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 here today 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 gather that Spirit, to harvest that Power, to kindle that Flame and to witness the Mystery in this hour.
Sermon: “One Nation Under God” Chautauqua, July 1, 2002
It is customary for visiting clergy here at Chautauqua to take out one of the year’s better-received sermons, and make an alteration here and there to make it fit. That was, indeed, my intention, until the District Court in California ruled that the words ‘under God’ in our pledge of allegiance is unconstitutional.
This issue doesn’t seem so earth-shattering to many observers-not worth giving the religious right more ammunition, they say.
This observer happens to think it is of extreme importance and significance. So, before packing my bags on Friday to drive to Chautauqua on Saturday, I unpacked the sermon I’d planned for you.
Let me say a word about that sermon, which I delivered in Westport in late May, toward the conclusion of this church year.
That sermon was about the need for a well-developed and well-nourished sense of humor-the need to laugh, and the danger of taking ourselves too seriously.
I used a favorite children’s story from a little book called Nenshu and the Tiger, by Martin Bell, a former Episcopal clergyperson. It’s a story about a bird named Bill, who everyone called Arnold-a bird with fur, instead of feathers, who preferred to shuffle around slowly rather than fly. In fact Arnold, as the other animals in the forest insisted on calling him, refused to fly, which made the others nervous and they finally demanded that he fly, instead of shuffling around.
Bill, which was his real name, refused to buckle under, but rather than get all hot under the collar about it, he simply told them that they are all taking themselves too seriously, and they needed to lighten up.
I talked about the need for a sense of humor, then I proceeded to tickle the funny bone, which I hope to do before stepping off the little raised platform on which I’m now standing-which could be a soapbox, which was used for speaking one’s views passionately.
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 first pledged allegiance to Richard Sands who was our next door neighbor. I’m not making this up. Richard Sands was four or five years older than I was, so he was a big kid when I started reciting the pledge of allegiance in the first grade in 1946. He father, Larry Sands, was the truant officer, which seemed like a pretty important job. So I had no trouble reciting allegiance to ‘the Republic for Richard Sands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’
I’m not sure when I discovered that the words were not Richard Sands, but ‘which it stands,’ but it didn’t make much difference. I knew we were doing something important when we stood with our right hand over the heart; I knew that my Uncle Art had recently returned from the War in Germany, and I knew that our flag represented our country, and that our country represented the freedom for which he and all the soldiers and sailors had fought.
I also knew that the colored people had ancestors that once were slaves and I remember seeing a Civil War veteran propped up in a convertible in a parade. I played with colored kids, but they all lived across the tracks in West Medford where I grew up-none lived in our neighborhood, which was the white neighborhood.
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 my mind with other words in sayings and songs we learned in those impressionable days.
By 1954, however, I was paying attention to some of the things that were said in our pledge of allegiance-I was paying attention to the words ‘freedom and justice for all’ when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. I knew full well that this nation was not yet a nation of ‘freedom and justice for all,’ and truth be told it still isn’t.
We’ve come a long way. And we have a long way to go!
When a couple of honest, thoughtful judges in the District 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?
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 life.
But there are thoughtful, sincere clergy across the religious spectrum who are appalled at the trivialization of God and religion by suggesting that its inclusion 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?’
It means to trivialize it.
Listen again to the commandments related to God:
I am the Lord thy God.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in Vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. –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.
There’s a common ground on which we could all stand, I think, when it comes to this idea of Divine influence or guidance under which we’re striving to build ‘one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’
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.
It is 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.
“One nation, with compassion, with liberty and justice for all,” is the way many of us interpret the words inserted into our pledge of allegiance in 1954.
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.’
I know what my father would have said. And I know what I thought. It would have been amusing if it wasn’t so pathetic.
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 God and religion in our society-a society rife with hypocrisy, like that which was revealed by the workings of Enron and their partner in crime, Arthur Anderson.
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 well, 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.
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.
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 journeyed to Chautauqua not only to be entertained and encouraged in your intellectual efforts, but you came to this service today with some hope, at least, to be challenged and 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.
We’ve become regulars at Chautauqua now, and we look forward to our week here as a family, so I want to thank you for having us back, and you know you got a brand new sermon.
Let me take just a couple of minutes to share with you a few of the bloopers that have appeared in church bulletins and newsletters:
One church newsletter announced an upcoming potluck supper this way: “The potluck supper on Sunday will begin at 6 p.m. Prayer and medication to follow.”
Another announcement to which some of us can relate said: “The church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment, and gracious hostility.”
And an announcement in the order of service said, “This evening at 7 p.m. there will be a hymn sing in the park across from the church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.”
“The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Fellowship Hall on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.”
“Weight watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.”
The sermon this morning: “Jesus Walks on the Water.” The sermon tonight, “Searching For Jesus.”
“Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.”
“Miss Charlene Mason sang “I will not pass this way again,” giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.”
“During the absence of our Pastor, we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when J.F. Stubbs filled the pulpit.”
And this reassuring message from the minister: “Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.”
Finally an announcement about one of the many self-help groups that meet in churches: “The Low Self-esteem Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Please use the back door.”
Enjoy your stay at Chautauqua and do what you can to continue to create the kind of country to which we can all pledge sincere and genuine allegiance.