Sermon by the Rev. William Baxter, 11-24-963 (Revised by the Rev. Paul Abernathy)
The Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 24, 2013
The Reverend Paul Roberts Abernathy, Rector
Paul: On Sunday, November 24, 1963, the Reverend William McNeil Baxter, ninth rector of St. Mark’s Church, in the consuming shadow of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, preached the sermon printed in this morning’s bulletin. In attendance that Sunday was Lyndon Baines Johnson, newly sworn in as president, and Lady Bird Johnson, our nation’s new First Lady.
In our commemoration of that historic moment, this morning’s homily is a dialogical presentation; Bill’s words, read by Jack Burton, set in conversation with reflections on our times, which I will share.
Jack: Saint Paul, in the eighth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, asked, “What shall we then say to these things?” He follows with a rhetorical question, “If God be for us, who then can be against us?” But today, for us, this reassurance comes too soon…We are too ready as mortal beings to grasp at any word that will shelter us from grief, so for a moment we must dwell upon his first question: “What shall we then say to these things?”
The events of the past two days have broken through the normal accepted order of things. With the assassination of President Kennedy there has been an eruption of history, a glimpse of darkness...A strange sick man with a gun has changed the lives of millions upon millions of people.
Paul: In our time, on this day, cannot these same words be applied, particularly related to the gun-in-hand violence perpetrated by broken-spirited humans who, before and since 1963 and counting, in numerous moments of public mayhem, have cast so widely and indiscriminately the dark mantle of grief? Yes.
Jack: …Facing the chaos underlying all the created orders of man can…(make us aware)…of the fragile fabric of the social institutions of our own nation and all nations…which surround and uphold us…(and)…(of) a new awareness of our freedom and responsibility.
We live…under the illusion that there is a natural order to all things…It is in a crisis such as we are experiencing that we are made aware, at least for one shocking hour, of the tentative nature of our manmade institutions.
…We believe that there is a sure and enduring order that undergirds our nation and its government…Our educational system testifies in casual confidence that we have established a sure, firm, undeniable eternal order that cannot be shaken…Deep in us is a necessity to believe that we finally control the events of our lives…Our undeniable adequacy in the establishment of a system of law, a marvelous economic order, and a political system that works tends more and more to separate us from the history of their creation. They appear so sound that we believe that economics and politics can take care of themselves…We forget that our government is manmade and therefore perishable…(and in our forgetfulness,) each one of us thinks he can safely abdicate participation.
Paul: Ah, here is a difference that fifty years can make! I believe that we live less under the veil of the illusion of the superiority of our institutions. We have suffered so many shocks to the soul of our sense of security – the too soon to follow assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Francis Kennedy; scandals in the echelons of government, Watergate being but a metaphor for the rot at the core of our governance when the principle of public service daily contests against and is often defeated by unvarnished individual self-interest; abuses in the religious realm; inadequacies and inequities in the field of education, or ongoing disparities in race and class in the socio-economic sphere – that mindless trust and blind faith in our institutions no longer, if ever, can be considered favorable attributes. Our forgetfulness in the inherent fallibility of human-made structures, shattered for an instant by crisis, then soon restored in the swiftly sought comfort of our cultural amnesia, no longer prevails. We know all too well that institutions, that we fail, miss the mark, sin, fall short of fulfilling our highest values of love and justice for all. That daily, weighty awareness of our failure makes abdication of our personal responsibility also a posture harder to maintain, at least, not without the self-destructive loss of any semblance of integrity. We are accountable for our intentions and actions even though we cannot control our environment or the outcomes of what we do. Indeed, our difficulty is not in accepting our responsibility that we are to do something about the persistent problems that beset our society – hunger and homelessness, environmental degradation, unemployment and under-employment, racial and sexual inequality – all lenses through which we can behold, if we dare look, the chaos ever-present, all around us. Rather we often wrestle with discerning what to do.
Jack: …It takes a crisis like the murder of our President to bring us together into a new awareness of what we have inherited…The illusion that we are masters of everything that we survey departs from us…To be sure, we have the continuity that was emphasized so much…when our new President took over the government…It appears, I suppose, to those who hunger to live in the illusion that all is orderly once again, that this was a smooth and simple transition; but it was not done easily or swiftly. There was groaning and travail of soul. There was sighing and praying, the prayers that are too deep for words. Hands quickly reached across the gap and touched. Neither our President nor his family believes this bridge is complete or perfect, or that it ever can be. All of us share this tragic commitment with him…
“What shall we then say to these things?” says St. Paul. “If God be for us, who then can be against us?” Maybe now we can speak for a moment of God and His gifts. “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things?”
A new awareness of the reality of the human situation has broken through in the sacrifice of John Fitzgerald…We never seem to gain this perception without blood. Must there always be blood?...I cannot say. I know that God works in mysterious ways beyond my comprehension, but so often it seems true that the new reality we receive is always bought at the cost of death.
And what has death brought us in the form of life? This is the surprising gift of God who leaves us not alone…Now we are ready to listen to what He has given us to draw us together in these hours.
First (again), is recognition of the fragility of our human institutions. This opens us to the possibility that we are responsible every day to care for them…to uphold them with our votes, our study, our honest understanding of what strengthens us and keeps us going.
Second, when this order is broken and…no longer (can be) seen as natural, determined, and automatic, we are given (anew) a freedom…(of) the choice of accepting or rejecting the responsibility that binds the fabric of our society…
When I neglect my share, forgo my responsibility, abuse my freedom…take it for granted…I do so at great peril. Then I am made aware of the chaos that lies behind institutions. Yet, mysteriously, from the chaos, from the dissolution of order, humility and courage are gifts that we receive. For when we have lost control…we are given the possibility of humility and dare ask for courage. This is the sum of the gifts of God: responsibility, freedom, humility, and courage.
Paul: This, that the encounter with chaos brings up from our bowels the cry of humility and, from our hearts, the call for courage, is an immutable truth; one that characterizes our common humanity from the dawn of creation in Eden’s Garden, according to the Bible, short-lived, thus, we know, a symbolic, never-to-have-been idyllic existence. Always overshadowing the illusion of our security and our vain quest for certainty is the specter of life’s unpredictability and our fragility. Our daily awareness of this repeatable, demonstrable reality ought make us conscious of our universal bond, one with another, across the boundaries of age, class, race, and sex that divide us, and, in that unity, renew our humility in the knowledge that none of us is self-sufficient and revive our courage to exercise our responsibility and freedom for the fullest, most inclusive common good. Still, it always seems to take a crisis to bring us with our cherished illusions to our knees and, thus, yet another moment when…
Jack: …the power of tragic fate is broken. It has been this way the past few days. The world is drawn together in a moment of community, the divine-human community, I believe, that is established through death. It is a strange thing, but I had the sense that there were a billion hands that touched and may still be touching in comprehension of our sorrow. Even if they touch only for a moment, this act gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom. For a fleeting instant we see that if it were not for our blindness and our pride, we are children of our Father.
This is what we say when we ask, “If God be for us, then who can be against us?” He that spared not His own Son has given us this new awareness. But then comes (another day)…(and) the memory of this day and this hour dims…We (will) place again our trust in the human order that we will build. We will forget our responsibilities and turn away from our freedom. Our humility will be overwhelmed by pride. Our courage will wane.
(Knowing that this) is the way we are (and that) our leadership will suffer from loneliness and misunderstanding and, being mortal, will sometimes turn away from its obligations (we, in) this sanctuary...say prayers for you, Lyndon, our brother, and beseech God to give you in these days to come what He has shown to all of us in these past days: the freedom, the responsibility, the courage and the humility to exercise the powerful responsibilities that fall upon you. Here, we who surround you will pray for you and hope that what we have been given by the death of our President we may long remember and offer up as life each week. This is what we shall say to these things. God is for us. What is against us is overcome.