It’s the Lord frees me, nobody, no nothing else.
My sister reminded me today that we had an Aunt who shared a birthday with a famous person on February 12th. Remember when every American knew who was born on February 12th? I asked some altar servers the other day if they knew, and of course they didn’t have a clue. So in 1971 the Congress decided to do away with a holiday on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th; they also dumped the holiday on Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, but they gave us a permanent holiday on the third Monday of February, calling it by the generic name, “President’s Day”. It's much better this way of course, we get a long weekend out of it and lots of great bargains, we can buy so much stuff, bring home a lot of stuff, it's really great. But no one knows or cares much about Lincoln or Washington.
And all the better for me because a few years ago I got freedom. I have my Chase Freedom card. They sent it to me in the mail, just in time for President’s weekend. Maybe you remember the commercial. There’s a couple on a fantasy island that literally sprouts from a giant Chase credit card. It’s everything you could want—riches, banquets, smiles, everyone catering to your every desire. The soundtrack in the background is the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free” song, remixed by Fatboy Slim. The words are
Im free to do what I want any old time
So love me hold me love me hold me
Im free any old time to get what I want
The good people at Chase gave me freedom with their new card. I should be so grateful to them, right? It’s amazing, selling freedom to me with a credit card. When I first received it I was sure that I would be chasing freedom for a long, long time by using their credit card to achieve my fantasy life!
Of course that’s not really freedom, is it? That card often represents the opposite: slavery to stuff and a lifestyle and influence that fools me into thinking I’m a king--or a God--with powers that were unimaginable to any of us only a few years ago.
A very different kind of freedom was on Abe Lincoln’s mind. It preoccupied his entire presidency and was marked by two significant political accomplishments; the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves that escaped from confederate territories; and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States forever. On his birthday Tuesday, I watched Spielberg’s movie about that fight for the constitutional amendment. It still blows me away that we Christians, good Catholics believed we could own another human being. Jesuits at Georgetown, my alma mater, owned slaves, and sold them when they were hard up for cash, to keep the place going.
It was a terrible war that was fought over the issue. 620,000 men and women were killed, and it was a great burden on Lincoln. You look at pictures of him at that time, four years into it, and you see it in his face, you see it in his body.
One night he was unable to sleep, and he got up, leaving his dear wife Mary Todd asleep upon their bed. He dressed, and slipped out of the White House without a guard. He walked the muddy streets of Washington for some time, to think, and perhaps, to pray. He passed encampments of soldiers, went by a hospital filled with sleeping wounded and dying men. Very late in the night, he wandered near a collection of shacks and make-shift tents, a community of sorts of black men and women and children, former slaves freed from bondage by the Emancipation Proclamation.
There was an older woman awake, tending to a small fire. The President saw her, and for some reason, stopped. The old woman looked up at him, smiled, and then went back to her task. She didn't recognize him. Lincoln watched her for a moment, moved by the scene of the poverty and the misery in front of him. He hesitated, and then he asked her---was she glad that the President had freed the slaves? The woman looked up at him again. "It's the Lord frees me. I don't need nothing else, the Lord's my Savior, nobody, no nothing else." Lincoln looked at her, and after a moment, nodded. He left her, wandered some more in the cool spring night, and returned to the White House around dawn. He told the story to his wife, and wondered whether his faith had been strong enough, as strong as the faith of the woman at the fire. Several days later he went to see a play at a theater nearby, and he was shot by an assassin. He died the following day, April 15, 1865.
Abraham Lincoln was not a member of any church, but it is clear from much of what he said and did in his life that he had faith and truly believed in God. On one of the last nights of his life, if the story is true, he learned something profound about faith from a poor woman who knew the true source of her wealth and her liberty.
That's the point of today's Gospel. The point is that those of us who realize our need for God are blessed. Those who consider themselves self-sufficient are to be pitied. You have to be really poor to know who your Savior truly is--in fact it is only if you are poor can you truly rejoice and exult. Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the sad--you've got nothing else but God--and by God, that is more than enough: you shall be filled and you shall laugh and your reward in God will be complete and utter freedom, authentic freedom which is always the end-result of love.
The Gospel today speaks to all of us looking for happiness and security in the stuff we can get with our Freedom cards, at President's Day sales. The Gospel tells us that we can never get enough of anything to fill us, satisfy us, gladden us...except the Lord. "I don't need nothing else, the Lord's my Savior, nobody, no nothing else."
You know what? Most of us, myself included, can get along just fine without God. We've got enough stuff to satisfy: plenty of food, clothes, cars, entertainment, and lots of sales to replenish the supply. But for each of us there will come a time when none of that will matter, maybe four score and seven years from now, maybe just seven years from now, maybe now, we'll find none of that of any use, and then, then we'll learn what Abe Lincoln did a few nights before he died: it's the Lord who frees us, nobody, no nothing else.
Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours.
Blessed are you who hunger; filled you shall be.
Blessed are you who are weeping; you shall laugh.
But woe to you rich, for your consolation is now.
Woe to you who are full; you shall go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now; you shall weep in your grief.