The Promised Land

A sermon based on Psalm 48
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 5, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Once upon a time a man named Moses lived in Egypt under Pharaoh– things were terrible. God called him to stop oppression, but Pharaoh wouldn’t speak to him –and to top it off, the rest of the Hebrews were mad at him. He was about ready to give up. Suddenly a booming voice spoke from above: “You, Moses, heed me! I have good news and bad news.”

Moses was staggered. The voice continued: “You, Moses, will lead the People of Israel out of bondage to the Promised Land. If Pharaoh will not let you go, I will turn the rivers to blood!”

“If he still will not let my people go I will smite Egypt with frogs and Locust and other such plagues until he relents and lets you go. If needed I will even part an entire sea to aid an escape.”

Moses was stunned. He stammered, “That’s…. that’s fantastic. I can’t believe it! . . .Ummmmm but what’s the bad news?” And God said “You, Moses, must write ALL Environmental Impact Statements.”

I like that joke, while clearly fictitious, it nonetheless has a painful, yet funny truth to it. Somehow, some red tape, some rule, some action or some inaction by humans slows us down on the way to the Promised Land. But regardless of hurdles, the good thing about the Promised land it is always promised . . . It is always promised. And we are always living into the promise, which if we think about it is very hope-full.

Hope keeps us living into the promise. And one of the beauties of a people like the Israelites, and a people like Americans is that we do just that. We live into the promise! The promise is always unfolding. Zion and America are Promis-ed Lands as in, an active promise to come.

And if we are honest about it, objective about it, the promises of both those nations seem pipe-dream-like. Both aim at what can best be described as abstract ideals of equal fairness and justice and safety. We aim for what the Lectionary’s Psalm we celebrate today calls for Israel, for Zion, “righteousness,” “justice” and a “place of safety.” And what our Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this weekend refers to as equality and unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can hear the Psalm and the Declaration as essentially the same thing. Righteousness and justice and safety for all, can fairly be equated to equality and upholding everyone’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness rights.

You may recall that this is my third Fourth of July weekend sermon at this church. You may also recall that I love to preach on this weekend. I really do. And I started thinking about this sermon weeks ago. And it came to me pretty quick when I read over the Lectionary Psalm that our country, our people are very much like Zion and her people, not just in desires, but in beliefs.

We can hear in Psalm 48 that like America the people of Zion believed that their country was beautiful, and meant to belong to God and be a joy to the world and a place of safety that made enemies run away and tremble. That about sums up what I’d call “true to God American patriotism.”

And even our prayers to God for the promised greatness to unfold and be maintained are of the same nature. Americans (like Israelites) pray that we can be made “secure forever,” “filled with righteousness,” rejoicing for “acts of justice,” and “a place of safety.” In the words of the Psalmist we even “dwell on [God’s] faithful love . . .” for us, right? We do this each time we sing or say or write “God bless America.”

We, like the people of Zion, know that we have been blessed. But we call out for blessings still because we are not a finished product. Like Zion, we are not yet what is promised, we are living into the promise. We have hope that the promises of equality, and full recognition and provision to every American of equality and equal rights are possible.

The Declaration of Independence is a truly a remarkable document in that it claims an entire country was formed with these foundational promises. That Declaration is not like the Magna Carta which 800 years ago promised rights, but basically only to elite barons and non-peasant gentry. The Declaration of Independence is more like Jesus’ Way in the Bible, in that it promises and aims and advocates the pursuit of equal rights for all.
And for those in our nation who claim to want to go back to the ways of the days of the early formation of the country, our nation was a lot further then from the promised equality than we are today. People of color, people of lesser means, and people who were female were not even close to being protected equally under the Constitution of the United States. In fact slavery was permitted, and pursuit of fugitive slaves into non-slave states was allowed. And slaves who made up one-fifth of the population of America at the time were declared in the Constitution as having the value of only three-fifths of a person.

The lofty ideals, the promises and promised land in the Declaration of Independence has not always been promised or played out in the execution of the law of the land. America, though, does not annually celebrate the Constitution, or other written law of the land, with hoopla. WE THE PEOPLE celebrate the ideals, the promises and the promised land of the Declaration of Independence. The Fourth July is a celebration of the signing of a document with promises we all long for and know to be our ultimate call as a people.

That beautiful document claims the lofty aim of making a land where all are treated as equal as the Creator made them; where all are provided the rights they are entitled to never be alienated from. Our Declaration of Independence describes a promising, if still only a promised land.

The Bible of course also refers to a Promised Land. It is first promised by God to Abraham for occupation, then to his son and grandson Jacob and then later it promised to the Hebrews as Moses leads the exodus from Egypt (without Environmental Impact Statements). Moses gets to see the Promised Land from a mountain top but dies before he reaches it. It is not until Joshua is old that the Hebrews begin their conquest of the Promised Land, and it is not until King David that all of the Promised Land’s geographic boundaries are occupied by Zion.

In the Bible the “Promised Land” refers to the Land of Canaan, to Palestine. But if you look up the term “Promised Land” in a dictionary you are likely to find that it has come to mean not just the land of Canaan, but any longed-for place where one expects to find greater happiness or fulfilment. This non-geographic, other meaning, predates modern dictionaries. The New Testament book of Hebrews uses Promised Land as a symbol, an ideal of what the faithful are to pursue. It’s a way of living that God’s prepared for us. (Heb 11:8-16)
And for African American slaves that idea really took hold, and a theology of living to get to the Promised Land were things are better than being cruelly enslaved in America blossomed. It was about getting to place where what God intended to be would one day exist. And fortunately there was both a complementary theology and political movement in non-slave circles that sought a promised land in the here and now where the awful American practice of slavery would be abolished forever.

This church was founded in 1834 based in part on both the theology and the politics of that Anti- Slavery promise and the movement to abolish slavery that terrible institution that enslaved millions of Americans. We’ve been working for the Promised Land of equality and equal rights for all ever since. It’s in our church’s DNA.

Less than two weeks ago our nation moved forward in amazing ways toward equality and equal rights that we’ve long been working for. Marriage equality was at long last granted to our LGBT brothers and sisters. The Confederate Flag –a flag woven with the fabric of racism, soaked in the blood of the oppressed and stained with the tears of millions of Americans long denied equal rights is being challenged far and wide as a proper symbol to fly over government buildings!

Good news happened and is happening, even as bad news and reasons to mourn the racist shooting of Americans in a church and the tragic burning of churches by those who oppose the continued Divine and patriotic calls for equality for all. We must never stop heeding those calls until such shootings and burnings occur no more, so that all oppression ceases.

The religious Psalm and the secular Declaration we are celebrating this morning both call for and promise civil rights. Both are about equality and justice. And we still have a long way to go but the land of equality for all is promised, it is a never dying American dream.

Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s last sermon in 1968 was called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It echoes the Moses story and the religious and the secular Promised Land ideals we are talking about. Rev. Dr. King said at the sermon’s end

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The thing about the Promised Land is that it is always Promis-ED. It’s not the promise land, but the land which is promised, that is the dream unfolding. Before Martin Luther King Jr. preached that ending part of his sermon I just read, he addressed the promises laid out in the Constitution for every American:

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.

But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.

Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

Rev. Dr. King and the entire civil rights movement were able to rely on the evolving promises in the Constitution – a document that originally gave no civil rights to African Americans– but by 1968 we the people had lived more and more into the Promised Land, into the realities set out in the Declaration of Independence. We had come to realize, and more and more play out, the Divine truth that all are created equal and endowed with God given rights. It is both a foundational truth of our nation and of our faith. The two are interwoven so tightly that no one can truly avoid the influence of faith in the journey this nation has taken toward the Promised Land since 1776.

And here’s an amazing thing, if we stop and look at the history of this nation, and do so prayerfully looking for God and communication from God, like Rev. King did, then we too will be “allowed . . . to go up to the mountain.” And we too can “look[] over [and see] the Promised Land.” And we can know “that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” And we can also claim “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
See, as Rev. Dr. King said “We are going on.” We are moving toward, ever toward the Promised Land; because we are called there by God and because we as a nation are answering that call inching closer and closer generation by generation to make a place where we recognize not only that all are created equal, but our laws and constitution require equal treatment, and we all actually– really– treat all equally.

We must live into the promise so that we become a land where citizens and politicians and religious leaders don’t just say that all lives matter — we don’t just pledge “liberty and justice for all,” but we act like it is truth and pursue and obtain it for all, and not rest until we do. The Promised Land will come and on that day we will all of us rejoice that acts for justice at every level of our government prove at last that all lives matter equally. It will be the place we all long for, a nation that is truly safe and truly just . . . with equality for all.

On that day whether male or female; rich or poor; LGBT or Straight; young or old; religious or atheist; red or yellow or brown or black or white, all will be precious in our nation’s sight–just as they have all always been precious in God’s sight.