home | weekly bulletin | parish blog | community | ministries | history | links | contact

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sermon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
Sunday, May 6, 2005

Easter 5: Year C--May 6, 2007

Acts 13: 44-52
Psalm 145
Revelation 19: 1, 4-9
John 13: 31-35

This morning’s reading from Acts and the Gospel of John have much to teach us about a certain spirit and purpose we are to have as Christians. In Acts we hear about how the disciples were persecuted by religious leaders of the day for their heretical ways, and how the disciples went on their way rejoicing. In the Gospel we hear the great “New Commandment” that Jesus gives us--to love one another as he loves us. Now hang on to your hat, this may be one of those bumpy ride sermons, but I promise I’m a-comin’ back around to these two lessons--eventually the plane will land!

Have you ever heard of a forensic theologian? No, me either. Well I’ve decided to create such a title--mostly arising out of my research and study for this sermon today. Most of us are aware of forensics--the endeavor to trace evidence and find facts mostly for the purposes of legal proceedings. Forensics has been made popular in recent years by many TV shows like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), Criminal Minds, and of course that stalwart of cop shows, Law and Order. Forensics has crept into a number of professions. They even have forensic accounting now to trace white collar crime. And, as most of you know, I work in Emergency Management as the Hospital Bioterrorism Preparedness Coordinator for the State. In this work I have been exposed to and trained in the basics of Forensic Epidemiology. This is the study of how a disease/condition might have been unleashed on a population as a purposeful event--like an act of terrorism.

The whole idea of forensic theologian started when I was reading The Great Influenza, by John Barry, this last week. This book traces the background, development, historical situation, and personalities involved before and during the 1918 pandemic of influenza, otherwise known as the Spanish Flu.

Digression (fun Public Health facts to know and tell!)

In order to set the scene for what I pulled out of this book, let me share with you a little I learned in reading the social-historical-medical context outlined in the book as a build up to the pandemic. Did you know that there was a vast expanse of medical knowledge in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that had helped to: create vaccines that prevented a dozen animal diseases including anthrax and hog cholera; public health measures and vaccines that contained or eradicated smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, bubonic plague; antitoxins for snake bites; antiserum for dysentery; tetanus antitoxin (in 1903, 102 people out of every 1000 treated died, 10 years later with the antiserum 0 died!); meningitis had been checked; and an antitoxin for gangrene had been developed.¹

At the same time that the huge advances in medicine were taking place, there was an ongoing battle to bring public health measures up to date in the general population and in the quickly expanding military of the day. In the build up of the US Army before entering World War I, the army went from tens of thousands to millions in a matter of months. The evolving medical corps of the army argued forcefully for adequate public health measures in the development of troop camps, but often to no avail. This is not to say that the army medical establishment was not behind the war effort. The Military Surgeon Journal of the time even said “the consideration of human life often becomes quite secondary....[in fulfilling the overall objectives of winning the war]; and in this Journal one Major was quoted as saying, “If any enemy wounded are found (in the trench) they should be bayoneted, if sufficient prisoners [for interrogation] have been taken.”² Even at a time of great medical advances, some physicians were still practicing bleeding--based on a medieval notion that bleeding out the bad blood in a person would help them rid their body of disease. Clearly, some modern medical science, and ethics, had yet to evolve.

A particular problem in the new army camps was the efficient spread of disease. The winter of 1917-1918 was one of the coldest on record, and because the army had not yet built enough barracks, many men were sleeping in tents in the outdoors. Measles began to spread among the troops and from camp to camp as men were transferred. When measles strikes adults it can be particularly brutal. In an effort to control the spread of measles men were ordered not to crowd around stoves, but with the cold outside this order proved unenforceable. From September 1917 to March 1918 over 30,000 soldiers were struck with pneumonia mostly as a complication of measles, and over 5700 died. Pneumonia turned out to be the killer complication of influenza which was just around the corner.

On to this scene came the intense little scientist Oswald Avery, whose research on pneumonia would have such a huge impact that it revolutionized genetic research and created modern molecular biology. Avery was born in Montreal, raised in the New York City, and was the son of Baptist Minister with a church in the city. (Isn’t it interesting how many great men and women were children of clergy? Well, except Roman Catholic clergy one would presume!) He was something of a Renaissance man who played cornet at the concert level and held a variety of interests, but in spite of those interests, he tended to be somewhat of a research recluse and an introvert by nature. At university he was a gifted orator and tied for an oratory prize at Colgate University with Harry Emerson Fosdick, who later became one of the most gifted and well-known Protestant preachers of the century. Harry’s brother, Raymond, later went on to lead the Rockefeller Foundation, which built the famous Riverside Church in New York City for Harry.

This little connection and fact tucked into this book got me curious about Harry Fosdick, so I "googled" him on the internet and came up with a fascinating sermon he preached in June of 1922. (Here’s the "forensic theologian" coming out!) The title of his sermon is “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”³. I am going to quote liberally from this sermon partly because it is a good corollary to today’s scripture, and partly because it suits our time so well. It could have been written yesterday.

He begins:

This morning we are to think of the fundamentalist controversy which threatens to divide the American churches as though already they were not sufficiently split and riven. A scene, suggestive for our thought, is depicted in the fifth chapter of the Book of the Acts, where the Jewish leaders hale before them Peter and other of the apostles because they had been preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Moreover, the Jewish leaders propose to slay them, when in opposition Gamaliel speaks “Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.”

His beginning scriptural reference is somewhat akin to the later passage in Acts 13 we read this morning--religious and community leaders were none to happy with the disciples of Jesus, but they went on with their message of hope and salvation anyway. And remember, Fosdick was preaching 85 years ago!

He goes on:

Already all of us must have heard about the people who call themselves the Fundamentalists. Their apparent intention is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions. I speak of them the more freely because there are no two denominations more affected by them than the Baptist and the Presbyterian [Fosdick was ordained a Baptist minister, but moved to the Presbyterian church at which he lost his pulpit after this sermon]. 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.

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession--new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history...

Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

Doubtless they have made many mistakes. Doubtless there have been among them reckless radicals gifted with intellectual ingenuity but lacking spiritual depth. Yet the enterprise itself seems to them indispensable to the Christian Church. 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.

Fosdick is preaching about a perennial problem in the church and a perennial tug of war: how do we incorporate new knowledge and understanding. Just as the disciples encountered this inertia to change in the reading from Acts, so we too, in each generation, must wrestle with new insights and understandings that might change the way we believe.

In three different paragraphs interspersed throughout his sermon he takes up, in turn, aspects of the salient points he is trying to make:

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this--Shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not. They say the liberals must go. Well, if the Fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation--multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.


Here in the Christian Church today are these two groups, and the question which the Fundamentalists have raised is this--Shall one of them drive the other out? Do we think the cause of Jesus Christ will be furthered by that? If He should walk through the ranks of his congregation this morning, can we imagine Him claiming as His own those who hold one idea of inspiration and sending from Him into outer darkness those who hold another? You cannot fit the Lord Christ into that Fundamentalist mold. The church would better judge His judgment. For in the Middle West the Fundamentalists have had their way in some communities and a Christian minister tells us the consequences. He says that the educated people are looking for their religion outside the churches.

Again, isn’t it startling this was written 85 years ago? We can see the legacy today of the educated people leaving the church, when at an earlier time it was the churches who founded all the great institutions of higher education. Finally, his last refrain....

These two groups exist in the Christian churches and the question raised by the Fundamentalists is--Shall one of them drive the other out? Will that get us anywhere? Multitudes of young men and women at this season of the year are graduating from our schools of learning, thousands of them Christians who may make us older ones ashamed by the sincerity of their devotion to God’s will on earth. They are not thinking in ancient terms that leave ideas of progress out. They cannot think in those terms. There could be no greater tragedy than that the Fundamentalists should shut the door of the Christian fellowship against such.

Fosdick is careful to implore his listeners that tolerance goes both ways. In his sermon he also pleads for a generosity of spirit toward those of old opinions, who...

have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with, and that we of the younger generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing, with our new opinions, something of the depth and strength, nobility and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts. It was a wise liberal, the most adventurous man of his day--Paul the Apostle--who said, “Knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up.”

In concluding he also envisions a church that has vibrant intellectual curiosity and a reticence to get bogged down in ecclesiastical minutia.

As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church, I am, of course, thinking primarily about this new generation. We have boys and girls growing up in our homes and schools, and because we love them we may well wonder about the church which will be waiting to receive them. Now, the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church. Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable.

Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”
[In order to find a solution to this Christian divide we will need]...a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

Please forgive the voluminous quoting from this sermon, but it is so startling that it was written so long ago and not yesterday! I encourage you to find it on line or in your library and read the whole text. In some ways I find it comforting that our current troubles in the Anglican Communion over fundamentalist and progressive wings of the church are really nothing new--they just seem to have bubbled to the surface in a particularly acute way.

And friends, don’t you want to belong to the church that Fosdick envisions? A church that is intellectually curious, embodies the radical hospitality reflected in the watchwords of our diocese, and gets on with the weightier matters like famine, poverty, and war? Perhaps if we do church right, there is a young Oswald Avery in the pews this morning who will go on to discover some great new advance in Medicine--supported by the church who lived by what we prayed at their baptism when we said:

Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308.)

Jesus gives us a new commandment in the Gospel this morning -– “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And in the lesson from Acts we hear how, though they were shouted down and run out of town, the disciples “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” This is the kind of enthusiastic response to God’s love we are called to embody.

As a case in point of this struggle we only have to look at yesterday’s news. Yesterday, on the front page of the Concord Monitor, I saw the headline “Church audit cites ‘tone at the top’.” This is in reference to the State Attorney General’s annual audit of the Roman Catholic Church’s effort to comply with the recommendations that came out of our State’s investigation of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Now I know that there are intense church-state issues involved here and I don’t mean to minimize that or gloss over that, but I was so disheartened to hear that the ‘tone at the top’ was one of general stonewalling and noncompliance.

What is wrong with this picture? (Now I mean no ill will toward our Roman Catholic brethren; well, unless of course those times when they get on their high horse about being the sole repository of the truth!) But wouldn’t it have been so much better that the underlying tone was one of the church whole-heartedly trying to do more than comply, and their real problem was stumbling all over themselves in a headlong rush to protect every child brought under their care. Isn’t that the kind of church that Fosdick was advocating for. Rather, we get this kind of fundamentalist approach of something like "Keep out, you don’t belong, only we have the truth, and you can’t belong unless you yield your mind and ask no questions when you walk in the door." How sad, how terribly sad. What if our approach to Gospel was one of only complying with the tenets. What if our whole attitude was one of only trying to "comply" with the terms of the Resurrection!

Heavens no! Ours is a holy joy in the knowledge of the love of God embodied in Jesus--and the spirit of freedom that imbues us with the desire to share that love with everyone.

So, the forensic theologian thing--well, it was really a tool to try to encourage you to follow this rather circuitous route I took to weave together a little public health and ecclesiastical history as a way to get at the spirit of these two readings. Maybe you learned something about public health, maybe a little bit about modern church history, but mostly I hope you learned about a vision of the church that embraces rather than divides.

¹ Great Influenza,,p. 146
² Great Influenza,,p. 144-5
³ “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”: Defending Liberal Protestantism in the 1920s“

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Outdoor Clean-up Day

On Saturday, a group of parishioners beautified our grounds.

The hard-working crew.

The results of their hard work.

Don't our azaleas look lovely?

Thanks to all who helped!