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Rev. Cathi King

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March 26, 2023

Scripture: Acts 6:8–7:2, 51–60

       Stephen was a young man in Jerusalem when he said yes to being a deacon. Stephen was a Hellenist, a Greek speaking Jewish convert to Christianity. And he was full of wisdom, full of faith, full of the Spirit. He, along with 6 others were chosen to serve the poor and vulnerable in the community of the Way of Jesus.  

And it wasn’t long before that work got him in trouble. We don’t know specifically what the members of the synagogue of the Freedmen argued with Stephen about. But here’s what we do know: Love doesn’t happen from a distance. Leaning in toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the suffering breaks the heart wide open.

Ministering among the poor takes courage. It leads to seeing the poor and hearing different, sometimes soul-wrenching life stories. Ministering with the poor leads to a desire to advocate, to restore dignity and life, and to open doors for full community participation.

Ministering alongside the poor raises questions about why there is poverty, and about greed and just resource allocation,  access to opportunity, and unholy alliances between religion and empire.

Stephen: full of wisdom, full of faith, full of grace, full of power… full of truth in the face of lies, full of love in the face of hatred… full of forgiveness in the face of brutality… full of courage in the face of death.

Today we continue our exploration of love – what the Greek’s call agape – God’s love, God’s character, God’s essence – the love that filled Jesus… that animated his life… the love that got him in trouble… got him killed… got Stephen killed… and many others – prophets, activists, justice-seekers, advocates for society’s most marginalized. And we remind each other: loving with this kind of love is indeed a courageous act.

Courage comes from the Latin root word cor meaning heart. Courage is heart work.

In the words of Irish poet David Whyte: Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future.

It is whole-heartedness, in accordance with the Way of Jesus, in service to truth, and committed to abundant life for all.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour… for the living of these days. Which hours? What days?

The hymn we sang earlier this morning was written by Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1930. Fosdick was ordained a Baptist minister in 1903 and served as a chaplain in World War I. In 1918 he was called to pastor the First Presbyterian Church in New York City. 

The sermon he preached in 1922 entitled Shall the Fundamentalists Win? launched him into the national Christian family divide between literalism and modernism. In this sermon he said:

We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.

He goes on to talk about advancements in science and new revelations in human history, new knowledge that has been hard for people to reconcile with their traditional faith. He argues:

The new knowledge and the old faith cannot be left antagonistic or even disparate, as though a man on Saturday could use one set of regulative ideas for his life and on Sunday could change gear to another altogether. We must be able to think our modern life clear through in Christian terms, and to do that we also must be able to think our Christian faith clear through in modern terms.

The question is, he asks, Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? The Fundamentalists say that this must be done.

There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.

Reading through that 100-year-old sermon… it feels so timely… so encouraging for this day.

 But for the next two years after he preached it, Fosdick was embroiled in controversy. Other pastors called for a denominational hearing on all his beliefs. They called for his censorship. In 1924 he resigned from his pulpit.

Six years later, in 1930, Harry Emerson Fosdick accepted the call to pastor again; this time for the Riverside Church in New York City. It was there that he wrote the text of the hymn: God of Grace and God of Glory for the dedication of this new church. The nation was in the Great Depression. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had asked him repeatedly to be the pastor of this church, in its $5 million building. Fosdick refused saying he did not want to be known as the pastor of the richest man in the country.

To which Rockefeller responded: Do you think that more people will criticize you on account of my wealth than will criticize me on account of your theology?

Fosdick finally accepted with the condition that the church would be interdenominational, interracial and deeply committed to ministering to the poor and working for social justice.

We wonder together: has our nation ever been this divided? Has the Christian church ever been this divided? The answer is yes and yes.

Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, says historian Jon Meacham in his book The Soul of America. His book takes us back to historical times of great division and lifts up the people and actions that brought our country from the brink of disaster over and over again into a new future with hope.

To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. Meacham wrote, If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.

The same can be said of the Christian church. In fact, culture and political wars have found their way into the church in every age. The church has fought and divided over slavery, the role of women, the inclusion of the LGBTQ community, nationalism, militarism…

We turn to the Bible and we interpret it differently. We fight over what love means. Who is my neighbor? Is not just a question asked long ago by a lawyer or a scribe in the gospels. We ask it in every age.  We turn to Jesus and we pray: Grant us wisdom… grant us courage to be full of grace, full of faith, full of truth, full of wisdom, full of love. 

What does it look like to be courageous in our day? What does it feel like? 

Getting out of bed for some is a great act of courage – for all who live with crippling anxiety and depression… or with chronic pain or who struggle with addictions.

Aging is courageous… facing with grace increasing physical and mental limitations… choosing surgery or treatment options… talking honestly with loved ones about death… planning for it and for the care of the ones who will live on.

Parenting… we need lots of courage to parent with love… to raise our children to be healthy in mind, body and soul… to teach them to make the world more beautiful by having lived in it.

Choosing to have children is courageous… when the earth’s resources are already being overextended… when gun violence makes the world feel so much less safe… when social media daily… hourly wreaks havoc on mental and emotional health.

Choosing not to have children is also courageous… discerning emotional, financial and physical capacities… considering genetic risks. Choosing to adopt or foster children is so very courageous… blending families, loving through emotional trauma.

Anytime we step into places or relationships or conversations that we know will challenge our convictions or will reveal conflicting loyalties— between colleagues… at family gatherings… at church, school, or in the public square especially when the stakes are high and love is involved… when we minister alongside the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized… when we preach, teach, paint, write, advocate, protest, vote… we need courage for all of these.

David Whyte writes: Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.

The prayer of St. Patrick – the Breastplate prayer it’s called –putting on the armor of courage over our hearts is for each and every day.
I’ll close with a longer excerpt from it:

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the Threeness,

Through confession of the Oneness

of the Creator of creation.

I arise today.

I arise today, through

The strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon,

The splendor of fire,

The speed of lightning,

The swiftness of wind,

The depth of the sea,

The stability of the earth,

The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through

God’s strength to pilot me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptation of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

afar and near.

I summon today

All these powers

and I arise today

With courage. In truth. For love. Let it be so.


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