During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln gave his most important speech at Gettysburg on a gray, November day in 1863. The battle was a turning point in the war not only because the Union succeeded but even more so because the words Abraham Lincoln spoke became a foundational belief for our nation to heal and unify in the future. Maybe it is time for us to reflect on those words once again because we are divided today as they were during the Civil War. 

In this short speech, Lincoln summarizes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States; “Four score and seven years ago our nation brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln reconfirmed the basic tenet of our Constitution, that equality was for all people, and it is that premise that this nation was founded on. He then completes his speech by stating if we are faithful to this premise of equality, that this nation will come together in unity and have a rebirth: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln was saying by recognizing that we are all loved by God and made in the image and likeness of our creator, it will enable the nation to re-establish itself as a beacon of liberty and freedom for all the world.

Our unity as a people and nation is founded in our unity with God. We can’t have one without the other. And it is in the same way when a scribe in Sunday’s Gospel of Mark 12:28-34, came to Jesus and asked him: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” The scribe wanted to know what was essential for faith. And, just as Lincoln articulated in his speech, equality was essential for a more perfect union. Jesus explains that love of God and neighbor are essential to truly be in union with God. 

Jesus begins with the Shema which is the calling of the people of Israel together in prayer. It is used to this day by our Jewish brothers and sisters to unify them in prayer with one another. It is that prayer that strengthens and unifies us with God and one another. Jesus begins: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is God alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:2-6) Moses tells the people of Israel that they are to inscribe these words on their doorposts and on the gates of one’s property. We often can see the Shema prayer inscribed on a Mezuzah, which is a small case on the door of homes. These words are so sacred to our Jewish brothers and sisters that they kiss their hand and touch the Mezuzah when they pass through the door. The Shema prayer is the prayer of oneness with God and equality with one another.

Like the equality statement Lincoln made in the Gettysburg Address, this statement reconfirms the Ten Commandments, especially drawing on the First Commandment. From belief in the one true God flows a behavior which then allows us to have union with God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30) From the profession of faith comes actions and behaviors that reveal our unity with God and with neighbor: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) There is no room for hatred, bigotry or prejudice. And there is no excuse for violence or intolerance which leads to violence.  

Lincoln said “a new birth of freedom” comes from respect for our neighbor, and this love of neighbor comes from love of God. Psalm 18 calls us to love God: “I love you, O Lord, my strength, O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.” We can’t say that God is our strength, our rock our fortress and have no love in our heart for our neighbor. To love God with all our heart, soul and mind and not love our neighbor is a contradiction. Love is the sign of unity with God and neighbor. Lincoln was making us authentically true to God and ourselves because Jesus Christ first called us into union with God through his own sacrifice on the cross. For by the blood of the cross we have been dedicated and consecrated and the ground we walk on is holy ground, for it has been made so by the blood of Christ. “He did that once and for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:23-28) We can’t be a nation that is a more perfect union, unless we first consecrate ourselves to the Lord and through that consecration, seek union with God. Lincoln reminds us that we have been consecrated through the sacrifice of others as a nation. That sacrifice began with the blood of Christ!