A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 25, 2012
Luke 5:27-32 GNT
I read a couple of articles a few weeks ago about the passing of a man that I really didn’t know much about. The articles were not obituaries per se, but they were in the tone of obituaries. I had heard of this man for years, but as I said, I really didn’t know him. As I read about him, I learned that this man was a generous, kind, honest, and honorable man, a man of great compassion. Throughout his life he was a caring, thoughtful person, a man of great conscience and conviction. The son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, it has been stated that he sought to emulate John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. In fact, he received his undergraduate degree from Dakota Wesleyan University after earning the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. Following his graduation from Dakota Wesleyan, he attended seminary briefly (likely considering becoming a minister for a time) before earning a master’s degree and doctorate in American history and government at Northwestern University. From then on, he would devote his life to public service, and he lived his life in service to others.
As a public servant, he advocated strongly for the middle class, the poor, and the hungry. And he was devoted to being a peacemaker. He has been described as one who did justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God, in the spirit of the great Hebrew prophet Micah. He became a leading voice in the fight against hunger and fought to eliminate hunger at home and abroad. “Practically every speech and certainly every book he wrote cited biblical references that were at the core of his personality and political philosophy. . . His faith was applied Christianity.”1
As I read about this man, it occurred to me that he attempted to live his life according to the teachings of Jesus, especially as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. And it appears that he advocated for the same segments of society that Jesus advocated for: the poor, the hungry, those on the fringes of society, those who were victims of injustice or circumstances beyond their control, those who needed someone to take care of them because they could not take care of themselves. In the passage that I read from Luke, Jesus speaks of those who are sick and in need of assistance and care. It was such that Jesus sought to serve, and such that this man I have been telling you about sought to serve as well.
But the surprising thing is this man I have been telling you about was not accepted by many of his day. He was considered way too liberal by many on many of the issues he advocated. He was painted “as kind of an unstable, radical person.” “He was a pioneering force behind the school lunch program” and believed that our nation’s security “was bound up in how we feed and clothe the poor and hungry.” President John F. Kennedy tapped him as special assistant to the President as the first director of the Food for Peace Program, something which led to the beginning of the UN World Food Program.
By now, many of you have probably figured out that the man I have been telling you about was Senator George McGovern who died at the age of 90 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As one acquaintance said of him, for McGovern “the Social Gospel was not just a theory, but the core of his faith in seeking to make the world a better place.”1 Though many of his Methodist friends have hailed him as “a forward-looking politician,” he was rejected by over half of the American voters because of his humanitarian and Social Gospel beliefs and actions when he was defeated by Richard M. Nixon in his bid for the presidency in 1972. But as we look back at Govern and his life, in many ways he was ahead of his times. As noted by the Christian Century magazine, “In retrospect, McGovern’s campaign proposals planted some seeds of change.”1 For example, McGovern was one of the first to contend that women should be considered as appointees to the Supreme Court and as nominees for the vice presidency. Liberal, radical, a man ahead of his times. Sort of like Jesus. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not painting McGovern as a Jesus figure; but it seems that he did strive to live his life according to the way Jesus lived his.
As I think about all of this, it occurs to me that such should be the way of the church. As the church, we should be ahead of our time. Which from a Christian perspective is in reality going back in time to Jesus and the way he lived his life as he was a man ahead of his time in the way he advocated for children, women, the marginalized, and those on the fringes of society that no one else cared for.
One of the reasons that as an ordained minister I personally decided to identify with the New England Congregationalists and the United Church of Christ (into which many of the Congregationalists moved in the founding of the United Church of Christ in 1957) is they have a history of being a church and people ahead of their time. The Congregationalists were of the first to work to abolish slavery. They were of the first to ordain women to the Christian ministry. They were of the first to work for the rights of all regardless of sexual orientation. They have a reputation of advocating for issues of social justice, running ahead of society in general.
We could also cite those who early on advocated for prison reform, and the rights of the mentally ill, social reformers who were not always popular with the masses. But the ideas they espoused, and the changes that eventually came about anyway, proved that they were ahead of their time.
Taking care of those who are unable to take care of themselves used to be more or less a good idea to which I felt committed. But about three years ago, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, and especially children, became very personal to me with the birth of a special needs grandchild. Being born with a multitude of physical problems through no fault of her own or of her parents, our granddaughter’s medical bills long ago approached 1 million dollars. There is no way that our son-in-law, with a church youth director’s salary, could ever hope to pay all the medical bills they have incurred. Our granddaughter is one of the little ones that Jesus would have advocated for, and that George McGovern and others like him advocated for as well. In their willingness to give up something of self to help care for the needs of society’s vulnerable, such advocates have not always been heard or appreciated. But in some ways, such human rights advocates have been ahead of their time.
In many ways, this United Church also has a history and reputation of being a church ahead of its time. Progressive, non-creedal, open and inclusive. Some of you may not know that several years Civil Rights leader and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, preached in our chapel. And in 2005, this church hosted progressive biblical scholar John Shelby Spong. On our church sign at the road is the motto, “A church for those of all faiths and those of uncertain faith.” So in many ways, the United Church has been a church ahead of its time. And may we continue to be so. May we continue to be on the cutting edge of needed change and matters involving issues of social justice and the rights and care for the underprivileged of society. That is who Jesus was, and that, I believe, is who we are called to be as well.
I think when it comes time for us to die and be eulogized, worse things could be said of us than “he or she was ahead of his or her time” because of the progressive ideas we espoused or the way we advocated for those who could not take care of themselves. May we be granted both vision and wisdom that we might be as a faith community collectively and as individual members of our community and wider world holy visionaries ahead of our time. Amen.
Works Drawn from and Cited:
Christian Century, November 14, 2012.
USA Today, Oct. 21, 22, 2012.