July 5, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
The Civil War ended 150 years ago. You’d think it’s still being fought today. The flag business is booming. They can’t make them fast enough. Flag sales are always good this time of year. But this year it’s not just the flag of United States of America that is in demand. There is also unprecedented interest in the flag of the Confederacy.
Ever since that unstable young man murdered those church people in Charleston, South Carolina and then a picture of him posing with a Confederate flag was discovered. The war wasn’t over for him. And the war in his sick, twisted mind was a war between the races. Black vs. white.
It’s been encouraging to see that this evil act that was intended to divide is also bringing people together. I’d like to share with you a story my daughter did the day after the shooting.
The Civil War was not a race war. It was mainly white men killing other white men. The issue was slavery and more specifically whether states in which slavery was legal would be allowed to leave the Union. It was the bloodiest war in our history, by far. When it ended, our president, Abraham Lincoln, extended an olive branch to the losing side. He wanted more than anything to heal the gaping, bleeding wound in the body of our nation and bring North and South back together. And then he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. He was succeeded by leaders more interested in revenge than reconciliation.
And so 150 years later it sometimes feels like the Civil War is still raging. It makes you wonder how different things might have been had Abraham Lincoln lived.
Today we’re going to take a look at Abraham Lincoln as a man of faith. He was a man of many ironies and contradictions. One has to do with his faith. He’s the only president we’ve ever had who was not a member of any church. His law partner called him an infidel. His wife said “he was never a technical Christian”. And yet he had more of the Bible committed to memory than any of our presidents by far. And his speeches have so many references to God and to prayer that he sounds like a preacher. So here is the first of three paradoxes we see in Abraham Lincoln: He rejected faith and yet he was a man of great faith.
To understand this, we have to go back to his upbringing. He was raised a “Hard-Shell Baptist”. This is a church that was about as strict and narrow as you can imagine. And as backwards. The preachers Abraham listened to as a boy almost certainly believed the world was flat. They encouraged parents not to educate their children. Even Sunday school was discouraged because the Bible says spiritual training is the parents’ responsibility. They opposed mission work because God had already decided who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. So why be more merciful than God?
He loved to tell funny stories and one of them reveals his attitude toward the church in which he was raised. One preacher was criticizing another for being too soft. This preacher (who sounds a lot like a Hard-Shell Baptist) said, “There comes one among us preaching the salvation of all men. But brethren, let us hope for better things.”
The God Abraham Lincoln rejected at an early age was this angry, judgmental, exclusive God. And for the rest of his life he was recovering from his spiritual upbringing. He was realizing that he had not been told the whole truth about God when he was a child. This man who rarely went to church was becoming a man of deep faith.
Our scripture today is the Great Commandment. Really it’s plural because Jesus taught that all the commandments, all that God expects of us, can be found in these two: (1) Love God. (2) Love neighbor. When Abraham Lincoln was asked why he never joined a church, here is how he answered:
When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed
statement of the substance of both Law and Gospel,
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and
with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself”, that church
will I join with all my heart and all my soul.
As a young attorney, one day Abraham Lincoln was dressed in his finest for a court appearance. It had been raining. Mud was everywhere. He was trying to walk where he wouldn’t ruin his suit. Then he noticed a pig that was stuck in deep mud and squealing at the top of its lungs. Lincoln kept walking. But he couldn’t stop thinking about that pig. He couldn’t get out of his mind the look on that pig’s face that seemed to be saying, “There goes my last chance.” So he turned around and went back to rescue that pig, ruining his suit in the process.
The Bible tells us about a Good Shepherd who decided one sheep was worth rescuing. It’s doubtful Abraham Lincoln was introduced to a God like that when he was young. It’s certain that’s the God he came to know and love as he grew older.
The story of Abraham Lincoln is a story of faith rejected and faith embraced. But why? Why didn’t he go the way so many go today who are scarred by an early negative experience with church? Why didn’t he walk away from faith and keep on walking? There are a couple of answers to this question. One is the suffering he faced throughout his life. The Bible says “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). It doesn’t always work that way. Suffering can turn us into negative, bitter, discouraged, defeated individuals. It could have been that way for Abraham Lincoln. But it wasn’t.
Which brings us to the second of the three paradoxes we see in him. He was very sad and yet he was very funny. I think his sense of humor may have saved his life.
There are so many books about Abraham Lincoln, you’d have to live about five lives to read them all, but one you shouldn’t miss is called, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. This morning’s Silent Preparation comes from that book.
Lincoln probably had a genetic pre-disposition to depression, but if he hadn’t, the events of his life would have depressed anyone. His mother died when he was nine. His sister died in childbirth. His wife was mentally ill. Their three-year-old son Eddie died in 1850. Their eleven-year-old son Willie died in 1862. The Civil War battlefield casualties included many of his closest friends.
It was said of Abraham Lincoln that, “melancholy dripped from him when he walked.” He was sad. He was depressed. Clinically depressed, to use today’s terminology. He was suicidal at several points in his life.
There’s nothing funny about that. And yet Abraham Lincoln had probably the sharpest sense of humor of any of our presidents. You might say it’s how he survived. I think there’s something to be said for that. Laughter is some of the best medicine God ever made. But so is faith. And suffering, much as we wish we could avoid it, often serves to soften our hearts and make us more open to God. I think it was that way for Abraham Lincoln.
Why didn’t he walk away from faith after his early experiences with the Hard-Shell Baptists? We’ve seen that one reason is the suffering he endured. The other is the questions he was able to ask.
When Eddie died, the funeral sermon was given by a Presbyterian pastor named James Smith. The Lincolns started attending Rev. Smith’s church in Springfield, Illinois. They never joined, but they found there a church where hard questions were encouraged. Doubts were not considered sinful. This was a pastor who had been a skeptic as a young man, like Lincoln. He was converted primarily through reading and study and reflection. He believed faith should be based on sound thought, not just emotional hype.
I wish I could say it was a Methodist pastor, but at least it was a Presbyterian with a Methodist-like attitude toward faith who helped Abraham Lincoln! He was never one to be told what to believe. He was always fiercely independent, and so a church that encouraged independent thought was fertile soil in which his faith could grow.
There are a lot of people today who can identify with Abraham Lincoln. I’m guessing many of you can. If suffering has ever pushed you beyond yourself, if grief or depression or anxiety has ever been more than you thought you could bear, if God has become your rock when nothing else in your life was solid, you are a kindred soul with Abraham Lincoln.
And if you have a mind that refuses to accept someone else’s orthodoxy, a mind that insists on thinking things through and reaching your own conclusions, if you have lots of questions and lots of doubts and lots of ideas that are uniquely your own, you are a kindred soul with Abraham Lincoln.
I don’t think Abraham Lincoln would feel at home in most of the churches in America today. I like to think he would feel at home here. I like to think you feel at home here, too.
The final paradox we see in Abraham Lincoln has to do with the Civil War. The war began 39 days after he was inaugurated and it ended six days before he was assassinated. More lives were lost in that war than the entire population of Canyon and Ada Counties combined. Over 650,000 dead. Here’s the paradox: Abraham Lincoln, who was so tender-hearted he would ruin his suit before he would let a pig suffer, presided over the most horrible war our nation ever fought.
So here we have this man who was so familiar with suffering, who was such a deep thinker, and who was now leading his nation through this terrible ordeal. This combination resulted in a document that is one of the most profound statements about God, history, and meaning ever written. I refer to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. There is a copy in your bulletin. I hope you will spend some time with it this week.
What’s not in it is almost as important as what is. Presidents usually use their inaugural addresses to talk about their own election. To talk about themselves. They use false humility. Basically, “I’m so humbled that you think I’m so great!” But there’s nothing like that here. Abraham Lincoln was a genuinely humble man. Which, sad to say, probably means he couldn’t possibly be elected today.
Abraham Lincoln was what Jim Collins calls a “Level 5 Leader”. He combined deep humility with unshakeable strength of will. People frequently misread him. They thought this quiet, peaceful, self-effacing man must also be a weak man. They would soon learn how mistaken they were.
His humility comes through as we get into the speech. He says that neither side, North or South expected things to go the way they had gone in this war. In other words, there is a limit to human intelligence and human control, even his own. He says both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God. He says it seems strange for the South to expect God’s assistance in “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”. In other words, from slaves’ faces. It’s a scriptural reference. The Bible says, “By the sweat of your [own] brow, you will eat your food” (Genesis 3:19). So he is saying the South is wrong in the way they read the Bible.
But then he quickly adds another scripture: “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Lincoln had that wonderful combination of humility and strength. He could make strong moral judgments without being judgmental. He said on one occasion, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” But he also said, “I have no prejudice against the southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation.” So, in other words, there is no room for northern arrogance. There is no reason to demonize the other side.
Abraham Lincoln shows us that moral clarity does not require moral superiority. And do we ever need that today!
And finally the phrase for which this speech is best remembered:
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 orphans . . .
Those words no longer shock us as they must have shocked those who first heard them. The war wasn’t even over. The enemy had not surrendered. The enemy was still doing everything they could every chance they got to kill and maim Union soldiers. And now their Commander in Chief is starting to sound like Jesus? Loving the enemy? Caring for those who had been left wounded and widowed and orphaned, even in the South? They must have thought he had lost his mind!
The spokesman for Jesus back then was a preacher named Henry Ward Beecher. He was as highly respected in his day as Billy Graham is in ours. People of faith would be more likely to listen to him than to their infidel president. Here’s what Henry Ward Beecher was saying about the Confederacy:
[I look forward to the day] when these most accursed and detested of all criminals [are] caught up in black clouds full of voices of vengeance and lurid with punishment [and] plunged downward forever in endless retribution.
“Endless retribution”. That sounded a lot better to people in the North than “malice toward none”.
Abraham Lincoln never had the chance to make “malice toward none” and “charity for all” the official policy to heal a war-torn nation. To “bind up the nation’s wounds”. Here is the only existing photograph taken at the Second Inaugural Address. President Lincoln is circled near the bottom. He is speaking. And near the top and to the left there is a circle drawn around a man named John Wilkes Booth.
This picture was taken on March 4, 1865. On April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of his head. The next morning he died, and “malice toward none” and “charity for all” died with him. In a sense, because of John Wilkes Booth, the Civil War never ended.
It’s time for it to end. 150 years is long enough. It’s time for peace to come to our world that has never ever really known a lasting peace. It’s time for people who have been sworn enemies so long they have forgotten what they were fighting over, to be reconciled and become friends.
Our only president who never joined a church knew better than cradle roll members the only way this can happen. Not with “endless retribution”, but with the Great Commandment. Loving God with heart, soul, and mind. And loving neighbor as self.
Dear God, we pray for the peace that comes only from you — in our nation, in our world, in our hearts. Thank you for the example of Abraham Lincoln, an ordinary man in whom you were mightily at work. Draw us closer to you, through our suffering and through our questioning. Because the closer we come to you, the closer we will come to loving as Jesus loved. In His name, Amen.