There’s a famous Hasidic story about the rabbi who disappeared every Shabat Eve ‘to commune with God in the forest,’ or so his congregation thought. Once they assigned a cantor to follow the rabbi on his Shabat Eve trip into the forest to observe his holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the forest the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of a Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. Then when the chores were finished he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue.
Back in the village the people demanded of the cantor who followed him, “Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?”
The cantor paused and said, “Oh, he went higher than that, much higher!”
We’re come here for several good reasons. One of those reasons is to be reminded that compassion is the most visible sign of the highest that is in us. Some choose to call it God, Adonai, Allah, Tao, The Way, Truth, Spirit, Soul. Some see it as so sacred they choose not to give it a name. We are here to touch that Spirit, to be reminded of that Power, which is both within usas a potential to be realizedand between us, as the hoped for result of the ways we relate and interact.
Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Weiman defined God as Creative Interchage. Weiman was a process theologian –he saw God as a verb, an ongoing process, a living God!
Now, here’s the point: Weiman’s idea of God is his idea, he was not an isolated individual, and neither are you, and neither am I. We interact. We influence one another. Weiman was influenced by parents and teacher–people like Alfred North Whitehead. He had friends, and students who influenced him. He felt the energy he called Creative Interchange, and he called it Godas much of God as he could know or needed to know.
We are here, in this Unitarian Universalist congregation, because we affirm the right and responsibility for each person to define God in her or his own way, or to dismiss the concept altogether. It’s up to you. My task, in part, is to encourage you to look again, to think more deeply about God, or, if you prefer, to think more deeply about Life. In this context I capitalize the word Life to make it synonymous with God: Life, Nature, God, the Great Mystery, the Marvelous Miracle…call it what you will; call it what you will, not what I tell you to call it!
We are not united in this congregation because we believe alikewe are not united because we have creedal statements with which we all agree. What unites us as citizens of the United States of America is not a set of beliefs or creedswhat unites us is our commitment to a process of interacting in a creative waycreative interchange.
What unites us is a set of ideals which our forebears brought forth on this continent 226 years ago: ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.’ And in every important decision we are ‘testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.’
We are united by freedomthe freedom to think and to say what we think; the freedom to worship with a congregation of our choosing, or to refrain from worshiping or aligning ourselves with any particular religious group, and even the freedom to speak about the dangers inherent in any and all religious groupsthe danger of thinking that we can speak and act in the name of a God conceived in our own imagination, and the danger of imposing that idea or that kind of God on others.
Our freedom carries with it the responsibility to listen, to evaluate, to judge, and to decide for ourselvesand it implies the possibility of growth toward a deeper understanding, the possibility of changing our minds without having to worry about having our head chopped off by someone who happens to disagree with our point of view.
We become united through mutual understanding and respect…it’s an interactive process, and that interactive process, that creative interchange, is sacred to us.
That’s why those two judges in the Ninth District Court of Appeals in California ruled that it was unconstitutional to insert the words ‘under God’ in our pledge of allegiance.
This issue doesn’t seem so earth-shattering to many observers–not worth worrying about, or quibbling over. Some say it gives the religious right more ammunition.
I happen to think it is of extreme importance and significance. To simply accept it, even though you don’t think it should have been inserted into our pledge back in 1954–to refrain from uttering the words ‘under God’ when you pledge allegiance–is an inappropriate imposition of religion in our social contract. It mixes the politicalthe pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of Americawith the religious.
I was in high school when the words ‘under God’ were added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954.
I remember it well. I had entered that time of life where I was starting to pay attention to words like God.
I had been an active participant in the Congregational churches of my youth. Indeed, I had perfect attendance certificates, and just a couple of years prior to 1954 I had won a prize in Sunday school for memorizing and reciting the most Psalms. I had even considered the ministry.
But I was thinking about the meanings of words, and I was paying attention to things like hypocrisy, a word my blue collar father had often used to describe politicians and certain members of the clergy who pontificated.
So I paid attention to the insertion of the words ‘under God’ into the pledge of allegiance which I’d been reciting in school for nine years.
I went to the first grade in the Gleason School in Medford, Massachusetts in 1946. We lived in a little neighborhood next door to Larry and Dotty Sands, who had a son named Richard. Richard Sands was five years older than I was, so he was one of the big kids in our neighborhood.
For some time–I don’t remember just how long–I pledged allegiance to Richard Sands: ‘and to the Republic for Richard Sands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’
God, who was not a visible presence in our neighborhood, was not mentioned then. We were certainly ‘one nation,’ and felt united following WWII.
The words ‘under God’ divide us. They were inserted into a pledge adopted in the early 1890’soriginally written for the Boy Scouts by a minister who had been driven out of the ministry when his congregation became divided in response to his socialist leaningshe thought he was living out the message of Jesus. Come to think of it, he went the way of Jesus and all those who speak out for the little guy, for the poor, downtrodden, and racially or religiously unacceptable…the ‘other.’
When I first started reciting the pledge of allegiance I knew about racism, though we didn’t put a name on it. Most of the colored people, as they were called then, lived across the tracks, literally, in West Medford, and they lived together, but we played together in Playstead Park.
We learned that they had ancestors that once were slaves and I remember seeing a Fourth of July parade with a black Civil War veteran proudly sat propped up on the top of the back seat in a convertible.
I don’t remember when I first heard the word ‘racism,’ but I knew what it was long before I knew the word for it, and I’ve wrestled with racist ideas that were firmly planted in our culture from day one in those impressionable days.
By 1954, however, when the words ‘under God’ were inserted into the pledge of allegiance in response to the so-called Red Scare and ‘godless communism,’ I was paying attention to some of the other things that were said in our pledge of allegiance–I was paying attention to the words ‘freedom and justice for all’ in 1954 when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. I knew full well that this nation was not yet a nation of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ and in case you haven’t noticed it is still not a nation of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ but it’s a dream many of us share.
Yes, we’ve come a long way. And we have a long way to go!
So, in June, when a couple of honest, thoughtful judges in the 9th Circuit Court openly admitted that the words ‘under God’ in our pledge of allegiance are inappropriate and unconstitutional, I thought back to my initial reaction to those words being inserted and hoped that mistake would be corrected.
I was disappointed when I read the New York Times editorial in response to this decision-surprised and disappointed that they said, on the one hand, that they wish the words had not been inserted in 1954, but since they were put there in the heat of the cold war, in response to the so-called godless communists, that they were satisfied to let the pledge stand.
If it was wrong to insert those words in 1954, why not stand up with courage of conviction now? There is an atmosphere of intimidation not unlike the red-bating that was rampant in the 1950’show dare you disagree with that wonderful sentiment about God in our pledge? What are you, one of ‘them atheists that think we came from the monkeys?!’
Many people think that the clergy are in favor of having everyone recite the words ‘under God’ in the pledge. There are, no doubt, lots of clergy who are pleased to have God inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and, truth be told, there are lots of clergy who would just as soon have lots of theology inserted into our public lifethey’d like to get a little more explicit about this nation being ‘under God,’ and tell you that this God is, in fact, their God, Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and so forth.
There are thoughtful, sincere clergy across the religious spectrum who are appalled at imposition of a theological insertion in a patriotic pledge.
There are thoughtful clergy across the religious spectrum who see the insertion of the words ‘under God’ as one more example of the trivialization of God and religion.
My sense is that most people think that the inclusion of the words ‘under God’ in our pledge of allegiance is ‘no big deal…not worth worrying about.’
It is a big deal. It is worth worrying about.
Clergy who take the Ten Commandments seriously realize that the rote recitation of the words ‘under God’ is a prime example of taking the name of God in vain.
What does it mean to ‘take the name of God in vain?’ To me it means to trivialize it. Listen again to the commandment and this on its wisdom: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in Vain. Exodus 20.
To those who say ‘it’s no big deal,’ I respond, ‘oh, yes, it is a big deal.’
Let me also acknowledge that there are many who take the words ‘under God’ very seriously, and I respect their view of Divine influence on our nation. They want it kept in the pledge, in part because they believe it helps the citizens of this nation to consider what is right and good. Others, as you and I well know, want it kept in because they believe in an anthropomorphic god who takes sides, a tribal god, who favors the people who happen to live on the piece of geography known as the USA. Such a tribal notion is not tenable in our ever-shrinking world when we have to move beyond the old tribal mentality. To march to war with the notion that God wants to help you kill the enemy is abhorant as well as theologically naive and narrow.
There is a common ground on which we could all stand, I think, when it comes to the idea of Divine influence or guidance under which we’re striving to build ‘one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ It is symbolized and summarized in the story of the rabbi who went into the forest on the Sabbath and offered assistance to the gentile woman who was in need is a perfect example of that common ground.
That’s a story about human compassion, and illustrates the Biblical assertion that God is love, which I would suggest is enough theology to put us to work for the rest of our lives. It’s a story of someone overcoming the tribal mentality–the rabbi went to the home of a Gentil woman!
There’s another Biblical passage which is germane to the discussion about the phrase ‘under God’ being inserted into our pledge of allegiance. It’s from the book of Matthew, where Jesus is teaching his disciples how to pray-the short version of which Christians refer to as ‘the prayer of Jesus,’ or the Lord’s prayer.
But before Jesus offers words to say in prayer, we’re told that he says: “And when you pray you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
I thought of this important but seldom quoted passage as I watched members of congress rush to the streets and stand on the steps of the capital to recite the pledge of allegiance with raised voices when they said ‘under God.’
The New York Times editorial said, “A generic two-word reference to God tucked inside a rote civic exercise is not a prayer.”
No, it’s not a prayer, it is the trivialization of prayerthe trivialization of God and religion in our society–a society rife with hypocrisy and greed, as you know.
Looking at the language we use is like taking an audit; taking an honest look at what we’re saying, and what we mean by it.
It is the recitation of rote references to God in the pledge of allegiance and the printed slogan on our currency, ‘in God we trust’ that trivializes God and causes many thoughtful, compassionate persons to declare themselves to be atheists.
I’m proud to be a patriotic American, just as I am appreciative to live in this great nation; and I take seriously the obligations that come with it-to work for liberty and justice for all. And, yes, there is a religious quality to this feeling of patriotism and this deep sense of appreciation.
Since September 11 I have felt an increased sense of appreciation for the precious freedoms you and I enjoy here, and an increased sense of obligation to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the constitutional guarantees on which this great nation is being built.
But make no mistake about it, we are, as Lincoln said so eloquently in the midst of a nation divided, in the midst of a ‘great civil war,’ still testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived can long endure.
For the past 48 years I have left out the words ‘under God’ when I’ve recited the pledge of allegiance, and for a good portion of those years I simply refrained from saying any of the words.
Many see this as unpatriotic. But tell me, what is more patriotic, or more faithful to the spirit of this great nation than to question and to stand up and speak outwhich is to say ‘to live out’ the most basic freedoms that define what it really means to be a citizen of the United States of America?
I believe in the power of words. I know that language is often used to avoid communication. Words are often used to coerce, to intimidate, to dominate-all the things we deplore in the theocratic dictatorships.
But coercion, intimidation and domination come in many flavors, and some are as subtle and seemingly innocent as the words ‘under God’ in our pledge of allegiance.
Some people who talk most about respecting freedoms are quite willing to use subtle forms of intimidation and veiled threats to control other people. I know!
We’ve witnessed with horror the events of September 11 and heard references to God from the perpetrators; we’ve witnessed with horror the results of ecclesiastical domination and abuse inflicted on children, and heard references to God from the perpetrators; we’ve witnessed with disgust the insane greed of corporate executives whose willingness to destroy our economy is just as horrifying.
You are here to be encouraged in your personal growth, so you can be an effective, responsible contributor to this nationso that you can pledge your allegiance to this nation: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. You came to this service, and you are listening to (or reading) this sermon in order to be challenged as well as encouraged on your journey.
I take the task I’ve been assigned here today very seriously; but hopefully not so seriously that I can’t keep it in perspective and lighten up for at least part of the time during my stay here.
For the record, there’s no question in my mind that Saddam Hussein is a bad guya very bad guy, like all the other egomaniacal guys that power has corrupted.
But do we want him to determine the kind of people we will be? Do we want him to goad us into a first-strike policy? Do we want him to prove to the world that he was right about us, after all, by having our president start bombing his people? Do we want him to have us listen to the president say that the only way to ‘keep the peace’ is to start bombing, as he did this week?
I don’t think so.
We’re now a nation divided over the question of what to do about Iraq; how to respond to Saddam Hussein. We are a nation easily divisible, but we must be united in our willingness to disagree, and to have our disagreements be heard, openly.
I want to say in the most direct, careful, considered way possible that I do not believe what President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and others are telling us about the necessity to start bombing Iraq.
Most Americans naively believed President Johnson when he told the bold-faced lie that the Vietnamese had attacked one of our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The story was completely fabricated to justify what they had already decided to do–to bomb the hell out of the Vietnamese. That war is painfully etched in our minds and hearts. The massive bombing of the Vietnam was unprecedented. More bombs were dropped on the Vietnamese people and countryside than in all of World War II. The prolonged, agonizing war left many of us unable and unwilling to take things they tell us now at face value. I for one do not believe a word that’s coming out of the White House about Iraq.
Yes, Saddam Hussein is a bad guya very bad guy, like all the other egomaniacal guys that power has corrupted. So, will we allow him to determine the kind of people we will be?
In Fairfield, CT the American Legion erected a huge billboard with the pledge allegiance. Why do you suppose they put the words UNDER GOD, in huge letters, several times the size of the rest of the pledge–words, for example, about ‘liberty and justice for all. The word ‘all’ isn’t even considered! It’s an ‘in your face’ demand that you better stay in line, and this is the party line, so accept it.
I’m pleased that Michael Newdow took the case to court, I’m very pleased that he won, and I’m even more pleased that he will be here, in this room, in this sacred sanctuary, on November 10, at 3 p.m. That’s a Sunday afternoon. I’ve been asked to be moderator at the presentation to which others will respond. I hope you’ll plan to be here, too.
I’ve said what I needed to say at this point and I have no ending to this sermon, so…