“May God Bless”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
May 26, 2019
Psalm 67 nrsv
1May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
3Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
5Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
6The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.
This morning I want to try to appropriately honor and remember those for whom Memorial Day was begun. I say appropriately because Christian churches often celebrate Memorial Day and often wave the flag and proclaim that American patriotism and Christianity are the same, have the same goals and believe the same things. This isn’t always true. This morning I want to honor and remember those who lost their lives serving what they believed was a higher purpose – freedom for their homes and families and defending others from evil and tyranny.
At the same time I am very wary of the way American Christians have twisted the true Biblical message, the true Biblical definition of truth and justice in ways that I believe are not only unfaithful and untrue, but put our nation at risk to miss the way God truly seeks to bless, the way God’s blessings can be found. I think now is, more than ever, a time when we must turn from the false claims and seek to challenge ways we misuse God for the sake of nationalistic patriotism. This is not a new thing. But the dangers of our day make this a turning point in history to strive to stop misusing God, the Bible, and our faith for partisan political profit.
Last week I pointed out that Abraham Lincoln faced a turning point in his life and in the life of our nation when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery was defended on legal, Biblical, and economic grounds at that time. None of those defenses were legitimate. Lincoln chose to do the right thing, the just thing, what was in fact, the patriotic thing if one defines patriotism as doing the right thing, the just thing, not just the economically expedient or legally authorized thing, let alone what someone believes is the Biblically justified thing.
All this can be very confusing. Both sides believed they were right and both sides believed that they were justified. It is very easy to see in today’s light that only one side – ending slavery - was the right, just, and Godly thing to do. Yet today I listen in dismay as some people actually argue that black people were “better off” in slavery than they were living in Africa as free, fully human beings. I recoil in horror when people today say that God intends women to live as second-class citizens without the full rights of men or the freedom to make choices about their own bodies. I care when they use their power to pass legislation in the name of “right to life” to control the rights of women in ways they would never legislate men’s bodies, while they not only ignore children in poverty without food to eat, or medical care, but they actively legislate in ways that take money from programs for the poor in the name of making those who are obscenely wealthy even more obscene. We stand at a turning point as a nation, and as Christians and unless we choose the right way, the just way, the way God actually points then we risk not being blessed by God.
The Psalm can instruct us. It is a prayer: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” But it does not pray this for exclusive benefit or blessing. Despite the fact that many have misunderstood the term “chosen people” for those who follow the Jewish faith, God’s blessings were always for the whole earth, for all creation and people and the Bible explicitly states that God blessed Abraham that he might be a blessing to all people.
We should rejoice that God judges the people of earth “with equity.” In other words justly, lovingly, equally. This ought to put to rest the bigotry that God somehow loves America more than any other nation, men more than women, the white race more than any other, or any other of the disgusting claims that seem to have found not only a voice, but a megaphone to trumpet their ignorance about the true meaning of the Christian faith and the true meaning of patriotism in a democracy.
The Psalm makes clear God’s intent, that God be praised by all people: “let all the peoples praise you, O God.” And it makes clear that we have been blessed: “the earth has yielded its increase; God, our God has blessed us.” And it ends with the prayer that God would continue to bless us and that all the ends of the earth – meaning all creation and all humanity – would revere God, that is, worship, honor, live by God’s values not those of partisan politics, of nationalistic fervor, or of racist or sexist ignorance. When we reach that place we will have made our nation great. When we reach that level of equity we will have fulfilled true patriotism.
False patriotism says “my country, right or wrong.” False patriotism believes that it is treason to criticize the government, the President, the Congress or any aspect of our country. False patriotism tries to shut down critical voices in the press and to undercut and destabilize the critical importance of a free press to a true democracy. It is infuriating that these voices use their freedom to try to stop those who would criticize them and use their power to silence critics. A free and democratic country cannot survive that kind of censorship. It is beyond hypocritical when anyone who serves as an elected public servant claims anyone who criticizes them is a traitor while they were loud and insistent in criticizing their own predecessor in the office they hold. This country teeters at a turning point of losing its identity as a free society, as a democracy “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” as Lincoln himself put it at the height of the U.S. Civil War. And if we turn from being a democracy of, for, and by the people we will not be living up to the values this Psalm puts forth: to judge with equity for all peoples.
I believe that true patriotism for a true democracy demands all voices be heard, it actually demands criticism of the people who govern and the choices they make. That is the true definition of a great country, one where real freedom rings. And the second mark of a real democracy is the willingness to compromise and to work together. Compromise is the only way ALL people will be blessed by the rule of government. As long as both parties continue to do nothing but see winning as blocking anything the other side does – which was loudly articulated by one leader against the previous administration, and continues to be carried out against the current administration, it is the nation that will lose.
Rev. Kenneth Samuels, [“What a Comeback,” SSD, ucc.org, 12/3/2018], articulated this in an observation he made back in December about Senator John McCain. While some might prefer a soldier who never got captured, I don’t think any true patriot would deny Senator McCain’s heroism, or the honor of his service to his country. Rev. Samuels noted that, “After he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, the now late Senator John McCain came to the Capitol to take part in the crucial health care vote. In his speech, McCain said to his senatorial colleagues: ‘I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other.’
That is the true meaning of democracy, in my mind, the true meaning of patriotism, in my mind. Rev. Samuels went on to say, “McCain’s speech didn’t offer the Senate body anything it hadn’t heard before, but it struck a chord with the senators, and indeed with Americans. It reminded us of what we already know, but what we are often prone to put aside in the pursuit of our partisan rivalries. It reminded us that mutual respect and a willingness to compromise are central to our processes of democracy. After seasons of futile wrangling and bitter polarization, bi-partisan unity and social civility again captured the imagination of the American populace.”
Sadly, it didn’t seem to capture our imagination for long. We seem to have almost immediately gone back and even further into “futile wrangling and pitter polarization.” But I believe that the message of God will never be erased or lost completely. I believe we will recognize that we must turn from the false messages about God, about what makes a nation great, and about true patriotism and seek God’s true values of equity and blessing. Lincoln faced a turning point and turned toward what was right in God’s eyes, even when others proclaimed slavery to be Biblical, to be legal, and to be more economically profitable for a few. Lincoln judged that God called for equity, for justice, for what was right for all people not just the few, the powerful, or the privileged. We face much the same turning point now.
The point of Memorial Day is to remember the sacrifice some made for our nation. The point of their sacrifice wasn’t so some could profit, so some could enjoy freedom and others not. It was a sacrifice for all the people. I pray for the day when Memorial Day will no longer be needed because generations will have passed since we beat pruning hooks into swords and plows into bombers and tanks and missiles and we no longer study war, but we study how to be a blessing to all people in God’s name. I pray for a day when the prayer of this Psalm is fulfilled. I pray for the prayers of this Psalm to be fulfilled – that the nations will be glad and sing for joy… [and that] all the ends of the earth will revere” God.
I pray for a day when we will see that earth has yielded its increase, and that God, our God, has blessed us so that we do not need to deny anyone the fruit of the earth, the blessings of a safe and peaceful home, the provision of medical care that all people deserve as a right, not as a “benefit,” and when the equity of God will rule. For then I know that all the ends of the earth truly revere God and that God can continue to bless us all, not just some. This Memorial Day I believe the best way to honor and remember those who gave their lives is to make the Psalmist’s prayer be ours and that the Psalmist’s prayer be fulfilled. May it be so. AMEN.