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Jan 22, 2017

Julia Sands

Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Epiphany 2017

Category: Epiphany


A sermon preached on the weekend after the inauguration of a new president at the women's march on Washington. What is our purpose?


It has been an interesting couple of days in this city. On Friday, we inaugurated a new president and said goodbye to one who has held the office for the last eight years. Each of these men inspire enthusiasm from their supporters. Yesterday, this city and many others hosted women’s rights marches. It was reminiscent of a march in 1913 in conjunction with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson (when this parish church, only two years old, met in a house on Foxhall Road) The 1913 march was called to advocate for women’s suffrage. Thanks to historian Michael Beschloss for pointing out the connection (and tweeting this picture). The issues have changed, but the effort continues.

Whether on Friday or Saturday, I know parishioners and friends of St. Patrick’s took part in the festivities centering in and around the National Mall. As meaningful as each of these events, they both point to a division that exists among the people of this land.

But as we expressed ourselves (or as we supported those who participated in public events over the past couple of days), it is coincidental or interesting that we read this assigned lesson from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that begins: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1.10f)

Paul was writing to the Corinthians in response to reports from “Chloe’s people” about squabbles arising among the people in the church Paul founded in that ancient city. We don’t know exactly what their disagreements were. They could have been complaining about the kind of bread used for communion, or what the common money was supporting. It is more likely that they were arguing about who could join their church (because there were some people who were controversial) or they might have been arguing some deep theological question about Jesus (what he meant) particularly as this letter was written before any of the gospel accounts were.

Whatever the reason, Paul wrote this letter to all of his brothers and sisters in hopes that he might get them to see the value of the other in their common life.

After the past few days, as we galvanized around our beliefs with those who inspire us and think like us, it is interesting to reflect on Paul’s letter to his friends (his adopted family) in Corinth. What might Paul’s decree say to us who live and move and breathe in this country. Granted, Paul was writing to a group of Christians in an ancient transportation port, so you might say that they were supposed to agree because they were all followers of Christ. We’ve seen how that plays out, being that this Christian doesn’t agree with what some of my brother and sister Christians say and do. And don’t forget that those earliest Christians were a diverse group of believers coming from various wings of Judaism, paganism, and nothingism.

Yes, it is true that the United States is a diverse place, but so was Corinth and so is the Christian world. Although we don’t know all of the pertinent issues of the division that Paul’s friends were quarreling about, we do know that factions were hanging their allegiance on popular leaders (Cephas, Paul, or Apollos).

And Paul told them that they needed to recall the foundational purpose of their Christian life and to rely on that foundation to alleviate the factions and the divisions in love.

We have important and challenging work ahead of us in a country that continues to be divided. The past couple of days have demonstrated that division to us just as the two years of campaigning did. And just as the previous elections have shown. We are a divided people because we have not discerned what unites us. What Paul would call our uniting “purpose.”

Mike Tongour suggested, at Bishop Mariann’s forum a few weeks ago, that we read a book titled Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. As always, I took Mike’s suggestion. I got the book and read it. It is about President James Garfield, the reluctant president, who was assassinated only months into his term, but who united the country in some profound ways. Garfield was an amazing speaker, a brilliant student, teacher, and college professor and ultimately a congressman from his native Ohio. Garfield was born into poverty, became a general in the Civil War and an avid fighter for the rights of African-Americans. At his inauguration in 1881, he was led out from the East Portico of the Capitol building at noon by Frederick Douglass. Six months later, a reported 100,000 mourners paid their respects to the fallen leader as his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The newspaper report noted the great diversity of people who waited hours for a chance to pay their respects:

“The ragged and toil-stained farm hands from Virginia and Maryland and the colored laborers of Washington stood side by side with the representatives of wealth and fashion.”  (271)

Mike asked us to read the book not because of Garfield, but because of his Vice President, Chester Arthur. Arthur was the Vice President because of a political favor at a contentious Republican Convention. He had very little government experience and all of it was suspicious. As gifted and honorable as Garfield (who was nominated against his will), Arthur was the opposite. There was even suspicion that he and his handlers were involved in Garfield’s assassination. That was not true, but it didn’t take much for people to believe he was capable of it.

As corrupt as Arthur was as Vice President and before, he transformed when he assumed the burden of the presidency. One of the reasons that he changed was an unofficial advisor named Julia Sand. She wrote Arthur a letter shortly after Garfield was shot from her home in New York City. She was, at the time, 31 years old, an invalid, who lived in her mother’s home and read the newspaper. She told Arthur what many Americans were thinking (it may have been what Arthur was thinking himself), but in each letter she gave advice, promised to pray for him (she was an Episcopalian), told him that she knew he could be a good president, and called on Arthur to “do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform.” 23 of her letters to Arthur are held by the Library of Congress. They had such an effect on Arthur that he made a surprise visit to her house in 1882 (a year after the first letter).

Her prayers and her call to Chester Arthur drew out an ability that Arthur didn’t believe he had which allowed him to lead the country through mourning and necessary civil service reform.

It reminds us that every one of us has the ability to change the scope of history. We can inspire something tremendous to happen if we choose to take the challenging course and to be brave and to reform. All of us are called by God to do this work, to make the world better, and to love everyone. We are called to find our common purpose and then work together, share our story, transform each other in order to make the world a better place. That is the difficult and brave thing to do and it is the work of Christians and the work of all people.

The next weeks and months will be a time of great transition. We will discover much about America; we will discover much about ourselves; we will hopefully find our purpose. In times like this, you might recall the words of James Garfield:

“Light itself is a great corrective. A thousand wrongs and abuses that are grown in darkness disappear like owls and bats before the light of day.”

So, let’s keep the light on, in order to bring justice and unity and mend our divisions.

We need the light to shine into all corners of our lives. All of our lives. That is what Paul called us to do. That is what our country is calling us to do. That is what we are called to do here at St. Patrick’s.  


The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard