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When Fear and Faith Lock Horns

Lessons: Psalm 27, Matthew 14: 22-33

Today's sermon was preached by The Rev. Dr. James L. McDonald, former President of the San Francisco Theological Seminary and Professor of Faith & Public Life.

Well. 2019 seems to be the year of big transitions, doesn’t it? First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, is now in new territory, after a wonderful, grace-filled, fourteen years with Joanne Whitt bringing her superb pastoral, preaching, and leadership skills to shape the life of this community. I dare say all of us are feeling a mixed bag of sorrow, thanksgiving, anger, anxiety, and anticipation as we live into this new chapter in the life of our beloved community. Dean and I count ourselves among those who have and hold a deep appreciation for Joanne and her ministry. We have been blessed by her presence, her intelligence and humor, her moral compass, her compassionate caring, her wise and creative leadership, her energy and passion for justice, and of course her love of baseball.

And, as many of you know, San Francisco Theological Seminary – and I myself – are also in new territory now, having successfully completed a merger with the University of Redlands at the end of June, when I stepped down as president. That merger created a new Graduate School of Theology at the University of Redlands that retains the San Anselmo campus with SFTS at its core. The new graduate school continues the seminary, with all of the SFTS faculty and students, degree programs, diploma and certificate programs, the Applied Wisdom Institute, the Shaw Chaplaincy Institute, and our historic relationship with the Graduate Theological Union (the GTU) in Berkeley. The essential character of SFTS remains unchanged, but it is now embedded in the structures and culture of a 5000-student university. And over time, this new Graduate School of Theology will expand and evolve its faculty and programs and become something that no one can now predict. Each will catalyze the other. I am enthusiastic, excited and hopeful about what lies ahead.

You know, when the merger was first announced, and even now, there were some of the Redlands folks who were worried that this merger would result in the university once again becoming a sectarian institution as it was when it was started in 1907 by the American Baptist Church, an affiliation that it abandoned in the 1970s. They worried that a Graduate School of Theology would infect and infiltrate the entire university with a narrow, restrictive version of Christianity that would limit academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, critical thinking and the embrace of questions over answers.

At the same time, there were some SFTS folks who were worried that the merger would make it impossible to talk about Christianity or faith or values, not to mention maintaining our Presbyterian heritage and affiliation. They worried that Christian faith, Reformed theology, and Presbyterian principles would become diluted and disappear from the curriculum and the school itself.

Well, of course, we don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But none of the worries are founded in the reality of the agreement or the spirit of the new partnership. Redlands will remain a university and SFTS will continue to train persons for transformational ministries of justice, peace, and healing. The faculty of the Graduate School of Theology will continue the tradition of being scholar practitioners, people whose lives are formed and informed by their faith commitments and practices and who bring those into their teaching and research.

But, is there anyone who can say with certainty what this new partnership will look like ten years from now? I don’t think so. And that brings us to our scriptures for this morning and the topic of this sermon.

Most people think of “faith” as a body of knowledge or beliefs, as in “the Christian faith.” Used in this way, faith refers to a set of dogmas or doctrines‑‑ideas about the nature of God, what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection mean, what the Holy Spirit is, what the Church is, and so forth. For Jews, there are the Hebrew scriptures, the God of Israel, the Torah, the law, the Shema, the concepts of righteousness and justice, of mitzvah and kosher, the Talmud and Midrash, Yom Kippur, Passover, and other Holy Days of observance. A famous twelfth-century rabbi named Maimonides came up with thirteen principles of Jewish faith, but there is nothing binding about them. For Muslims, there are the five Pillars, Allah, the Qur’an, Sharia law, Ramadan and the Eids, the Prophet Muhammad.

Used in this way, faith is something to which we give assent, or not. In this sense, faith is something outside of us. It existed before we were born and will continue after we die. And the question is, what relationship‑‑if any‑‑will we have with this set of doctrines and practices—and, truth is, most of us get hung up on doctrines. For instance, one might say, I’m not sure what I believe about the resurrection or original sin, about Jesus’ birth or universal salvation.

This approach makes faith an intellectual exercise. And we call this intellectual exercise “theology.” And there is a place for theology, because beyond the question of whether or not you believe in God, there is also the question of what kind of God you believe in? A distant observer? A stern, demanding, taskmaster? An involved, caring presence? A fount of wisdom? A passionate, transforming fire? The fact is, how we answer such questions determines to no small extent how we live our lives, day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year.