"Jesus and the Fourth of July: Lamentations and Celebrations" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
John 8: 36
Across the years I have always looked forward to worship on the Sunday we celebrate Independence Day, the birth of the nation, the Fourth of July. I am eager to give thanks to God for the founders’ establishment of a democracy and the assurance of religious liberty, the cornerstone of our nation. Every year I feel honored to give thanks to God for our nation, our democracy, and our constitution.
You know the troubled references that are bothering you and me today—Nationalists are causing trouble—Christian Nationalism, people who think only Christians belong in this land, attacks on antisemitism, unloads of fired shots into Christian congregations, grieving the murders of innocent children. Hate is strong and growing across our land. How in God’s name can we explain so-called patriots trying to kill the Vice President of the United States in our nation and snuff out the life of the leader in the House of Representatives.
Scores of people no longer believe in democracy; more stunning still, many people, are preparing for another Civil War.
A few years ago, in a sermon related to the Fourth of July, I posed a question about the relationship between Jesus and the Fourth of July. Of course, July the Fourth is not a Jesus day. In the church house we are in worship. As I see it, on the Fourth of July, Jesus would be about as out-of-place at a celebration of the Fourth of July as a fur-coated Eskimo would be comforted on Waikiki Beach.
Most years on the Fourth of July I have chosen biblical scriptures relevant to the day: Leviticus 25:19 “Proclaim liberty throughout the land;” John’s gospel reminds us: “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” or “so if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” This year, I added Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 3:4: “For everything there is a season” and “a time to weep.” That’s where we are.
I never want my religion to choose the character of my government and I never want my government to shape my religion.
For a long span in my life, I thought our nation was perfect. I thanked God for blessing our land as no other nation on earth. At that point I knew nothing of the people who came to this land who killed the people who were here long before they were. I had not thought about the fact that the people who came to the shores of North America, made homes there and then went to war against the people of Great Britain. Christian ministers could preach only sermons from the Old Testament because they could only find scriptures in the New Testament that approved of war. At that time, I knew nothing about the thievery of black people from Africa who were brought to our shores to be sold into slavery. In the formations of our government offices, I wished leaders had chosen the Department of Peace in our nation rather than the Department of Defense.
To this day, I am proud of the many very good decisions made and actions taken by our nation’s leaders. Many times, while walking around streets in various places in the world I have been thrilled as people stopped me on the street to say thank you for your government helping us in so many ways.
But then I had never thought of our nation being attacked to kill our people. However, more closely I remain stunned discovering people who claim to be patriots in our land killing our own patriots. How does anyone do that? How could anyone want to replace our democracy with tyranny or dictatorship leaders.
This morning let’s look at the good and the bad, the lamentations and celebrations along with Jesus and America and be honest about this land that we love.
Honesty is imperative if we are to live a meaningful life and good government. Without honesty there is no trust. And with no trust, we question integrity. Jesus said living with truth makes us free.
Right now, honesty could do wonders for the character of our nation and the reputation of religion. But presently, honesty seems to be in short supply. That is very dangerous.
My friend Bill Moyers helped me see and understand the gaping disparity between the words in historical documents and the actions in personal life of its author. Not all the founders were clean in speech. Jefferson had a great vision of truth, but he demonstrated dishonesty in character. Jefferson was so right, so visionary, so bold in his writing about the importance of everybody’s guaranteed access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But Jefferson was so wrong, so selfishly rights-denying, and so merciless when he bought and bedded the slave named Ms. Hemings, the woman who birthed and mothered his children. Mr. Jefferson knew the truth, but Mr. Jefferson lived the lie.
Look carefully. In a very real sense, look closely, the life of our nation now mirrors the life of Thomas Jefferson. We have believed better than we have behaved. We have affirmed values that we have refused to implement.
My friend Bill Moyers wrote about “Big Truths and Little Lies.” I can’t help but speak today of Little Truths and Big Lies. We must change.
Liberty was the driving force for pilgrims coming to America. However, no sooner than the largest group of new inhabitants in this land were settled, quickly they moved to make their religion an established religion that denied freedom and rights to those in the minority here. As President Taft pointed out, the Puritans “came to this country to establish freedom of their religion, not the freedom of anybody else’s religion.” Within the past few days, I have read and watched leaders in our nation say that we need to make Christianity the only religion welcome in this nation.
We speak and sing of freedom regularly, but we do not work for freedom for all.
The Supreme Court was formed to protect the Constitution and laws. However, the Supreme Court has begun to function more like Congress than dealing with the Constitution. Just this past year or two the High Court has changed the definition of Religious Freedom. Now the Court makes more rulings on businesses than the American people. You know that just a few days ago, the High Court decided it would tell women how they should take care of their bodies. The court has made laws that declare when and how a woman can birth a child. By mandate every woman who was raped is forced by law to birth that baby. Ironically, as bipartisan members of congress finally passed safe guns, the Supreme Court ruled that people can carry guns with them.
I must make a comment. The rulings of these past days were more about politics than about guns and health. While working in the ethics offices of the Southern Baptist Convention the big argument in the convention was about how women should take care of their bodies and, believe it or not, only a few people condemned abortion.
My friends, as I understand it, nine people on the court are not to decide what is biblical, just because they think it is biblical. We are a nation not a church.
The Court also has broken the rule of using tax money for private and religious schools for their work that is supposed to keep public school good for all. The court should be supporting public schools for reading, writing, and arithmetic rather than some religion’s theology.
I love God, and I love my nation, but I know the difference between the two. I recognize with great gratitude how the democracy of a secular nation is the best for a government in which to practice the Christian religion. Entanglement with government invariably compromises religion’s integrity—no exceptions. Our judiciary now approves linking the name of our nation with God because the word God is now considered a patriotic word. How repulsive and sacrilegious!
We are a long way from that little church in Virginia when Patrick Henry thundered “Give me liberty or give me death!" Where now is the passion, where’s the freedom?
Liberty will be preserved and protected only when actions are as powerful as rhetoric in bad times and good times. The real test of our commitment to freedom is the strength of our will to protect freedom for people with whom we disagree or of whom we disapprove.
EQUITY AND CIVIL RIGHTS
One afternoon a few days ago, a longtime friend called me from San Francisco. As soon as I answered and heard his voice, I knew something was wrong. My friend usually started our conversation telling me something important that had happened and asking me if I would help him. Not that day though. My friend marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., for years he helped form and lead the NAACP, and more recently he helped build the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first words he spoke were somewhat frantic, “Welton I think we have lost it.” I had never heard him speak of something we could not do. “Tell me what you are thinking,” I asked him. “One of my dear friends in the church, was killed last night.” Another black person fell.
“It just goes on and on,” he said, “Nobody cares. Welton, we have gone back . . . “All the way back to my childhood in Mississippi. “I can still see it. I watched a group of white men hang my Grandfather from a tree. One of my best friends was shot in his driveway as he was coming home. (I think that was Medgar Evers.) Nobody is helping. If we are black, we are targets for bullets.”
“I have never heard you like this,” I told him. “It is where we are”, he said, “it is getting worse, and no one is working hard to save us,” he said, “Warn your friends and families if they are black, Welton, if they are and tell them to protect themselves and their children. Let’s talk again soon.”
It shook me (because a few days prior I had heard many of the same words—murders of Jews, Chinese, Muslims, Japanese, more African Americans, Eastern women.
Only a week earlier on my radio show I interviewed a friend who is a professor and teacher who trains people for the presidency and for congress. I asked him how he thought our nation was going.
After a long silence he said, “I don’t think we will make it this time; we are losing our democracy and liberty and freedom. We have lost ground--more killing among blacks, politicians with no integrity, LGBTQ+ people fear the Supreme Court, children are in danger, our nation is more divided than we have ever seen, voting this time around may be critically cruel, women are as many angry as they are fearful. More of these people have been African-Americans.”
Racism so pervades our culture that it often occurs right before our eyes, and we cannot see it. We have grown accustomed to lies used as excuses for hate and distorted rationalizations aimed at making injustice look “American.”
Racial prejudice is a sin against God as well as against other people. Here is what the Bible says:
If any person says, “I love God,” and hates his or her brother or sister, that person is a liar . . . one who does not love his brother or sister . . . does not love God. Racial prejudice is a sin against God as well as against other people. It can be bad, but also if we choose it can be good. We can overcome.
Yes, now love—love, what the Bible says is the greatest of all virtues. Isn’t it time to give love a chance--real love, holistic love, divine love? Friends, if we can’t love our nation, we cannot love the people in our nation and if the nation and its leaders do not love, they cannot love the citizens.
Using words from W.H. Auden’s poem entitled “September 1st, 1939,” I want to be blunt: “We must love one another or die.”
Either love will find its proper place of sovereignty in people’s lives, citizenship, and work or we will see a continued deterioration of simple empathy and compassion, no help for the poorest and weakest among us, a lack of conscience about wars that allow us to hire soldiers and continue with our own agendas while fighting is fierce, and a mechanical type of depersonalized relationships in which people think going it alone is better than the trouble of living together and utilitarianism becomes the primary principle in sexual relationships, and doing what is easiest, least troublesome, and only in good times will take the place of the passion of love that fulfills dreams, births children with integrity, and gives society a goal which most would rather reach whatever the cost than to lose at any cost.
I always wanted to change the world. In fact, I still do. When I was younger, I believed that changing the world was possible. A raw, uncomplicated Christian faith provided the inspiration required for such work and a patriot’s dream of this nation assured me of the freedom to pursue any avenue of change that was both possible and legal to accomplish the task. Now, though, I am not so sure of any of it. But how do we do it. How do we change?
In 1998 I was invited to do the major address for the Northeast members of the Universal Universalist Church. I was asked to speak on the title Walking Together. Historians tell us those words were taken form Salom Covenant in 1929 that the words of the speech grabbed my mind and heart and Unitarians committed to walk together as covenants together. From that day until those two words today have throbbed in my mind and ear and I have envisioned what it would mean for us to all be walking together.
Don’t misunderstand; walking together does not mean everyone must look the same, think the same, or support the same political party. People of different races, people of different religions or people with no religion can work together. If we are all working for the same nation, our nation, we can at least walk together.
In my vision of walking together I see a government true to its constitution, not showing partiality to any religion, but guaranteeing all of the rights and benefits of freedom to every citizen regardless of that person’s religion or lack of religion.
I hear debates in which participants are committed to civility, condemnatory of disrespect, and vehemently opposed to political strategies that advance agendas by creating divisions. I watch governmental leaders reaffirm the primacy of law in our society and rebuff efforts to legislate narrow sectarian morality.
I see a nation in which unity is not forged by the imposition of uniformity, the right to pursue happiness is literally available to everybody, and citizenship aimed at assuring the continuation of freedom and strengthening the dynamics of democracy is a shared journey from which no one is excluded.
Walking together we can change things.
Either people will learn the appropriate relationship between religion and government as well as the necessity of religious freedom or our nation will return to a pre-First Amendment understanding of religion and government in which each compromise, if not ruins, the other.
Internationally we will either learn the appropriate relationship between religion and government or the future will be filled with escalating conflicts between religions and between religions and governments that often turn violent.
Either we will get back to the experiment of democracy, practice the art of compromise for the common good, and cross all lines that prevent cooperation, or we will lose our democracy, assault our freedom, and assure failure for the grand vision that gives breath, courage, and strength to our constitutional way of life.
I don’t always know how to love this nation, but I do know that if all of us walk together we will know each other better and have a chance at knowing peace and experiencing goodwill.
Every Sunday, the first church in Plymouth recites a contemporary version of the Mayflower Compact – a document that seems sacred. I share a paraphrase of those words now as a gift to Independence Day, to those of us who worship the God whose gracious gifts enhance our lives, intensify our love, and motivate us to say, “Thank you.”
We pledge to walk together
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn them in days to come.
That we and our children may be fulfilled,
And that we may speak to the World
In words and actions
Of peace and goodwill.
PRAYER FOR THE NATION
July 3, 2022
Almighty God called by many names, understood in a variety of ways, and worshipped by diverse people of faith:
Surrounded by awe-inspiring symbols of good government, we give thanks for this nation and its constitutional commitment to freedom and justice for all people.
Assembled on the steps of the Capital because of a shared concern about the rampant violence, raping in the communities of our land—fomenting death, eroding security, engendering fear, and threatening our very way of life—we confess a need for wisdom to guide us in dealing with yet unanswered questions about violence but a need for boldness for what we already know about how to reduce violence in our society.
With Jews, we pray that the dignity of the other will be as dear to us as our own dignity.
With Buddhists, we pray for recognition that “bearing ill-will in thought and speech leads to eons upon eons in the states of misery.”
With Hindus, we pray that we May “unite in our minds, unite in our purposes, And not fight against the divine spirit within us.’
With Muslims, we pray for a recognition that “all human creatures are God’s children” and that “those dearest to God are those who treat God’s children kindly.”
The Christians, we pray for a commitment to “the things that make for peace” that results in a life that finds a blessing in peace-making.
With Native Americans, we pray for a realization that the abuse of another “turns wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.”
With Sikhs, we pray that no one “shall cause another pain of injury” and that all shall live together “under a shield of administrative benevolence.”
O God, comfort persons whose family members and friends have fallen as victims of violence.
Ease the anxiety among persons so set on edge by the prevalence of violence that not even a door can shut without them jumping from fright.
.Endow leaders of the United States of America with an appreciation for the dignity of every person that creates within them a passionate commitment to building civil society.
Reshape our thinking so that efforts for peace reflect a glory and strength that never can be matched by preparations for fights and acts of killing.
Thank you, O God.
Prayer for Integrity
July 3, 2022
Holy One, we are in trouble. We humbly seek your help. We pray that integrity may be established as the characteristic of our behavior, indeed as the life-style of our nation.
We pray for our nation—
That the erosion of credibility between citizens and government officials may be arrested before the gap becomes a canyon;
That the leaders of our county may, by both words and deeds, reestablish the importance of honesty in national affairs and in personal matters;
That the laws of the land and the institutions which implement their intent may be spared manipulation for personal gain and utilized for justice and the public good;
That the trust of our republic may not be limited to that power which is measured in megatons or to that wealth which is reflected in the Gross National Product but that it may rest in You;
That our commitment to honesty, our pursuit of justice, our elimination of discrimination, our support of freedom, our efforts at world peace, may be of such a nature as to assure us a place of moral leadership in the international community.
We pray for the citizens of our nation.
God, our trust has been ruptured by double talk and immoral behavior on the part of persons within high echelons of government.
Our minds are troubled by a tumult of crises.
Our will is frustrated as we vacillate between a sense of importance as citizens and a sense of futility.
Forgive our worship of a civil religion which equates nationalism with Christianity, confuses governmental policy with your will, and interprets patriotism as blind allegiance.
Disturb any apathy concerning the political arena until complacency become creative involvement in politics on behalf of basic morality.
Translate our political cynicism into a responsible citizenship which persistently works at every level of government, supporting that which is right and challenging that which is wrong.
God we pray for our leaders that they may ever be cognizant of your support as your expectations of them;
That they may be among our leaders who by moral leadership secure once again the shaking foundations of this democracy;
May their faith be a source of courage and their communion with you a source of strength.
Now keep us disciplined in our fellowship of the One who was the incarnation of integrity, the One who thus can make us free. Amen.