A Soulful Nation

Hon. Deval L. Patrick

Sermon by the Honorable Deval L. Patrick, Managing Director, Bain Capital Double Impact; Former Governor of Massachusetts, sermon on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 in the Memorial Church. Photo by Adrienne Yapo/Memorial Church Communications




"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."  Amen. --Psalm 19:14

Good morning, Brothers and Sisters. What a privilege to be with you this morning, on this special day and in this special place. I could have done with sitting in the pews with everybody else, though, listening to the wonderful music and somebody else’s message. I’m supremely conscious of the fact that I’m standing where giants have stood, where Jonathan and Peter before him and so many other renowned preachers and teachers have preached and taught.

Add to that the fact that it’s the day we honor the end of the Great War and give special thanks to all those who have served in the military – and I ask myself what have I walked into?

It is also coincidentally the Sunday following the midterm elections, and a few of you I’m sure will be wondering what a former politician might have to say this morning about those outcomes – at least that can be uttered aloud in church!

So the burden is heavy this morning. Even so, I was eager to come. Because there are big questions before us today – in this church and in this country. Moral questions. And what better place to reflect on them than here on Veterans Day.

I like church. In the haze of my senior year here, when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought quite seriously about applying to the seminary. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, church was a part of life’s routine. My grandmother was the featured soprano in her Baptist church, at least until she had some sort of falling out with the preacher. After that, my sister and I were sent to the Cosmopolitan Community Church at the end of the block – bribed by the promise of a big country breakfast when we got home. Cosmopolitan was a quiet sanctuary, as black churches go, with a woman pastor, an uncommon thing in those days. Of course, we had in common with all black churches the transformative power of music and the watchful presence of old ladies in hats who took the business of worship seriously.

One of the many lessons I learned in that church community was about the importance of having a moral foundation. It was never about sanctimony or any sort of moral superiority. Just a set of expectations the community had of us and, most importantly, that we were supposed to have of ourselves about how to behave and how to treat others. Those old ladies in hats used their moral guideposts in every-day life, through old-fashioned notions about not leaving your conscience at the church door. Their example seemed to teach that faith is not just what you say you believe, but how you live. And how the best of them lived offered an example to the rest of us.

It sounds a little too grand to say that in my time as governor I tried to serve with my faith as a moral rudder. I am no evangelist. I did not follow the example of one of my fellow governors who, in the midst of a long summer drought, convened a press conference to pray publicly for rain. Even by my somewhat relaxed Presbyterian standards, I am an unfinished Christian. I am certainly an imperfect man. (This is the part where Diane, my wife of nearly 35 years now, vigorously nods her head.) Faith for me is not a matter of showy piety, but rather of quiet acts of kindness and compassion. I tried to do my job, and try to live my life, as Micah teaches, by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Maybe it’s simpler to say that I have tried to behave not so much as if God were watching, but as if the ones watching were those old church ladies in hats. 

Lord knows we didn’t get everything right. No mortal ever does. But I can confidently say that we worked hard to do all the good we could, in all the ways we could, for all the people we could, for as long as we could.

You will have noticed that the lessons today are remarkably similar. In the first lesson, Galatians teaches that we reap what we sow. It’s a farming metaphor, of course, but we all understand it to mean that we get what we give, we get out what we put in. It’s the kind of thing we used to say to our kids to urge them on at homework time or that in more colorful language coaches say to their teams or I say to my colleagues at work.

The New Testament version of this sentiment makes this point in more relative terms: “he that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” You get as much or as little as you give. It has more the air of admonition. That’s why it’s the one usually read before the offering.

Sometimes in scripture one is left feeling that life is a lottery. You get what you’re going to get. You’re either chosen or you’re not. The Jews were delivered out of Egypt, but then, well . . . poor Job did everything right. Passages like the second lesson remind us that we have agency, that we have power in and responsibility for the outcomes around us – even the degree of favor or disfavor of those outcomes.

We all had an almost liturgical occasion to consider this proposition recently. A couple of weeks ago, in an act of hateful violence, a gunman shot and killed 11 people, and wounded 7 others, while they prayed at Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. He shouted anti-Semitic rants while he fired. Those killed ranged in age from 54 to 97 years old. Did I mention that, when he opened fire, they were praying?

Because it was the political season, or maybe just because we are in the times we’re in in America, cries went up that the coarseness of our political rhetoric had given rise to this crime. Many on the right dismissed this. The President himself – one of the most ardent at sowing seeds of fear and division – was contemptuous of the very suggestion that his rhetoric might have contributed to the rise of neo-Nazi sentiment in America. Apparently, he’s never read Galatians or 2 Corinthians – or any of the studies, for that matter, that show a real-time correlation between what he says or retweets and what people are emboldened to do. When we learned that just before the massacre the shooter had posted on social media that he was about to avenge the very anti-immigrant misinformation the President himself has spread, he simply scoffed at the connection.

The morning after the Pittsburgh shootings I happened to be at Sunday services at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emmanuel is the sanctuary where a white supremacist shot and killed 9 black worshippers at the end of Bible study 3 years ago. It’s where President Obama found himself unable to say anything more at the eulogy and instead started to sing “Amazing Grace.” And it’s where, in an act of amazing grace, one of the survivors told the admitted killer at his trial, a man who not only confessed to the shootings but acknowledged he was motivated by his hatred of black people and his hope of instigating a race war, that she forgave him.

Two Sundays ago today at Mother Emmanuel you could feel the weight not only of Pittsburgh but of their own tragedy just a few years earlier. You could feel the weight of the shooting of the two African American shoppers in Kentucky a few days before. You could feel the weight of the unarmed black and brown men and women killed unjustifiably by police, the weight of the children taken from their refugee parents at the southern border, the weight of the words and deeds of fear and division that have become the regular and bitter diet of our politics, today and time and again through our history.

And yet they did not cry out at Mother Emmanuel to be delivered by someone or something else. They didn’t appeal to some distant faith. First, they prayed for the comfort of their brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh. Then, their pastor (who in the coming days would travel to Pittsburgh to pray alongside the rabbi at Tree of Life) preached a common-sense truth, that in fact “words matter.” Then, at the altar call, they welcomed.

It’s hard to quite capture the significance of this scene, but I want you to try. Here was a place where one might have expected and indeed have permitted a little holding back. After all, that very welcome had once been fatal. And as people began to come to the altar, black people and white people, I will confess that some of us who were visiting were a little tense, praying with one eye open, you might say, to see if anything or anyone looked a little out of place.

But not the pastor. Not the deacons. Not the choir director. Not one of the regular parishioners. Their welcome was unhesitating and unflinching. They knew that the hate visited on Pittsburgh and on Kentucky and on themselves was but the reaping of what others had sown. But they also knew that – if they wanted to reap love instead of hate – it was within them, and up to them, to sow better seeds, kinder and more loving seeds. They were living their faith. What I saw was greatness made possible by goodness.

There is a lesson in here on this Veterans Day for all patriots. I think the Founders intended to set up this Nation on a moral foundation. Not in a religious sense so much as in a civic sense. America is indeed an exceptional nation, but not because of economic or military might. Nations of great wealth and arms have come and gone with the winds of time. America is exceptional because we are the only nation in human history organized around a handful of civic ideals. And we have defined those ideals, over time and through struggle, as freedom, equality, opportunity and fair play.

In a way, the Founders played the role for the Nation that those old church ladies played for me. They designed America to be a nation with a conscience. We cannot be great without being good.

So, while it is true that our economy is strong and our military is powerful, while it is true that we have dazzling achievements behind us and limitless potential ahead of us, America is yet what we were meant to be.

When we take children from their parents to discourage them from seeking sanctuary here from violence and despair, remember that we cannot be great without being good.

When bullets fly in houses of worship or in schools or in night clubs or in grocery stores and our leaders choose the slogans of the gun lobby over the lives of innocents, remember that we cannot be great without being good.

When unarmed black and brown citizens are shot down by unaccountable police, remember that we cannot be great without being good.

When we choose power over a fair vote, or the wishes of the wealthy over the needs of the weak, remember that we cannot be great without being good.

When we spatter our a civic square with mud, where a barrage of tweets and a 24/7 spin cycle of outrage, fuels extremism and hate, and leaves us depleted and bitter, remember that we cannot be great without being good.

I read about a room full of young people whose sole job is to dish dirt on political opponents of the President, just to sow division all day long. Michael Scherer, “GOP War Room Blasts Endless Stream of Criticism at Democrat’s,” Washington Post, October 18, 2018.) We are sowing so much poison. I shudder to think what we will reap.

But I also know it’s in our power to sow better seeds, kinder seeds, more glorious seeds, seeds of grace, and that all of us have a generational responsibility to do just that. It’s an ancient idea that every single one of us learned from our grandparents, or from our own old church ladies in hats – that it is up to us to plant just such seeds today so that those who come after us can reap a better harvest.

Our faith demands just such action. Not contemplation alone, but Micah doesn't say to convene a commission and reflect on the abstract meaning of justice, mercy and humility, but rather to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Action, not just consciousness, was central to the expectations of those old church ladies in hats. Reach out to people in their darkest hour; help the poor struggling to keep their heads above water; encourage those who have lost not just their way but hope itself; see the unseen and remember the forgotten.

Our civic faith demands action, too. Sure, we should debate what part government should play in meeting our moral obligations. But let us not forget, in the heat of that debate, that government is just the name we give to the things we choose to do together. (Fmr. Cong. Barney Frank.) And let us not overlook the fact that social and economic justice was the point from the start.

As long as patriots revere America’s civic ideals we will always be a restless people. We have always been. It helps explain why America could never ultimately be content with slavery, with unequal access to the ballot, why injustice and unfairness make us uneasy.

It must be acknowledged that, from our original sin or to a host of other sins we have endured in this country or imposed on others around the world, it sometimes seems to take us too long to come to grips with certain questions of conscience. As my friend Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia, put it recently in The New York Times, “The self-evident truth that all people deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a long way from settled in the American mind.” (Andrew Delbanco, “The Long Struggle for America’s Soul,” The New York Times, 2 November 2018.) I simply mean to say that the American dynamic, through our history, is to grapple with the gap between our reality and our ideals.

At our best we strive to close that gap. We know our power is greater when our cause is just and diminished when our cause is ambiguous or just wrong. Shimon Peres, the late President of Israel and one of her founding fathers, once told me that “America is the only superpower whose power comes from giving, not from taking.”

When we sow better seeds, kinder, more generous seeds, we reap a better and more lasting harvest. Let me leave you with this.

Michael Ross was a city councilor in Boston for many years. His father Steve was born in Poland in the 1930s, and at 9 years old was captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. He spent the next 5 years of his life enslaved and tortured in 10 different labor and death camps. He tells stories of his various escapes, once by crawling into a pile of human feces under a latrine at Budyzn or another by hiding under a moving train at Auschwitz.

He was liberated from Dachau in April of 1945 by U.S. soldiers. By then he was hopeless and starving. He tells the story of staggering out of the prison, no family left, no sense of where he was or where he was going.  He remembers a soldier sitting on a tank who looked at him, maybe 15 years old by then, emaciated, frail and broken. That soldier was probably no older than an undergraduate on this campus. The soldier was eating his C-Rations and looked kindly at Steve. The soldier slid down from the tank and handed the boy his tin. And smiled. It was the first act of kindness Steve had experienced in 5 years, and he described how he was so overcome that he fell to his knees and began to kiss the soldier’s boots. The boy soldier then lifted the boy prisoner up and hugged him.

The soldier gave Steve a small American flag. He has carried it with him ever since. Throughout his recovery to good health. Throughout his journey to America, as a refugee – given sanctuary, by the way, through the very kind of Jewish agency that the right wing criticizes today and that set off the shooter in Pittsburgh. He has carried that little flag around with him through his marriage and family life, through his doctorate in psychology and practice in Boston. He helped to organize and build the Holocaust memorial and museum down behind City Hall Plaza and he had the little flag with him when it was dedicated. Steve has spent years as a youth activities instructor and counselor, coaching students to stay positive, to build community, to show compassion, to end bullying. His contributions to this community and this country have been limitless.

And through the decades he always carries that little American flag – and searched tirelessly for the soldier who gave it to him.

Every year when I was governor, we had a ceremony in the State House to commemorate Veterans Day. In 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember which one now, Steve came. He brought his flag and told his story. His son Mike, who had risen to City Council President by then, was there. All the State House bigwigs and military brass were there. The Gold Star families were there. And some of the students were there, most grown up by now, whose lives Steve had touched over the years.

Also, there was the family of the late Steve Sattler. Sattler was the soldier who, 68 years before, had given Steve Ross the little flag, and a reason to hope. And Steve had the chance he’d always wanted to tell and show at least the soldier’s family what harvest his seed had reaped.

That soldier sowed a different kind of seed. I would humbly submit that that seed is as powerful as a legion of tanks, and perhaps more lasting. And the seed he sowed in Steve was sown in turn in others, through all the good Steve has done, in all the ways he could do it, for all the people he could, for as long as he has.

We honor all service today. But we are especially mindful of this special brand of patriotism. Because this kind of patriotism shows us that our goodness makes us great.

Let us pray:  Heavenly Father, give us the grace to bring forth the goodness in ourselves and the courage to sow that goodness abundantly in each other, that we may reap, as your word says, in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Luke 6:38) for all your children’s sake and for your glory.  Amen.