Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Living of These Days (J. Barry Vaughn, July 20, 2014)

On Sunday, Feb. 8, 1931, members of the newly constructed Riverside Church of New York City, gathered for the dedication of their building and sang these words composed by their pastor:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

The church was magnificent. Although Gothic in style, it was altogether American in conception. Its tower makes it the tallest church in the United States and the 24th tallest in the world. But what made the church so very American is that it included not only space for worship and education but also a gym, a library, and room and equipment for many social outreach programs.

 
It is also remarkable in that it was almost entirely funded by one man – Baptist layman and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – and built to serve as a platform for a remarkable preacher – Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 In many ways the catalyst for the construction of that church (and the composition of “God of grace and God of glory”) was a sermon Fosdick preached in 1922 entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Although he was a Baptist, Fosdick was serving as the “preaching minister” at First Presbyterian Church of New York. The Presbyterians were engaged in a heated controversy between conservatives and liberals. When Fosdick set out his liberal manifesto, the conservatives in the presbytery of Philadelphia took action that resulted in Fosdick’s dismissal from First Presbyterian. Fosdick then accepted a call to Park Avenue Baptist Church on the condition that the church’s wealthiest member, John D. Rockefeller, build a much larger  church on the upper west side of Manhattan near Columbia University. And so Riverside Church was built and “God of grace and God of glory” was written.

Fosdick intended for his hymn to be sung to the tune “Regent’s Square,” a tune we associate with “Angels from the realms of glory.” 

It didn’t become associated with the tune we know and love and sing it to, the Welsh tune Cwm Rhondda, until it was paired with that tune in the 1935 Methodist hymnal, and Fosdick never liked it. When Fosdick was asked why he objected to the use of Cwm Rhondda with his hymn, he said, “My views are well known—you Methodists have always been a bunch of wise guys.” 

Fosdick may have been right. If we sing “God of grace and God of glory” to Regent’s Square, the emphasis falls firmly on the word “God”: God of grace and GOD of glory…

But when we sing it to Cwm Rhondda, the emphasis falls on “grace” and “glory”: God of GRACE and God of GLORY…

 But the important thing is the text.

I want to make several points about the text:

First, notice what Fosdick assumes about the church of Jesus Christ: He assumes that the church’s story is an unfinished story.

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

The church of Jesus Christ is a story that God is writing. You and I are the letters and words of the story. We are the materials out of which God is telling the story of the church.

We are a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints. Sometimes the church gets it right, but all too often we get it very, very wrong. Sometimes we are the guys with the white hats; sometimes we are the guys with the black hats. Sometimes we are on the side of the angels; but at other times we are on the side of … well, those other folks!

The church is God’s pilgrim people. Like Israel in the wilderness, we journey toward the promised land. Although God guides us, there is no guarantee that we will always heed God’s guidance.

We need God’s help to bring our story to a happy conclusion, to keep us on the right track, to “bring our bud to glorious flower.”

My second point has to do with the fact that Fosdick represented the high water mark of Protestant liberalism in America. One of the criticisms of Protestant liberalism is that it did not take the problem of evil with sufficient seriousness. By and large, Protestant liberals regarded evil as an illusion or at least a temporary problem that could be dealt with simply educating people. There is a lot of truth in that criticism.

 But I think that this hymn shows that Fosdick had a more robust idea of evil. He wrote, “Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us, Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.” The “hosts of evil” are real. Goodness, especially the divine goodness embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, will always encounter opposition from the “hosts of evil.”

But in the very next breath, Fosdick’s hymn goes on to say, “From the fears that long have bound us, Free our hearts to faith and praise.”

The “hosts of evil” are not just “out there,” they are also “in here.” And what gives the “hosts of evil” such power is the evil, sin, wickedness that is in our own hearts. Indeed, were it not for the fact that our own hearts are weak and sinful, we would make short work of the “hosts of evil.”

 Here’s an example: I grew up in the deep South in the age of the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign took place in 1963 when I was eight years old. The culture in which I grew was deeply racist. I’m happy to say that I don’t believe my family was deeply racist, but I don’t believe any white person of my generation who grew up in Alabama could entirely escape racist assumptions. I believe that I have largely overcome those racist assumptions, but from time to time I find myself thinking embarrassing thoughts or having stereotypical reactions to people of other races and cultures.

 What I’m saying is that whenever I am tempted to level the charge of racism against others, I need to stop and hold up a mirror to my own life. I need to recognize that what gives racism such power is that it is not someone else’s problem; it is MY problem and OUR problem. It is rooted not just in the hearts of other people but in my heart.

 Here’s another example: Fosdick’s hymn also says, “Shame our wanton selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul.” Selfishness and greed are problems even more deeply rooted than racism. They are universal problems. I suspect that just about all of our behavior is at least partly motivated by unconscious calculations of self-interest.

 Even more than with racism, when we level the charges of selfishness and greed against others, we have to stop and examine our own hearts for evidence of self-interest and avarice.

 My final point is also related to Fosdick’s Protestant liberalism. One of the problems that most concerned him was the problem of war. This year we observe the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. Like many of his generation, Fosdick was deeply engaged by that war. He was born in 1878 and ordained in 1903. Fosdick served First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, from 1904 to 1915, and then went to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

 During World War 1, Fosdick traveled to Europe to give comfort and support to U.S. troops. But the terrible human cost of the war appalled him, and he became a pacifist, even opposing the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War.

 In my opinion, Fosdick picked the wrong war to oppose, but I admire him for having the courage of his convictions.

 My point is that when Fosdick wrote, “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control,” he was writing about a very personal struggle.

 But the Protestant liberal tradition that Fosdick represented did not just pray for the end of war, the end of racism, the end of greed, they did something about it. They built institutions to accomplish these goals; they lent their support to movements that worked to put flesh and bones on the words of their prayers.

 At the heart of the American Protestant liberal tradition was the conviction that the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading is not just a lovely idea, nor is it God’s work alone. We have an obligation to sow the seeds of the kingdom, the seeds of justice and peace. We have an obligation to care for the kingdom, to nurture the field in which the seeds are growing.

 It is hypocrisy for us to pray, “Thy kingdom come” and do nothing to bring about the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. It is not enough for us to pray “Cure thy children’s warring madness” unless we are mean it and are willing to have our “warring madness” cured. It is not enough for us to pray “Give us wisdom, give us courage” unless we are willing to use the wisdom and courage God will give us to fight “the evils we deplore.”

It is hypocrisy to kneel and pray unless we are also willing to stand and march and even fight to build a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares and the hungry are filled with good things.

 There was much that was wrong in the Protestant liberal tradition that Fosdick represented. It was often na├»ve and overly idealistic. But they dared great things and hoped audaciously. I sometimes fear that we have lost the power to hope and dare and imagine, and I pray that we will recover those things.

 More than anything else, my hope and prayer for this church is that we will not look at our limitations but at our possibilities, that we will not look backward but look forward, that we will imagine all that with God’s help we can be and then work and pray and give to be a place where God’s kingdom begins to shine through human weakness.

 Fortunately, this church is actually doing something on behalf of the kingdom. Monday through Friday we feed thousands of people through our Epicenter on the Parkway. We provide office space, as well as volunteers, for Nevadans for the Common Good which helped pass legislation to end the traffic in human life. And at the Rector’s Forum this morning you can hear the Rev. Mike Patterson talk about what we are doing through the Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy Network.

 Finally, I would like you to notice that, like most hymns, “God of grace and God of glory” is a prayer. Every verse addresses petitions to God: “Free our hearts to faith and praise;” “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage;” and so on.

None of Fosdick’s goals, none of Protestant liberalism’s goals, none of our goals at Christ Church, can be accomplished by human strength alone. Now make no mistake: God assigns us tasks to do. It is ours to feed the hungry, house the homeless, work to end the causes of war, and so on. But there is a mysterious interaction between divine grace and human effort in which prayer is a central part. So we pray and so we work: “Thy kingdom come” and “On thy people, pour thy power.”

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

 Amen.