“Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln”, a sermon given in July 2018. A story about Lincoln, Tolstoy, and utopian hopes.

July 23, 2018 jessupr515@gmail.com No comments exist

Squirrel Island, ME. Sermon, July 8, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer

Scripture: Isaiah 11:6-7

So, shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…the calf and the lion?
Shall they be together.…will the lion eat straw like the ox…and shall
a little child lead them?
Or
With malice toward none; with charity for all…shall we bind up the nation’s wounds….and…. do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

I would say that we meet this morning here in this chapel because we have not entirely given up on these utopian hopes. In our silences and in our songs, we share, in these moments, something peaceful. From the hard wood and through the clear windows, we feel something simple and real. And we have memories of faces we still do recall in our life.
Hope, peace, reality, and memory: These are not just secular words, they are words that point us toward spiritual realities and invite us to participate in the life of the spirit.
The wolf and the lamb together are Biblical images from the Prophet Isaiah expressing the Hebrew and human hope for utopia, the human city become the holy city, God’s reign in our historical lives.
With malice toward none and charity for all, of course, are Lincoln’s American words for national healing and lasting world peace.
The story of America more than any other nation is a story of our living Biblical hopes to define community and national life. Because we mandate a separation between church and state we have always been free to create and to judge our community life with religious ideas. Even our journalistic obsession with hypocrisy is rooted in the assumption that people should be good. Our secular Enlightenment values are rooted in the Biblical categories of the value of human life and justice. The flame atop the statue of Liberty is a torch originally lit from Moses’ burning-bush revelation of freedom from oppression.
The story of America with its Biblical utopian hopes—that City on the Hill—is the answer to the crisis of America.
There is within each and every one of us a library of unopened maybe forgotten books all ready for the story teller, the Prophet, to come in, sit down, and start telling and retelling us our American, almost religious, story.
I’m thinking of the wonderful library we have here on Squirrel Island. I’m imagining that we gather in small groups each evening, and an American Prophet, an American story teller, comes in and sits down with us—having picked several books off the shelves—and begins to read and tell us once again who we are and why we are who we are. And of course after a summer of this we will be ready to have the wolf and the lamb lie down together and we will have that remarkable absence of malice that is the true nature of our best selves, the better angels of our nature.
There are many American Prophet story tellers. I today choose Abraham Lincoln. Some evening we could have Mark Twain, another, Emily Dickenson, wouldn’t she be amazing, or perhaps Robert Penn Warren or Anne Patchett. I’m sure you have some in mind. “The Idea of America as Told in a Story of America”, that would be our poster motto on the Post Office wall.
When the outer story resonates with our inner self, then we have peace, hope, and love. Stories remind us of what it means to be human. They organize our experience into meaningful and shareable words and feelings. When the outer story is received and accepted by the inner story there is harmony, both within ourselves and between each other. Utopia is simply a matter of getting most of us to tell, hear, feel and abide by the same story.
Today’s first story teller is in fact not Lincoln but Leo Tolstoy. He has a story to tell us about Lincoln, about Lincoln and Christ and some Muslim warriors in the mountains of the Caucuses.
Recall that hope and peace, reality and memory are among the spiritual realities we gather to invoke. Our concern is that the wolf is at the throat of the lamb in our world, daily and in new and local and global ways. Recall that with malice toward none and charity for all are the axioms for a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Can our imaginations be stirred by a story involving the triangle of Lincoln, Christ, and Muslim warriors?
In 1909 a reporter for the New York World paper had a telephone conversation with Leo Tolstoy. America was preparing for the100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
What do we see of the world and ourselves in this story—Russian Muslim warriors in the mountains, Leo Tolstoy talking with them about Lincoln and about Christ?
The major Lincoln scholars credit this story. This is how Doris Kearns Goodwin retells it at the end of her book “Team of Rivals”, the book that gave rise to Tony Kushner’s movie script for the Spielberg film “Lincoln.”
She writes:
In 1908, in a wild and remote area of the North Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy, the greatest writer of the age, was the guest of a tribal chief, ‘living far away from civilized life in the mountains.’ Gathering his family and neighbors, the chief asked Tolstoy to tell stories about the famous men of history. Tolstoy told how he entertained the eager crowd for hours with tales of Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. When he was winding to a close, the chief stood and said, ‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock….His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.’
‘I looked at them,’ Tolstoy recalled, ‘and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that the rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.’ He told them everything he knew about Lincoln’s ‘home life and youth…his habits, his influence upon the people and his physical strength.’ When he finished, they were so grateful for the story that they presented him with ‘a wonderful Arabian horse.’ The next morning, as Tolstoy prepared to leave, they asked if he could possibly acquire for them a picture of Lincoln. Thinking that he might find one at a friend’s house in the neighboring town, Tolstoy asked one of the riders to accompany him. ‘I was successful in getting a large photograph from my friend,’ recalled Tolstoy. As he handed it to the rider he noted that the man’s hand’s trembled as he took it. ‘He gazed for several minutes silently, like one in a reverent prayer, his eyes filled with tears.’
Tolstoy went on to observe, “This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become.” Now why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and the greatness of his character.
‘Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together.
‘We are still too near to his greatness,’ Tolstoy concluded, ‘but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerable bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.’ ”
Tolstoy had elsewhere written that the greatness of Lincoln makes him an almost Christ-like figure in history because he was willing and able to love his enemies. And another historian expands the text of the 1909 newspaper story stating that the Muslim warrior not only wept when he saw the picture of Lincoln but exclaimed that you could see from Lincoln’s lips that he was a man who had suffered great sorrow and sadness.
Stories express wonder, manifest emotions, demonstrate character, imaging situations that can teach us about our world, and give us another window by which to view ourselves.
Stories, histories, real and imagined, lead us to our best selves because they draw up the better nature within us waiting to be reborn.
It is not for me to interpret for you this story about Lincoln—it carries its own suggestions. To me it does not make Lincoln into a Christian, which he was not, never professing Christ nor joining a Christian church. Lincoln tempered American exceptionalism by naming us God’s “almost chosen people.”
But the historian Arnold Toynbee names self-sacrificial love as the virtue that generates the rising trajectory of history. And so I see how that somber virtue, self-sacrificial love, in Lincoln inspired one of the greatest literary and moral figures of the 19th century, Leo Tolstoy, and profoundly moved a cohort of raw mountain men and Muslim warriors.
My guidance as preacher is to join those who warn us against making religious life the front line of political life. From Thomas Jefferson to Reinhold Niebuhr we need to be restrained from imposing our religious vision on the body politic.
Yet if Lincoln’s character gives us a hint of what it would be like to live with malice toward none and charity for all, so can he reveal for us the practical spirit in which the wolf and lamb make peace and the lion and the cow eat straw together.
Well, if not straw perhaps a melon! Here’s a true story: Lincoln and the melon thieves.
Now in southern Indiana, Lincoln’s boyhood homeland, melons, cantaloupe-like melons are of historic proportions and taste. We lived there. In our time they are referred to as Posey County Melons. Well, the Lincoln family had a melon patch. As a field hand young Lincoln, aged 14 or so, was already up to his six feet four-inch gigantic height, and noticed melons missing. Now, within a mile radius of what was called the Little Pigeon community there were nine families and 49 children between the ages of seven and seventeen.
Lincoln knew who was stealing his family’s melons. Lincoln hid behind some trees. Here is how one historian tells the story.
“Once some neighbor boys raided the Lincoln melon patch and one of them, (Joseph C. Richardson, in 1865) recalled: ‘We got the melons, went through the corn to the fence, got over. All at once to our surprise and mortification Lincoln came among us, on us, good naturedly said: “Boys, now I’ve got you.” Sat down with us, cracked jokes, told stories, helped eat the melons.’ ”
This is Lincoln’s spiritual DNA. He takes it with him everywhere he goes. This is the seed bed of his cabinet as a team of rivals. He instructed General Grant to treat Robert E. Lee in such a spirit at the end of the Civil War. His own political plans for Reconstruction held this spirit, nearly utopian.
In his boyhood Murphy’s reader Lincoln had read this aphorism. “To have your enemy in your power and yet to do him good is the greatest heroism.”
The wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion, eat straw together, and a little child shall lead them with malice toward none and charity for all, for a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.
Amen.

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