June 28, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FREE TO DISAGREE
The first in a series of four.
Among the big things cancelled in this year of the coronavirus is the “God and Country Festival”. It’s a big deal around here. It started in 1966. I’m sure it will be back in 2021, bigger and better than ever.
I’m going to say something controversial. You are free to disagree. That’s the title of this sermon, “Free to Disagree.” Here’s what I think. I think we need to be careful about linking those words, “God and Country.” If we aren’t careful, our country becomes our God. And when that happens, God is no longer our God. We have put an idol in God’s place.
This little boy asks a good question. He is not a good speller, but he asks a good question. (Featured image 1)
I love this country. It bothers me when people criticize it. I’m kind of like Merle Haggard. “When you’re runnin’ down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fighting side of me!” I’m a patriot. I’m proud to be an American. Just like Lee Greenwood. But my highest loyalty is not to my country. It is to God. I love my country. But I don’t worship my country. I worship God. And the God I worship is not an American. I’m pretty sure of that. He is God of all the nations. So sometimes, oftentimes God has critical things to say about all nations, ours included.
We’re going to take four Sundays this year to celebrate the Fourth of July. I have a series of four sermons that you probably would rather I not preach all at once. So today is part one.
This series is going to be about what it means to be an American. But it won’t be a civics lesson. And it won’t be a red, white, and blue celebration of how wonderful America is. This is going to be Bible-based. The Bible tells the story of a nation that was great in many ways and not so great in many more ways. God blessed the nation Israel. And God also judged the nation Israel. The same can be said of America.
Today we are in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet of God during a terrible time, a truly awful time for his nation. It was the end, or so it seemed.
I need to explain a little something here that may be confusing. Israel was already gone. This happened about 150 years before Jeremiah. Ever since the death of King Solomon there had been a Northern Kingdom called Israel and a Southern Kingdom called Judah. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C., never to be heard from again. These are the Lost Tribes of Israel. Now all that is left is Judah. And it looks like it might be the end for them, too. It’s 587 B.C. and the Babylonians are moving in. Jeremiah loves his country a lot, but he loves God more. So how does this prophet of God respond to this national crisis? We will see.
But first we’re going to go back to a moment in history much more recent. Our scripture takes us back in time about 2,600 years. Our Declaration of Independence takes us back in time 244 years. Back to July 4, 1776.
Those who signed that document had some not so nice things to say about their country. But what was their country? It was not the United States. Their country was Great Britain.
Let’s ponder that for a moment. If our Founding Fathers had been “God and Country” Christians, there would have been no Revolutionary War. They would have remained loyal to King George. They would have kept their criticism to themselves. Taxation without representation would have bothered them. Nobody likes paying taxes, even with representation. But loyal citizens don’t speak up when they are unhappy. You just accept that no country is perfect. Yours is better than most. Or maybe you even adopt the motto, “My country, right or wrong.”
But that was not the make-up of Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry or John Adams or Benjamin Franklin or James Madison or Alexander Hamilton or George Washington. That was not the make-up of all the others, whose names are recorded in history and whose names have been long since forgotten.
Blind loyalty to their country was not part of the make-up of the original patriots and neither is it part of you or me, their descendants. We Americans are rebels by nature. It’s not just in our founding documents, it’s in our blood. We fought a war to win our freedom from Great Britain and we have cherished our freedom ever since. God created us free. And that means we are free to disagree.
Norman Rockwell painted something to illustrate this. He called it, “Freedom of Speech”. It simply shows a young man standing up and talking. By the way he is dressed, it is evident that he is a working man. He appears to be at a town hall meeting of some sort. And he is being listened to with respect by those around him. Even though they are older than he is. Even though, in all likelihood, they disagree with what he is saying. (Featured image 2)
There is a classic American movie with an interesting history. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It came out in 1939, as war clouds were gathering over Europe. As the American way of life was under assault. It’s about an idealistic, young senator from an unidentified western state. We can pretend it’s Idaho. The power brokers of the Senate assume he will be easy to manipulate, but they are wrong. He digs in his heels and refuses to go along with a bill to build a certain dam. It’s a boondoggle. It’s going to line certain senators’ pockets and waste taxpayer money.
They use the usual pressure tactics to get him to go along, but they won’t work on him. Jefferson Smith holds firm. He is just one vote, but in the Senate, one vote can stop everything. It’s called the filibuster. So Senator Smith stands to speak and he keeps speaking until he can no longer stand. He collapses on the Senate floor after nearly 24 hours of non-stop speaking. In the end, the dam is stopped and Jefferson Smith wins the day.
It was a controversial movie when it was made. The Washington establishment hated it. It made them look bad. When it premiered in Constitution Hall, a third of the audience walked out. Our ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, thought it was a dangerous movie. This is the father of future President Kennedy and his brothers, Robert and Edward. He wired the head of Columbia Pictures asking that the film not be distributed overseas. It might damage our reputation in foreign countries. He wrote, “The times are precarious, the future is dark at best. We must be more careful.”
Without that First Amendment in our Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” might well have been banned. Its makers might well have been arrested. As it turned out, this movie was wildly popular. Not because it exposed something we should be ashamed of, but because it revealed something we should be proud of. In America, we are free to speak our minds even to the rich and the powerful. And those who have the courage to do so are our heroes.
Jeremiah had that kind of courage. He may have had even greater courage because he did not live in a country that protected his freedom. Remember, here he is, caught between loyalty to his country and loyalty to his God at a time of national emergency. The very existence of his nation was at stake. The Babylonians were threatening to destroy everything.
What we read today is called his “Temple Speech.” That’s because he gave it in the Temple. God told him to give it in the Temple. And God told him what to say. God said, “Do not hold back a word” (Jeremiah 26:2). Jeremiah does not.
He criticizes his country. He says that unless his country changes its course, it is going down the tubes. This Temple is going to be like Shiloh. And this city, Jerusalem, is going to be cursed.
He said some things you just don’t say. They were very proud of their Temple and their capital city. And Shiloh, well, that was a sore subject. Shiloh had been the center of worship. Shiloh had been where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. But Shiloh had been destroyed by the Philistines. And the Ark of the Covenant? Nobody knew what became of it. We still don’t. (Which became the plot line for a movie some of us remember called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.) To suggest that what happened to Shiloh was going to happen to them was highly offensive. And so our scripture ends with the priests and the prophets, the power brokers of Jeremiah’s day, grabbing hold of him and saying, “You shall die!” (26:8).
If you read, a few verses further, you see that he didn’t die. Not then. He escaped this time (26:24). But it turned out to be just a temporary stay of execution. Tradition has it that Jeremiah did die at the hands of his own countrymen. His crime? He was disloyal to his country. And as it turns out, what Jeremiah said would happen in that Temple speech is exactly what did happen. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Babylonian exile began.
The name “Jeremiah” has been a name associated with gloom and doom ever since. And I don’t need to tell you we have a long list of modern-day Jeremiahs in our day. Negativity about our country and pessimism about what lies ahead for us is running rampant.
Here’s a Pew Research Poll. It asked two questions about our country. “Do you often feel proud to be an American?” And, “Is America the greatest nation on earth?” Now I would have thought that it would be a rare person who would have a problem answering both those questions in the affirmative. But no. 44% said they do not often feel proud to be an American and 72% said America is not the greatest nation on earth.
I don’t like those poll results. I am troubled by the massive shift we’ve witnessed in recent years in the mood of our country. But I am proud to be in a country where people aren’t afraid to say they aren’t proud of our country!
In 1974 I was in Nicaragua. I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year of college in Central America. I remember meeting Nicaraguans and talking with them about anything and everything, except for one thing. They were scared to death to talk about Anastasio Somoza, their president, who was a truly brutal dictator.
No one seems to be afraid to talk about our president, the one in office now, or the one before that. Especially those two. The talk can get ugly. Maybe you’ve noticed. But that there is talk, free and unrestricted, is a huge and a wonderful blessing that we should never take for granted.
And that’s one thing I like about our church. When I say “our church” I mean the United Methodist denomination. We have a lot of freedom. Some say too much freedom. United Methodists hold just about every opinion on just about every subject. You might say that makes it hard to hold a church together. That’s true.
You may have heard the talk about a likely split in our denomination over our differing views on homosexuality. We got a one year reprieve on that due to the coronavirus. The General Conference that was supposed to meet last month will be held will be held in August and September of 2021.
The freedom we enjoy as United Methodists makes it difficult to hold a church together. The freedom we enjoy as Americans makes it difficult to hold a nation together. We are diverse. That is a challenge, in a nation and in a church. But that is also a blessing.
Some churches tell their members what they are supposed to think and any dissent from official church teachings is frowned upon. That was going on in New Testament times as well. Christianity was being used to control people. To take away their freedom. To keep them in line. Christianity was just a new set of rules and regulations to replace the old set of rules and regulations that came from Judaism.
And then Paul came along and said, “Nope!” One of his letters was written to address this specific topic, his letter to the Galatians. He wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Christianity does not take your freedom away. Just the opposite. Christ sets you free! And “if [Christ] sets you free, you will be free indeed!” (John 8:36)
Of course, part of the freedom Americans have always cherished is the freedom to practice any faith we choose or no faith at all. There is no state religion here. That’s another reason we need to be careful about using that phrase “God and Country.” Our God is not our country. And our country is not our God. We can love both. We must never worship both.
And while we may disagree with our fellow Americans about many things, religion and politics certainly included, we can agree on at least one. We love freedom. We believe freedom is our birthright. And I think even the 44% who said they aren’t often proud of their country would agree with the other 56% on this one. We are all thankful that this country gives us the freedom to disagree.
I’m guessing that there are a lot of people around the world who would love to have that freedom. Places like China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea. Joseph Kennedy was wrong. The freedom we have to disagree does not make other nations look down on us. It makes them look up to us.
He had wanted “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to not be shown in foreign countries. But it was shown in foreign countries. It was banned in Germany, but that was Hitler’s choice, not ours. It was being shown in France, it was very popular in France, when the Nazis moved in. They announced a ban on any American or British films. But before the ban went into effect, French theaters chose “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as the last English-language film to be shown. One theater showed this movie every day for a month.
An article appeared in the “Hollywood Reporter” on November 4, 1942. It described the French reaction to this American movie.
Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Lincoln Memorial, the word “Liberty” appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty. Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man’s rights and dignity. It was as though the joys, suffering, love, and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time.
God made us free. Thank God we are so fortunate to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
We are very fortunate, dear God. We have been given something precious. Many have sacrificed and died that we might have it. We are free. May we never take that for granted. May we always exercise our freedom wisely, responsibly, and to your glory. Through Christ our Lord,