The Better Angels of our Nature

Click here to hear the full service
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 40-45

What are the better angels of our nature? One is conscience, and another is compassion. ‘Conceived in liberty’—that is conscience. ‘Dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal’—that is compassion. Are you ready to brush these two angel wings? They have been brought to us with a price.

This week, suddenly, we realize again how much we owe to those who won our freedom, both temporal and spiritual, both civic and religious. Discussion of liberty and equality arises, February 2012! Yet so much of it proceeds with almost no sense of memory, and thereby little to no depth. Perhaps just for a moment this morning we might reflect on freedom. Our Gospel declares, ‘He went out and began to talk freely’. We are people who talk freely about freedom, temporal and spiritual. Maybe today, February 12, we might remember some of the great words about conscience and compassion, liberty and equality, which we inherit. For in fact our discourse about freedom has long involved the interplay of temporal conscience and spiritual compassion, of civic liberty and religious freedom. We are heirs both of temporal and of spiritual freedom. Abraham Lincoln from his western window perch in this nave can help to remind us.

A. Temporal Freedom Means…

Freedom from the Tyranny of Kings

We think of Washington’s army, shivering along the Hudson River, in the first cold winter of Independence, 1776. Thomas Paine:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”

Freedom from the Bondage of Slavery

So, Lincoln. We think first of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, hopeful as he began his presidency. We think second of Lincoln in 1865, exhausted and soon to die, riddled with worry, conflict, risk, chance, decision and death for four years. Out of affliction came a great hope. Abraham Lincoln, his hopeful first inaugural and his chastened second:

First, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Second, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work that we are in…to do all that may achieve a just and a lasting peace for us and for all the nations.”

Freedom from the Threat of Dictatorship

We think of Franklin Roosevelt, bound to his wheelchair, yet out of that bondage finding the rhetoric and courage to lead his people from fear to faith. Nothing to fear but fear itself. A day that will live in infamy. A world founded on four freedoms. Arsenal of democracy…FDR:

In 1941: “We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees…

In 1945: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away. We have learned that we must live as men, and not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community”

Freedom from the Despotism of Ideology

We think of John Kennedy, wearing the anxiety of the cold war, and meeting that cold with warm words, warmly worded. A profile in courage. JFK, 1961:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world…Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Freedom from tyranny, slavery, dictatorship, ideology: for temporal freedom we are thankful.

B. Spiritual Freedom Means…

But I must ask you: if the value of our temporal freedom is now so clearly and even starkly visible, how much more, then, is the higher value of our spiritual freedom even more clearly and more starkly visible? If the ringing rhetoric of our national heritage can so move us, today, how much more are we transformed by the freedom we have received in Jesus Christ? For it is this freedom, wrought by Almighty God, upon which we depend for our salvation, for eternal life, for forgiveness, for heaven, and for heavenly peace on earth. This is God’s own work, enacted in the life, death and destiny of Christ, whom we both follow and adore. As God’s act for us, for us men and women, and for our salvation, a divine and new RE birth of freedom it is not susceptible, finally, to assault of any kind. It is the delight and desire of God to cleanse.

So today: here is the Healing of a Leper. Jesus, moved with pity, stretched, touched, said: I will.  Be clean.  One writes, “Our passage then foreshadows both Jesus’ eschatological freedom… (Marcus, loc cit, 211)

Freedom from the Tyranny of Religion

We think of Paul of Tarsus, a.d. 50,who was seized by this same freedom, and who could fly free from the fetters of his inherited religion. Religion, untamed, can do so much harm. The life, death and destiny of Jesus set Paul free, to love and to serve. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.”

Freedom from the Bondage of the Flesh

We think of Augustine of Hippo, a.d. 400, who wrestled, grappled with the desires of the flesh for much of his life. A man of great learning, he nonetheless found himself unable to put away temptations that he was powerless to resist. Then, once in a garden, he heard a voice, like of a child, saying, “take and read”. He picked up a copy of the letters of Paul that he had been reading, and he saw these words: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” From that moment he found peace of mind.

Freedom from the Threat of Judgment

We think of John Wesley, who though he had as much or more formal religion than any of his contemporaries, was made to wait until middle age before he exchanged the form of religion for its power. Wesley on Aldersgate Street: “About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”(5/24/1738) Take this sacrament to your comfort, as an altar call to freedom from the threat of judgment.

Freedom from the Despotism of Defeat

We think of one pastor, a.d. 1939, bringing a proposal for a new church to his doubtful Board of Trustees, and doing so amid depression and war. He dedicated his idea to the glory of God and the service of women and men. On the front page, as I have learned thanks to a friend’s research, he placed this quotation, an inscription he had found on a country church in England: “In the year 1643, when all things sacred were either demolished or profaned, this Church was built by one whose singular praise is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.” If you preach in a post modern, post Judea Christian era, take heart here. If you preach in a minimally religious region, take heart here. If you preach where faithfulness somehow has become disconnected from Sunday worship, take heart here. If you preach where the shallow in worship has overcome the high and true and deep, take heart here: your singular praise is to have done the best of things in the worst of times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.

Freedom from the Fear of the Future

We think of Ernest Freemont Tittle, Evanston Illinois, a.d. 1960, the month of his own death, who more than most in his generation fifty years ago, saw the contours of the future. Tittle: We of this generation are confronted with the revelation of divine purpose given in a human interrelatedness and interdependence that justifies the term “one world”. We find ourselves in a situation where no one nation can prosper unless all prosper, no one people can dwell secure unless security is assured to all. This situation was brought about through human agents, through the activities of scientists, inventors, traders, imperialists; but it is not a result of human planning. Not even the most ardent imperialist will claim that empire was devised as a means of drawing the world together, nor will anyone claim that science or invention or international trade was carried on with a view to bringing about the interdependence of nations and peoples. The situation in which we now find ourselves, so far from being a result that we human creatures purposed and planned, has to a large extent been brought about despite our purposes, which for the most part were selfish and shortsighted enough. It has come to pass through the providence of God, who, through science and technology, through improved means of transportation and communication, through the extension of trade and credit, has brought it to pass that we have got to act with due consideration for the rest of mankind if we ourselves are to prosper and dwell secure. Something beyond us, a superhuman purpose and power, is working in history, bringing about the increasing interdependence of men and nations, so that our sheer survival becomes ever more contingent upon the establishment of justice and fair play in all our relations to one another.”

Freedom from religion, flesh, judgment, defeat, fear: for spiritual freedom we are deeply thankful.

Lincoln strangely knew them both.

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. In his honor we close with a recitation of his most famous statement, the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply