EDITOR’S NOTE: This sermon was preached before the President of the United States and guests assembled in the Church of our Saviour in New York City for a prayer service on September 2, 2004. It is based on Mark 4:41.
New York, N.Y.–In Galilee there was a storm and the waves of the sea shook the fishermen’s ship. What they called a sea was a lake and what they called a ship was a boat and what they called a storm was one of the countless storms that have rattled the world; but to die is to die, whether on a lake or a sea, whether in a boat or a ship, whether by one storm or all the tides and turnings of the universe. Through it all Jesus lay on a cushion asleep. The men woke him: “Master, don’t you care that we are dying?” Jesus rose. The men had awakened eyes that never sleep. Jesus did not rebuke the men. He rebuked the wind. How does one rebuke the wind? Did he groan or shout or cry a language unknown to us? He stared at the violent waves like a mechanic looking at a noisy machine: “Peace. Be still.” The sea became like glass.
Everyone here knows what storms are, and how many kinds there are. “Doesn’t God care that we are dying?” Rebuke the winds and they still blow. Only one voice can make “Peace” by saying “Peace.”
Frightened as they were of the storm, the fishermen were more frightened when the storm stopped. “They feared exceedingly, and said to one another, Who is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Who is this? He is more than we are.
Our beloved nation has been through many storms. Today different races and ways of believing gather here, but all of us stand on the same acres where, in this month of September in 1776, the American Revolution ended almost as soon as it began. The King’s soldiers landed near where 34th Street is and captured 800 American soldiers. Soldiers? They were mostly farmers and shopkeepers. But they were soldiers because they would protect their country. George Washington galloped from Harlem Heights down to these streets. He rarely showed emotion, like the noblest of the ancient Romans. He had what some modern commentators with newly acquired Latin call “gravitas.” It means serenity in storms. General Washington seemed to lose it when he saw the New
York militiamen panicking. In one of the few recorded instances of Washington shouting, he cried out, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” He struck some of them with the broadside of his sword, but they fled. An officer grabbed his bridle and pulled him away from the enemy that within moments could have captured him and ended the American dream. Right here.
Washington was a great man but he was only a man and he could not rebuke the wind. His men fled. But they were good men, like the fishermen of Galilee. They came back. We are here today because they came back.
“Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” Yes, General Washington. These are the men. They are all you have.
Three years ago our nation suffered a terrible storm. Some thought God slept. “Does he not care that we are dying?” Some of us saw many things on September 11. In one moment in the midst of a big crowd running from the smoke, a young couple were pushing a carriage. The baby was calmly asleep. Like Jesus in the boat. Priests looked into the eyes of firefighters asking for final absolution before they went into the flames. Those eyes keep looking at us for they will never close. “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?” Yes. These are the men and these are the women and these are the children of all creeds and races who cannot rebuke the winds themselves but who have a God who can.
When asked what kind of government we had been given, Benjamin Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He meant virtue. There is no freedom without order and no order without virtue. Mockery of virtue has become an art form and the anti-hero is called a hero. G.K. Chesterton saw this already in the early twentieth century, for he said: “The decay of society is praised by artists as the decay of a corpse is praised by worms.” In classical Corinthian halls and great Gothic halls and bombed out halls of Parliament in the Battle of Britain, across the ages that divided them and in languages peculiar to each, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and Winston Churchill said this: “Courage is the first of virtues because it makes all others possible.” Courage is the ability to react to the threat of harm rationally. Because it is rational it requires caution but caution, says Aquinas, is the prelude to an action, not a substitute for an action: if you want to be sure that your boat will never sink in a storm, you should never leave port. The cynic for whom all righteousness is only self-righteousness also calls courage bravado. True courage is the right use of reason in the face of evil.
Evil. We remember a man with a noble soul who was ridiculed for calling an evil empire evil. Ronald Reagan rebuked it but he knew that only God had the power to rebuke it and bring it down. He said: “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what is right.” There is right and there is wrong and in our weakness we may confuse right with wrong and wrong with right, but God is never wrong and always right and so he can rebuke the winds. No mortal man or woman may call any other mortal man or woman evil but everyone has a moral duty to call evil evil.
In the nineteenth century a young man confessed his sins to a peasant priest in the village of Ars in France, Saint John Vianney. The floor began to shake, knocking the fellow over. Vianney picked him up, brushed him off, and said cheerfully: “Do not be afraid, my son. It is only the devil.” The young man was impressed but he admitted that he would never go to Vianney for confession again. It is only the devil. It takes courage to say that in the face of terrorism. It is only the devil. That is the simple answer but it is hard to say.
There is a picture of Saint Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons.” There is a picture of courage. He coined two words: Utopia and Anarchy. There can be no Utopia in the storms of this world, and yet if the winds that blow are not rebuked there will be anarchy. Pope John Paul II declared Saint Thomas the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. Harry Truman said that a statesman is a politician who has been dead ten or fifteen years. That is not quite what the Pope meant. He said that Thomas More teaches that “government is above all an exercise of virtue. Unwavering in this rigorous moral stance, this English statesman placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor; he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness; he was vigorously committed to favoring and defending the family; he supported the all-round education of the young.” With such courage, Thomas More joyfully declared at his execution: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
The first letter I ever received was sent to me by my father during the Second World War. He was sailing on a Liberty ship of the Merchant Marine on the Murmansk Run. His letter was addressed to me care of my mother because I was still in her womb. He told me to be good. He said his ship had gone through some storms and U-boats kept circling around, but “everything is fine.”
Today stormy controversies attend questions of biotechnology on the micro level and world politics on the macro level. The answers are not easy but they are simple: everything will be fine so long as human rights respect the rights of God. The deepest question is, “Why did God make you?” The simplest answer that calms every storm is this: “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in Heaven.”