Through Fire and Water


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

November 18, 2018

Texts: Psalms 65 and 66

        One hundred and fifty-five years ago on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood on a podium to dedicate a national military cemetery to the Union dead on a field in Gettysburg. It was a grim day for the Union side had suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties over the three-day battle in early July. The South had attempted an invasion of the North, hoping to break the Union ad-vances in the South. However, with the retreat of Lee’s forces, the battle became a turning point in the war. After that battle, it was only a matter of time and lives.

         The Nation was passing through a time of fire. The Civil War caused more than 620,000 deaths in total, devastating for a Nation of just over 31 million persons. Almost three million immigrants had come to the United States between 1850 and 1860, and in spite of the fact that immigration to the United States had just about stopped during the Civil War, two million more arrived before 1870.

         We had also gone through a time of fire less than twenty years before when the United States declared war on Mexico and incorporated over 155,000 Latinx into our Nation with the annexation of what is now the Southwest. Lincoln had opposed that war and only had entered the Civil War reluct-antly. He understood, more than most, the cost of war not just for soldiers but for the Nation as a whole.

         On that cold November day, Lincoln spoke only 272 words but those words still resonate with us today: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation con-ceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And then, he added, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived, or so dedicated, can long endure.”   

        These somber words were delivered only six weeks after Lincoln had signed a proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving thanking God for “fruit-ful fields and healthful skies” even as he acknow-ledged that God was “dealing with us in anger for our sins,” meaning the sin of slavery. In this pro-clamation, he called on us to care for those who were left bereft due to the war and through the mercy of God asked for the water of healing for the wounds of our Nation.

         By the end of the War, we had come through fire; now was the time for water, the water of recon-ciliation.

         Even in the midst of the fire of war, Lincoln understood the need for giving thanks to God. His proclamation of Thanksgiving resonates as we read these two Psalms this morning. Both Psalms speak of God’s power and beneficence. And our response should be like that. As a powerful Nation, we should take God as our model in not being selfish but gen-erous. Lincoln’s intention was that of being generous in the victory that after Gettysburg was only a matter of time.

       The Psalms describe how God has made the earth more habitable for us human beings. It is clear from the Psalms that without God, we would not have the gift of the earth and the seas. Not only that, but the Psalms also tell us that God responds to our needs. This serves as a model of how we are to respond to the needs of others.

         As a Nation we certainly see those needs. Locally, we still have people who were displaced by a hurricane that occurred more than six years ago. And there is more: people who are still struggling with storm damage in the South, those who survived the terrible fires that still rage in California, and the dramatic increase in homelessness and want in a land of such plenty.

         Thanking God for our own good fortune of having survived the fires in our own lives is clearly not enough; we need to offer the water of generosity not just as charity but as a means of creating an equitable society.

         So much of what I am saying seems obvious. We want to be generous, to share what we have but we are often stymied because we don’t know the best way to do this. As a community we are small but each of us is also part of other and larger com-munities where we can use our particular gifts and talents.

         We know that we cannot just sit on God’s goodness to us but that we need to extend God’s goodness to others. Doing just that is really part of our response to God’s goodness.

          Obviously we’ve come a long way in our theological thinking about how God interacts with human beings and the world. We may no longer believe as did the ancient Israelites that God physi-cally led them out of  Egypt, guiding them with a pillar of smoke during the day and fire by night. The stories of exodus and travail have a deeper spiritual meaning than what may or may not have happened.

        History is what we tell ourselves about the past. It is not just as the German historian Leopold Von Ranke said, what actually happened. History is a construct, a way of trying to make sense of what may or may not have happened. This is one of the reasons that there is such sharp disagreement about our past, such as the interpretations of the Civil War.

         Because history is based on memory and memories vary, we often disagree about the meaning of events. Those disagreements, however, should not blind us to the reality of the present time in which we live. We see the impact of decisions made by current political leaders based on their interpretation of historical events.

        The Psalms here are Psalms of thanksgiving to God and are closely linked to a certain understanding of Israel’s past. Our understanding of our past is critical to how we approach our future as it was for the ancients. So, as we look at our past, the way we as a Nation or as a community have responded to God, that reflection will guide our future activities.

What does that mean for our response to God in this time and place?

         Part of our Thanksgiving to God requires that we acknowledge, in Lincoln’s words, “our perverse-ness and disobedience” with humility. Thanksgiving both in the Psalms and with Lincoln cannot exist without penitence and care for those who may not share in our blessings.

         Every morning I drive to Newark after getting off the highway, I am stopped by a series of traffic lights. At one light in particular, there is a man, prob-ably early forties – difficult to tell because he is usu-ally not shaven and is unkempt – looking for money. He’s a panhandler. And every morning I see him I give him a dollar. What I really want to do is talk to him but because I am in a car with a light and traffic, it’s impossible.

         It snowed Thursday and into Friday morning. I wonder where he lives or stays. I had to wonder about the more than 60,000 homeless in New York City; that’s almost the population of Middletown. Yes, all the stores are looking to hire but what does that mean for people who have no job history and few, if any, skills?

         How is it that we are below 4 percent unem-ployment and there is an increase in the demands on food pantries and for emergency assistance? At the same time people are buying $2 million dollar condos. In fact, two weeks ago the real estate section of The New York Times carried an article on how to get an apartment for a million or less. This is our national perverseness and disobedience, as Lincoln would put it.

       We thank God for the world around us as we should. But the world round us is not equally shared with all. Corporate greed and the demand by towns for more and more building create unequal playing fields. The town of Paradise, so terribly devastated by fire, had before its town leaders a proposal to build even more units closer to the forest and this after earlier fires.

         It had one road in and one out toward the forest. A terrible price for the demand for housing in areas where housing should never have been built. We need to consider seriously the prices we pay.

We have just recently gone through the fire of elections – and they don’t seem to be over yet. We need the water of reconciliation and peace between previous warring parties. Yes, we are a polarized nation and so it was in 1863 as well when Lincoln called for reconciliation.

        As we gather to give thanks this week, let us remember those in our own Nation who do not share in our bounty. A true Thanksgiving is the resolution to strive even more to bring the blessings we enjoy to others. A true Thanksgiving continues past the day and into the future. Thanks be to God!

         Let us pray: We come to you, Beneficent One who gives us so much and ask that you forgive the perverseness and disobedience so prevalent in our Nation. Bring us from night to never-ending day by your grace so we may share it with others. In the name of him who shared all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.