A Gettysburg Address, of sorts
A week ago an idea was put forth by a seminary colleague of mine: the Gettysburg Address sermon. November 19th marks its 150th Anniversary. It is considered one of U.S. history’s greatest speeches, and its only 272 words long. If one of the greatest speeches ever was 272 words why do we need so many many more? So the challenge was put forth. What if on November 17th, in honor of this great moment in history, we preached sermons that were only 272 words long?
The challenge intrigued me. I want to do it. I’m not preaching this Sunday so I cannot now, but I imagine I will take the challenge at some point in the near future. It is amazing what happens when we begin to make sure every word counts in what we say. It’s the opposite of the way I preach now (I don’t write sermons out so I don’t know how many words I use). And maybe for this reason alone I consider it a good idea – we need to change it up now and then. After all God is always doing a new thing!
However, the subject of the remainder of this post isn’t the idea of a sermon of 272 words; it’s actually the Gettysburg Address as the sermon. What happens to these words when we preach them in our churches? What happens to these words when the battles which we reference are the wars of words and theology and scriptural authority that occur and split and mangle the Body of Christ today? When the grave yard in which we stand is our own empty pews?
About church splits there are many theories. The diversity is too great to hold our deep convictions about God together in unity. Questions about power, authority, and whether we are bound together by sets of laws or by a common vision that will not let us go. The role of tradition and how we honor the past without becoming its slaves. And how we pass on our convictions while also granting freedom of conscience?
These questions plagued our nation, and they haunt our understanding of church today. When I teach Presbyterian history I talk about the civil war. Whether we admit it the church has always been formed by the society around us and this was true of slavery. The church split even as the nation split. We could not, however, simply fight a war and establish unity again (yes I’m over simplifying). But it took the church over 100 years to end that rift, if we even did. And when I think on that I think – maybe the literal battle fought by blue and grey wasn’t any dirtier than the hundred year’s war the church fought.
Is there another way? Is unity worth the blood and tears? Apparently Lincoln thought so. But he also thought it gave us responsibility. Responsibility to make that sacrifice worth it. Responsibility to pass on the gift of freedom, the gift of shared experience in freedom, the gift of people invested in being freedom for the generations to come. Does this preach in our churches today? I don’t know yet… but I have a sense it does…. There shall be a new birth of freedom, indeed.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It should be noted that the post above is divided into three sections, each 272 words long. Not exactly the assignment but I still enjoyed the process.