Celebrate Your Independence
Well, in a couple of weeks, I'm so excited that I will be representing our church and our denomination at the UCC National Synod. The Synod is a biennial national gathering of all the 5,000 UCC churches in the United States. And I'm so honored that this year I have been selected as one of the synod delegates.
Now the Synod is a week-long series of events from July 11 through July 18. And this year, for the first time ever, the Synod is going to be entirely online. You may remember the last Synod, back in 2019, was held in Milwaukee. Peter and Kathleen Mueller, from our church, attended. When they came back, they told us all of the things that happened at Synod in 2019.
It was at that last Synod that the United Church of Christ became the very first Christian denomination to endorse the Green New Deal, which will greatly protect the environment. And it was at that last Senate that a group left the convention center and marched over to the Milwaukee Planned Parenthood to bless their good work, and to reaffirm our denomination's long-standing support of women's reproductive choice. And it was also at that Synod that 500 people left the convention hall and took to the streets of Milwaukee to protest the inhumane treatment of migrants and children in cages at our nation's border detention centers.
Now, I know some people will say, "You know, that all sounds really political. And we as a church and a denomination, we need to stay out of politics. I mean, after all, we have separation of church and state."
Well, because today is July 4, I thought it might be a good opportunity for me to talk with all of you about what the separation of church and state actually means. The separation of church and state means that we cannot endorse a particular political candidate, or a particular political party, from our churchs' pulpits. Now, that said, I've seen a lot of churches that actually do endorse certain political parties and candidates. I mean, sometimes I turn on these TV church shows these TV evangelists, and right on their TV show, broadcast to millions of people, they support a particular candidate or a particular party. And I don't know how they don't get in trouble for that.
We are forbidden as churches from doing so. But that doesn't mean we are to be silent when our nation's leaders and political parties support and promote policies that are harmful and unjust. We're a Christian church, and that means that we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus instructed us to care for the sick and the poor, to welcome the stranger, to lift up the lowly, and to make the least of these, the most important. Jesus was leading a group of the marginalized and the oppressed, who were speaking truth to the powers of their day.
If you remember, Jesus called the religious and political leaders of his day hypocrites to their faces. That's why they needed to silence him. But Jesus was trying to build a new world order, a way the last would be first. He was trying to establish a new kingdom, a new kin-dom, a place of equality, and justice and freedom for all people. And that is what our founding fathers and mothers came to this country to establish.
Those pilgrims on the Mayflower -- they were our UCC ancestors. Many of you know we are a Congregational Church. That's part of our UCC history. Those pilgrims came here because they were fleeing persecution. They were seeking freedom from a ruler King, and they wanted to establish a place with freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. They established a really beautiful declaration of their independence, in which they stated that there were three inalienable rights for all people -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This means in the United States of America we are to be a place where all people can live how they want to live, love, how they want to love, worship how they want to worship, express themselves the way they want to express themselves. But as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, we haven't always lived up to those ideals. And I'm not talking about a long time ago, I'm talking about the 20th century into which most of us were born.
You know, women, they couldn't vote until 1920. Women couldn't own property, they were expected to stay home and raise children. There weren't a lot of career options for women. We know that black people had to sit at the back of the bus, and drink from separate water fountains, Engaged people had to live in the closet. Well, all of that isn't freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is it? But just in our lifetime alone, there were fights for civil rights, and women's rights and gay rights. And more and more people have been afforded those rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
All of that happened, though, because of groups of people like us who spoke our truths to the powers that be. That's patriotism. When we in the United Church of Christ take to the streets as we have these past few years, it's not because we hate America. It's because we love America so much. And we want it to live up to those ideals that were set forth by our founding fathers and mothers.
And that's why I find it so interesting that the people in this country who claim to be the most patriotic are often the ones that are most intolerant to people who are different from them. People who are not white or Christian or heterosexual. The Statue of Liberty, the poem on it says, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free." And yet, so many so-called patriots want to build walls, and they want to ban people from coming into this country because of their race or their religion. And these so-called patriots want to establish these religious freedom laws that would give them legal rights to discriminate against certain groups of people because of their religious freedom.
So for example, they can say, "I don't want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple," or "Our agency doesn't want to allow a lesbian couple to adopt children." And this is all in the name of religious freedom. These so-called patriots, they want to have the 10 commandments on display in a public courthouse. They want to put out nativity scenes in front of a public City Hall at Christmas time, and they want prayer in our public schools. But what they fail to realize is that these public institutions are for all Americans, people of all different faith traditions. And yes, for people who don't believe in God.
America, my friends, is not a Christian nation. It was never intended to be. John Adams, the second President of the United States said, "America is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." And our founding fathers -- people like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin -- if you read about them, you'll know they were not church-going Christians. Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had well-worn copies in his library of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book, and of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. You can see them on display in the Smithsonian today.
Thomas Jefferson said he had very little use for the Bible. In fact, Thomas Jefferson famously cut up a Bible. He just cut out the words of Jesus, and he pasted them in a blank journal. He said, this is the only thing of worth in the Bible, and he threw the rest away.
And yet, there are so many Christians in America today who equate being a good Christian with being a good American. Now I shared with you a few weeks ago about Reverend Nadia Bolz-Webber. This week as we lead lead up to July 4, she tweeted this, she said, "Your nation's flag is not a symbol of the Christian faith, and therefore, does not belong in the sanctuary." We see so many churches who have the American flag on the altar. And Shane Claiborne, another progressive Christian theologian said this week, "To every pastor who has a flag on the altar, please consider removing it, or adding the flags of the other 195 countries of the world." "To be a part of the body of Christ," he said, "is to transcend nationality."
The problem with patriotism is that it's too small. God invites us to look bigger than nationality. The Bible doesn't say "For God so loved America." It says, "For God so loved the world." Our love doesn't stop at borders. And yet we have Christians in America today who say America is a Christian nation. And they say, "But look, it says on our on our money, "In God we trust." And it says in our pledge of allegiance, "one nation under God." But our founding fathers didn't do that. That was done recently. 'In God We Trust' was added to our paper money. And "under God" was added to our pledge in the 1950s.
Most people sitting here today were alive in the 1950s. It wasn't that long ago. And those words were added then, because it was the time of the McCarthy trials where people were being tried for being un-American. And those people were people speaking truth. They were journalists. They were artists. They were foreigners and intellectuals. And it's really important that we as people of faith know that. Because right now there are very powerful and very rich Christians in this country, who are working very hard to keep freedoms from people who don't believe what they believe. And that is not patriotism.
Now, some people say, America is the greatest, we're number one, that's what patriotism is. But if you believe that we're number one, then that means that you believe everyone else is beneath you, below you, inferior to you. And that goes against our being created equal. Yes, God loves America. God blesses America, America is great. But you know who God also loves? Afghanistan, and Iran, and Iraq, and Pakistan, and Palestine. God thinks they're great. God loves them and blesses them. God doesn't love one nation more than another.
And that's what today's Gospel reading is all about. Jesus sent the disciples out two by two into foreign lands. He wanted them to experience what it was like to be the foreigner, to be the stranger, to be the Other. And he invites them to extend the holy welcome to all people that you meet, that they met. Because you see, Jesus wanted us to dissolve the borders and the boundaries and the walls that separate us from one another.
You see, when we do that, we're free. That's what freedom is. So my question for you on this July 4, is, Are you free? Are you free of blind patriotism? Are you free of religious dogma? Are you free of society's notions about what it means to be a good American and a good Christian? Or what it means to be a man or a woman? Jesus said, You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. And what is the truth? Well, the truth is all of us were created in the very image and likeness of God. And that means that all of us are one, just As Jesus said, and just as our founding fathers said in that motto, E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. When we know the truth of that oneness with one another, and with God, then and only then will we be set free.
Happy Independence Day.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Mary Luti, UCC Minister
In my circles, whenever you say something good about America, you have to add an immediate disclaimer. It's a great country, but… We oppress people. We support dictators. Our unfettered markets crush the poor. We make careless wars. We spy on everybody in the name of security. We can't wait to frack away the future. When the national anthem's sung at the ball game, it's hard to feel patriotic without our country's flaws elbowing their way into consciousness, messing up the heart-swelling moment. There's no getting around it: it's undeniable and true—we're not what we're cracked up to be. Yet, I love this country wholeheartedly. I don't believe it's naïve or un-prophetic to do so. Scripture says we should—or at least that we should pray for our leaders, a form of love we often neglect. We have to hold our country's feet to the fire of its ideals, but the work of shaping a just society isn't hold-your-nose-work. You can't mend flaws with contempt. You can't bind wounds with disgust. You can't redeem what you don't love. Without love you can only punish and damn. If loving America is unfashionable in your circles, July 4th Weekend is a good time to reclaim the practice. Knowing all you know, love anyway. Love America's originating spirit of fairness and freedom. Love its vision of equality, justice, and full participation. Love its creativity and openness. Love baseball, fireworks, purple mountain majesties, oceans white with foam, maybe even NASCAR. Eat a hot dog today (okay, a veggie dog on a gluten-free roll), wave a flag, drive your Chevy to the levee, cheer the weird floats in the town parade. Fog up when they play the anthem. Love your country. Pray hard for its good. Then get back to work.
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