This is a great sermon offered by one of my friends and a retired minister at WPC. I'm very grateful to him and his wife for the ways they continue to minister in various ways to the congregation, to me and my family, and witness to Christ in the world.
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert A. Chesnut
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico
September 27, 2009
Pastor Chester invited me to share with you this morning the same sermon that I preached back in June at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wooster, Ohio. It’s the campus church of the College of Wooster, one of our Presbyterian-related colleges. The occasion was Jan’s and my fiftieth college reunion. It was Alumni Reunion Weekend and I was invited to be the guest preacher that Sunday. My message today is basically the same, though I’ve made a few revisions toward the end for this different context.
“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee!” There were three reasons that I chose this as the opening hymn in Wooster and again today. Firstly, the hymn affirms the themes of my message today. Secondly, it was the processional music for Jan’s and my wedding fifty years ago on June 13, a week after our Wooster graduation. Thirdly, this hymn bears a special Wooster memory for me, going back to the days of required midweek chapel assemblies in 1950s.
Chapel assemblies then were not typically religious, but the gathering did always begin with a hymn, chosen by the organist, Professor R. T. Gore. One year I recall we welcomed the Republican National Committee Chairman as a chapel speaker. The opening hymn was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” The next year, in a show of bipartisanship, the Democratic National Committee Chairman was invited to speak. Professor Gore, however, was apparently having no part of this fair and balance approach. His opening hymn that day: “Turn Back, Oh Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways.”
About twenty-five years ago, after my mother died, I was looking through a personal journal in which she recorded some favorite quotations she had come across in her reading. One brief, anonymous statement read, “… (Blank) is the essence of all true religion.”
I’ll leave that blank a mystery for a bit. First I want to ask you for your own thoughts about how you would fill in the blank. What is the essence of all true religion … in just one word? I know it’s a tough assignment, maybe an impossible one, but let’s give it a try.
Love—that’s the result I’ve most often heard when I’ve tried this question out on friends. And certainly love has good precedent in the teachings of Jesus. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbor as your self. These are the first and second great commandments according to Jesus--the essence of all the law and the prophets. God is love, says the Gospel of John, and if you live in love, you live in God and God lives in you.
But love is not the word. It’s gratitude. Gratitude is the word that fills in the blank. Gratitude is the essence of all true religion according to the anonymous quotation. I want to make a case this morning for that—for why I believe gratitude is a good candidate, maybe not as the essence of all true religion, but certainly as of the essence of all true religion
Let me begin with a remarkable little story I found in the New York Times a few months back. In the Sunday edition the paper ran a page of several brief recollections by persons who had worked for Bear Stearns, the huge and prestigious investment banking firm that went down like the Titanic last year. One piece was by a man who started at the firm in 1996, fresh out school with his MBA. He worked the first three months without a single day off, an average of 100 hours a week. When he sat down with his supervisor at year’s end for his performance review, he received the requisite mix of praise and constructive criticism and was then told what his bonus would be. He was shocked by what seemed like an astronomical sum. As he was still trying to digest that news, his supervisor asked him if had anything to say. He replied that he wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to work there and earn that kind of reward. To which his supervisor replied that if he ever heard him say anything like that again he would do something to him that would not be fit to print in the New York Times. So, said the writer, “mindful of that early lesson, I never said thank you again.”
Now what sense does this make? Why on earth do you suppose that supervisor was so incensed by a young man saying “thank you” for his bonus, saying “thank you” for the opportunity to work in that firm?
Here’s what I think. I think the attitude of gratitude is the enemy of the attitude of greed. If you have the temerity to say “thank you” in such a context as this, you are implying that you didn’t altogether earn or deserve what you got You’re suggesting that that huge bonus was in some measure a gift, a blessing that was beyond your efforts to produce it.
Of course such an attitude would be a threat. Gratitude would be subversive in a corporate culture founded on the notion that we here on Wall Street are masters of the universe. We don’t ever say “thank you” to anyone because we are the creators of our own world of fabulous wealth. We made it. We deserve it. It’s ours and we thank no one for it.
Gratitude, on the other hand, acknowledges that something comes before me; something precedes my earning and deserving. That something is what we Christians traditionally call “grace.” Call it “gift” if you prefer, but gratitude acknowledges that there are gracious sources, benevolent sources that have enabled us, have empowered us to be and become who we are, to achieve what we have achieved, to have what we have.
From the very start these gracious benefactors most likely have included our parents who have given us life and nurture, values and education, moral and financial support. Then there are the pastors, the teachers, the professors, the mentors who have instructed, inspired, and guided us. Then there are the communities and the institutions that have shaped and supported us—congregations, libraries and schools, colleges and universities.
In adulthood and at the most intimate level, there is, perhaps, a loving and faithful life partner who has blessed us with gifts far too bounteous to enumerate—as my own wife Jan has for the past fifty years. We could go on and on, of course, grateful to a nation and society that have blessed us with countless freedoms and opportunities and privileges. How on earth, then, can anyone of us claim to be the proverbial self-made man or woman? Still, we all know him—the self-made man who worships his maker.
Of course, at the most existential level there is the question of the ultimate origin of our existence and of all existence. Whom do we thank for the gift of life, for senses and self-awareness, for physical and mental and spiritual powers, for the wonders of the world and universe we inhabit? Katherine Mansfield, the early 20th century English author, makes note in one of her journals of her joyful exultation at the magnificent beauty surrounding her during a sojourn in the Alps. “If only there were someone to thank,” the skeptical author writes, “but whom?” Believers know the answer. Ultimately, our existential gratitude assumes grace. Divine grace.
And believers know something else. As grace precedes gratitude, so generosity follows gratitude. From my childhood and youth in a small Presbyterian church in Western Oklahoma, I recall the words which always announced the morning offering: “Freely we have received; freely let us give.” You can build a whole life on the simple, foundational philosophy of those eight words.” Freely we have received; freely let us give. Maybe it didn’t work at Bear Stearns, but it has worked for countless millions of believers over many, many centuries. The medieval mystic Meister Ekhart affirmed it when he said, “If the only prayer you ever say your entire life is, ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.” That is enough, for gratitude is the essence of all true religion.
Let’s move now on to explore another implication of my sermon title this morning. What is the essence of all true religion? The question suggests a quest—to find the unifying factor or factors that bind together all the various faiths of the world. That means seeking to break down the barriers that divide us by finding the essence of faith that may unite us.
Breaking down barriers. Finding unity. That’s what I believe the Gospel story we read this morning is about, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. What barriers are broken through in the story? Gender, yes. He speaks with a strange woman in public when a Jewish man was never supposed to do that. Nationality, race, ethnicity, yes. The woman was a Samaritan, a mixed race of Jews and Gentiles that observant Jews despised as an unclean people. Religion, yes. The Samaritans followed what the Jews counted as a sort of bastardized Judaism. Their temple was not in Jerusalem but at Mt. Gerizim. Finally, let’s not forget this woman’s questionable reputation. Not only does Jesus ignore all the other strikes this woman has against her, he relates to her in spite of any self-righteous moralism that would have had him scorn her.
What on earth is Jesus doing here by relating to this woman? He’s breaking down barriers by pointing to the essence of true religion—worshiping God in spirit and in truth rather than disputing about where God is to be worshiped externally, in this location or that. This, I believe, is what Jesus was about all along— pointing beyond the jots and tittles of the law, beyond the tithing of mint and cumin. He was forever looking for and pointing toward the big picture, the essence of it all—lifting up a truly big God who lifts us above petty legalism and rigid doctrinalism to the essence of it all, pointing us toward the love of God with all our being and the love of our neighbors as ourselves.
Over fifty years ago now, when Jan and I were in our junior year, Jan’s oldest sister became engaged to a Muslim graduate student from Syria whom she met at NYU. Jan and I made arrangements with the college to bring our future brother-in-law to Wooster as a guest speaker at one of those required chapel assemblies. Mohammed Imady was then a PhD candidate in economics and President of the Arab Student Association of America. Later he would serve nearly twenty-five years as the Syrian Minister of Economy.
Our extended family in Damascus has now come to number some two dozen members—all Muslims. When Jan and I were visiting there in 2004, I was invited to speak at Friday prayers in the Abu Noor Mosque which various members of the Imady family attend. We were in the car, driving to the Mosque, where I thought I was simply going to be one of the worshippers. Out of the blue, I was shocked to hear someone in the car say, “By the way, you’re invited to speak today.” I had about ten minutes to consider what I might say. The pressure was no less great because I was aware that about two thousand souls would be there and that this particular mosque was presided over by the Grand Mufti of all Syria who has previously hosted such dignitaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope.
What I shared with the Muslim worshippers that Friday were passages of Scripture that point us all toward the essence of the faith that we share in common, chief among them the reading from the prophet Micah that we heard this morning: “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” And the words of the Apostle Peter: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but anyone of every nation who reveres God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” And the words of Jesus when he said that the standard God will apply at the last judgment is whether or not we have been merciful—whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the imprisoned.
What is the essence of all true religion? Love? Justice? Mercy? Humility? Grace? Gratitude? A good case can be made for each of these as essential. In the end, I suspect that they are all interrelated, that each one entails the other. But whatever our answers this quest for the essence of all true religion seems all the more important to pursue—perhaps far more so than it did fifty years ago. Fifty years ago most of us believed that wars of religion were a thing of the past that religious fanaticism and intolerance were rapidly fading away. Now, sadly, we know better.
There is, indeed, an appropriate and necessary distinction to be made between true religion and false religion. There is, tragically, religion abroad and religion here at home, religion sometimes bearing the name of Judaism or Christianity or Islam--that inspires intolerance, hatred and violence. If we want to counter it, if we want to bring people together across barriers of creed and class, race and gender, nationality and ethnicity, then we have to stand up for it and work at it. We have to seek peace and pursue it; we have to identify and magnify what we have in common, what unites us.
In conclusion I want to return to the theme of gratitude. Many of you know that back in May, shortly after I was invited to preach at Wooster, I learned that I had cancer. Initially, of course, it was quite a shock—especially since the diagnosis seemed pretty dire, a rating of nine out of ten on the scale that measures how far advanced the cancer is within the prostate. Very soon, however, I found myself surprised by my own reaction. Rather than a pervasive fear or dread, I was filled with . . . gratitude—gratitude to be alive, alive here and now. As one cancer patient has put it, “Cancer may rob you of that blissful ignorance that once led you to believe that tomorrow stretched forever. In exchange, you are granted the vision to see each day as precious . . .”
Though the diagnosis was dire, I have since learned that the prognosis is pretty good. It seems I could still have many good years ahead of me—barring, of course, car accidents or heart attacks or whatever. Now I’m almost three months into two years of hormone therapy and two weeks into two months of daily radiation therapy. Still I offer God my ever growing gratitude--“for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love that from our birth over and around us lies.”
It’s a hymn I’ve loved since my youth. We have sung those words (or tried to sing them) once in Spanish this morning. Please turn now to the English version in the blue hymnal—No. 473. Let’s stand and read the words together as our statement of faith this morning. As we come to the refrain each time, lifting up a hand, palm to the sky, let us declare, “Lord of all, to thee we raise, these our hearts of grateful praise.”