What Were You Going To Ask?

July 5, 2020


July 5, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

“What was your Question?”

Scripture Reference: Matthew 6.7-8    


“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”           


            Abraham Lincoln saved me.  When I started preaching, I was surprised by the moments of peril conjured on patriotic holidays. Lincoln’s words in proclamations and his declarations of fast days and his inaugural speeches and of course the Gettysburg address, they saved me. 

            I was trained to be sure about the bible, about theology, and the coming Kingdom of God.  And I am sure.  Yet, it is one thing to be sure of God’s amazing grace or the atoning death of Jesus.  This is one kind of surety.  And a helpful one for preaching.  Yet, on a day like this, in a pulpit, you also need the surety of Lincoln.  The surety that we are a people set to a specific task, gathered on a perilous path to find our better angels. 

            You see on a day like this, if you are honest, this is the day to ask, what is your surety of America? 

            As a teenager I was certain of our nation’s sins.  Although not the most fun at parties, I was helpful if you needed to remove the veil covering the blissful arrogance of American exceptionalism.  As a youth I experienced the angst of our nation’s faults. 

            Growing up in southern California I watched migrant farmers walk the canyons and I knew our history of manifest destiny that swallowed up the land conquered by the Spanish and claimed by the Mexicans.  I lived in the complexity, irony, and tragedy of our history.  The living history painted on warning signs showing the symbol of a mother and father and a child running, holding hands.  The signs are to warn motorists that people are likely to run across the freeway here.

            Lincoln saved me from the easy answers of disdain.  Anyone can find fault in another, in a community, a church, and certainly a nation.  Our misdeeds are ever compiling and ever beyond the reach of atonement.  Today we are in a locked battle of making the faults of others all too clear.  Our battles are rhetoric and vitriol, a very self-righteous fight.  It was Lincoln and his single vision that guided me from an honesty without hope, to a hope that is tenaciously honest. 

            In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln speaks of the unfinished work, the great task of a new birth of freedom.  He called upon those who gathered on the site of 50,000 dead and nearly that again wounded or missing in three days of battle, he called upon those who were gathered to see themselves as dedicated and consecrated to the work, the task, the new birth of freedom.  Lincoln did not believe he or anyone else could consecrate the battle site as it was already dedicated by the full measure of devotion. What saved me was this: in the midst of such tragedy he was hopeful.

            Even more important for me, though, was his honesty and confession intertwining the hope.  We were engaged in this civil war on account of our sins.  For Lincoln it was not about good people on both sides; for him it was that we are sinners on all sides.  And it was this brokenness that must be made clear if we are to see, in his words, if this nation is to endure. Without such honesty we are in the gravest peril.

            History without honesty becomes heroic, or hagiographic.  History without the sins, without the complicity, is what we put on top of pedestals. The gallant general with sword drawn and horse rearing, such monuments are not a guide for the future, they are a dishonest memory of the past at best; at worst they are an invitation of tragedy.

            In our time of searching to come here, there was a church in Maryland, just a few miles from our daughter Laura, who asked for an interview.  I said I would be happy to.  To help the conversation, I said, perhaps you should read a recent sermon.  In the sermon I suggested that the current controversy over Confederate statues was not about history or tradition or culture or valiant men defending their hearth and home.  These statues are the work of Klansmen to enforce and inflict fear.  These statues were a way of saying, the war of Northern Aggression may have ended in military defeat, but our supremacy continues.

            Take them down I said.  No studies, no committees.  Let’s just be honest about the time and purpose, the false history, the thinly veiled threat of power over the black community. Put them in a museum dedicated to our persistent racism.

            I got an email from the committee shortly after I sent the sermon.  They were thinking it would be good if we went in different directions.  I concurred.

            It is not a monument of glory that will lead us toward the enduring union of freedom, the experiment, Lincoln called it.  And it is certainly not a heroic history, a hagiography, with all the dishonesty needed to craft it.  What we need right now is honesty.  We need the honesty in the article written by Caroline Randall Williams.  That is a tough one.  The article was in the New York Times.  The title is: You Want a Confederate Monument?  My Body is a Confederate Monument.  If you are struggling with this question, read her essay. 

            In this moment, we have a chance to be honest; and honesty is the real challenge of good history.  This is what Douglas Blackmon offers in his Pulitzer prize winner, Slavery by Another Name.  This was a tough, tough book.  Not only tough because it described the persistent and savage violence brought upon black citizens in the south after the Civil War (this is a tough read), but it is also tough because you realize this persisted, persisted unchecked until 1945. Eighty years after the civil war.  This is the truth.  History is hard work with the truth.

            At the end of his book Blackmon quotes something Martin Luther King Jr. wrote.  In the early 1960s King wrote, “The South deluded itself with the illusion that the Negro was happy in his place; the North deluded itself with the illusion that it had freed the Negro.  The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slave, a legal entity, but it failed to free the Negro, a person.”  That is good history, a history that is honest, and in such honesty,  we can work, we can continue, and find the new birth of freedom unto which Lincoln called us to be dedicated.

            This is hard work, hard conversations, heavy lifting.

            In our reading today from the Sermon on the Mount is a moment of hard work.  It is not easy to see at first.  Indeed, this passage has been the source of the opposite, a kind of wishful lazy theology.  God knows what you need before you ask.  This is a key component to what is called the prosperity Gospel. 

            At the heart of the prosperity gospel, is a very thin theology, a delusion that is all too easy to fall into. 

            Kate Bowler is maybe the leading scholar on the prosperity gospel.  She is a professor at Duke and has written about the televangelists who have tens of thousands of followers who are looking for a better car, a better job, a bigger house, financial freedom based in miracles, a blessed life. 

            Bowler does a good job describing the logic that comes from our passage today: God has set everything up, and God is ready to reward you.  You need only get in line.  All the blessings are pouring forth, you just need to open your heart and your wallet.  Empty your wallet so it can be filled. 

            In her description, though, is also a confession; she felt the lure of this dishonesty.  This very thin theology was attractive to her.  She liked how problems are just a matter of waiting; setbacks are really a moment to move forward; and if you are not being blessed it was a lack of faith.  You just need to believe more.

            This was a very enticing message because it has an answer for everything; and everything has an answer. 

            Kate Bowler’s recent book is titled, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.  Her book reveals how little this thin theology allowed her to navigate stage four cancer as a young mother of a toddler.  How the prosperity gospel couldn’t speak to tragedy.  Her life took a tragic turn and there were no easy answers, answers like everything “happens for a reason.” 

            As she struggled with chemotherapy and surgery and immunotherapy, as she fought to live and fought to find trust in a body in peril, two things carried her through.  The first was love.  She said, I woke up from surgery and what was so clear to me was that I was loved. 

            The other strength was honesty.  She drew strength from being honest.  Like many people who have lived through tragedy or great loss or cancer, there is little energy for falsity or pretense.  You stop worrying what would happen if we told the truth, just told the truth. 

            At the heart of her experience is a very powerful light.  Tragedies are not there for a reason; loss and heartache is not God’s test.  This is not the way we learn all things work together for the good for those who love the Lord.  Easy answers and platitudes are very dishonest, very thin theology. 

            In the moment of hardship she also experienced finding what is most important, and what it is we really need.  Hardship is not there to teach us, but we can learn.

            We can learn our need for honesty.  We really need love and beauty and goodness and justice.  We really need these.  And this is the hidden truth, the buried treasure, the mystery at the heart of our reading today.  God knows what we need before we ask, but we so often don’t know what we really need.  And while hardships are not given to teach us this, loss and trauma and suffering can so often be the place where we lay aside all the things we don’t need and find the freedom of love and honesty and goodness.

            That is how Lincoln saved me in those dangerous days of early sermons.  It wasn’t my calling to make sense out of sin or America or to justify my answers of ideology.  My calling, our calling, what Jesus is calling us to do is to find what it is we truly need and be absolutely determined that we will share this, give this away to all.  That is our experiment, to form a union based in freedom given and honored from, by, and for all.

            In the ravages of the civil war, the unthinkable loss of Gettysburg, I could hear the layers of pretense removed, all the dishonesty about sides and self-righteousness.  If you listen to his proclamations and addresses and inaugural speeches, you can hear the honesty we need to dedicate ourselves, to live unto freedom.

            But this is hard work.  Reading the essay, “Do you want a Confederate Monument?” is hard work.  But there is so much honesty there; so much freedom to be found in her speaking truth to power. Walking with Kate Bowler through stage four cancer, you can hear and see the easy answers, the delusions we love, you can hear and see these fall away. 

            Historians love the simple, but tragic irony that the Battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3rd. They love to point to Lincoln’s remarks about dedication and new birth as recognizing that this terrible moment of loss and pain was the labor giving birth to a new nation.  Those are lovely thoughts.  Yet, what I love is his call to be honest about our persistent need to repent, to be humble, to work for freedom without waiting for it to happen.

            If we are honest, our history, our theology will set us free.  Amen. 

Bible References

  • Colossians 2:6 - 12
  • Matthew 6:5 - 8