Lessons from Gettysburg 2, Christ the King (2017-1126)

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Nov 2017, Christ Mountain Top, Christ the King
to Worship, Psalm 95, p 814-815, Sung Response 2
Joshua 5.13-15
1 Corinthians 15.20-28
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.

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. 
Summon Only the Brave!