Lections and John 14:27
Asbury First United Methodist Church
1. 63 Lincoln
In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia. Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile? Its tiny little black wooden self greets you. Do you remember the Edsel? Here is one. Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time? Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel. Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66? You will want one after this tour. Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers? The museum has one in baby blue. What is it about that 57 Chevy? One two-tone, green and cream, greets you.
I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved. Until the end. At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say. One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson. FDR had a great black one. And Eisenhower, too. I think they were all Lincolns. Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version. Now topped, not convertible. Now bulletproof, not open. Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll. But right there, right blessed there.
A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.
Where were you in November, 1963, 44 years ago?
These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance. Something in them. Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray. Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come. Something in the constant twilight. Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.
The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president. Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years. Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001. They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November. One remembers: the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief. An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:
O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won
Exult O shores and ring O bells
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies
Fallen cold and dead.
Forty years later many can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew home, “came home to roost.” While the memory which Luke preserves, on this Sunday of Christ the King, remains substantially different in many ways from our own similar memories of loss, nonetheless there is shared in them all a recognition of the numbing pain of violence. If nothing else, in this passage and texts similar, we are challenged to become practiced at viewing violence from the ground, not from 30,000 feet. We want to become as human as we can be.
Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:
“This is an age of suspicion, when most of us seem to live by the rule: Suspect thy neighbor as thyself. Such radical suspicion leads to despair of (our) capacity to be free and to eventual surrender to demonic forces, surrender to idols of power, to the monsters of self-righteous ideologies…
What will save us is a revival of reverence for (the human being), immitigable indignation at acts of violence, burning compassion for all who are deprived, the wisdom of the heart. Before imputing guilt to others, let us examine our own failures. Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace. God has a stake in the life of every (person). (God) never exposes humanity to a challenge without giving humanity the power to face the challenge. Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all prayers meet…
God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions. The word of God never comes to an end. No word is God’s last word. (The human being’s) most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is (the human being).”
Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us. Where sin abounds, grace overabounds. Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are since 9/11, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are since 9/11, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not since 9/11 (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier. This is the new frontier of peace.
This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church. We have been stung by violence too. We can respond with further violence. Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer th
e daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace. Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the memory of the cross of Jesus Christ. It is the cross that alone in our tradition carries the symbolic power for such a laborious, long march of mercy. In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear. And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace. When we come toward any new frontier we naturally have fear.
4. The New Frontier of Peace
The gospel empowers us in the way beyond violence. The New Testament, culminating in the word of the cross as read in Luke 23, and interpreted as a word of peace in John 14, gives us two broad perspectives and five particular directions.
The Scripture reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning. This is not news. Life itself spells this out for us. Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time. Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment. These passages remind us that life includes reckoning. They say little by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations. They tell us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives. These and other passages also remind us to connect judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience. In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all. It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged. Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstasy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us. But service, for which the religious nourishment is meant to give sustenance.
Time and again we are given forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest members of the church and the human family. Here is one frequently repeated collection (cf Matthew 25, inter alia).
Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned. Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance. Go and sit with them and listen.
Find a way to heal sickness. Health is too important to leave to physicians only. You go and heal. Assess what habits have brought you health and share them. Salvation is health.
Find a way to cover the naked. Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism. Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.
Find a way to befriend strangers. Strangers need welcome, friendship. Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know. Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.
Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs. How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!
These are the things that make for peace. These are the signposts on the long road home from violence. These are the gospel judgment words. A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.
7. Set Sail!
One summer we visited Hyannis port, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial. It is a moving experience. The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats. The monument is handsome. Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation: “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”. Here is remembered an appeal to our honor not to our security: “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”. It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace: “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”.
In retrospect, much of what others planned forty years ago has been achieved. A trip to the Kennedy Center here in Boston, which inspired some of this autumn’ preaching, will offer reminders. Communism is dead. Nuclear weaponry is largely under control. Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good. Basic civil rights have been achieved. Latin America is open to us. A man has landed on the moon.
But violence, ah violence, violence remains.
So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.