“God bless America.”
We hear these words all the time. We hear them in good and bad times. In times of great hope and in times of great hopelessness.
“God bless America.”
As we head into the final turn of the presidential race, we hear the candidates declare “God bless America.”
But what, exactly, are we asking God to bless? What do we mean when we ask God to bless America?
Well, if we don’t really think about it more than surface-deep, we are asking God to just bless the notion that this country was built upon the foundation of religious freedom and, therefore, let that freedom ring — let us enjoy our status of being “One nation under God”.
But, those of you who know the U.S. Constitution understand that nowhere in it does it say we are a Christian nation, that we have Christian requirements of our political leaders, or that God is even mentioned at all in the document.
What we all may have heard was the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Declaration of Independence indeed has a line about our Creator, and so does our Pledge of Allegiance (in it’s original form — “one nation under God…).
But not the Constitution; we’ve implicitly woven our beliefs into the national fabric — thank God — but, as you know, we’ve witnessed some pretty ugly battles from anti-God and pro-God factions.
Given all this, isn’t it odd, then, that despite the fact that our founding fathers did not write God into our Constitution — not one word or implication (which, by the way, ruffled a whole lot of feathers from religious leaders at the time) — that we, as a nation, go out each and every day and ask God to bless us in all the things that we do.
We ask God to bless our national welfare, our well-being.
We ask God to bless our policy, both domestic and foreign.
And, of course, we ask God to bless our military actions.
Ronald Reagan once spoke “Standing up for America means standing up for the God who has so blessed our land.”
I believe with all my heart and soul that there is no way this country could have accomplished all that it has and offered its citizens — and the world — such abundance and opportunity had it not been some degree of Providence.
I don’t always know or see where that is, but I do acknowledge the Source.
Of course, there are great dangers if we usurp that source.
The first is that if we fully believe God has ordained this nation to do whatever it wants as long as we attribute our actions to God’s blessing upon us, then we can justify even the worst actions because, after all, we are a blessed nation; and the second:
Without truly going to God in the critical actions that we undertake — like foreign policy and military action — we become reliant on our own authority and not God’s authority.
And we justify this by saying we are a nation — if not THE nation — blessed by God, implying we are either blessed more than another country or that other countries are not blessed at all.
We looked at two readings today that directly relate to one another and to what we just discussed.
The first is from the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament or what we call the Hebrew Bible; the second, the Apostle Luke in the New Testament.
Let’s start with Jeremiah.
The question simply comes down to this: Was Israel a great nation?
Yes. Emphatically, yes.
It was promised and delivered to the Israelites by God.
There was no doubt that God blessed Israel.
It was covenanted by God. And it was blessed with abundance — it was “a land of milk and honey” — Exodus 3.8.
This little nation in the middle of a desert and nestled precariously among dominant world super powers somehow managed to thrive, and at so many points was known for its might, wealth, wisdom and power. And it’s monotheistic faith — one God.
But in the days of Jeremiah, all those attributes that we might call “blessed” were literally drying up.
By 597 BCE, Israel was a shell of itself. Its people exiled to Babylon or other foreign lands. The cities infiltrated with foreigners. Life as the Jews knew it was over.
God’s blessing was gone.
And the prophet Jeremiah had to help the Israelites through all of this. Because God told him so.
Listen to the suffering, confusion and desperation that Jeremiah is reacting to.
In Verse 10, he writes: “Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”
Specifically and among all the other bad things happening, there is a massive and debilitating drought in all the land.
Jeremiah goes right to the heart of the problem in Verse 22:
“Can any idols of the nation bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.”
Jeremiah is saying that Israel had been corrupted. It had been blinded by its own national pride. It forsook God in favor of idols — what he calls national idols.
It’s ironic that we seek God’s providence, and we ask for God’s great abundance. Then when we receive it, we forget where the blessing comes from, and instead, commandeer the blessings, and attributing them to ourselves.
Wealth. Wellness. Strength. Might. Abundance. Resilience…
I’ll tell you honestly, it’s when you hear those words attached to the pronoun “I” and not to the proper noun “God” that we risk losing whatever blessings we might think we have.
This presidential election — I won’t tell you how to vote, and not simply because that would be an abuse of the pulpit, but because we need to know firsthand where the gifts come from.
That’s for you to discern. I only ask that you do that on your knees in front of the One who is the true Savior and King.
597 BCE, Israel had fallen. And on top of it all, now it won’t rain. There’s a severe drought. It’s literally drying up.
Listen: Because the people were coming to their own cisterns for replenishment. Hear this word: They were going to the idols they had made and the idols they had become.
They were reliant on their own cisterns and they abandoned the Fountain of Living Water.
We abandon that Fountain — we abandon God — when we commandeer God’s blessings.
We trade God for the idols of this world.
And then we say, “Well, we have been blessed, so we are impervious.”
“We can do whatever we want because God blesses us — not them!”
Did God bless Israel?
Did God bless the Roman Empire?
Did God bless Babylon? Egypt? Turkey? England?
Jeremiah tells us and everyone else the same thing in his ancient prophecy: “Be very careful about that line of thinking.”
We truly need to take heed.
In his reflection on our readings today, Pastor Willie Dwayne Francois III writes that “It’s hard to transform what you aren’t willing to name.”
For the Israelites, it was their own pride, their own hubris, and their consequent turning away from God that they cannot name — until Jeremiah names it.
So when we shift nearly 700 years later into the New Testament and the Gospel of Luke, we see the same thing happening.
Only Jesus is speaking to the apostles and a group of Pharisees on his way to Jerusalem, and he tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which we just read a few moments ago in Luke 18.9-14.
The Pharisee is praying in the temple and — as Pharisees were known to do — puts on a display of false piety, standing in front of the altar, most likely dramatically gesturing and saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
What a great guy, right? We should all be so pious…
And the poor tax collector over in the corner, how do you think he feels?
First, what a horrible job. I mean, you’d have to be pretty low or desperate to go collect taxes for the Roman Empire.
Talk about being hated? You were hated. It had to be awful.
And he knows he’s awful. He beats his breast, and he shouts, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
No doubt God was merciful to him.
Jesus said the tax collector went down to his home justified — but not the Pharisee.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” — that’s Verse 14.
In Jeremiah, we’re talking about a collective pride; in Luke, we’re talking about individual pride, and in both, a deep lack of humility.
If you cannot act in humility, how can God use you?
How can God exalt us or lift us when we already believe we’re our elevation is just fine up here.
It’s a wonder why our churches sit mostly empty on Sunday mornings. Who needs to be lifted up?
We’re doing just fine by ourselves…
The very word “humility” comes from the Latin humus. You know this word humus, it means the soil.
To have humility is to be like the soil. And it’s in the soil that God can plant the seed.
It’s in God’s word that the seed can be nourished.
And when that seed grows to maturity, it can be useful.
What are we without soil?
There is nothing humble or useful about the Israelites who refused God’s nourishment.
And there is nothing humble or useful about the Pharisee who thinks he’s already useful enough on his own.
They thought they grew so tall they could no longer see or even remember their roots.
But the tax collector? He’s in the dirt. He’s good soil. He’s ready to have God transform him into something useful.
You see, when we are so full of ourselves, we’re not doing God’s will.
We’re not peacemakers. We’re not helping others. Our eyes are not fixed on the light.
We unintentionally — like the Israelites — cause a division, a wall between us.
Or we intentionally build that wall, like the Pharisee did by comparing himself to the tax collector.
We pit ourselves against others. Us vs. Them.
Well, in 597 BCE, God let the wolves in the gates, and Jerusalem was taken down.
And in Jesus’s parable found in Luke, he warns us just what happens to those who exalt themselves.
There’s a very real danger when we use the phrase “God Bless America” as a sense of national pride or to justify our actions.
In either case, it fuels our idolatry.
And it creates a wall of comparison.
We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to one another; we should be comparing ourselves to God, and only to God, because the Almighty is the measure of righteousness we should want to achieve.
Does it matter who we vote for in the Presidential election? Of course it does.
But let’s not lose sight of the One True King, the True Living Water, our True God.
There is no other. God is who we go to. Who we pray to. Who we learn from. Who we emulate.
God first, and always.
I truly hope God blesses America, I do.
But I hope that when we say those words, we can say them in good conscience:
Knowing that we’ve not turned away or lost our humility;
That we are confident that we’re following God, not a human.
That we don’t say it with boastful pride or to justify our actions over another.
But that we look at the gifts that we’ve been given — that we’ve been entrusted with — and realize, like the tax collector that yes, we are sinners and we need a savior, and in acknowledging this repeatedly, the only exaltation we will ever need to hear is from our God who will tell us at the end of our lives, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”