Lessons from Gettysburg 2, Christ the King (2017-1126)
25-26 Nov 2017, Christ Mountain Top, Christ the King
Call to Worship, Psalm 95, p 814-815, Sung Response 2
Children, Joshua 5.13-15
Message, 1 Corinthians 15.20-28
Last week as we looked at lessons from Gettysburg, I focused on stories, primarily from the chaplains, that offer practical examples of living a spiritual life, the discipleship that we characterize here as the Life of Worship, the Community of Friends, and the Purpose of Mission. Last week was Commitment Sunday, a perfect day to focus on those lessons.
This week is Christ the King Sunday. It falls every year on the final Sunday before Advent. But, because it either precedes or follows the Thanksgiving holiday, we generally ignore its basic themes in favor of messages on thankful living. Two weeks ago, we talked about the themes “Thanks” and “Giving” from Matthew 6, two themes Jesus lifts up to free us from our anxieties around stuff, two themes that help us practically “seek first the kingdom of God.” Thankful living is important, but it is not the kingdom of God itself.
The kingdom, in the language of 1 Corinthians, has a goal, an end in history. It is not simply that Jesus rules, that Jesus is in charge, that Jesus triumphs over every enemy, including death. All of that is good news, but it is not the goal. The goal is that God might be all in all. That is an expansive vision of the goal of history, a vision that unites everything and everyone, a vision in which God fills and fulfills all, a vision in which the perfect unity of the Holy Trinity is extended and made perfect in the wholeness of our broken world, our fractured societies, our damaged selves.
In such a vision, for us to say that God is our God does not mean that we have a unique and exclusive claim to God, in the way that I have a unique and exclusive claim to my car. It means that God has a unique and exclusive claim to us. We do not have a claim upon God: that is to say, God is just as much the God of our enemies as God is ours, whether or not our enemies acknowledge God.
We routinely divide the world up into categories of “friend” or “foe.” This is exactly what Joshua is doing when he encounters the angel of the LORD. But the LORD pulled the rug right out from under his feet: “Neither. I am here as commander of the LORD’s army.” It is dangerous for us to speak about having God on our side. God’s kingdom is much larger than even our most expansive visions and dreams. Once we are sure God is on our side we are not open to the possibility that we could be wrong.
The stresses of the Civil War divided our nation, “friend” or “foe.” They also divided churches. The Methodist Episcopal Church (one of our ancestor denominations) had already seen our African-American brothers and sisters leave to form separate churches. In the run-up to the war, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born. The Baptists split, therefore, the Southern Baptists. Many chaplains volunteered because they believed in the purpose of the war, Southern clergy who were supportive of slavery, Northern clergy who were abolitionists. Then, they end up visiting soldiers in the field hospitals who fought for the enemy. Older animosities, between Catholic and Protestant, persisted. Units were identified by their language and national heritage: The Flying Dutchmen, the Irish Brigade. Friend or foe, one of us or an “other.”
Today, I want to talk about two ways we can find ourselves divided from one another – on matters of personality and on matters of conviction. Then, I want to talk about conflict and humility.
Personality: Chaplain John Stuckenberg, the only chaplain from the battle to be buried at the Gettysburg national cemetery and a highly educated Lutheran pastor, made a rather humorous remark about the other chaplains he met: “I am surrounded by Methodist chaplains, who are very clever, but lack cultivation” (Stuckenberg, page 1 of chapt 5).
His story raises the common struggle we all experience to deal with personalities that are different from us, almost incompatible with us. In the first year of our marriage, Robin came upstairs to find me refolding all the laundry she had done for me. Our approaches to laundry were incompatible. Fortunately she is less obsessive than I. Now, I get to do all the laundry the “right way” (and she actually convinced me to change one of my folding patterns). We’re still married, twenty-seven and a half years later, and crazier about each other now than then. But how do we deal with incompatibilities, with the ways we and others just don’t fit?
One of my classmates – and they were all military chaplains – reported how Chaplain Corby rode behind his men into battle and called out, “Anyone shot in the back will be refused a Catholic burial.” My classmate remarked, “Just one more guy who probably did not fit well in the parish but fit well in the Army.” I asked one of them, who was approaching retirement in the Army, if he would go back to serving a local church. The answer came, quick and short, “No.” He paused, then elaborated, his speech patterned in the bursts of a machine gun. After years at the “tip of the spear” and well socialized into patterns of military command, he had no interest in the negotiations and group processes that characterize local church leadership.
I thought to myself, “What a huge resource the church loses because of this incompatibility!” In personality, we have almost nothing in common. But he loves Jesus and he knows what it is to embrace pain. Many of you are well aware of the fact that I am just a little different. I’ve watched others, different themselves, struggle to find a place to serve in the church of Jesus Christ, not because Jesus doesn’t want them but because of real incompatibilities in personality and style.
Conviction: Chaplain Joseph Twichell, Father Joseph O’Hagan, and Chaplain William Eastman (the “rolling chaplain” of last week’s stories) were chaplains and friends in the Excelsior brigade. Eastman wrote about their friendship, sharing an amusing story of Twichell and O’Hagan from the hospital work after the battle of Fredericksburg:
After midnight, when exhausted nature demanded an hour of rest, these two lay down to sleep. It was December and bitter cold. Presently there came a call out of O’Hagan’s blanket, “Joseph,” and the answer was, “Well, Joseph.” … “I’m cold,” said one and “I’m cold,” said the other. “Then let’s put our two blankets together.” And so they did, lying close with blankets doubled. Presently there was a moment as of one struggling with suppressed laughter. “What are you laughing at?” demanded Twichell. “At this condition of things,” was the reply. “What? At all this horrible distress?” “No! No! But at you and me; a Jesuit priest and a New England Puritan minister – of the worst sort – spooned close together under the same blanket. I wonder what the angels think.” And a moment after, he added, “I think they like it” (Brinsfield, 41-42).
There is a place for theological conviction. There is an even more important place for brotherhood, sisterhood, for recognizing that the kingdom of God is much larger than my own tribal brand of Christian discipleship.
It is hard to find a set of convictions further apart than those of the North and South in that bitter conflict. Perhaps the rhetoric of the clash of cultures – Christianity versus Islam, the USA versus Arabs – approaches that level. Perhaps the current conflicts within The United Methodist Church around human sexuality approach that kind of entrenched opposition. We too easily treat our enemies as caricatures – liberals who don’t read the Bible, conservatives who are always judgmental – rather than honoring our enemies in the debate as people made in the image of God, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, and pledged to the same Lord.
Chaplain Twichell reports caring for Confederate soldiers and discovering them as “gentlemen … of good birth and education” (Twichell, 255). Father Corby offered absolution before his brigade entered the fray, and included both the North and South in the offer of forgiveness. To say that God is our God does not mean that we have a unique and exclusive claim to God. God is just as much the God our enemies – whoever they are.
Conflict and Humility: One of my classmates, in discussion on combat trauma and the horror of war, remarked, “War is addictive.” It is not only war, but conflict of all kinds, to which we can be addicted. “He who loves a quarrel loves sin” (Proverbs 17:19, NIV). The letter of James offers the insight that most of our conflict finds its root in our own internal conflict. That is, we are in conflict because we are conflicted. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4:1). And it is the structure of conflict to look at the world as Joshua did: friend or foe, right and wrong. Once we are sure God is on our side we are not open to the possibility that we could be wrong.
Chaplain Thomas Caskey of the 18th Mississippi, was well aware of this fatal flaw, writing long after the war:
Oh, how many of my fondly-loved spiritual children quietly slept, without coffins or shrouds, in far distant graves! How many had lost faith in God, when the cause they believed was right, and which they fondly loved, went down in a sea of blood. Our chaplains prophesied success, as among the certainties, since our cause was right, and God was on the side of right; therefore, the right was bound to triumph. I told them that they were sowing seeds from which an abundant harvest of infidelity would be garnered in the event that our cause went under; that I did not believe that God had anything to do with the accursed thing from beginning to end on either side; that final victory would depend on courage, skill, numbers, and the heaviest guns best handled; that right and wrong would not weigh as much as a feather on the scale (Brinsfield, 168).
Now, I do not agree with everything Thomas Caskey writes. For example, I do believe that God’s kingdom has been and remains on the side of freeing slaves.
But I am struck by the power, insight, and humility of his argument, a reminder to his own colleagues, chaplains in the Confederate army, that once we are sure God is on our side we are not open to the possibility that we could be wrong. And when I read his expression, “an abundant harvest of infidelity,” I think of other conflicts in which we have earnestly proclaimed that we are right and that God is on our side. For example, I cannot begin to count the young people who tell me, “I don’t think I can believe in Jesus because evolution is so convincing.” Really? Is our faith to be entirely predicated on the winner of an unnecessary creation-evolution debate? Is that the point of it all? Sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine wrote, with regard to reading Genesis,
In matters so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it” (Collins, 83).
“An abundant harvest of infidelity,” indeed. I appreciate the humility of Chaplain Caskey and Augustine.
And I appreciate the humility of President Lincoln, who wrote in September 1862,
In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party (Brinsfield, 167).
Yes, indeed. God’s purpose was different from that of either party in the conflict. God’s purpose is that God may be all in all.
As Joshua learned, the conflicts in which we are enmeshed can come to dominate the way we see everything in the world. But even holy conflict limits our vision. His encounter with the angel of the LORD reset his perspective. As Paul writes, the kingdom of our Lord does not arrive by human means but by the gift of God, by resurrection. And in this kingdom, all our conflicts, all our attempts to draw boundaries in holiness or in anger, in faithfulness or in reaction, fade away as God becomes all in all. Even now, may we discover the humility of Joshua and bow down before our King.
Stuckenberg, John. I’m Surrounded by Methodists: Diary of John H.W. Stuckenberg, Chaplain of the 145th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Edited by David T. Hedrick and Gordon Barry Davis, Jr.
Brinsfield, Summon Only the Brave!