The Garden of the Lord

Good morning, Friends!

It’s good to see you all here today. Thank you for coming to worship. I hope you’re enjoying the holiday weekend!

I confess that I’m a little tired this morning. People here in our neighborhood were shooting off fireworks until 2:00 a.m. this morning. It sounded like World War III here last night! I had to get up at 6:00 this morning to take the dog out, and just as the sun cleared the horizon some eager, defiant person a few blocks away set off one last batch of firecrackers.

The Fourth of July is really a national holiday, rather than a religious one. There’s nothing in the Bible about it, and we usually maintain a pretty strict separation between church and state.

Our country is in trouble, though, and there’s nothing to prevent us from praying for health and safety for everyone.

Without taking sides, it’s OK for us to pray for peace in our communities, for wisdom in our leaders, and for people of all beliefs and backgrounds to work together for the good of everyone.

So, on this beautiful day, let’s pray for our congregation, for our country and for our community. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

For our Scripture this morning, I’m going to read another piece from the Old Testament. It’s from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58. He wrote it at a time when Israel was recovering from multiple problems. And it seems like it might be appropriate for us today.

This is what the Lord says:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your salvation will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and the Lord will say: Here am I!

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will make your bones strong.

You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:6-11

It’s so easy for us to imagine, that the way things are now, is the way things have always been. We get used to our own everyday lives, and we think, “This is how it always is!”

In fact, the world has changed a great deal, and people have had to change with the times.

Six months ago, none of us would have imagined what we’re going through right now. We might have pictured having an outdoor meeting, just for fun, or for something different.

But six months ago, we wouldn’t have imagined, having to meet outdoors like this, and in much smaller numbers, because of an epidemic. It just wouldn’t have entered our heads.

We’re all praying, of course, for life to return to normal. We want to get back to work. We want our jobs back, our schools back, our freedom back. We are certainly praying, earnestly, to be spared from the virus, and for everyone we know to be OK.

And I’m convinced that time will come. I hope it’s sooner rather than later. None of us know when it will be safe again. But we’re all praying for that return to our normal way of life.

One of the few things that’s good about this, is that it makes us think about what kind of a world we want to live in.

Can we learn from our times, and not just endure them? Can we not just return to normal, whatever that new “normal” is six months from now, but can we try to do better?

On 4th of July weekend, most churches will give some kind of a nod to the founding of our nation. But this week, I started thinking about what that founding really meant.

I thought about what the problems of our country were, 250 years ago, and what people then said needed to be fixed.

One of the biggest threats to our country then was national disunity. All the different states, all the different regions, all the different social classes, had a different agenda. They were pulling in all sorts of directions, and it wasn’t clear at all that our country would survive.

The merchants and manufacturers in the big cities had things they wanted to see happen, and the farmers and people on the frontiers had a very different idea.

Some people thought we needed a king, and other people wanted a democracy.

Each of the new states had its own militia. They weren’t real eager to send their people to serve in some other part of the country. The soldiers often didn’t get paid, and weren’t always fed very well. The soldiers had a tendency to start walking home when that happened.

But the hardest thing was to get people to look beyond the borders of their own daily lives, and realize that in order to survive, we needed to consider the good of the whole nation.

One of the mottoes of that generation, 250 years ago, was “United we stand; divided we fall.”

It’s actually an idea which comes from the gospel. Jesus said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (Mark 3:25, Matthew 12:25, Luke 11:17)

That’s not an ideal. It’s based on hard experience. A country which is divided is a sick country. And people from whatever side, who try to increase that division, for their own purposes, are increasing that sickness.

One of our country’s early leaders, Patrick Henry, in the last speech he ever gave, said:

“Let us trust God, and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.”

He collapsed at the end of the speech, and died just a few days later.

“United we stand” has a long history in our country. It’s still a part of our popular culture. Those words are even part of modern songs by people like Taylor Swift [Death by a Thousand Cuts] and Pink Floyd [Hey You].

Another phrase from the beginning of our country is E pluribus unum. Have any of you ever come across that? E pluribus unum. It means, “Out of many, one.”

It’s on every coin you have in your pocket. It’s on every bill you carry. It originally meant that our country was made up of many states, but in our Union, we are one.

It’s also come to mean that our country is made up of many different people. We’re not all the same. We come from every country on earth – people who are born here, and people who have come here, seeking freedom and safety and opportunity.

If you travel around the United States, you’ll meet people of every color of skin. Some of them still remember the hundreds of different languages of the places they came from, and all the beloved songs, and the favorite foods, and the many traditions of their mothers and fathers who brought them here.

Out of many, one.

That’s not just a warm, idealistic thought. It’s a fact that we all have to live with. We can’t send people back to whatever country they came from, any more than we can all be sent back ourselves. We’re all here. We have to deal with that.

One way to try to deal with that diversity is by putting up walls and inflaming hatreds. It doesn’t work very well.

The other way is to say that out of many, we are one, and work to make that a reality.

We do that, not by dividing our country, not by taking sides against each other, but by working to be sure that the same laws are applied equally to everyone.

We can’t have one law for white people, and a different law for African-Americans, or people of any other culture. We can’t have one standard of justice for rich people, and a different standard of justice for people who can’t afford expensive legal fees.

One of the main tools for dividing and destroying a country, is injustice and unfairness. And the fruit of injustice and unfairness is always going to be protest and violence, deeper division and destruction of the country we all love.

This week I did a little reading, and one of the people I read about was George Washington.

Did you know that George Washington never sang The Star-Spangled Banner? That wasn’t adopted as our national anthem until 1931.

He never said the Pledge of Allegiance, either. The Pledge was written back in 1892, a hundred years after Washington’s time.

I was also surprised by how young he was. His first military service was when he was 20 years old. He was the commander-in-chief of the Continental army when he was only 44.

He was first elected president, when he was 57 years old. The United States Constitution had been adopted the same year. He died when he was only 67.

I know that some people today are saying that George Washington was a slave-owner. Well, he was. He had a large plantation, and he owned more than 300 slaves.

What most people don’t know, is that even before the Revolution, he was deeply uneasy in his conscience about slavery. He changed his main crop from tobacco, which is very labor-intensive, to wheat, and he freed a lot of his slaves.

He arranged for the rest of his slaves to be freed at the time of his death, and he set aside funds to provide for the care of his older former slaves, and for the education of their children.

He also issued a proclamation, that African-Americans could serve in the United States Army. At different times during the Revolutionary War, between 5 and 15% of the soldiers were African-Americans.

Real life is sometimes more complicated than the slogans and memes people use to shout at each other. There is often good in the worst of us, and wrong in the best of us.
Maybe we need to study facts more, and listen to each other more.

The year Washington retired, after two terms as one of our most honored presidents, this is what he said:

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for [that unity] is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.

But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, many artifices [will be] employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth. . .

It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the [pillar] of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

One of the expedients of parties to acquire influence. . is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s]. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

That’s from Washington’s farewell address to the nation in 1797.

We are coming through a time of great hardship. I don’t think what we’re going through now was anyone’s intention. I don’t think that God wants anyone to be sick or to die from the virus.

We can make things much worse by division, by repeating rumors, by ignoring medical advice, by blaming, rather than by working together.

We can make things much worse by feeding the flames of hatred and by ignoring the demands for justice which have been coming loud and clear from people who are our neighbors.

Or – we can try and do better. We can imagine a better world, and work toward that vision. A long time ago, the Lord spoke through Isaiah, and called us to loose the bonds of injustice, to untie the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.

To share our bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked among us, not to hide from our own flesh and blood.

If we do that, Isaiah said, “Our light shall break forth like the dawn, our healing will spring up quickly. We will call, and the Lord will say, ‘Here I am!’ The Lord will guide us continually, satisfy our parched throats, make our bones strong, and we will be like a well-watered garden, a spring for everyone whose waters never fail.”

Closing Prayer

Lord, we pray this week for the good for our congregation, our community, and our country.

Help us to overcome hatred and lies, wherever they come from. Help us to be light in troubled times.

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. [Prayer of Quaker Edward Burrough, 1672]

Please keep us safe, Lord, and keep our hearts and minds, until we meet again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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One Response to The Garden of the Lord

  1. Kitty okano says:

    This reflection is exceptional! I will share it.

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