by Rev. Jim Craven
In the name of our God-Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
In over 35 years as an ordained person, I don’t recall ever having so much difficulty preparing a sermon, and I doubt I am alone. I pray regularly for folks here at St. Luke’s, for folks in prison, for family, friends and neighbors, for the Navy, for many no longer with us, for all creatures, great and small. But it is only in recent days that I have been consciously aware of praying for my country. Maybe I did on 9/11. I don’t remember, I imagine I did. It has certainly occurred to me recently that those brave souls who crashed United 93 in a rural Pennsylvania field died to save the Capitol that was stormed by insurrectionists two weeks ago. I was worried and scared then, as I am sure you were. I am worried and scared now, but I also know the truth of what General James A. Garfield, later a martyred president himself, said as he calmed the rioting New York mob at the death of Lincoln, “God reigns and the government at Washington still lives.”
The inauguration of a President every four years has always been a special day to me, and I have long thought it should be a national holiday. Sixty years ago, Ted Triebel and I marched in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade, frozen in the snow and ice. Some of you may have seen us on television. We stood in formation, hurry up and wait, for several hours in front of the Supreme Court. Through the snow and the trees, we could see nothing, but the sound system was such that we could hear Robert Frost trying to read his poem, and we heard the inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” There was an inaugural ball that night for Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets. I remember Nancy D’ Alessandro, now Pelosi, with a classmate of mine. My date was also a Trinity College girl too, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you her name.
A famous photograph of Lincoln’s second inauguration, on March 4, 1865, less than six weeks before he died, shows John Wilkes Booth in the crowd. What lives of that scene though is not the crazed Booth, but Lincoln’s words about binding up the nation’s wounds, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” I have thought of those words this month, as well as those of Franklin Roosevelt, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Lincoln and FDR got it right.
I lived in Washington long ago, and I came to know every nook and cranny in the Capitol. You could walk right in there and go wherever you wanted. I could, if given free reign today, show you the closet where the catafalque is stored, on which Lincoln’s body rested in the rotunda, where two weeks ago a rioter waved the Confederate flag. I could show you the black char marks on a staircase, from when the British troops sacked and burned the capitol in 1814. I could show it all to you, and my heart broke as I saw it desecrated two weeks ago.
When I heard the awful news of January 6 this year, the feast of the Epiphany, I thought immediately that from now on we would remember Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and now the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Yes, it was that big a deal. We fought back after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, as we did after Fort Sumter was fired on and the Union disintegrated, but how do we fight back from this, with the Capitol surrounded by razor wire and 25,000 armed troops?
When the country was fracturing over slavery in 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate and lost, but who remembers Stephen Douglas? What we do remember from Lincoln’s losing campaign is from his speech in Springfield when he quoted Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” That was 163 years ago, but does it not fit us today? It took a civil war to heal that divided house then. What will it take now? There was more though to what Lincoln said that day in Springfield beyond quoting Christ, and it is worth pondering:
If we could first know where we are,
and whither we are tending, we could then
better judge what to do,
and how to do it.
Lincoln the pragmatist. Where are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? Those aren’t bad questions to ask. Otherwise it tends to be akin to ready, fire, aim. We won’t need another civil war, but we sure do have to figure out a workable path to binding up our nation’s wounds. Just as it is said that all war is civil war, so too civil discussion is family discussion, though we may not want to claim all those relatives. And we have to communicate, and to pray. As is often the case, the psalms help. As we read in Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul in silence waits;
truly, my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.
In God is my safety and my honor;
God is my strong rock and my refuge.
Put your trust in him always, O people,
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.
Too often, faced with a quandary of some sort, I try everything else before turning to God, and I doubt I am alone in that, forgetting the mandate to put our trust in God and pour out our hearts to God, for God is our refuge, our hope, and our stronghold.
Jonah is a short book of the Hebrew Bible that can quickly be read straight through, and should be. In the portion we heard today, God had really had it with the corrupt and disobedient people of Nineveh, so Jonah was sent to warn them, to straighten up because they had only 40 days and God would destroy Nineveh. Well, wonder of wonders, those wretched folks in Nineveh heard the divine message Jonah brought, they turned their lives around, and God changed his mind and did not destroy Nineveh after all. This displeased Jonah but that’s another story for another day.
When Lincoln was making his way by train from Springfield to Washington in early 1861 for the March 4 inaugural there were serious threats against his life. It got particularly bad in Baltimore, and the Army packed the train to get him to Washington safely. The Capitol was then without the dome we know now, with the statue of freedom on top. Construction had been halted because of the coming war which began in April with the South Carolina attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln ordered the construction work to continue on the Capitol dome, saying “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”
Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina offered a bill in the House last week to make Lift Every Voice and Sing, a stirring hymn we sing here at St. Luke’s, our national hymn. Not the national anthem, but the national hymn. Our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, is in our hymnal, but so is Lift Every Voice and Sing. We can have a national anthem and a national hymn, and be enriched by both. A religious hymn of praise that can itself be an act of healing. When we sing it here at St. Luke’s it gives me goose bumps, and I doubt I am alone. I always remember hearing it sung at the National Cathedral and at Brown’s Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama a lifetime ago. And God knows it is as appropriate and meaningful to us today as when the poet James Weldon Johnson wrote it in 1899 and his brother John Rosamund Johnson put it to music. Unfortunately due to the COVID pandemic we are not doing this service live, with our wonderful choir and a full house, but just imagine we are as we sing:
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til Earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the
dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the
present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day
Let us march on ‘til victory is won,
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not your weary feet
Come to the place for which our fa-
We have come over a way that with
tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path
through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright
star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light;
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places,
our God, where we met Thee.
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine
of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our god,
True to our native land.
James A. Garfield got it right in April 1865 and for this present perilous time:
God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives. Thanks be to God.