Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.
Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples.
For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.
Be gracious to me, O Lord.
See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,
so that I may recount all your praises,
and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
rejoice in your deliverance.
Tell me if you recognize these song lyrics:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He have loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on
As many of you have said, it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862. Howe, a poet, abolitionist, and suffragist, actually spent quite a lot of time just down the road in Gardiner, Maine, and one of her daughter’s eventually moved there. During the Civil War, Howe had worked for the US Sanitary Commission, an organization that encouraged more sanitary conditions at field hospitals and for soldiers. After witnessing the destruction of that war instigated by slavers, both during battle and the on-going suffering veterans and people who lost family members and friends after the war, she grew leery of war, in general. It was too easy for powerful people to risk other’s lives for their own petty gain.
In 1870, she shared what would become known as The Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace. This proclamation, and her organizing of peace actions and demonstrations in New York, would serve as one part of the foundation for our current holiday of Mother’s Day, though, in her lifetime, she was not able to successfully develop the Mother’s Day for Peace into a national holiday. Here is the text of her proclamation:
MOTHER’S DAY PROCLAMATION
Arise, then… women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage,
for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: Disarm, Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
nor violence vindicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
at the summons of war,
let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means
whereby the great human family can live in peace,
each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask
that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality,
may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient,
and at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
to promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
the amicable settlement of international questions,
the great and general interests of peace.
~ Julia Ward Howe
While I do not think that women, as some essential part of our being, are just magically more peaceful and less capable of violence, I have been thinking about Mrs. Howe’s proclamation this week. What would it mean to listen to the wisdom of the ones who have been tasked with both the physical risk, often life-threatening, of bearing children into the world as well as, in so many cases, the bulk of the responsibility in nurturing them into adulthood? How do we reckon with the aftermath of violence, even violence that seems justified, and the ways that trauma ripples out, like flood waves or earthquakes, completely changing lives?
Howe’s proclamation is at once a realistic assessment of the pain of state violence and the need for collective mourning, while also demonstrating a kind of absurd level of hopefulness in the power of everyday people of good will to work together for peace. This congress of international women who will meet to wage peace? Impossible. It could never happen. It is good to remember that it’s the Easter season, though. And, people thought that Resurrection was impossible, too. Perhaps our faith is rooted in working towards the faithful impossible.
I started this sermon by mentioned one song about war, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Our Psalm, today, is also a song written in response to war and state violence. This Psalm describes God as a stronghold for the oppressed. Stronghold here means something like a fortress or force you can count on for support and salvation. In his commentary on this text, John Kselman says this image of God, as “righteous judge and defender of the oppressed” is very common in Psalms. I’d add that it’s common across the Bible all the way into Jesus’ life and ministry.
The Psalmist doesn’t spend any time questioning the validity of state violence, but does describe the horrors of war, sometimes with a level of glee towards the suffering of enemies that I can’t really stomach. But, here in the middle of the Psalm, is this assertion that God stands with those who suffer at the hands of enemies of the nation in which they live... that God stands with the regular people whose lives are made worse by the call to war of their leaders. God does not forget the cry of the afflicted. God is the one who lifts the suffering up from the gates of death. And, those who have been saved will rejoice at the gates of God’s city, the fortified walls of Jerusalem.
Julia Ward Howe called for an audacious congress of women to work for peace. The Psalmist sings praises for God at the city gates in the wake of a terrible war. What is the hopeful and impossible seeming future you are dreaming of? Is it a world where all people have what advocate organization SisterSong calls “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities?” Is it a world where transgender kids have the support they need to grow into the lives they are called to live, whole and healthy and beloved? Knowing that God is your stronghold, what impossible future can you see beyond the gates of death that are looming? What songs will you sing to God as you work with the Holy Spirit for the impossible? May you find the song of praise that can guide you in this holy work of the faithful impossible.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Information about Julia Ward Howe and the Mother's Day Proclamation:
John S. Kselman, "Psalms," The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.