“And the war came . . . and it was night”
Homily by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
July 26, 2020
Text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every third year, we hear Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew during the summer. We just heard five very short ones, of which I would like to highlight only two; both are about something very small growing or spreading into something very large. The first is the parable of the tiny mustard seed that grows so big that it can make a difference beyond itself, providing a nesting site for many different birds. The parable of the yeast gives us a similar message from a different angle: just a bit of yeast mixed with a much larger amount of flour can affect the character of the dough, expanding it, strengthening it, and making it delicious.
We should realize that although Jesus’ examples in today’s parables produce positive results – a healthy mustard tree, and a fine loaf of bread – the reverse can be true, too. Some seeds are bad ones that grow into trouble, and some kinds of yeast can be toxic when they spread. It is important that we pay attention to this, because in both cases human nature tends to discount the tiny until it grows into something that is so big that it demands a response. A clear example of something very small but very bad is the COVID-19 virus, which is only 1/650th the width of a human hair, but which can multiply into a potentially deadly disease that spreads through a population. That small germ had to wreak big havoc, bringing our country and the world to its knees, before we thought it worthy of attention.
Yet seeds and leaven need not only be biological; they can be spiritual and moral too. Take slavery. Although slaves first came to North America in the 1500s, we fix the beginning date of slavery in America as 1619, when the Jamestown settlers brought about twenty African slaves to their colony. Reprehensible as that was, it was not a large enough number to arouse either much notice or cause an outcry, until slavery grew and grew and spread and spread. Like an untreated malignancy it was allowed to flourish through and beyond the American Revolution, and although there was an abolitionist movement growing in opposition to it, these two moral and spiritual forces did not truly clash until the Civil War. In the aftermath, we might be tempted think that the Union victory settled once and for all not only the moral question of the existence of slavery, but also the racism and economic forces that drove it. But then we would be mistaken.
Many wars aren’t over when a peace treaty is signed or when the soldiers strip off their uniforms. This is clear from the Book of Exodus, where Israel is depicted as being in an endless war with an implacable foe: Amalek, the grandson of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. The conflict between Jacob and Esau was passed down through the generations to Amalek, who attacked Israel in the Battle of Rephidim. And even though Amalek and his people lost that battle, his descendants, the Amalekites, remained enemies of Israel for hundreds of years, they never fully disappeared. Exodus says, “God’s is the war with Amalek, from generation to generation!”
In 1864, a rabbi, David Einhorn, delivered an anti-slavery sermon entitled “War with Amalek!” in which he excoriates not only slavery itself, but the enslavement of conscience which prevents people from opposing evil even when they know it’s the right thing to do. Einhorn says,
Amalek has assumed the type of the evil principle among Israel (that’s the people of God, that’s us). It is Amalek’s seed, wherever the evil and wicked rule; wherever, especially rude violence which cheaply bought courage makes war upon defenceless innocence, and wherever a majority in the service of falsehood directs its blows with ruthless fist against the face of a weak minority.
We can say that the American Civil War, like the war with Amalek, never truly ended, and continues to plague us from generation to generation. Five weeks before the South surrendered in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address, which looked back on the how the war came about, the seeds of it, and how much worse it grew to be than either side had envisioned. Lincoln says,
Both sides deprecated war, but one side would make war rather than let the Union survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
“And the war came.” Those last few words – “and the war came” – have always sent a chill down my spine, because they convey both the dread that grips our hearts when we know a fearsome storm is gathering, as well as our ignorance of precisely how bad the suffering brought by that storm will be. Those words remind me of a different four-word phrase that occurs in John’s Gospel. After Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, there is one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “And it was night”; conveying that same dread, the same ignorance of the magnitude of the suffering ahead. In both cases, the war came, and it was night. But the seeds had been there all along, in plain view for anyone who had the eyes to perceive them.
Now although undeniable progress has been made on race in our country – including the election of Barack Obama twice to the presidency, that does not mean that Amalek had been vanquished in America; it only meant that while that progress was happening, poisonous seeds were taking root along what were to become the next battle fronts. As before, the signs were there for those who had the eyes to see them: the bizarre birther movement targeting Obama that grabbed the attention and allegiance of a shockingly high number of people, the rise of far-right hate-groups dedicated to loathing immigrants, blacks, Jews and women, increasing social media activity promoting both disinformation and violence – these were all flagged and publicized by watch dog groups, who found them hiding in plain sight. More ominously, what had been fringe views and marginalized people began spreading into our government. The result was, among other things, the “stand your grounds laws” that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin, and the rollback of civil rights laws, all while laws enabling voter suppression increased. Yet even those seeds had not grown large enough to warrant our sustained attention, and the leaven, though spreading, had not infiltrated our institutions to the degree where it presented a threat that demanded action.
But then the war came, and it was night. Since 2016, our country has been plunged into not one but several conflicts, the latest iterations of war with Amalek. Some are renewed and sharpened old conflicts, like our divisive political climate, others are newer, like the fight against COVID-19, but all are fought alongside our long-running struggle against racial injustice. Together, these constitute a war for the soul of our nation. We are fighting not just to win now, but to create a post-conflict America. What do we want that America to look like? I think we can agree among all who are worshipping here today that we want a just society for every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and political persuasion, as well as fair access to health care, job opportunities, education, food, clothing, and shelter. Finally, all of us want our families to live in safety, and we all want our world to be at peace.
Those are the ideal objectives; charting the path of how we get there is the task that is before us. In many ways this is much more difficult than the actual fighting – battles are visceral, filled with adrenalin and righteous anger leaving no room for thought or subtlety. But building a post-war world takes place in entirely different spheres, those of thought, imagination, negotiation, and policy implementation. Future plans are expressions of different hopes, and there will never be total agreement among all parties on the details. As our nation recently discovered after the military conquest in Iraq, winning is the easy part – it’s what comes next that is infinitely harder largely because our primal human emotions make it so. One big hurdle is that the animal part of our nature has never lost the desire for revenge, and that is what occupied President Lincoln’s mind as the North’s victory came into view. In that same Second Inaugural Address I quoted earlier, Lincoln looked forward towards post- Civil War America, recommending this path for the future nation:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle (and here he meant the soldiers of the South too) . . . to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln believed with all his soul that our country was capable of healing, even after all the bloodshed and division and convulsions of enmity that had torn apart many American families and came close to destroying the Union itself. Despite all of that, he could envision a future that was characterized – we could say, “leavened” – by charity for every American.
Lincoln knew that we cannot do this in our own strength – he was careful to note that is only God who could give us the ability to discern what he calls, “the right,” a just path forward, which is another way of saying that we must exercise our faith. Faith is the essential element in creating a just, safe, and healthy future, especially following violent conflict. The late Congressman John Lewis knew as much, too; Lewis said that
The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty.
Lewis also said, “If you’re not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up.” Hope and optimism are both the seeds and the fruit of faith. Faith is the leaven, which when it spreads through an individual or a society, destroys the toxins of injustice, oppression, and lust for revenge. Rabbi Einhorn, President Lincoln and Congressman Lewis all were laboring, each in their own way, in their own time, and in their own respective fields, to build a better society after the long night of war finally dissipated.
Amalek may live to fight another day, but remember: God’s is the war with Amalek, so we can confidently face tomorrow in faith. Church, this is our role in the current conflicts, both now and in the future, for our country and for our world: to strive for a society that harbors malice towards none, but charity for all, and to go forward in faith with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, striving on to finish the work we are in now and will be given to do, as we bind up the nation’s wounds and work to create God’s kingdom here on earth.
In Christ’s name we pray.