Galatians 5: 1
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
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
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 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 slave owners 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
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 prophesied, 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
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
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
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 maneuvered 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”
is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street?
is the Branch Rickey of the local church?
is the Branch Rickey of the public school?
is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood?
is the Branch Rickey of the urban/suburban split in Monroe County?
is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done?
is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound?
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.