Our readings today focus on faith, as have our readings and meditations for the past several weeks; the faith of Abraham, of Jesus, of Paul and the long chain of witnesses from then until now that brings us together on a Sunday morning instead of doing any number of other things. These meditations on faith will continue for about another month until the end of Pentecost on November 20, the Feast of Christ the King. November 27th marks the beginning of Advent, so our thoughts will turn then to the impending celebration of the birth of the Messiah and our readings will come from the most wonderful and mysterious prophecies of Isaiah.
Our focus today is on the faith of Abraham, the belief of Abraham, the hope of Abraham; however you want to put it, and on our common faith, or set of beliefs, today. Any number of English words may translate the Hebrew of the Book of Genesis. These words can cover much the same territory, that aspect of the human psyche that keeps us going, that lifts our spirits, that gives us something in common, a past, a future, a present.
 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him,  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
 And Abraham believed the LORD; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Abraham believed the Lord, Abraham had faith in the Lord’s promise; Abraham hoped that the Lord’s promise would come true. However you want to put it, this act set our whole civilization into motion.
Abraham believed God’s promise, took God at his word, you might say, and the rest is history: the amazing history of Judaism and Christianity and of course Islam;
The history of three religions;
The history of many peoples;
And the history in particular of the American people, namely us.
As we prepare for a general election, what do we believe, what holds us together as a people? That is my question for today. What is our common faith, what are our common beliefs? What beliefs, what faith, what hope holds 350 million Americans together?
To answer this question – only in part of course, let us think back to a bitter cold morning in Washington, DC, January 20, 1961. It was a great day for New England, for two New Englanders got the most important speaking parts, the new president, John F. Kennedy of course, the youngest President-elect in history; and also the aging poet Robert Frost, who was called upon to compose a new poem for the occasion and read it aloud. More on Robert Frost next week.
Let us turn to just the first two paragraphs of that great inaugural address and see if we can find there a clue about our common faith, our common faith as Americans and our commons faith as sons and daughters of Abraham:
“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom,” — President Kennedy began – “symbolizing an end as well as a beginning — signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.”
“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.” Freedom is what we fight for, fight over and fight about and what we celebrate in free elections and the peaceful transfer of power. Thus the inauguration of a president after a free and fair election is a celebration of freedom.
An inauguration of a president is also a celebration of human rights, for, as President Kennedy went on to say: “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”
What are the revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears fought?
The President answered his own question:
Our ancestors fought for “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
That is our revolutionary belief: that rights and all good things, for that matter, come from the hand of God. The promise to Abraham came from the hand of God. Our revolutionary ancestors in the American revolution and the Reformation all believed that all things worthwhile come from God. This God-dependence is very important. The purpose of our government is to protect God-given rights, which come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
We rebelled against a King, George III, because we considered him tyrannical. Upon setting up our own government, the founders well understood that tyranny could come as well from a mob as it could come from a King. Just a few short years later the French Revolution showed how horribly a mob in charge of a government and an army could act.
Thus a revolution in France for the rights of man ended up trampling on them in worse fashion than their King ever did.
After the series of meetings that produced our constitution, so the story goes, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what the great legislators had come up with.
“A republic,” he replied, “if we can keep it.”
Keeping a republic requires an Abrahamic act of faith, of hope, of belief, of charity; in God and in one another
Keeping a republic requires compromise
A willingness to live and let live
And a willingness to recognize the limits our wisdom.
Keeping a republic, or indeed any self-governing organization, requires belief in nothing less than the Spirit of Liberty.
74 years ago, during that World War II, Judge Learned Hand, one of the greatest American jurists ever, even though he never sat on the Supreme Court, gave a speech that is often referred to as his Spirit of Liberty Speech, in which he said:
“What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith.
The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women;
the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias;
the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded;
the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
This spirit, of course, as the Bible tells us, was with God in the beginning, was with Abraham when God took him out under the desert stars and promised him that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars above;
this spirit was with Moses when God gave him the law;
this spirit was with the prophets who foretold the coming of the wonderful counselor, the prince of peace;
this spirit, of liberty, of belief in human rights, was with the people who founded our country.
May this spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit which seeks accommodation and compromise
be with us in these last two weeks before the election and continue to be with us in all the months ahead.