Lessons from Gettysburg 1 (Commitment Day, 2017-1119)
18-19 Nov 2017, Christ Mountain Top, Commitment Sunday
Call to Worship, Psalm 100
Children, Matthew 8.5-13
Message, 2 Chronicles 20.1-9, 13-18, 20-23
Mission Moment, Crystal-Sheila-Sheri testimony
For the hymn:
The tune for this hymn began in camp meetings and then got some new marching lyrics for the Union: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” Julia Ward Howe was inspired to write new lines to the tune, which also spread through the Union Army and are still sung today. Howe was a successful and published author whose husband aspired to success as a novelist. Jealous of her success, he beat her and forbade her from writing. This hymn is not only a Union marching song and a church hymn. It is also the triumph of a battered woman, a reminder that the violence and evils we face take many different forms, many of them far too close to home.
For the posterboard testimonies:
Father William Corby describes the march north to Gettysburg, 16-18 miles a day, sometimes beginning before dawn and finishing around 11 pm. He remarked that “many … [were] dropping dead from sunstroke” (Brinsfield, 35). Then, he wrote about what he was thankful for!
Late in the evening the marching of a tired army is a sight. Even those mounted officers frequently dismount and walk to avoid falling from the horses. Many, many times I had to do so. How men live through this is a mystery. But a kind Providence pressed many of us onward and preserved us, and for this…few of us render the thanks which God has a right to expect (Brinsfield, 37).
We all have a story to tell, if we pay attention to it, that is all about God’s grace. As Joan plays, persons will come forward with posterboard testimonies, some holding the testimony they have written and some holding the testimony of someone else. Read them, rejoice, and consider how God has touched your life as well.
So, here we are on Commitment Sunday, offering ourselves in discipleship, choosing to follow Jesus and embrace spiritual practices that transform our lives, personally, and transform the world as well. The last two weeks we talked about spirituality from Matthew 6 – Jesus’ vision of a comprehensive spirituality that connects us to God, is not at all about us, has a clear focus on the goodness of God in our lives, and practices an extravagant generosity. Today, and next week, I’m offering lessons from Gettysburg, the largest and most militarily significant battle ever fought on the continent.
Over 7,000 died, over 33,000 were wounded, over 10,000 were captured or missing. If the wounded were laid out shoulder to shoulder, they would stretch out over six miles. Huge heaps of amputated limbs were buried together. Stretcher bearers followed the second line into battle.
Chaplain Betts fell off his horse, unconscious from the exhaustion. Doctor Stewart died at Gettysburg because of the exhaustion. After the war, 20,000 veterans died in asylums. One chaplain stepped in front of a train. One chaplain jumped off a steamboat.
It is a battle, a great battle in a long war, with all the trauma and violence that go with that. And, yes, we do find significant lessons for our discipleship today, particularly from the work of the chaplains at the battle. We talk about our discipleship as the Life of Worship, Community of Friends, and Purpose of Mission. In our ministry guide, you will find a list of spiritual practices under each of those three categories, with room for you to create your own custom response. Those summary pages are also in your worship programs today. They include everything from prayer over meals to giving up a grudge, from writing thank-you notes to growing in your giving, from serving on a Habitat for Humanity team to serving on the care team.
Some stories, then some practices:
Private William Dame, Richmond Howitzers, Longstreet’s Corps, wrote:
Every evening, about sunset, whenever it was at all possible, we would keep up our custom, and such of us as could get together, wherever we might be, should gather for prayer…. Sometimes a few of the fellows would gather in prayer, while the rest of us fought the guns. Several times…we met under fire...we held that prayer hour every day at sunset during the entire campaign (Brinsfield, 16).
Father William Corby was a graduate of Notre Dame and a parish priest in South Bend who volunteered as a chaplain to accompany Notre Dame students. He gave up the incredible opportunity to become the Vice President of the new university in order to pursue his call. He served with the 88th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade. After the war he served as president of Notre Dame and provincial general of the Congregation of Holy Cross. His statue is the only statue of a chaplain erected on an American battlefield.
On July 2nd, the “bloodiest day,” when Union General Sickles’ Third Corps was being overrun in the Peach Orchard, a division of the Second Corps was ordered to attack the Confederates. With the roar of battle in the background, Father Corby had a few precious moments before they entered the fray. He stood on a large rock, addressed the men, and offered general absolution as the soldiers knelt: “Our Lord Jesus Christ absolves you, and I, by his authority, absolve you of all bonds [of sin].”
Corby, in his memoirs, wrote, “That general absolution was intended for all…not only for our brigade, but for all, North and South, who were susceptible of it and who were about to appear before their Judge” (Brinsfield, 82-83).
Notice that Father Corby included his enemies in the gift of absolution.
On that long march to Gettysburg, Chaplain Joseph Twichell was called upon to pray and counsel with a young soldier about to be executed for desertion. He wrote home to his mother,
Trembling I went, not daring to decline. I took hold of his manacled hands, looked in the face, declared myself a friend, and immediately began to seek out his spiritual condition and wants…. He said he had tried, earnestly tried, to commit his soul to Christ . . . but had not the Assurance of hope that he longed for…. I prayed for divine guidance…. He drank in all that I said about our blessed Lord – prayed as they only pray whose death is at hand, … “I wish I could see and feel Jesus” (A Chaplain’s Story, 240-241).
Friendship was a gift of the best chaplains. Chaplain William R. Eastman, a friend of Twichell and in a neighboring regiment, wrote,
In one word, the significance of the chaplaincy was this: that the government offered to each regiment one man to be a friend to every man…. This man was to make a business of kindness (Brinsfield, 8).
On the night of July 3, after the final Confederate attack was repulsed but before the army withdrew, Eastman took canteens out to the Wheatfield to look for wounded soldiers. An artillery round went off nearby, the horse shield and tumbled onto Eastman pinning his leg. He was able to pull his leg out, but could not walk. What to do? He grabbed the canteens and rolled from one soldier to another to offer a drink. Some time later, a couple Union soldiers found him, improvised a stretcher, and Eastman had them carry him around the battlefield to give water and offer prayer. Finally, others arrived to tend the wounded and Eastman went to the field hospital himself (Brinsfield, 128).
These stories are powerful testimony to spiritual practices that sustain our souls and transform our world, even in the midst of the greatest horrors we can face.
Life of Worship: A set time for daily prayer. Private William Dame believed that their sunset prayers is a major reason that their unit survived the war with relatively few casualties. No one can guarantee that particular outcome. There were many prayers going up on those battlefields. Nevertheless, we do know that prayer changes us and connects us with God. Whatever your practice of prayer, give consideration to its expansion.
Spend two minutes a day thanking God. Father Corby reminds us how often we overlook the most basic mercies of God that are present in even the most dire circumstances. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1863, after the Union triumphed in both Vicksburg and Gettysburg (Brinsfield, 156-157).
Practice Sabbath. Father William Corby, and other chaplains, understood the importance of gathering for worship, even when the calendar was unpredictable. One Confederate chaplain stepped out of the treeline to face his unit and lead them in prayer only to realize that he was now a highly visible target for Union artillery. He ran back to the line and led their prayers there.
One of the interesting dimensions of the battle story is that leadership lacked depth and rest. After days of lengthy marches, soldiers were considered “rested.” Generals went without food and sleep for days. One of the Sabbath practices we list is to get a good night’s sleep at least once a week.
Community of Friends: Chaplains Twichell and Eastman routinely spoke about friendship. Chaplains provided leadership in care of the wounded and dying, both of friend and foe. Private Dame and his unit gathered every evening as a small group for prayer. Soldiers of all stripes were routinely maintaining community, and processing their combat stress, with family back home with that old fashioned technology, the hand-written letter.
We list a number of practices that build community: thank-you notes, the care team, small groups. (Actually, we have a couple groups, in addition to Sunday School and Covenant, that you could choose to join.)
We also include the practice of reconciliation – gossip free days, release of grudges, taking the initiative to apologize. You may have heard me speak about how this practice has released me, given me freedom. One of the most remarkable reconciliation stories of the battle of Gettysburg is Father Corby’s absolution. He included his enemies in that gift. The career military officers of the Civil War knew each other, had been friends at West Point and colleagues in the Mexican-American war. Now, they were trying to kill each other, and apologize when the guns were silent. Confederate General Armistead, who survived Pickett’s charge to die two days later in a Union field hospital, sent a message to his friend, Union General Hancock: “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” His personal effects were given to Hancock along with this message (Brinsfield, 150). The ugliest battles are always found between friends, among brothers and sisters. And the gift of absolution, the practice of reconciliation, is absolutely essential.
Purpose of Mission: We list the practice of social justice – bringing canteens of water to the wounded and weary, even if we have to roll on our side to get there. We list growing in the grace of giving. Thousands gave their very lives. (I do want to emphasize that we are not asking our guests to make a commitment to give back to God financially through Christ Church. This is only one of the practices before us, and the practice of generosity is extraordinarily important. We, however, want our guests to be guests.)
We list inviting friends to join us in worship. Over and over in the stories of the chaplains, there is a consciousness that what they are doing matters for eternity. Those receiving absolution included many who were going to appear before their Judge in only a few minutes. Whether it was prior to the execution of a deserter or the death of a wounded soldier in a field hospital, the chaplains were keenly aware that their work was to introduce men to Jesus. “Do you have peace with God?”
This is a reminder that the most important commitment you can make on this Commitment Day is to give yourself to Jesus without reserve and to pray with all your heart for the “Assurance of hope” that our Lord provides. You may have been a church-goer your whole life, and realize suddenly that there is something essential missing. You may be on a long journey back to faith. Whatever your story, “now is the day of Salvation” (2 Corinthians 6.2).
Joan is going to play through the hymn a couple times and give us time to consider our personal commitment. Then, we will begin to sing. You are invited to come forward to bring your commitment and place it in the basket. You are invited to stand or kneel at the altar to give yourself to Jesus or to renew that commitment.
Brinsfield, Summon Only the Brave!
Twichell, A Chaplain’s Story