The Great Ordeal

Listen to Sermons

November 05, 2017

Six weeks ago at an event at Central High School, Principal Nancy Rousseau told an audience that today students attending Central come to school from families who at home speak twenty-seven different languages. In this multiplicity of native tongues, our famous high school somewhat resembles heaven.

I looked [John writes] and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.

The event at Central High was the national commemoration ceremony welcoming back the nine students who, sixty years ago this fall, had braved fierce resistance to integrate the school. The audience included the mayor, governor, and forty-second president of the United States. Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine, has died. The other eight were here to be honored. This also mirrors something in John’s vision.

One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”

These heavenly resemblances are not superficial. The Little Rock Nine were faithful Christians. The ordeal they endured in 1957 is the kind of thing the saints that John encounters in his vision had endured in ages past. By drawing these nine people into John’s mystical perception, I am not drawing an analogy, but giving an example. And, although the honors of that morning were certainly not heaven (because the mayor, governor, and forty-second president, while constituting a Trinity of a sort, are certainly not God) the earthly honors bestowed on the Little Rock Nine for faithful witness were a crude pre-enactment of something greater on another shore.

They will thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat.

In the Little Rock Nine, faith in America and faith in Christ were intimately intertwined. Their faith in Christ was very strong. They had confidence in him. In Christ, they knew the hateful insults they were hearing were a lie. Their faith in America was weak but strong: weak, as to our country’s goodness, but strong as to its promise. They had strong faith in the truth that all are created equal and equally endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That truth was easy to believe because its Christ-like. But they had waited a long time for their country to make good on that idea and had to doubt it could and would.

It was ten years after the integration of Central, and fifty years ago next Sunday, that a former Dean of this Cathedral delivered the most famous sermon any Dean of Trinity has given. Coatesworth Lewis was by now the Rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg Virginia. On Sunday, November 12, 1967, the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, was in a pew.

From the pulpit, Dean Lewis made bold to question and challenge the rightness of the war in Vietnam. That’s what made the news. A less famous fact about that sermon is that the war remarks were part of a broader lament about America. Trouble was everywhere. “Today,” Dean Lewis said, “we seem surrounded by insoluble problems. Irresistible forces appear to be approaching collision with immovable objects.”

The first and largest problem that he named was not the war, but civil rights. He said: “The most immediate and demanding conflict arises from the insistence of racial minorities to be given all the rights and privileges the majority have achieved. The race problem can no longer be evaded,” he said, adding that its “seemingly impossible questions will require more goodwill than brains.”

Two weeks ago here, our Insights speaker was Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster who has had a lot to say on his shows about the race problem as it looks to us now a half-century after that Sunday morning in Williamsburg. Tavis warned us he would be provocative, which he was, a little, but his provocations came wrapped in goodwill and a warm, friendly personality. He was a lot of fun. As always happens with our Insights speakers, he said some things I disagreed with, and as I sometimes do I stood up at the end for a little friendly sparring, challenging our guest on two points. The first had to do with the power of racism today, the second with our vocation as a nation.

Tavis told us racism is the most intractable problem faced by American society. That was true, I agreed, for centuries. It was still true in 1967. I don’t believe it is true now. Rather than “intractable,” I would say that racism now is “resilient.” Alzheimer’s is intractable; the flu is resilient. Between our problems now and those of sixty and fifty years ago, there is a large, important, qualitative difference.

My second counterpoint had to do with “American Exceptionalism.” Tavis brought up the phrase to throw coals on it. It was true, I agreed, that some very foolish ideas have marched under that banner; but both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King planted flags and took stands underneath it. Both challenged this country to be true to itself as an exception to the normal patterns of human history, such as mob rule or domination of the many by the few. Those patterns are certainly resilient. Are they intractable? To prove they are not is the American vocation.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln named the stakes in words that feel holy:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that their nation might live.

Those soldiers were martyrs to the American exception, the cause for which they gave, as Lincoln said it, unforgettably, their “last full measure of devotion.” Then, on Friday, April 14, 1865, in the balcony at Ford’s Theater, Lincoln joined their ranks.

Hours after Lincoln’s shooting, before news of it had spread, Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston met at Bennett Farm in Durham County, North Carolina, to discuss the surrender of Johnston’s army, which would end the war. Sherman knew, but Johnston didn’t, that Lincoln had been killed. In Sherman’s coat pocket was a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that said simply: “President Lincoln was murdered about ten o’clock last night.” Sherman had not yet told his own officers the news. According to Carl Sandberg, Sherman and Johnston regarded each other with great respect and even personal affection. This is Sandberg’s description of the moment Sherman shows his telegram to Johnston.

Sherman handed over the telegram. Johnston read. On his forehead slowly came sweat “ in large drops” as Sherman watched him, Sherman remembering so clearly and for so long a time afterward how one of the greatest of confederate captains said that “Mr. Lincoln was the best friend they had” and the assassination was “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”[1]

Booth’s shot was heard around the world with similar reactions. Far away in Russia, Leo Tolstoy was grief-stricken at the news. To Russian audiences, all subjects of the Czar, Tolstoy gave passionate speeches about Lincoln’s significance in history. It was not that the American president was perfect, or his judgment infallible. According to Tolstoy, Lincoln was exceptional because “on a highway of mistakes he walked true to one main motive, the benefit of mankind.” Lincoln “was one who wanted to be great through smallness.” Blessed are the meek, Christ said. For Tolstoy, Lincoln gave a face to that beatitude. Here was a man, he said, “of whom a nation has a right to proud. He was Christ in miniature.”[2]

Lincoln was shot on Good Friday. The symbolic power in that fact was lost on no one at the time. This agonizing moment for our country was a real life mirror of the gospel. Karl Barth called these moments “secular parables.” “Christ in miniature” is another way of putting it.

Turning Tolstoy around, Christ’s death is Lincoln’s death magnified.

For what cause did Christ give his last, full measure of devotion? The proposition that all are created equal, yes; and endowed by our creator with inalienable dignity and worth, yes—or “rights,” as our founders put it; that among these rights are life, yes; liberty, yes; and the pursuit of happiness, yes—or blessedness, as Christ put it; and that even through ordeal those who seek this blessedness will find it.

Blessed are the meek . . .  the merciful . . .  the pure in heart, he promises.

How can life be both blessing and ordeal? In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis conjures an answer. His protagonist goes to sleep and dreams. The dream turns into a vision, much like John’s in Revelation. Like John, then Dante, Lewis’s dreamer is led to heaven by a guide. The two pause in an earth-like valley, tucked beneath heaven’s foothills—but also not far from an outpost of hell. So is the valley hell, or is it heaven? That is what we wonder about earth sometimes. The guide says the answer might be either. It depends.

“Son,” he said, “you cannot in your present state understand eternity. . . . But you can get some likeness of it if you say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been heaven to those who have been saved . . . Heaven, once attained, will work backward, and turn even agony into a glory.”

With that promise comes a warning. Hell, once chosen, also works backward to the present and turns its pleasures sour. For a mirror of that moment picture Harvey Weinstein.

But ah, the saved, the guide continues. What happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.[3]


 Salvation belongs to God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.

And because:

The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide us to the springs

 . . . of life.

[1] Carl Sandberg, The War Years, Volume IV, p. 343.

[2] Sandberg, ibid., 377.

[3] C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce, Kindle edition, 68-70.