Sermons : Living The Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age – Courage
LIVING THE FAITH: OLD VIRTUES
Have you seen the interstate billboards put up by the Foundation for a Better Life? In very few words, each of them tells a moving, inspirational story about a person whose positive values and virtues have made a difference. With all the other ads that dot our roadways, I'm always glad, and often inspired, when I see one. 
One of them shows a remarkable young woman, Liz Murray, whose life story was made into a TV movie; the caption reads, "From Homeless to Harvard: Ambition. Pass It On."
There's one of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in December of 1776 - appropriate this week when we remember what happened five months earlier in Philadelphia. Washington's billboard simply says, "By George we did it. Leadership. Pass it on."
There was another one I saw last month, which carries a photograph of Erik Wehenmayer. You may not remember Erik Wayenmayer, but the billboard tells you enough to get the point: "Climbed Everest. Blind," it says. "Vision. Pass It On." Wow, I thought.
They're not all serious. One whimsical billboard depicts Kermit the Frog, and that caption says: "Eats flies. Dates a pig. Hollywood star. Live your dreams: Pass it On."
Living where I do, I have to say that one of my favorites features a photo of a charged-up Mia Hamm at the height of her career with the U.S. Women's World Cup team, wide-eyed, encouraging her teammates. The caption says: "Kicked her way to the top. Passion. Pass it on."
In all, there are 34 such billboards. I mention them today because early last week, as I was thinking about courage as our virtue for today, I went looking to see if they had a billboard that spoke to such a virtue. Actually, they have two. One shows an aging Muhammad Ali, now ravaged with the effects of Parkinson's disease. The caption says, "His biggest fight yet isn't in the ring. Courage. Pass it on."
The other speaks to the kind of bravery that comes first to mind when I think of courage. It shows a New York City firefighter, covered with dust after the morning of 9/11. That caption says, "When others ran out, he rushed in. Courage. Pass it on."
This week, as we celebrate our nation's 236th birthday, it seemed to me a good time to reflect on the virtue of courage, because it has taken many different kinds of courage to get to this point in our national life; and my guess is that the next twenty years or so will demand even more of the same. Courage to stand up in the face of injustice. Courage to put our own moral convictions on the line. Courage to take great personal risks in the service of the national defense or the common good. Courage to overcome our fears for the sake of family or friends or community or nation.
The poet Maya Angelou argues that courage may be the most important virtue of all, because, she says, "Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest."
Of course, I suppose not every form of courage is virtuous. I read the story this week of a woman and her husband who interrupted their vacation for an emergency visit to a dentist. "I want a tooth pulled, and I don't want Novocain because I'm in a big hurry," the woman said. "Just extract the tooth as quickly as possible, and we'll be on our way."
The dentist was impressed. "You're certainly a courageous woman," he said. "Which tooth is it?" The woman turned to her husband and said, "Show him your tooth, dear."
So, maybe not all courage involves personal cost. But more often than not, it does. And it starts...courage starts... says one researcher, with our willingness to be vulnerable. In a TED Talk two summers ago, University of Houston research professor Brené Brown noted that the word "courage" comes from the Latin word, cor, which means "heart" and its original meaning was to "tell the story of who you are with your whole heart." It means to know oneself, in all of one's complexity, and to let that self come forth. That's not necessarily the same thing as "bravery," at least as we usually conceive of bravery. It is more related to the kind of "honesty" we talked of here last week.
How will we tell the story of who we are with our whole hearts? Knowing our own hearts, how will be then act in the face of human need, in the face of great danger, in the face of prejudice, in the face of irrational anger or turmoil? What do our hearts tell us to do in such moments? There come in the lives of all of us defining moments, turning points, when by choice or by circumstance we relinquish the securities we have known and upon which we have depended and strike out in a new direction, vulnerable to that new world into which we enter because we are on a mission of the heart: a move to a new location... leaving home for the first time... beginning a new job... bringing home one's first-born...responding in a moment of crisis. Such moments almost always present themselves as occasions of great joy or great fear, and probably, if we are honest, an admixture of both.
In his farewell discourse to the elders of the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul spoke of facing a decisive and defining moment in his ministry. He was ready, he said, as "a captive of the Spirit," to head for Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen to him there, except that the testimony of the Spirit had been for him that it might involve imprisonment and persecution. Still, said Paul, he would press on in the ministry that he had received, "to testify to the good news of God's grace." (Acts 20:22-24) It wasn't necessarily his choice to face such tumult in his life, but Paul understood it as his calling... and in keeping with his whole-hearted desire to serve God. He understood in such frightful prospects the ultimate purpose for which he had been born. And in that purpose he discovered his courage.
I've told you before of John F. Kennedy's response to being cited for heroism during World War II. In August of 1943 in the Solomon Islands, an enemy destroyer rammed his ship. Kennedy and some of his men reached a nearby island, but found it was held by the enemy. So he and another officer swam some distance to another island, where they persuaded the inhabitants to send a message to the American forces, who rescued them. When asked later to define the source of his courage and to comment on his heroism, Kennedy smiled and said simply, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat." Involuntary, perhaps, but rooted in a deep sense of purpose.
It wasn't voluntary for the apostle Paul either, his calling to preach and to share the good news. He was summoned to it. And his courage in responding to that calling was not something he conjured up on his own. It was something he discovered in being true to his vocation and in his conviction that he was accompanied in such vocation by the presence of Christ.
The novelist Marilynn Robinson writes, "Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing."
Courage is not always found in death-defying deeds. It often shows up more subtly. Courage is what enables us to get up in the morning some days, and to lie down at night on others. It is the act of responding to what is foundational to who and whose we are. The twentieth-century American poet Anne Sexton caught something of courage's range in a poem entitled simply, "Courage."
It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
Courage. It takes many forms. At the North Carolina Museum's special exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings last year my eyes fixed on a particular painting, one that depicted a young black schoolgirl in a white dress, flanked by four faceless U.S. marshals, making her way into an elementary school, a racial epithet scrawled on the wall behind her. The school depicted in that painting was the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The year was 1960. And the child was six-year-old Ruby Bridges. It was the year that school integration came to New Orleans, and it wasn't pretty. The crowds outside the school hurled tomatoes and racial slurs at Ruby Bridges; once she was inside, all the white parents came and withdrew their children from school. Every day for that school year, Ruby Bridges faced the shouts and the slurs as she made her way into the school.
One day her teacher looked out the window and thought she saw Ruby talking with the crowd. But Ruby said later that she wasn't talking to the crowd; she was praying. Her mother had always said to her, "Ruby, if I'm not with you and you're afraid, then always say your prayers." So, in the midst of an angry mob, Ruby prayed. She prayed for the people in the crowd. She prayed for those who were hurling abuse at her. It is a remarkable story of courage and faith in the life of a six-year-old child, a child who, even at that tender age, began to understand a purpose in life that was larger than herself. Courage. Whence does it come? It is rooted in our hearts, in a deep sense of purpose, which is like a small coal one keeps swallowing, even amid persistent fears. It comes from the accompaniment of Christ, who shines light on our path and on our purpose. It comes from the confidence that God has given us all we need to carry out our vocation, our purpose, and that the future, whatever it holds, is in God's hands. It comes from wakefulness to the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses singing the background music of our lives, reminding us of who and Whose we are.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
Of whom shall I be afraid?
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Ps. 27:1, 14)
In life and in death we belong to God, the One who has been our help in ages past, and will be our hope for years to come. We were born to serve that One, born to such a purpose. Courage. Pass it on.
 This sermon draws some of its content from another sermon on courage that I preached during Lent, 2011.
 You can see the whole array at http://www.values.com/inspirational-sayings-billboards/.
 Clifton Fadimon, ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1986, 326-27.
 Marilynne, Robinson, Gilead, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2004, 246.
 As cited in Good Poems, Garrison Keillor, ed., New York, Penguin Books, 2003, 213-214.
 Robert Coles tells the story in several writings, including a children's book, The Story of Ruby Bridges. I revisited the story in an NPR interview with Ruby Bridges Hall, broadcast February 18, 1997. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/jan-june97/bridges_2-18.html, accessed March 17, 2011. The Rockwell painting is "The Problem We All Live With;" it can be found online.
 Carla Pratt Keyes, in a sermon preached February 20, 2011 at the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia.