moral psychological research, human nature is a lot like that of the chimpanzee, which is formed by interaction and competition with members of its own group. So human competition for resources, for power, for all of the ways in which we might think that we “win” in society, is a dominant force in shaping human nature. Over the generations, much of our inherited psychological make-up has been determined by this social selection; we are descended from those who managed to thrive in society, at least enough to pass their genes on.

This does not feel like Good News. The part of us which is like the chimp is the part that is ambitious, perhaps ruthless, and competitive. It is prideful and insecure, but it’s not necessarily bad. Like the chimp our competition amongst ourselves has, over time, made us more effective in our world, which is generally good. But it also is a side of us that scares us. Unchecked, it might lead us to rob someone else and discard them, as happened in the beginning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But the Good News, or at least the beginning of it, is that we are 10% honeybee. Though we are formed in large part by individual competition, we are also social animals. We have learned, like honeybees, that we can do better when we pool our resources and look out for each other. We might even be willing to do something for someone without it meaning they’ll do something for us, because we think of ourselves as part of a group, as a hive, if you will.

Evolutionary theory tells us that our chimp side and honeybee side both serve us well, but differently. Within a group, the ambitious and competitive individuals tend to win out, so the chimp side is selected. You’d think this would result in us being entirely chimp, but when we look at selection among groups instead of within them, we find that groups that are more altruistic, that take better care of one another, will win out. So being nice isn’t for suckers. It has real evolutionary value. We know this intuitively. It’s why we promote healthy work environments. They work better. The better care we take of one another, the better we all end up doing. So among individuals, the chimp gets selected, but among groups, you need some honeybees around to win out. Not entirely Good News, but a little better, no?

Bearing this in mind, look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer speaking with Jesus knows that the law commands him to love his neighbor as himself, but he wants to know who the neighbor is. He wanted a definition, and he got a parable.

The first person to come upon the man who had been robbed and beaten is a priest, a good member of polite society, and he crosses the street to avoid the man. The second is a Levite, a member of one of the tribe of Israel closely associated with the temple. A man well placed among God’s chosen. He too crosses over to avoid the man who has been left for dead. Who knows what their thought process was. Maybe they feared being set upon by the same robbers and incurring personal harm themselves. Maybe they didn’t recognize the man and so assumed he wasn’t part of their group, their hive. Whatever the case, they deemed it advantageous to avoid the situation.

Along comes the Samaritan. Samaritans are decidedly not part of the Jerusalem squad. Rather than worshipping at the temple, they take a mountain as their primary holy site. So in terms of adhering to the law and temple worship, those ways in which the temple Jews marked themselves as part of a group, he’s an outsider. The Samaritan stops, helps the man and pays for his shelter. He gives of his own resources to help him. We never find out if the robbery victim was a Jew or a member of some other group. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter to Jesus.

In telling the story, Jesus is appealing to our honeybee side, but he’s doing it in a way that calls on us to question how we define our group, our community, our tribe, our nation, our hive. And that’s the really Good News. The honeybee side sounds good, but it all depends on how we define our hive. Tribalism, nationalism, sectarianism, racism… these are attempts to delineate a hive, to designate some people as our precious neighbors, and others as outsiders whose lives and welfare matter less. And Jesus constantly challenges that instinct.

The parable of the Good Samaritan appeals to our consciousness, to that part of us that can make choices and examine assumptions, because we are not simply bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts powerless to control ourselves. We are bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts with some free will attached. And in lifting up the Samaritan as the one who truly loved his neighbor, Jesus gives us the tool to define our group in a radical way. Everybody is always in. It matters that the hero is a Samaritan, because he’s the one Jesus implies will receive eternal life. He’s not part of the dominant group, is not, in our terms, white. And he is as fully loved by God as anyone else in the story. This represents a minor scandal in the context of the Gospel. Jesus is knocking down a social construct that, left intact, dehumanizes people and somehow makes their violent death tolerable.

Martin Luther King preached on this parable the night before he was shot. This parable is about a kind of mercy that seems risky to our inner chimp and our inner honeybee. Mercy to the “other.” Mercy across social norms. Everyone is worthy of it, and everyone can extend it to someone else. In a land riven by religious and racial divisions, equality before God is particularly revealed in this story precisely because it assumes not only that a Samaritan life matters, but that it earns eternal life. I don’t think I need to preach the rest of this sermon about #blacklivesmatter for you to get the point.

So I beg your forgiveness as I veer away from the political here, not out of apathy for the tragic loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Brent Thompson, and Lorne Ahrens to dehumanizing violence this week, but out of a need for a spiritual grounding to my outrage. Outrage alone will never lead to mercy. My energy to name and confront dehumanization in the world, somewhat counterintuitively, has to be rooted in a patient hope and joy, or else I slide into the dehumanizing spiral myself. There is a beautiful layer to this parable, a sacred space within it, and that’s where I find the energy to contenance the horrors of the world.

I feel the chimp-like individual drive within myself, and also the honeybee’s desire to ensure the success of my community, but today’s Gospel story cracks those mental structures open and calls me to honor people simply because they are people. This is not super-complicated theology, but rather one of those truths that never loses its cutting edge, and I believe this is the call and the power of the sacred. By displaying power in compassion, or as Paul said, “power made perfect in weakness,” Jesus shows us that risky mercy is the ultimate power. It brings eternal life. Other powers in this world can cause death, but mercy transcends it, and, in the twist that unfortunately never stops sounding radical, everyone deserves mercy.

Here then, is where my energy comes from. It’s very simple. If everyone deserves mercy by virtue of being a person, then I do and you do too. To sit with that truth—you do not need to perform any particular identity to be worthy of ultimate love—is to accept grace. Sitting with that grace, we open our being up wider, from our narrow chimpy self-interest to our helpful- but-faulty honeybee notions of our group, to this grace of being worthy of God’s love simply because we exist. And my awareness of that grace, when I center in it, strips away a lot of the noise and anxiety of the world, quiets my inner chimp and honeybee, and connects me with that joy that energizes me. As an aside, this point of realizing that my ultimate value comes in my creatureliness and not in my social position is also where I can most honestly confront my white privilege.

For me, this recognition of grace is the foundational moment of faith. All the other stuff, like baptism or communion or diocesan conventions, comes way, way later. It is shamelessly kind of selfish, but insecurity will also not lead to mercy. When the work of sharing mercy is connected with the grace of accepting it, we are giving from an abundance. So, even as this parable calls you to relational work, it also opens up a space where you can truly relax in your own skin, because the operating principle, the engine that drives it, is that the grace of God’s mercy overflows every wall this world tries to build. Welcome to church. This is where we start. This is where the energy comes from.

So, mostly chimp, a little bit honeybee, but always also beloved creatures of God. Mercy calls us to participate in a community that paradoxically breaks its own boundaries, that remembers that our “hives” are our ideas, not God’s. That makes this room at this moment a pretty remarkable space, a community that tries to point beyond itself because we exult in the spiritual truth that every single person, here and elsewhere, is loved by God and is worthy of our compassion. Everything comes from there. You are loved simply because you’re here, and that’s all you have to be. That’s all anyone has to be.

Amen.

*The chimpanzee/honeybee metaphor appears in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. All other insights into evolutionary theory in this sermon are owed to Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others by David Sloan Wilson.