Good morning, Friends!
I’m sure that today, in churches all over town and all around the country, ministers are saying some very predictable things this morning.
There are people who are talking about the things they think made this country great. There are ministers telling people in their congregations what they should think and how they should vote.
I don’t do that. I love my country very much, but I believe very strongly in the separation of church and state. Our Constitution guarantees that no particular religion will be established or supported by the government.
Before that guarantee was put in place, many of the states had official churches. The Congregationalists ran most of New England. New York was heavily Dutch Reformed. Maryland was a Catholic state. Virginia was mostly Episcopal. Quakers suffered a great deal for religious freedom during that time.
Religious tyranny can be just as bad as any other kind of tyranny. We’ve gotten so used to the freedom we enjoy, that we don’t always think about how bad it can be when government and religion get mixed up.
Anyway, this morning I suggest that we go back, not to our national traditions or to our constitutional roots, but that we go back instead to the word of God.
We’ve been looking at the Psalms for a few weeks now. I’ve got one for us today that I think is pretty appropriate.
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
For the word of the Lord is right and true;
he is faithful in all he does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of his unfailing love.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.
The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth—
he who forms the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.
No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.
– Psalm 33
As I said before, I love my country very much. I have studied our constitution, and our legal system, and I think that here in the United States we have one of the best systems of government in the whole world. I believe in citizenship, and respect, and I think those things need to be lifted up more in today’s world.
But as a Christian, I also have to listen to the God who created the world, long before our nation was organized, the God for whom a thousand years is like a single watch in the night, the God before whom all people of every nation are equal.
I’m sure that, all around the country, there are probably lots of other people who are reading this same scripture today. And they’re all saying, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord!” But from that starting point, people are going off in all sorts of different directions.
There are people who are going to be saying that we need to reinstitute prayer in the schools. There are people who are talking a lot about corruption, and you can take your choice as to which political party they’re talking about. Today is a field day for people who want to sound off about the ills of America.
But, you know, one of the principles for interpreting the Bible which I find pretty important, is not to make the Bible say anything which it wasn’t intended to say. And the Bible simply doesn’t talk about the United States of America, or our flag, or anything like that.
The psalm this morning starts out by saying that the whole world was made by God, and not just our beautiful corner of it. It says that God’s love fills the whole earth. It’s not limited or restricted to us.
The psalm says, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him.” To me, that says that our country doesn’t have any kind of a monopoly on God. It means that we don’t have an inside track on holiness which is denied to other people.
The world doesn’t revolve around us, or around our country. We don’t control God. It’s the other way round. The world was brought into being and continues to exist by the love and mercy of God.
This psalm says, The Lord foils the plans of the nations,” which is another way of saying that God doesn’t pay any attention to all of the schemes that different countries make. God makes God’s own plans. God’s plans don’t always coincide with the plans of different governments or parties or leaders.
What countries and governments want to do, and what God wants to do, are often very different things.
When you read the news, you hear about tax plans and spending plans, and plans for everything under the sun. Well, God’s got a different plan. And God’s been working that plan for a lot longer than anybody else who’s here on the block.
Just in our own lifetime, we’ve seen a lot of plans and schemes come and go. And history has seen the rise and fall of all kinds of empires and enterprises.
There’s a line in one of the other psalms, Psalm 146, which says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a human being, in whom there is no help; when a person’s breath departs he or she returns to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. . .” (Psalm 146:3-4)
See, we change our government a lot. That’s how our system works. We change direction in this country about every four years, sometimes even more often. Flip-flopping is just something that a nation’s leaders do.
But God’s plan doesn’t change. God’s plan has been justice, and truth, from Day One. God’s plan has been healing and mercy and salvation. That was God’s plan right from the beginning, and it’s still God’s plan today.
And if you make a comparison, between the kind of flip-flopping and tail-biting and contradiction that our country and other countries around the world have indulged in, and you contrast that with the steadfast love and the eternal purpose of God, then maybe you’ll understand what I’m driving at.
God’s plan, from the very beginning of organized society, has been that “nation shall not rise up against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. . .” (Isaiah 2:4) God’s plan has always been that we should lay down the sword and the spear, and treat people well, and live in peace together.
That’s going to mean a new way, a whole different way, than most governments are accustomed to. And the sooner we start practicing that new way of living, the better. The longer we stay on with the old way, the more blood will be spilled in sacrifice to the pride and greed and arrogance of the nations.
My dad was a history teacher. One of the best I ever met. He served in the Air Force during the Second World War. My dad was not a pacifist. But he taught me to be careful about mixing patriotism with religion.
My father told me that every one of the tens of millions of German soldiers who marched off to the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars, had engraved on the buckle of his belt, the words, “Gott Mit Uns” – “God With Us”. Those people were motivated by the forces of religion mixed together with nationalism. And that is a terribly dangerous thing.
The Constitution was not written so that one group of people could gain the upper hand over the rest of the country and keep it that way. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are intended to protect people from the tyranny of the majority.
Whatever the majority is, at any given time, they can vote for their leaders and vote for their plans. That’s democracy. But majorities change. Sometimes majorities on either side are mistaken. And in the mean time, everyone has rights which are guaranteed and protected against the tyranny of the majority.
The psalm this morning says: “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.”
All the money that we’ve spent, everything that we’ve done to bankrupt our nation and our world with the purchase and sale of arms, hasn’t brought peace. When will we ever learn?
When I talk this way, I want you to remember, that I’m not picking on any particular political party here, and I’m not just picking on our country. This is God’s word to all nations and to all peoples, at all times and in all places.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. . .”
A lot of people this morning are going to be saying that that means we need to go back to being a Christian America. They’re talking about the “good old days”, when “everybody believed” and when everyone went to church and everyone was a Christian.
Well, it may be unkind of me to say this, but I think that’s a fairy tale. I don’t think that was ever true.
What we’ve always had is a mixture. Some of the founders of our country probably thought they were good Christians. But a large percentage of our country’s founders were swept up by the non-Christian philosophies and practices of their times. And quite a lot of them talked one way and acted in another, just as leaders everywhere do today. It’s not all that different.
We have never truly been “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I admire the sentiment, and I want us to work towards it. But that is not the way in which we have lived.
And by the way, the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t all that old. It was first published in 1892, and Congress kept tinkering with it every few years until the mid-1950’s. The Christian’s allegiance to God has been around for a lot longer.
I would rather be someone who works quietly for liberty and justice, for fairness and freedom, and who works for them not just for our nation, but for all nations. And I think that whatever I do is a whole lot more important than what I say.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. . .”
The point that the psalm writer is trying to make is, that God calls us to join in God’s plan. God invites us to be blessed. And the way to blessedness isn’t through winning wars, or voting for a particular party, or any of the other cure-alls that people have put their faith in over the years.
To be blessed, as Jesus reminds us, is to know our own inward poverty, to mourn with everyone for the sins and brokenness of the world; and to be humble, not arrogant. To be blessed is to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be merciful; to be pure in heart; to be peacemakers; and to endure persecution for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel. Those are the things which lead to blessedness.
I don’t want to spoil anybody’s week, but I don’t think that most of what we’re going to be hearing today later this week has anything to do with God. I enjoy watching fireworks. I’m glad that people are going to have a good time. But I don’t think that a lot of what our nation is celebrating this week is necessarily a cause for celebration.
There’s a wonderful quotation from one of the early Quakers, Edward Burrough, who wrote about this back in the year 1672:
“We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other. . .but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation. . .”
That’s the way I feel we ought to be headed.
We are called to put our trust in God, and not a political party. We are called to put our trust in God’s plan, which may be something very different from whatever we hear about in the news.
As we settle back into quiet worship, let me read again the words of Psalm 33: “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.”