"God and Country"
Scripture – Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 5, 2015
In July, 1776, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, saying that the ratification of the Declaration of Independence will become "the most memorable day in the history of America...and be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated...with acts of devotion to God." And he did not have in mind only formal services of worship. The celebration ought to include – in his words – "pomp and parade, shows and sports, bells and bonfires, and illumination from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."1 If Adams could witness how Americans celebrate Independence Day in the 21st Century with baseball, barbecue and hometown parades, and with over-the-top synchronized fireworks and John Philip Sousa marches, he would be euphoric.
On the Fourth of July, we in American celebrate not only the revolution that won our nation's independence from Great Britain, but also the fundamental principles that laid the foundation for our constitution. These principles enshrine certain liberties and the notion of limited political authority in which leaders rule, neither by military might nor by the divine right of kings, but by the consent of the people.
One of the marvelous privileges of living in the United States is that our nation was founded on tenets that respect and protect basic human rights. These precepts are the biblical principles of liberty, justice, and the necessity to strive for the common good. The Declaration of Independence states: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Regrettably, in 1776 and for more than a century later, the phrase "all men are created equal" meant explicitly: "all white males are created equal." This narrowing of who enjoyed the rights and who did not enjoy the rights, created shameful stains on our history.
Native Americans were not created equal. "The Trail of Tears" in the 1830s was a dark moment in our nation's history. Our government forcibly removed thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands. Over 2,000 women, men and children perished in a death march across the country.
African Americans were not created equal. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia decided that African Americans could be counted as three-fifths of a human being and families could be torn apart, auctioned like animals.
Women were not created equal. It took nearly 150 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence before women could go to the polls to vote.
Japanese Americans were not created equal. During World War II, over 60,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in detention camps.
Men and women of the LGBT community were not created equal. It has taken nearly 250 years for them to gain certain rights; and we are still not quite there.
Every nation has its sins for which to be forgiven and the U.S. is no exception. While the Declaration of Independence declares that human beings "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," there have been times when we have named some as unworthy of self-determination, unworthy of equality and unworthy of freedom. Thanks be to God that we have not remain entrenched in the past. We continue to make progress in applying the principles of liberty and justice to more and more of our citizens.
Perhaps that is because the signers of the Declaration of Independence crafted a document that not only called for independence from, but also independence to – freedom from a foreign power, but also, freedom to form a new nation established on egalitarian principles in the religious, political, economic and social spheres.
It is this sense of being called forward to something greater that we discover in our passage from The Letter to the Hebrews. Chapter 11 begins with a description of faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." People of faith know that our world is not as it is supposed to be. We know that the world is not predetermined to be consumed by a culture of greed. It is not destined to be a dominion of violence. It is not ordained to be a smoldering hotbed of racism.
We have been given a vision of the world as God wants it to become – a kinder and fairer place where people care about each other, where people keep an eye out for those who are weak, and where there is liberty and justice – for ALL people.
In verse 10, we read that Abraham "looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God." A society built on the rickety legs of greed, violence, inequality, and indifference will not last. It will constantly teeter and eventually collapse. However, if the society is built on what Jesus has shown us is right and true, and benefits the weak as well as the strong, then the society will be sturdy and robust.
We have a choice in the kind of society we develop. God does not create a world in which human beings are little more than programmable robots. We are free – free to love or free to hate, free to stifle or free to liberate. The Scriptures warn against using our freedom to indulge the desires that can undermine and destroy a society – greed, lust, revenge. God commands us to use our freedom in ways that exalts life, does not diminishes it.
Our constitution calls for a separation of church and state. Our founders knew that for people to experience freedom of choice, they needed to be free from a national church. Thus, they established laws that guarantee religious freedom. However, the separation of church and state does not mean that our spiritual values and commitments are to have no impact on the laws that govern our society.
Harvard Business Professor, Clay Christensen, reflected on his conversation with a Marxist economist from China who was coming to the end of a Fulbright Fellowship. Professor Christensen asked him if he had learned anything surprising while he had been in the United States. Without hesitation the man said, "I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. The reason democracy works is not because the government is designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather democracy works because most of the people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law. In your past, most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week and they were taught there by people they respected. Americans followed these rules because they had come to believe that they were not simply accountable to society, but they were accountable to God."
This Chinese man heightened the professor's nagging concern that "As religion loses its influence over the lives of Americans: What will happen to our democracy?"2
People of faith are vital to the functioning of democracy. However, it is not because being accountable to a higher power makes us more apt to obey laws. Putting our allegiance to God above our allegiance to the state could lead us to disobey the laws of government if they conflict with our beliefs. Rather, people of faith make a democracy work because spiritual virtues are in harmony with the goals of a democracy – love your neighbor, treat others the way you want to be treated, care for the vulnerable and strive for the common good.
A basic tenet of our faith is that God is everywhere. God is not merely present in foxholes and houses of worship. The Creator of heaven and earth is present in all places and at all times. God did not carve the world up into the sacred and the secular. People will divide the world this way when they want to limit the sphere of God. People will try to keep religious faith separate from politics and economics when they want to display their devotion to the ideals of God one day of the week, but live by a different set of values the other six days. A vibrant spiritual life patterned on the life of Jesus seeks to inject spiritual virtues into all realms of society.
The founders of our nation sought to create a country built on the biblical principles of freedom, justice and mercy. They laid the foundation for a great nation, but it is always a work in progress and its development is dependent on its citizens.
Will you do your part to make our country the land God envisions?
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