Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead before spring. One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic. One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea. The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day: “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception.
It is a cold day in early March, 1865. Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”. 600,000 men will have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomatox, approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World. This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and we may assume chastened congress. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address: “The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.
“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 bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs. Lincoln himself will die within weeks.
Now we witness another gathering, and we hear another sermon. A hundred more years have past. It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capitol. Hundreds of thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural. They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work. A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”
Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are the three greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history. Do you notice that not one of them was delivered in a church? Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Winthrop. Lincoln. King. They believed in God’s providence. They trusted, through terror, in God’s favor. They thought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine drama.
They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prohesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King attacked is our national tragedy still. We still judge, by the color of skin and not by the content of character.
But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children. God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds. It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this alone, which will bring peace. The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach. Preaching is everything, the whole nine yards. Let others be anxious and fretful over much service: you are a Christian—sit at Christ’s feet and lisp his Gospel to others. For when the Gospel is rightly preached and rightly heard, heaven invades earth.
The best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said Franklin, teaching the only two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”. We are not so much resident aliens as dual citizens.
There is a godly love of country, a measured patriotism, a tempered sense of national identity, that can save. Today we have almost none of it left. Those on the right have been dangerously infected by authoritarian neo-fascistic ideas and emotions that have no place before the cross. Those on the left have mistakenly assumed that one could somehow exempt oneself from the national identity, have no national poetry, no healthy patriotism, no common faith with which to bow before the cross.
We have no choice about common identity, national character, love of country. Listen to Winthrop and Lincoln and King. What we have some limited influence over is the nature, the type, the relative health of such. Notice the Beatitudes, how the blessing fall on groups. Blessed are those…
I believe there is at least one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching. What Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.” Here is what a godly love of country can do.
This year, without much fanfare, we passed the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball. The armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. That was America in 1947 when a tee-totaling Bible quoting Republican from Ohio integrated major league baseball. Who remembers today the lone ranger type—so decried in church circles today—who spent most of a lifetime working for one transformation. Rickey was taught the Gospel in the Methodist church of that time where there was to be no separation, like that we have today, between a deep personal faith (conservative) and an active social involvement (liberal). Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”. For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he manuevered and strategized and planned and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime. IT CAN BE DONE. Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold. There is sermon on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation. IT CAN BE DONE. But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”
Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street?
Where is the Branch Rickey of the local church?
Where is the Branch Rickey of the public school?
Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood?
Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban\suburban
split in Monroe County?
Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done?
Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound?
Maybe she is here today. Maybe you are she.
I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn. “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him. When he struck out we did too. When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered. When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants. When he stole a base, he stole for us. When he hit a home run, we were the victors. And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south. He gave us hope. He gave us hope.”
Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better. They can. This country can work. We just need a few more Branch Rickeys and a few sermons on the mound.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel