Breakfast with Harry Emerson Fosdick

“I tell you that you are Peter. And I will build my church on this rock. 
The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.”
Matthew 16:18 (Common English Bible)
            In a recent episode of the television show, Young Sheldon, we see hung on a bedroom wall a poster of Albert Einstein. This particular episode develops as its primary story line Sheldon’s desire to become the next Einstein. Those familiar with the character of Sheldon from the television show, The Big Bang Theory,or this show, Young Sheldon, are quite acquainted with the breath of Sheldon’s intelligence. It often eclipses everyone in Sheldon’s orbit. What is often irritating about Sheldon’s character is his inability to be gracious about his intellectual capacity. Here, in this particular episode, young Sheldon has determined to learn all he can about the one he idolizes. Learning that Einstein was Jewish, it seems reasonable to Sheldon that his journey to become like Einstein must include conversion to the Jewish faith. In one poignant moment, Sheldon is counseled by a Jewish Rabbi that when Sheldon came to the end of his life, God would not ask him why he didn’t become like Albert Einstein. Rather, God would ask Sheldon why wasn’t he Sheldon.
            I am as guilty as young Sheldon. Near my desk is a framed picture of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a great preacher of another generation. I have read Fosdick’s autobiography and a biography of this man who was once called, “the least hated and best loved heretic that ever lived.” Many mornings I enjoy breakfast with one of Fosdick’s 47 books of sermons, biblical studies, and Christian apologetics. His life had sharp parallels to my own; his thinking stretching my thinking, and his writing informing my own reading – and understanding – of the Bible. Often, I place Fosdick quotes in the Sunday morning worship bulletin, and my preaching sparkles with Fosdick insights. A liberal Christian and preacher in those decades of our nation’s history when that was much more dangerous (Ordained in November of 1903, retired in May of 1946), Fosdick has shaped my own theological convictions and reading of the Bible to be more gracious and generous, less narrow and restrictive. Perhaps the critical difference between young Sheldon and me is that I harbor no illusion of becoming another Fosdick.
            Young Sheldon desires to be the next Albert Einstein and I deeply value the ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick. The danger for both Sheldon and me is that we pay little attention to who God has uniquely created each of us to be. We are not alone. Many people today habitually wish they were someone else, or at the minimum, they wish they could be more like someone else. They wish they could possess qualities which they lack, to be more attractive, or more intelligent, or have a more outgoing personality. Perhaps their longing is simply to claim more courage, more patience, or more talent. The result is always disappointment. As Fosdick once shared from the pulpit, “Nobody can put qualities into us from the outside.”[i]  This lesson from Matthew’s Gospel suggest coming at this dilemma from another angle: claim who God has made us to be, “I tell you that you are Peter!” Jesus tells Peter that there is something already in Peter that is sufficient for planting and building the church.
            This presents both an encouragement and a challenge. It is an encouragement to accept that God has already made us sufficient for the work God has for us. It isn’t necessary to be someone else or to import into our lives qualities we don’t possess. “I tell you that you are Peter.” Jesus is asking Peter to claim that; to claim that God has uniquely and purposefully made Peter to be the man he is. The same is spoken to us through this text. We already possess all God needs for us to be useful. This also presents a challenge. Jesus saw something deep inside Peter that Peter didn’t see. Peter would be a rock, a strong foundation for the church of Jesus Christ. When Peter saw a reflection of himself in the waters of a lake, he saw a man that was temperamental, emotional, and lacking courage. Peter’s challenge was to see what Jesus saw, to reach down deep into himself, claim what Jesus saw, nurture it and make that quality the driving force of his life. It is our business in life to get out of ourselves what is already there; to lay hold of those virtues, and qualities, and passions that lay dormant within. It is then that we realize we don’t need to be anyone else. God’s grand purpose requires exactly who we were created to be.

[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Hope of the World.  (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1933) 186.

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