When Our Name Is Mud

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 3, 2015

Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

April 14 marked an important 150-year anniversary.  You noted it, I am sure.  It was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater.  As you may remember, the assassination happened just four days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a very famous, popular, and well-paid actor.   Booth was also a very disgruntled Confederate sympathizer who despised Lincoln and was vehemently opposed to the abolition of slavery.  So for some days, Booth fumed and was out to get Lincoln.  At first his plan was to kidnap Lincoln, but then learning that Lincoln was going to be at Ford’s Theater, he decided it was a good opportunity to kill him instead.  Booth had such status as an actor, he could come and go throughout Ford’s Theater at will.

After shooting Lincoln in the back of the head, Booth jumped from the President’s box onto the stage.  One story has it that Booth injured his leg in the jump.  But another story has it that Booth’s leg was injured later that evening when his horse fell on it during his flight south.  At any rate, Booth suffered an injured leg and ended up at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just before sunrise on April 15, some 25 miles from Washington.  Dr. Mudd later testified that Booth told him the injury had occurred when his horse fell on him.  Could the story that the horse injured his leg have been just that—a story that Booth told to conceal the truth?  Or a story that Dr. Mudd told to try to protect himself?  Perhaps the real story will never be known.  But giving Dr. Mudd the benefit of the doubt, he treated Booth’s injured leg as any physician would do in keeping with the Hippocratic oath.  And Booth went on his way.

However, for aiding the assassin, Dr. Mudd was accused of helping Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and then of treating his broken leg and helping him escape the authorities afterwards.  Mudd was accused, arrested, convicted of conspiracy, and imprisoned, escaping the death penalty by a single vote.  He would serve about four years in prison, but he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released from prison in 1869.

Now, if you are like me, you have always been under the impression that the familiar phrase, “your name will be mud,” originated with Dr. Samuel Mudd’s act of kindness to John Wilkes Booth, an action that led to his name being soiled and his reputation being ruined because of what he had done in aiding the President’s assassin.  That is what “your name will be mud” means: If you do such and such, your name will be mud—dirtied, tarnished, forever ruined.

However, we did a bit of research and found that the phrase “your name will be mud” having originated with the kindness of Dr. Samuel Mudd likely is a myth.  Research has shown that the phrase appeared long before Lincoln, Booth and Dr. Mudd, as it has been found in one book dated 1823, and possibly another book as early as 1708.  So it appears that the phrase “your name will be mud” being associated with Dr. Samuel Mudd is merely an interesting coincidence.

With all of that having been said, the truth of the matter is, Dr. Samuel Mudd’s name (spelled M-u-d-d) did become “mud,” (m-u-d) because of the fact that he did what most any physician is bound to do in treating an injury and relieving human suffering.

Well, as I was reminded of all these things a few weeks ago with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, it got me to thinking about Dr. Mudd and the phrase (which I now know likely was only coincidental) “your name will be mud.”  You know, there have been many incidents in the course of history when someone went out on a limb to do the right thing, the kind thing, the compassionate thing, only to have their name become “mud.”

Now, of course there are many things that a person could do that are wrong, immoral, or unethical that could result in their name becoming “mud.”  But that is not what I am talking about.  I am focusing in on all those acts of conscience, compassion, kindness, justice or righteousness that people do that may not be popular at the time and that may lead to their name becoming mud.

Jesus made mention of such; not in so many words, and not by using the term “mud.”  But when he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-11 ESV), I think he was in essence saying, “Blessed are you when your name becomes mud for doing what is right.”  What was Jesus trying to say?  That there is a peculiar blessing, or unique sense of satisfaction, that comes to those who do what is right in the face of adversity?  Or that there will be deferred blessings, deferred recognition, or deferred honor for those who are persecuted for doing what is right?

We owe a tremendous debt to many who have gone before us who stood up for the truth, who stood against injustice and oppression, who spoke out on behalf of scientific discoveries and progress, who led in the push for better medical and psychological understanding and treatments, in spite of the fact that at the time they were misunderstood and hated and given a bad name because of the unpopular stands they took.

The movie Selma pointed out how that Rosa Parks—when she became associated with the Montgomery bus boycotts—lost her job as a seamstress and for a time couldn’t find another job because no business in town wanted to be associated with her.  In other words, for a time Rosa Parks’ name might as well have been “mud.”  History books are full of those whose name was marred for a time because of what they did or stood for.  Later—sometimes years or decades or even longer later—there was a reversal in public sentiment, and after being proven right, their names were celebrated.

Of course, as hinted earlier, none of us wants our name to become “mud” because we are guilty of some great wrongdoing.  But the question is, Has there ever been an instance when our name might have become “mud” because we committed an act of human kindness, or did what was right, or stood up for the rights of someone else when it was not popular to do so?

Every now and then, we hear on the news of a so-called “Whistle-blower”—someone in a company, organization, airline, or other entity, who is aware of some gross wrong, evil, or great danger to the public and goes public with that information, even though it means that their name becomes “mud” for having done so.  But in such cases standing on the cause of what is just and right and good outweighs the personal loss that ensues.

The problem is, sometimes when faced with challenging situations in life, we have to make a decision immediately—on the spot.  When such decisions are thrust upon us, may it be so that we have the grounding, the foresight, the fortitude, courage, and grace to do the right thing, even if it means for the time-being our name becomes “mud.”  To paraphrase Jesus, “Blessed are you when your name becomes ‘mud’ for doing what is right.”  Amen.




About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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