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.
What do you recall of November 22, 1963, almost exactly 50 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. Our childhood introduction to violence. To gun violence. (It is striking that our current national conversation about gun violence makes so little reference to this formative, symbolic moment, involving a single shooter and a single rifle). 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.
Preliminarily, Jesus first 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. Jesus calmly reminds us that life includes reckoning. Here he says nothing by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations. He tells us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives. Preliminarily, Jesus second connects 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 ecstacy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us. But service, for which the nourishment is meant. We have in our denomination a January Sunday known as Human Relations Sunday. But I always wonder, what Sunday is not one such?
So, the deutero-pauline admonishment, 2 Thess., to avoid false apocalyptic (that the resurrection has already occurred) and so to honor work, and of the dignity of work. So, the Isaian hope of sword become plowshares, the iron of violence become the iron of piece. So, the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. So the Lukan small apocalypse, with its clear as a bell warning to live each day preparing for judgment, to live each day as if it were your last. So the Lukan condemnation of religion (ie the temple) ‘a place where abuse is masked by piety’ (S Ringe). Here are signs of finality and judgment: natural disaster, false speech, warfare, political chaos. They are in standard apocalyptic form, a recital of history (what the church has endured in the second half of the first century) placed in predictive, forecasted form (what the scholars call vaticinuum ex eventu). We are not promised the gifts of success or even safety, but only of endurance in faith: ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’.
That is, all times are end times, and every day is the last. One who loses a parent or sibling knows this. One who receives calamitous unexpected news knows this. One who sees a beloved institution ruined by feckless, mendacious, predatory, malfeasant leadership knows this
We also today are hours from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, itself a poem shot through with awareness of all manner of endings. A kind of homecoming, a release from violence, is what Abraham Lincoln proposed in his short masterpiece, 150 years ago, in Gettysburg.
What do you recall about November 19, 1863, nearly 150 years ago today. Words matter more than deeds. The saving task is to remember the right ones, like these, 272 words, 10 lines, 2 minutes:
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.
Fifty years later I know that many of you can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew home, “came home to roost”. The violence in which America was born now haunts the land of the free and the home of the brave. Violence. Pioneer violence against native peoples. Plantation owner violence against owned slaves. Armed violence in the struggle over the Union. The violence of class on class and capital on labor. The lesson of the Kennedy assassination was and is that the violence in which America was born lives on, and will turn its wrath on future generations. His violent death was a moment of apocalyptic judgment upon a nation with a family history of violence. Every one of the possible perpetrators of the act itself represent systemic violence. The violence of Cuban American conflict. The violence of the cold war. The violence of the world and underworld. Our culture is awash in violent rhetoric, violent attitude, violent action. 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, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not (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.
Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:
Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.
Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears the same.
God is greater than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.
When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.
God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.
Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.
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 the 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 cross of Jesus Christ. It is the cross, alone, that carries the power for such 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 a new frontier we naturally have fear.
Once a day for most of three years, and once a month for another eight, I crossed the border into Canada. The border questions are those before us in every hour, are they not? What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you headed?Do you have anything to declare. Eyes and ears await your response in ever room entered, every email received, every meeting attended. Who are you? What is your story? Do you have anything to say?
One very cold winter day, in the middle of a clean snowfall, I skidded down north toward Huntingdon Quebec. It was about 5am, and it was as dark as the dark side of the moon. I drove slowly to stay on the road. I was anxious. Then ahead at an intersection I saw a great truck paused and blinking. In the snow I pulled alongside the cab and looked up at the driver. He looked fearful. He squinted and asked “Ou est le frontiere?” (Where is the border). I summoned what little French I could, put on my bravest accent and began to reply. But before I had cobbled together two sentences he, listening to my inflection, burst in: “oh, good lord, you’re an American, I can tell, you speak English!” Sometimes we have fears at the border of the known and unknown that vanish at the crossing, and entering the new frontier means coming home.
Jesus empowers us in the way beyond violence. Elsewhere in Scripture he gives us five very practical commands.
Here are five forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, for those crossing into a new frontier, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest, most vulnerable, members of the church and the human family.
- 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 gospeljudgment words. A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.
One summer we visited Hyannisport, 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”. At his best, Kennedy appealed 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 tribulatiion”.
Much of what Kennedy planned has been achieved. Communism is dead. Nuclear weaponry is largely under control. Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good. Basic civil rights have largely been achieved. Latin America is open to us. A man has landed on the moon.
But violence, ah violence, violence remains. Gun violence, ah gun violence, gun violence remains. The scourge of our generation.
So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace. Let us sing the song of peace, with Isaiah and David and 2 Paul and Jesus. Let us sing the hymn of peace, with Lincoln and Whitman and Heschel and Kennedy. 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. A new frontier of peace…
It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave. It is wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave. The world shall be His footstool and the soul of wrong His slave. Our God is marching on…
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel