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.
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.