Sermon for January 27th, 2013

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Psalm 19:7-14 (KJV)

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. 8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. 9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. 11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. 12 Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. 13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. 14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Romans 8:28-39

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Three Minute Film Summary

{Film Clip #1} This film, Lincoln, is about as difficult to condense and summarize as the towering and complex figure of Abraham Lincoln himself would be. Fortunately, the film doesn't attempt to summarize Lincoln's entire life, and neither will this sermon. The film mainly focuses in on the events of one month: January, 1865. Lincoln has just been elected to a second term as president, and end of the civil war is in sight. Lincoln has signed the emancipation proclamation, so the end of slavery is in sight, too. But here's the problem: Neither the war nor slavery is quite over...yet. The emancipation proclamation was signed as a war measure, and Lincoln is afraid that when the war ends, so will the proclamation. He needs to pass the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which prohibits slavery once and for all. It has been passed earlier by the Senate, but is 20 votes short of passing the house.

Most people in the North support the amendment, but many only support it because they think that (like the emancipation proclamation) abolishing slavery will help to end the war more quickly. Lincoln wisely perceives that once the war is over, support for such a "radical" measure as abolishing slavery would be weakened. In congress, conservative Republicans won't vote for the amendment unless Lincoln agrees to begin negotiations for peace with the Confederate States. But many congressmen, if they learn that peace negotiations are in progress, will simply wait to see how they go and not vote for the amendment. It's a lose/lose situation. If he takes action to win the war, he loses the battle to end slavery. If he takes action to end slavery, the war drags on and more people lose their lives. Ultimately, Lincoln sends for confederate peace negotiators, but stalls them as much as he can while seeking the votes he needs. A great deal of the film is devoted to this struggle to gain votes by any means necessary, but along the way, we also witness Lincoln's private struggles as a husband and father, and the struggles of a nation in the midst of a bitter and violent war.

Eventually, the 13th amendment passes, the Confederate army surrenders, and as we all know, Lincoln falls to an assassin's bullet in Ford's theater on Good Friday, 1865. The closing scene of the movie is a flashback to just one month before his death, as Lincoln delivers stirring words from his second inaugural address, quoting from both the gospel of Matthew and from Psalm 19 (one of our scripture texts today).

Lincoln & Jesus

There is a God-like aspect to the Abraham Lincoln of our films, our history books, and our cultural memory. Much of it we have created around him. But there are some interesting similarities between Lincoln and Jesus. See if you can pick up a few of them in the following film clip: {Film Clip #2}. Victory is “inevitable,” but nevertheless, Lincoln with his “semi-divine stature” (think God) is about to descend from the white house (aka heaven) to the “rat's nest” of congress (think earth) with its gang of palateless hicks and hacks” (think sinners) to “tarnish his invaluable luster” and face certain rejection (think crucifixion). Lincoln says, I like our chances now. Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son . . . born under the law.”

Both Jesus and Lincoln are fond of telling parables...stories that go way out on a tangent to make a point that often leaves their followers saying, “huh??” (my thanks to Dick Murray for pointing that one out to me!). Finally, like Jesus, Lincoln as someone who sacrificed his life to cleanse the land and the people of their great sin--in Lincoln's case, slavery.

Despite the similarities, Lincoln was obviously not God. But I do think he was a Godly leader. He never joined a church, and he never claimed to be a Christian, but he often attended the Presbyterian church where his wife was a member, and during that church's Tuesday night prayer meeting, he would sit in the Pastor's office so he could listen to it without anyone knowing he was there. He kept a close correspondence with two Presbyterian pastors, one of whom he sought out for counseling and consolation after the death of his son. That Presbyterian and Calvinist influence is reflected in his letters and speeches, all of which demonstrate a deep theological understanding and strong belief that God is in control of all things, good, bad, tragic and triumphant. I'll come back to that point later, but I'd also like to step away from Lincoln himself for a moment to consider another issue raised by the film.


Dogmatism is the unshakable belief that you are 100% right, and the other guy is 100% wrong. It's usually accompanied by a complete inability to compromise or carry on any kind of meaningful dialog without resorting to shouting and name calling. Dogmatism breeds gridlock. If you've followed news about congress lately, you probably understand dogmatism pretty well. If you've seen the movie Lincoln, you know that it was alive and well in the 1860s, too. {film clip #2}

It is possible to be completely dogmatic about something...and also be completely wrong. I think we can all agree that slavery was completely wrong, and yet in 1865 there were intelligent, faithful, bible-reading Christians who believed dogmatically that slavery was right, and that the scriptures supported their position.

There are intelligent, faithful, bible-reading Christians today who believe dogmatically that they are right about certain issues, and that the scriptures support their very, very wrong position. I bet you can think of someone like that. We all can. The problem is, we probably rarely include ourselves in that list. It is possible that we might be the dogmatically wrong person.

There is only one thing worse than someone who is dogmatic and wrong: Someone who is dogmatic and right. In the film Lincoln, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (who we saw in the last film clip) is a textbook example. Stevens is on the right side of the slavery issue, historically and ethically. He supports full equality and the right to vote for colored people. And yet, his dogmatic attitude threatens the very thing he wants to accomplish.

At one point in the film, Stevens tells Lincoln that “the inner compass . . . should direct the soul toward justice.” Lincoln responds: "A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp... What's the use of knowing True North?"

As Presbyterians, we believe that the Bible is our true North. But when we are overly dogmatic in following it—when we forge ahead without any regard to those around us—we may be right, but we will likely wind up stuck at the bottom of a swamp or chasm where all our dogmatism does no one, especially God, any good. Taking a page from both Jesus and Lincoln, it is better to be possibly wrong and humble than to be positively right and arrogant.

Speaking of the dogmatism and gridlock between North and South, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

Suffering and God's Purposes

Early in the film, Lincoln describes to his wife a dream, where he stands alone on a boat which is being propelled quickly through the water by an unseen force toward an unknown shore. This dream could represent the quickly approaching vote on the 13th amendment. It could represent the quickly approaching end of the war. Or it could represent the quickly approaching end of Lincoln's own life. These are the three major subjects that intertwine throughout the film: The man (Lincoln), the amendment, and the war. Each of these subjects is an example of great suffering.

Abraham Lincoln's mother died when he was nine years old. His sister (and only sibling) died when he was 19. His first great love, Ann Rutledge, died when he was 26. As a father, he endured the death of his four year-old son Eddie, and later his twelve year old son, Willie. Abraham Lincoln, as a human being, knew more suffering and loss than most of us do in one lifetime.

The Civil War was the bloodiest battle in the history of our country, and claimed 625,000 American lives; more than World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terror all combined. And of course, even this number is dwarfed by the 12 million estimated Africans who were taken from their homes and shipped as slaves to America, and their countless descendants through three centuries of slavery in what eventually became the United States of America.

In our lifetime, nothing—neither terrorist attacks, nor school shootings, nor recession, nor wars—nothing comes close to the depths of suffering experienced by those who lived in Abraham Lincoln's time. Surely, if anyone had the right to cry out to God, "WHY?" it was these people, and this man.

But hear the words from his second inaugural address: "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."

The Almighty has His own purposes. The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Notice that in the face of unspeakable tragedy Lincoln doesn't say, "Well...God didn't mean for this to wasn't part of God's plan." Nor does he say, “This isn't from God—this is an attack from the enemy, the devil, or evil people." He doesn't even ask “How could a loving God allow such things to happen?” The Almighty has His own purposes. The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Do we really need to understand the mysteries the Universe to find meaning and purpose within it? Do we really need to understand the infinite mind of God in order to trust that he is in absolute control and that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose?” Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword—we are not promised freedom from all these things. What we are promised is simply this: None of these things...not even death, will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When we don't trust in that promise, we end up questioning God's goodness, questioning God's power, or even questioning God's existence. When we do that, we're spinning our wheels—all our energy and anger and hurt is directed at God, and we will never, ever completely understand God's ways or the answer to any of those questions.

But when we trust in that promise, when we let go of our suffering and our questioning and lay them at God's feet, we are then free to turn our attention to those around us and love them the way Christ has loved us. In Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, after acknowledging that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, this is exactly what he what he does:

"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 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."

In Lincoln's dream, he stands alone on a boat which is being propelled quickly through the water by an unseen force toward an unknown shore. But is he really alone? I believe that the boat on which he stands, and the unseen force that silently propels it, is nothing other than the steady hand of God, who leads us all through turbulent waters to safer shores.