On a bright autumn day, I stood with my father at the college war memorial—an open space at the crest of the hill overlooking the athletic fields below and the Mount Holyoke Range beyond. Three Marine helicopters circled the campus and landed on the fields. On the roof of the nearby gym building stood a man wearing a dark suit and holding a rifle with a telescopic sight.
It was October 26, 1963. President Kennedy had come to Amherst College, my father’s alma mater and much later mine, to attend the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library and to receive an honorary degree. I was eight years old.
Later on, among an outdoor crowd of 10,000, I struggled to see the President speak on the wooden platform erected for the occasion. My father hoisted me up onto his shoulders, so that I’d have a better view.
Less than a month later, I was standing in the hall of my grade school when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. A teacher was crying. We all went home early that day.
But the memory that has remained with me over the years—much sharper in relief—was of those helicopters and of that dark-suited secret service man with the rifle and of sitting up high on my father’s shoulders straining to see the President of the United States speak.
Many years later, in her application to Amherst, my daughter Anna was asked to write a brief essay on a theme from Kennedy’s address that day in 1963. He said: What good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national purpose? It seems to me incumbent upon this and other school’s graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest...unless the graduates of this college...are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion...then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.
Anna wrote about that day I sat atop my father’s shoulders, about her grandfather’s service to his country as a Naval officer in World War 2, about my work as a hospice chaplain and as a minister, and about her desire to serve her country—to put her gifts back into society--fiercely and bravely, as she wrote—and with broad sympathy, with understanding, and with compassion.
Kennedy spoke that day about the responsibility of college graduates to serve the greater good of the society. And he spoke, reflecting a theme from Robert Frost’s inaugural poem, about the right uses of power, this just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the midst of an ever expanding nuclear arms race.
At bottom, Kennedy said, [Frost] held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that [he]coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
Then he said, in a quote now carved on the wall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington: I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.
In the calendar of the church year, this is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes referred to as Christ the King. Odd name, you might say, for one who was a Palestinian peasant Jew crucified by the Roman authorities. Odd, indeed.
Today the language of kingship is largely outmoded. We no longer live under kings, so the meaning of the term is largely lost on us. The reign of kings was anything but benign, their massive power and wealth often amassed by means of exploitation and violence.
The inscription over the crucified Jesus read: This is the King of the Jews. With this mockery of Jesus and the Jews, Pilate wrote much more than he could have ever known or imagined.
What is this power of Christ the crucified King?
It’s the power of the wisdom from before time and forever. It’s the power of self-giving love, whose purpose is for healing old wounds. It’s a power unafraid of grace and beauty, revealed even at the darkest of times.
Today we support the life of St. Nick’s not only with our financial pledges, but with the power and purpose of our love. We pledge to use our gifts, fiercely and bravely, for the sake, not only of this place, but of the wider world; forever offering our broad sympathy, our understanding, and our compassion.
* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King; November 24, 2013