July 6, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FREE TO DISAGREE
There is a big thing that happens every year here in Nampa. It’s called the “God and Country Festival”. It was last Wednesday. It is huge and it gets bigger every year. Even if you don’t attend it you are likely to experience it by getting caught in the traffic around it.
I’m going to say something controversial. You are free to disagree. We need to be real careful about linking those two words, God and country. I wrote about this in my weekly e-mail to the congregation on Monday. I mentioned an article I had read. The title was, “Be Careful What You Worship on July 4”. Here’s the problem. We may love God and love our country, but we must never worship God and worship our country. We must worship God only. It’s idolatry to worship anyone or anything else.
You may think the Fourth of July is over, but here at church it is just getting started. Today is my annual Fourth of July sermon and this year it’s actually going to be the first in a series of four sermons. I’m calling July “Patriotism Month”. I could have called it “God and Country Month”. But we need to get something straight at the start. It’s God we’re going to be worshiping. It’s God’s Word, the Bible, we are going to be exploring. I love my country, but I love God more.
Those who founded this country were not afraid to challenge their country when they thought it was wrong. The country they were challenging, by the way, was Great Britain. If the “God and Country” crowd back then had their way there never would have been a United States of America. They would have been happy waving their “Union Jack” flag and singing “God Save the Queen” and they would have written stirring defenses of King George III and taxation without representation.
But no, blind loyalty to their country was not a 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.
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 once again over Europe. As the American way of life was once again 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 very 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 Robert and Ted. 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 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.
Our scripture today is about one who had that kind of courage. His name was Jeremiah. He may have had even greater courage because he did not live in a country that protected his freedom. What we read today is called his “TempleSpeech.” That’s because he gave it in the Temple. He gave it in the Temple because God told him to give it in the Temple. Because God told him what to say in the Temple. God said, “Do not hold back a word” (Jeremiah 26:2). He doesn’t.
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 had become of it. (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.
I came upon a poll just a few days ago. This is 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!
Forty years ago 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 one thing. They were scared to death to talk about Anastasio Somoza, their president, who was in truth a brutal dictator.
No one seems to be afraid to talk about our presidents, the one in office now, or the one before that, or the one before that. Especially those three. It would be nice if the talk could be a little more positive. 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. United Methodists hold just about every opinion on just about every subject. You might say that makes it hard to hold a church together. And that’s true. You may have heard the talk about a possible split in our church over our differing views on homosexuality. The freedom we enjoy as United Methodists makes it difficult to hold a church together. The freedom we enjoy as Americans makes in 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 their “place”. 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, “uh-uh!” 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 that 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 why we need to be careful when we use 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, religions 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 give anything for that freedom. Even in the Muslim countries where the push for Sharia Law and a Muslim theocracy is so strong. Maybe especially in those countries. 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, Amen.