With Liberty and Justice for All

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Text: Ephesians 4:1-16 (The Message)

When I was a boy in elementary school, we started every day with Bible reading, prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. These “opening exercises” were as predictable and normal as anything in my life. No one gave it a second thought. The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954. I was 7 years old at the time and anticipating the second grade. I have a vague memory of a minor disruption in the rhythm of life as we had to remember to include the new words when we recited the pledge. I don’t remember anyone in my small circle objecting to the addition.

I have more vivid memories of 1962-63 when the Supreme Court ruled that required prayer and Bible reading was not permissible in public schools. I was in high school by then, and I remember my father was outspoken in support of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Though the decisions were unpopular in Boise, Idaho, my dad saw them as consistent with his deeply held Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. Still, American Civil Religion carries weight in this country. Ignoring the growing diversity in religious belief and practice, we still tend to use rhetoric of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in attempts to elevate our discourse and/or get elected to public office.

After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, it became common practice to sing “God Bless America” in lieu of, or along with, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh inning stretch. But, friends, the United States of America is not the “Promised Land” nor have we any right or reason to expect special blessing from God or to claim that “God is on our side.” The privilege bought by the wealth and power of our nation has no special connection to the great God of the universe and the way we exercise that privilege has little to do with Jesus of Nazareth. It is as much a sham to claim that this is “one nation, under God” as it is to pretend that there is “liberty and justice for all.” Independence Day is not a religious holiday and that is why I choose not to celebrate it in worship.

This year, as the 4th of July approached, we were reminded dramatically that this is not “one nation,” that we are not “under God” in any sense of holding for ourselves a relationship more real and significant than other people on the planet, and that we are a long way from “liberty and justice for all.” In recognizing the holiday, one pastor friend chose to reproduce Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, writes about the American dream:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again.

I offer these words as neither hymn nor gospel, but as the passionate yearning of one gifted black man for dignity and respect, for the recognition of his humanity and inclusion in whatever common enterprise that engages us as citizens of this land. In these days when hatred and violence have been so evident in our own backyard, when racism and white supremacy have been exposed as an ugly infection in the body politic, when fear of the foreigner and distrust of difference rule the day, Hughes reminds us how much yet needs to be done to make this “one nation…with liberty and justice for all.”

As people of faith who have reason to claim that we are “under God,” we do have responsibility to consider how our faith might inform and shape a society “with liberty and justice for all.” Hughes’s dream for America is not the dream that Paul had for the church but there does seem to be valuable interface between the two. Beloved Baptist ethicist and prophet, James Dunn, who served twenty years as director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and who died yesterday on the 4th of July, wrote, “To translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy is a massive and sometimes tricky undertaking but our generation is not the first to try. God’s children have been bringing morality to public life for centuries. Christian social ethics is a well developed discipline, not merely a collection of reactions to news reports” (Quoted in his obituary).

What if our sense of being special is not because we live in the United States of America but because we are children of God, the body of Christ? Special not because of any elevated status but because we have heard and responded to God’s call to service. Our motivation to work for “liberty and justice for all” is not because it’s the American way. We’ve already established that this a dream unfulfilled. What if, instead, our motivation is our desire to see the Beloved Community of God come to fulfillment on earth, which surely is a call to “translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy”?

“I want you to get out there,” says Paul, “and walk…on the road God called you to travel…And,” he continues, “mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.” He calls us to be “…Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”

In an all too racist society, what would it look like for us to pour ourselves out for each other in acts of love? And I don’t mean sweet, patronizing acts of charity. I mean real, transforming love that sees and respects difference while working to bind all together in love. The God who made us, who loves us with unexplainable love, who calls us to communion with the Holy One and community with one another, sees beyond the American Dream. It is a larger vision of hospitality and inclusion. I know some in the USA have claimed that as our dream, but the failure to bring it to reality speaks to our inadequacies when we try to go it alone. As soon as we begin to get ahead, we suddenly want to reserve the vision of liberty and justice for ourselves rather than for all. We want to confine life to borders that secure our privilege and power because we’re afraid that there just isn’t enough to go around.

This makes me think of the simple wisdom of Malvina Reynolds who sang, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” In fact, real love is only love in the giving. It cannot be hoarded. I understand that there are challenges to reaching across lines of race and class, to welcoming the stranger in the land, to learning new languages and cultures, to eating strange food and singing unfamiliar songs. But remember God’s challenge to Peter from a couple of weeks ago – “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). We used to sing it in Sunday School, “Red, yellow, black, brown, white, all are precious in God’s sight.” What if we committed ourselves to looking within this beautiful diversity for the God-ordained unity that sees every one as precious – yes, even the ones you really struggle with – maybe especially the ones you struggle with.

Let’s be clear though to say that “all lives matter” is not the same as to say “black lives matter.” The call for unity can never gloss over difference nor deny the painful picture painted by Hughes in his poem. Paul says we have to “notice differences,” we have to see and acknowledge the other’s pain and struggle, hopes and dreams. Racism and white supremacy are real. Until we see and understand those realities there will never be “liberty and justice for all.” If one us is not free then none of us is truly free…and God deeply desires freedom for all creation.

Let me close with some words from another poet of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, who, along with his brother, Rosamond, wrote what has come to be known as the black national anthem:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Or in the words of Paul, “…I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.

God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Peace to the Nations (July 6, 2014)

sermonsPEACE TO THE NATIONS

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Text: Zechariah 9:9-12 (NLT)

 

Who can tell me the story of the Pilgrims in a sound bite?

Well, one of my favorite bloggers cites a sermon in which the preacher tells a revisionist tale about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Nancy Taylor, in her inaugural sermon as pastor of Boston’s historic Old South Church, the church whose congregants gave us the original tea party, proclaimed the following:

As you know, the Pilgrims…were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

I suspect that most of us did not read that account in high school history books. I imagine those in authority in the Boise Public School District would have avoided this tacit approval of drinking beer as unsuitable for young folk. After all, we had enough temptation to resist without an intoxicating account of the beginning of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Joking aside, it does raise questions about what is urgent in our lives and the life of this nation, the USA. It is always challenging to find the right balance for preaching on one of our non-religious, but sacrosanct holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the 4th of July. Joanne Jones and I had more than one discussion about the place of patriotic music in worship. For me it has no place in the worship of God. I pledged to myself long ago that I would not serve a congregation that kept a US flag in the sanctuary. I learned at my father’s knee the importance of separation of church and state.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I do not value this country and appreciate many of the nobler principles on which it was founded. But I also recognize that there are flaws in the system and much wrong that has been done under patriotic banners. In the Midweek Message, I asked us to consider the words of the great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, who declared that “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones,’ he says, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

The key word here is love. Sometimes love is blind and that can lead to a morass of trouble when the beloved is blindly affirmed in all she is and does. Sometimes love is absent and the critique is harsh, mean-spirited and hardly helpful. To love someone or something truly is to open one’s eyes to see the possibilities and limitations; then to speak truth grounded in that love. You are so beautiful; so full of possibility; so rich in resource, yet there are times and places where you are not living up to your promise; you are not fulfilling your potentiality; you are not sharing that with which you have been blessed.

This week on Facebook my uncle in Texas accused me of being part of the “illegal immigrant problem.” I’ll let you be the judge. My friend Harold Sutherland has worked for many years as an asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security. Harold is a graduate of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and an ordained American Baptist minister. Some of you may remember that for a number of years before he went to work for the government, Harold did refugee resettlement with the American Baptist Churches of the West and the ABC-USA. Harold has a big, compassionate heart. I can only imagine how difficult it has been to do the work he has chosen. It is hard enough to try to resettle refugees. To work as an asylum officer must be excruciatingly painful at times.

Anyway, on Independence Day, Harold posted, with a photo of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s great poem, “The New Colossus,” engraved in the statue’s base. He added this comment: “As the latest immigration debate rages, I want to share this. This has been a powerful symbol of our nation’s history and welcome. I fear that so many angry people here today want nothing to do with the sentiment of Emma Lazarus’s poem and I wonder what we will do, what can be done, and where will we go with this crisis.”

You remember the poem? I learned the last few lines in grade school.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

When I reposted Harold’s post, I added these words. “The sentiment of this poem still moves me, especially as I view the ugly, angry mob in Murietta, CA.” When I saw that mob on the news, blocking the buses carrying children and families from what appear to be obscenely inadequate quarters on the Texas border to other detention centers where they will be processed, then most likely returned to their country of origin, I found it difficult to be proud of my country and at least some of its people. These protestors looked like ugly Americans to me and my heart fell. Where is our compassion? Where is the beacon-hand that glows world-wide welcome, the lamp that leads to safety, the golden door of opportunity that has opened at one time or another to the families of every person screaming hate and turning back those desperate children?

My uncle insists that his Italian ancestors came here legally, so that legitimates his right to be here. That may be so. I know the issues of legality are more complex than I can sort out. But what are we to say to Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, still lifting her lamp beside the golden door? What are we to say the God who made us all and loves us with the same ineffable love? What are we to say to Christ who stands at this table of communion and bids you and me and the all the world to eat and drink? How will we respond to that Spirit of compassion that blows around us, in us and through us when facing our neighbors in need?

Coffin, again, writes that “Individuals and nations are at their worst when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.” In the end, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I must confess that my first allegiance is to the God who made us and all creation, who through Christ is drawing all of creation back to God’s self.

Zechariah, an obscure, minor prophet, lived and worked in a challenging time for his people. After 100 years of exile in Babylon, they had been allowed to return home. In some ways Zechariah was an optimist or at least he was hopeful. He tried to encourage his people by exhorting them to rebuild the temple. Zechariah came from a family of priestly privilege but apparently he had a heart of compassion for the people struggling around him to rebuild their decimated city and reclaim their lost legacy.

His belief was that, in the work of rebuilding the temple, people would not only find meaningful employment but also that deep, covenantal relationship to God. The temple itself was secondary to that relationship to the one liberates and redeems, blesses and loves with a steadfast love. Eventually, Zechariah saw his people fail to live up to his dream, indeed, to their own national vision and the promise of the future. But in the moment he penned today’s text, he was full of hope for the promise of a renewed covenant. This was urgent for him, for his people, his nation.

For his people as for the people of Jesus’ time, the messianic vision became distorted toward a ruler who would come with armed might to drive oppressive enemies away and secure the boundaries and resources of the land for the insiders. But Zechariah says, and Jesus repeats the word, this is not how God works. Look, this king you so desire is coming to you. Shout! Rejoice! But also, beware. This sovereign one is not just powerful, he’s righteous and he’s humble. His power is not in armament or weapons. His power is love and compassion. His mission is to bring peace to the nations. Not what they expected. Not what they wanted to hear.

The risk of all self-righteous patriotism is uncritical love and loveless criticism. It creates boundaries among people that God never intended and refuses to recognize. It creates categories, defining who is in and who is out, categories at which God takes offense and rejects. God simply and eternally continues to widen the circle. There is room at God’s table for all and there is an abundant feast to fill the body, mind and soul of whomsoever will come. So where people take up the sword or the hateful placard against a neighbor, sister, brother, ill-defined as enemy, there is God turning swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. Wherever there are children of God longing for safety, for food, for shelter, for freedom, for love, for home, there is the daughter of Zion rejoicing with all her heart, there is Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, lifting her beacon hand of world-wide welcome beside God’s golden door, there is the king of righteousness and humility repaying two blessings for each trouble and bringing everlasting peace to the nations. May it be so.

Amen.