Humbled and honored we are to stand among you today, in this happy and historic space. Another chapter of life and ministry is opening. We do not yet know each other, neither sanctuary congregation and preacher, nor radio congregation and preacher, so we will need to go on a bit of trust—trust in God, in the Gospel, in the Spirit, in the community and in ourselves.
We have traveled to you from Rochester, NY, from the arms of a wonderfully loving congregation in the Finger Lakes. A land of opportunity and enterprise. Opportunity: F Douglass, EC Stanton, SB Anthony, H Tubman. Enterprise: the Erie Canal, Carrier air conditioning, the Xerox Copy, the Kodak moment, and, not to be forgotten, the invention of--Jello. Hello, New England, hello!
This is also the region that invested earlier in Boston, providing the enrichment of George Eastman, the education of Howard Thurman, and the emancipation of Harriet Tubman, all of which bore fruit in this city on the Bay.
One said of his minister’s sermons, “sometimes I arise inspired, and sometimes I awake refreshed.” Both are good, which brings us into today’s text…
Sleeping Not Dead
The dear girl was sleeping, not dead. She is not dead, but doth she sleep…the wrong shall fail, the right prevail…
Looking back forty years to Jesus’ ministry, our writer has in stylized memory recalled a healing moment. All the Gospels, including are 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 70.
So Mark will teach the meaning of a Hebrew phrase to his many Greeks. Talitha cumi. He will recall or imagine the child’s age, 12. He will repeat the standard command to secrecy which gives his gospel its strange allure. He will mention Jesus’ advice to eat. (Matthew and Luke, reading Mark 20 years later, are as puzzled as we are to interpret these features, and readily remove some of them.) In all, what looked like death turns out to be a need to wake up from slumber.
This is the meaning of the 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 is merely napping. A word fitly spoken, and a life rightly lived may cause us both to arise inspired, and to awake refreshed! For example, this holiday weekend, we may want to remember…
Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be 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. 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. Do they awaken us to a sense of compunction?
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.
A remarkable warning. Do these words awaken us to a sense of contrition?
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. 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.”
Remarkable, truly remarkable words. Do they awaken us to a sense of conviction?
Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are three of the 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 human drama. They spoke in a way that awakened the hearer.
They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prohesied, 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 Dr Neville well said, from this pulpit last Sunday: 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 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.
And some of the best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said 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 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.”
Next year we shall pass the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball. 60 years ago, the armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. So, America in 1947, when a tee-totaling, Bible quoting, Republican, Methodist from Ohio, Mr. Branch Rickey, brought racial integration to major league baseball. Who remembers today this lone ranger type who spent most 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, looking out on Commonwealth Avenue. 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. How do I know? I have been watching the Red Sox over the last week! Quite a colorful team. Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold. There is a 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. 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”.
Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street? Where is the Branch Rickey to waken the local church? 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 in grace and freedom?
Maybe she is here today.
Maybe you are she.
Things can change for the better, when sleepers awake.
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 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…