This is adapted from a sermon preached on Sunday of Independence Day Weekend at the hospital chapel.
On July 9, 2016, 24 year-old Brian Bergkamp and four friends made the most of a beautiful summer day by kayaking on the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kansas. Brian attended my alma mater, Conception Seminary College, and there prepared to enter into ministry. I didn’t know him, as I graduated a few years before he began his studies, but Conception is a very small school, tucked away in the remote rolling hills of Northwest Missouri, and a place with a sort of distinctive and timeless character, so all of us who have called it home at some time or other over the years share a certain bond. Conception’s motto is “the love of Christ compels us,” and, every so often, one of our number stands out as having lived into that motto. When that happens, we all share in a certain grateful pride. I can claim nothing more heroic than being a typical student, managing to pry myself out of bed and make it to class, most of the time. Or, some of the time, anyway. But every so often, one of our number really does prove the power of a life compelled by self-giving love.
Young Brian was such a person. Brian Bergkamp demonstrated the very best of the spirit of our college, the very best of the spirit of this nation, which we celebrate this weekend, and the very best of the human spirit. While enjoying the camaraderie of his friends and the freedom of spirit one experiences in the great outdoors, disaster struck. The kayaks hit an unexpected patch of especially rough and rapid water, and one of Brian’s friends, a 26 year old woman, fell in without a life jacket. There she struggled against the current, vainly trying to keep her head above water. Rather than paddle himself to safety, Brian remained in the rapids, reaching out to offer his friend her life jacket. By risking his own safety, Brian saved her life. In the process, his kayak overturned, and the 24 year old was washed away and drowned. His remains would be found several days later.
Memorial to Bergkamp by the 21st Street Dam on the Arkansas River
The love that compelled Brian Bergkamp to lay down his life for his friend, that love which is the most beautiful, most powerful, and greatest capacity of the human spirit, that love which tells us that only be giving ourselves away do we become who we truly are–this love is made possible by that same insight that lays at the foundation of our country.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The enlightened words of our Declaration of Independence, penned 241 years ago, recognize that a society in which people can live freely and happily is only possible when the equal dignity of all persons is recognized and protected. The free and happy life is the life of one who is able to look into the face of another and see, for all the differences that may separate them, someone just like himself or herself, someone of equal value. Only then is the real, self-giving love, a love that would lay down its life for its friends, that love which is the pinnacle of what it means to be human, possible.
We know all too well that between the ideal laid out in the Declaration and the reality of life, there is a wide chasm, with waters as rapid as the Arkansas River. We know that the man who wrote those beautiful words also held fellow men and women in bondage as slaves, that the nation built on the foundation of those words would enshrine slavery into its Constitution. We know that “all men are created equal” would take years to be read as including women. We know that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the native peoples of this land would be treated as far from unalienable. We know, too, that for all the progress we’ve made living into these ideals, there is still much work to do, still people kept on the margins, viewed as outsiders, unloved, unwanted.
But we press on, with gratitude for the ideals handed us by our founding fathers. We press on confident that the human spirit is stronger than its weakest link, that fear, hatred, and bigotry are no match for the power of love. May this Republic, rooted in the greatest ideals of the human spirit, stand for ages to come, as a place where that love can thrive ever more fully.