July 4

A Sermon on the Mound

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6: 1-13

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So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. Mk 6: 12


Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead and gone 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.  Not too very far from the nave of Marsh Chapel. 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 Appomattox–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, for once a chastened congress. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

“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 of the inaugural.

A remarkable warning, a Presidential warning, a sermonic warning.


Now we witness another gathering, and we hear another sermon. A hundred more years have passed.  It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capital. Thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural.  By some measure they have gathered too within the reverberated cautions given by Winthrop out in our Boston Bay. 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 slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

Remarkable, truly remarkable words.

Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are three of the greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history. Do we notice that not one of them was delivered in a church? Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel.  They all apply the Gospel of Christ, and its ringing command in Mark 6, to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Winthrop. Lincoln. King. They believed in God’s presence. They trusted, through times of what can only be called terror, in God’s favor. And mostly, they thought  and felt and thoughtfelt and feltthought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine human drama. They spoke in harmony with Jesus’ challenge:  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They spoke in a way that awakened the hearer.

All three knew tragedy, as we have again this year with 600,000 souls gone to glory, as we have again this winter with mendacity and violence used to usurp electoral outcomes, as we have again this week, with another tower like that of the biblical Siloam coming down in Miami Beach, for whose victims and families we truly do grieve.  They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prophesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King addressed is to some degree our national tragedy still. Though there has been progress, we still judge, far too much, by the color of skin and not by the content of character. As my predecessor Dr Robert Cummings Neville well said, from this pulpit one Sunday years ago:  Probably the deepest issue in our society is racism, a poisonous stain that mixes evil into the very best of our inventive history of democracy and our love of freedom.

A Sermon on the Mound

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 which can 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. So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

And some of the best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said Benjamin Franklin, teaching the two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.

Here is one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching. For what Walt 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.” The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.

Looking back forty years to Jesus’ ministry, our writer has in stylized memory recalled a powerful teaching moment. All the Gospels, including our text, were formed, formed in the white heat of early church life, when the hand of death threatened a frightened church, perhaps in Rome, perhaps in the year 70ce.

This is the meaning of a sermon, to wake us up from a death-like sleep, to take us out of the arms of Morpheus. With Mark’s frightened early church, we may again hear good news. Sometimes what seems like death—think of the Gospel last Sunday–is merely napping. For example, this holiday weekend, we may want to remember…

Branch Rickey

Next year we shall pass the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball.  Decades ago, the armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. So, America in 1947, when a tee-totaling, Bible quoting, Republican, Methodist layman from Ohio, Mr. Branch Rickey, brought racial integration to major league baseball. Who remembers today this lone ranger type who spent much of a lifetime working for one transformation? Rickey was taught the Gospel in a church where there was to be no separation between a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. He was formed at a small Methodist school, Ohio Wesleyan, one of whose Presidents, Bishop James Bashford, peers down on us today from the beautiful stained glass of Marsh Chapel.  Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”. For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he maneuvered and strategized and planned—on the basis of an early trauma he witnessed coaching his college baseball team–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. It is well worth the three-hour drive. There is a sermon on the mound, not just on the mount but 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. Things can change for the better. IT CAN BE DONE. But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”. “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”.

Where is the Branch Rickey of American political culture?  Where is the Branch Rickey of honesty about January 6, of preparation for the next pandemic, of the continuing struggle with racism, of the challenge of climate? Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street? Where is the Branch Rickey to waken the church, including his own beloved Methodism and mine? Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban public schools? Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood? 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? And where are the actual preachers of the next generation who will remember and hope, as he did, in grace and freedom?

Maybe one is listening today. Maybe you are she. Things can change for the better, when sleepers awake.

Twenty years ago I heard William ‘Bobby’ McClain, of blessed memory, a dear friend, a preacher of the first water, from this school and this city, an African American pastor, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening by radio to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  He said, “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 when 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 more sermons on the mound… And a few more sermons on the mound…

So, dear friends, travel then with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to prepare for the challenges, the harvests of the future, able to imagine and preach and live a kind of sermon on the mound.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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