A Call To Repentance – November 24, 1963

I had very much wanted to read you the statement of the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church issued in Detroit last week on the current racial crisis, with special emphasis to the way that crisis affects the Church, but such a reading this morning would be at best an irritation.  Instead, I commend to your reading privately the newsletter which summarizes that statement and comments on it.   At a later time, if it seems to be appropriate, we will read the whole thing or publish it.

You will allow me, I am sure, to deviate this morning from the printed bulletin and from the announced sermon title about Thanksgiving.  There will be a service of Thanksgiving on Wednesday night, and of course, the content of the sermon will be up to the preacher for the evening, but if there is to be specifically a Thanksgiving service , let it be Wednesday night, and not today.  Instead, let today be a day for a call to repentance.

Luke 18:9-14

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Always when some sort of outrage is perpetrated there are those who call for revenge.  It has been that way this time.  Perhaps you saw some of the street interviews on TV, but their calls rang rather hollow, for there can be no revenge, there can be no adequate compensation for such a crime.   What good would it do?  Instead, let it be a day for a call to repentance, repentance for the things that you and I have done, or left undone, that created a spirit of the times in which such a thing could happen.  It is not that we will understand what has happened or why, but that we may understand ourselves better and the deadly spirit of our times.

Repentance, first of all, for the manifestations of hate which we allowed to grow unchecked among us.  In Texas it is the radical right which is so strong.  Even when I was there, more than ten years ago now, there were self -appointed defenders of democracy all over the place, vigilante committees, really.   It was in Dallas of course, a place that I find difficult now to call my hometown, which Adlai Stevenson was attacked by this same lunatic fringe only a few weeks ago.  It is ironic, therefore, that where the right is so strong the shot should be fired from the left, if it is actually the left.

It was reported that only days, hours, before the President arrived in Dallas, much hate literature was discovered and confiscated.  And while it may be true that such a deed could be conceived only in a twisted mind, the truth of the matter is that this specific hate campaign and the many others which tear our country apart, surely prepared the ground in which this lethal seed was sown.

For hate is not restricted to this one time or place.  Let’s take this often mentioned racial question as an example.  Hate and fear are the order of the day there.  In Mississippi, for example, where there is surely more fear at work than there is common sense.  But it is not restricted to that place, either.  It is everywhere in greater or lesser amounts.  Sometime I would like to read to you Martin Luther King‘s letter from a Birmingham jail, in which he describes in the most poignant terms I have ever read what segregation and discrimination feel like.  Hate is everywhere.

The radical right has promoted it.  They have suggested violence of many kinds, along with the radical left, though the later is not so vocal in this country as it is outside it.

And we all have our part in allowing these festations of hate to grow.  Because we have tended to confuse politics with absolute right and wrong, because we have let ourselves think that our politics is absolutely right and everybody else’s is absolutely wrong.  Or because, perhaps just as bad, we have said nothing when we saw hate flourishing.  Therefore, let this be a day of repentance.  Not that we shall understand what has has happened or why, but that we shall understand ourselves and the deadly spirit of our time.

And let it be a day of repentance for the widespread disrespect for the law that we have encouraged.  Many people all around the world who have respected for the fact that our government can continue uninterrupted by so great a tragedy as the death of it’s leader, because it is a government of laws and not of men, founded in that amazing document the Constitution which provides for such emergencies, have expressed equal dismay that such a thing could happen where the law rules and not men.  How can such a thing happen where the law reigns?  The answer in part is that there is a climate of opinion that has weakened the law of disrespect.  The law is massive, and perhaps, for that reason, difficult to keep, but there is no doubt that we are all guilty of encouraging disrespect by such little things as cheating on the income tax, where as everybody knows, the bad thing is not to cheat but to get caught.  We encourage disrespect when we brag before our children about getting away with little things, like running a stop sign.  And everybody knows that if there comes a conflict between our children and their school teacher, the children are always right, and the teacher is always wrong.  And thereby we undermine authority and build a climate of opinion that weakens the law by disrespect.

And where there is no respect for the law it cannot be enforced.  The law depends on the general goodwill of the people it governs, and depends on their general support.  It if depended on enforcement for obedience then half the world would have to be policemen for the other half.  All the laws there are, and the most stringent security measures could not prevent the murder of the President,  because respect for the law has so declined.  Let this be a day of repentance, for we have encouraged its decline.  Not that we will understand what has happened or why but that we will understand ourselves and the deadly spirit of our times.

And finally let it be a day of repentance for the Church for its silence  and the silence of Christians in these matters, for we have been silent.  The Church has not done very much to expunge this hate.  Specifically, for example, in the matter of race, the church has been all to quiet and has done all too little to remove the barriers that have been building to a just reconciliation among men.

The Church and Christians have not done much to support the law.  Maybe we have preached the Gospel without the law.  Perhaps we have forgotten that there is a law to be supported.   How many times have you heard people say or have you said yourself.  I live by the ten commandments, that’s all I need.  We allow ourselves to take pride in our obedience to the commandments, without ever really having read the commandments or understood what they mean.  Read them carefully and you will see that we do not keep them, beginning with the first, and you will see that we violate them everyday.  You shall have no other gods, You shall not Kill, and Jesus said, if a man hates his brother he has already committed murder in his heart.

Martin Luther said of the law, it is a school master to Christ, it leads us not to pride in the fact that all these things we have kept from out youth, but it leads us to the despair that we do not, indeed, we cannot keep the law.  And from there to repentance, to throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ.  It may be that we have not preached the law because we have not understood the gospel, and if that is true, then this ought to be a day of repentance  that the church and Christians have been silent while hate and disrespect for the law have grown.

It is a bleak Thanksgiving.  We can, of course, be thankful that we live governed by laws and not by men, and that the death of one man does not plunge us into chaos.  And we can be thankful for that one man’s contribution to the history of mankind and to the peace of the world, for in whatever way your political or economic views differ from his, he has made his contribution.

But to return for just a moment to our New Testament  lesson, it is the parable that Jesus told about the two men who went up to the temple to pray.  One prayed a prayer of Thanksgiving, but the other went to his house justified.  Perhaps even in the matter of giving thanks, it is more important to repent, even today, than to be thankful that we are not of other men, to understand the deadly spirit of our time.  More importantly to pray:  God be merciful to me a sinner.

This sermon was preached by William C. Crouch at Trinity United Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York in November 24, 1963. This was the Sunday following the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  It was shortly after this service ended that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was killed.

At the end of the service Bill Crouch announced that he and his wife Debby would be driving to Washington D.C. for the Kennedy funeral and invited members of the church to join them.

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