Love of Country

A sermon based on: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio July 3, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Once upon a time– many, many moons ago– a pioneer couple had twins born on the 4th of July, The father wanted to name them Liberty and Justice. The mother said, “Are you nuts? You can’t have children going through life with names like Liberty and Justice. We are going to give them regular names.

The argument went on for about a month, until they compromised and each got to name one of the girls. The man chose Liberty and the wife picked Elizabeth.

As the girls grew they were so identical they’d pull tricks on people. As young adults a fellow their age took an interest in them. And even though they started dating he was never sure which one he was with.

So when he arrived at the house to take one out on a carriage ride and the parents answered the door and asked who he wanted to see he said “I will leave it up to you. Give me Liberty or give me Beth!”

Most every Fourth of July weekend I preach on the Declaration of Independence. I look forward to it. The document is prophetic in its wording and its aptly summarized aim at justice and liberty for all. We/ must/pass on that prophetic aim from generation to generation.

The Bible story today is about passing on the mantle of what can be heard of as that very same prophetic aim.

See Moses was God’s actor who parted the waters of the Red Sea to provide liberty and justice to the Hebrews in the Exodus story. God and Moses acted in an Exodus-wise manner toward liberty and justice.

Joshua who later takes up Moses’ mantle parts the waters of the Jordan River to bring people to the promised land of liberty and justice, and to remind us of the Exodus-wise acts of God and God’s prophets.

Elijah is prophetic in this vein too. His last prophetic act as we heard is a parting of the waters of the Jordan to remind us again of the Exodus-wise acts of God and God’s prophets.

And proof that Elisha has truly taken up the mantle as God’s prophet is his first prophetic act is parting the waters of the Jordan in our lesson today. Reminding us again of the Exodus-wise acts of God and God’s prophets.

God’s prophetic work is mirrored in those who act Exodus-wise– toward liberty and justice.

The Fourth of July holiday can be heard as a celebration of the initiation of an entire modern nation aimed Exodus-wise, toward liberty and justice for all.

I love that! Despite its imperfections I love this country too. A ton.

“Patriotic” is a word that gets bandied about a lot, often by folks wanting others to follow their way. You are not a patriotic American if you do not believe this or don’t do that. But actually the word basically means love of country.

The overriding theme in almost all our services is Love. We talk of love for God, self, others and creation. But I am not sure we have specifically addressed love of country. From a theological point of view, love is always a good thing.

Often we hear folks pitching a line that being patriotic means having a blind love for the country. This is the idea that a true patriot accepts what the government does without question. “Love it or leave it” means like what the nation has done, and is doing, or go away.

This idea of “love it” without question tends to apply only to the things the person saying “Love it or leave it” does not want questioned.

But loving our nation – being patriotic– is not about whether we question our nation’s actions. In fact, one of the founding principles of this country was to encourage and foster debate and non-violent dissent. In other words the founders advocated the questioning of our governance.

The assumption being that strong feelings for the nation would result in strong feelings over issues, with differences being worked out through the ballot boxes and proper process in bodies comprised of elected officials.

No one today would seriously argue that either Thomas Jefferson or John Adams were not patriotic. But both disagreed strongly over national issues and with each other. Their love of this nation caused them to seek their ideal of what was best for it at the time in spite of what other patriots thought.

Thomas Jefferson, the man most responsible for the wording of the Declaration of Independence in may surprise us was a British patriot almost up to the time of the Declaration. Just seven months earlier on November 29, 1775 Jefferson expressed his love of his then country, Britain, with these words:

Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.

Jefferson loved being a part of Britain, but, was unyielding on certain matters.

Adams, loved America, but as president signed into law a congressional effort to crush dissent by those who did not love what the federal government was doing. The Sedition Act made public criticism of the federal government a crime– with jail terms.

Jefferson as the next president refused to enforce the Act and pardoned folks prosecuted under it. The Act expired and dissent was allowed to be expressed.

Fortunately this nation has, in general, long since encouraged love of our country being expressed by everyone in lawful ways, including strong dissent with not only what the nation is doing, but, with one another and our leaders.

And that dissent when done in an effort to better the country can be a patriotic–“a love of country”– act, no less so than cheering it on.

It’s kinda like raising kids. Parents may share different views about what is right for their child and still equally love that child. So too with a nation and members of a nation. We can disagree about how to move along as a country. Patriots have done this in the past and do it now.

I have said all of this because there tends to be a sense today that patriotic means never questioning the nation’s or this or that leader’s actions, and that is just not a fair or proper use of the word.

Love of America does not mean we cannot respectfully dissent. Comments against the current administration are not necessarily un-patriotic, and neither were comments against the last administration. Agreement or dissent with, or within, an American political party is not necessarily unpatriotic.

Of course, the very document upon which our country based it’s quest for independence, the document we celebrate tomorrow, was a declaration that upholds and honors the right of people to dissent with a government even to the point of dissolving it.
Listen to the radical first three sentences of The Declaration of Independence:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Those words were astounding when first issued, they were considered treasonous by Britain and revolutionary by the patriots. And those words are still quite remarkable even two-hundred-and-forty years later. Humans secured the right to have a government that the governed must consent to. That’s amazing if you think about it in the context of history.

I love the lofty notions staed at the founding of our nation.

I especially love the famous assertion that the ultimate truths that the founders of this great country premised self governance on were loving of self and neighbor. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Self evident truths: All are created equal; the Creator gave rights to everyone that cannot be taken away.

Among the God given rights that everyone always has are the rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness.

While I am a big fan of not imposing religion on others and so am a supporter of the First Amendment’s restrictions on the making and prohibiting religion, that does not, however, mean that we cannot assert our nation’s founding was permeated –soaked to the core– with God.

I don’t care if the folks that came up with the words were Christian or non-Christian, deists or atheists, those words work because they are exactly what God calls us to as human beings – individually and collectively.

They work because they reflect both the Exodus-wise God and prophets of old who aimed for liberty and justice, and because Jesus and the early church leaders like Paul made sure to make the aim broad enough to apply to all people, Gentle and Jew, men and women.
Jesus and Paul promoted the essence of the truth that seventeen hundred years later would be written into the Declaration of Independence.

The Gospels and the story of the Exodus can be understood as claims that in the course of human events it may be necessary for God’s people to dissolve the bonds with oppressive governments (like Egypt and Rome) and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.

The Gospels – especially in light of the Exodus influence– suggest that God’s Way, Jesus Way, supports these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal and that all are given rights by God.

Now Jesus did not assert “[t]hat to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

I am not sure today that he would quibble with that wording, but 2,00 years ago he did take a different tact. His argument was that to secure these rights we – all of us on earth– have been instituted by God, deriving our powers from God, to do what? Love. Jesus’ core message when all is said is it’s all about love.

And love of country works, but for Jesus it was never – never– love of government or a nation’s actions above the love of people and God.

Indeed the model Jesus gives us is to challenge Caesar, to protest Rome and even its religious elite if they are trampling on the God given rights of any person. That very model is a template for the founders of this great nation– which we dearly love.

The Bible, like the Declaration of Independence, is a very radical document and the Gospels or the Exodus story can be turned to to find support for questioning a government that tramples on rights.

Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Patrick Henry (who first said “Give me liberty or give me death” (not Beth)) . . . those patriots along with thousands of others in the American Colonies had had enough and they stood up and challenged England.

There were a lot of reasons, but the ones that they all agreed on, and stated, and signed on to, in the Declaration of Independence was based on “the laws of nature and of nature’s God . . .” and it was caused by the universal Truths that every person is created equal by God and given irrevocable rights. And that governments need to “secure these rights.”

We can understand these ideas as God inspired; as Christ inspired. That is why they resonate still. That is why they will reverberate throughout the ages. That is why America tries to live into them . . . and as long as it does will be a truly great nation worth loving, worth being patriotic toward.

I know that the words in the Declaration of Independence are secular words, but they are full of Christ, they are full of God. They were inspired by Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, other prophets and Jesus’ challenges to the government and its elite so that all might be saved from a world where people are treated unequally.

Virtually everything Jesus taught was about treating one another as goodly Godly equal images – worthy of love, life, liberty and happiness.

And it was not just those of the same religion whom Jesus loved, treated well and granted rights to his table and community and thought were goodly Godly equal images of great worth.

It was not just countrymen from Palestine.

It was not just men.

It was not just those with the same skin color.

In Jesus’ community no one was refused a place or thought of as unworthy.

Why?

Because it is – and always will be– self-evident that all are created equal, that all are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

AMEN

Endnotes:
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2009

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