Texts: 2 Samuel 7:8-16. Acts 22:22-29
Thursday morning I was bicycling past the Shilshole marina. I couldn’t keep going. The collection of sailboats, masts rising into the blue sky, hulls cutting the still water, compelled me to stop and beckoned with siren strength. I stopped and framed a few pictures.
The beauty was mesmerizing. I would have stayed longer admiring the loveliness of the boats and water and sky except that there, close to the water, the day was still too cold for standing around in shorts and a tee shirt. I peddled away with the opening lines of Woody Guthrie’s song running in my head. (Edited slightly to include our corner of the continent.)
This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York Island. From the Doug fir forests to the Gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me.
On a sunny, summer morning is there any place in the world quite as lovely as our neighborhood? No wonder we sing songs of celebrating this beautiful land.
And I recalled other sunny days on other American shores. My first congregation, in the town of Babylon on the south shore of Long Island, was just a couple of blocks from the water. I’d walk along Shore Avenue and admire the boats moored there and listen to the slap of halyards on aluminum masts and wonder how was I so lucky to work in such a charming place.
Once when the kids were little, we spent a week in Florida, playing in the sand, going for walks in the balmy evenings. Later we lived in Southern California, not far from the beach. We loved it. Every corner of our country is charming and vast miles in between. When I drive across the sweeping prairies of eastern Colorado and Nebraska and Kansas, my soul breathes. I relish the immense dome of the sky and the spectacular mountains of clouds that build on summer afternoons into thunderheads that can reach 75,000 feet into the sky.
What a glorious land.
Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.
This land is our land. This land is a gift to you and me. Our sense of divine favor echoes the words of our Old Testament reading:
“Now go and say to my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I took you from tending sheep in the pasture and selected you to be the leader of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have destroyed all your enemies before your eyes.
Now I will make your name as famous as anyone who has ever lived on the earth! And I will provide a homeland for my people Israel, planting them in a secure place where they will never be disturbed. Evil nations won’t oppress them as they’ve done in the past, starting from the time I appointed judges to rule my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies. “‘Furthermore, the LORD declares that he will make a house for you–a dynasty of kings! For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong.
He is the one who will build a house–a temple–for my name.
I will secure his royal throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. If he sins, I will correct and discipline him with the rod, like any father would do. But my favor will not be taken from him as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from your sight. Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.'” Â 2 Samuel 7:8-16
To paraphrase the prophet: “David, your throne is a gift from God. This land is God’s gift to your people. Your sweet place is a gift. You did not do it all by yourself.”
David was a warrior. He had spent years enduring hardship and danger. He had demonstrated courage and loyalty. If any king ever “earned” his throne, David did. But the prophet reminded: God gave you your throne.
The people of Israel had been a warrior people. They invaded Palestine and endured fierce battles. They slaughtered their enemies. Yes. But they also suffered their own casualties. They might have been tempted to think, this land is our land. We grabbed it for ourselves. Again, the prophet’s words call to mind the truth: the land flowing with milk and honey, their land, was a gift. The sweetness of their land was to remind them of the generosity of God.
American Christians have often drawn parallels between America and ancient Israel. Just as the Israelites were a chosen people, blessed by God and given a land, so we imagine ourselves to be a chosen people, blessed by God and given a land. And truly this is a special place. Let us keep forever alive the conviction that this land is a gift, a precious gift. It calls for gratitude and for stewardship.
Many writers have compared the United States to the Roman Empire. One of the important parallels is highlighted in our New Testament reading.
Paul had been quietly worshipping in the temple in Jerusalem when he was recognized by people who hated him. They accused him of desecrating the temple and gathered a mob that began beating him. Roman soldiers were summoned. They took him into protective custody and hauled him back to their post followed by the mob. There Paul asked to speak to the crowd and the officer gave him permission. He spoke in Hebrew and the people listened until he said God had appeared to him in a vision and sent him to the Gentiles.
The crowd listened until Paul said that word. Then they all began to shout, “Away with such a fellow! He isn’t fit to live!” They yelled, threw off their coats, and tossed handfuls of dust into the air.
The commander brought Paul inside and ordered him lashed with whips to make him confess his crime. He wanted to find out why the crowd had become so furious.
When they tied Paul down to lash him, Paul said to the officer standing there, “Is it legal for you to whip a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been tried?”
When the officer heard this, he went to the commander and asked, “What are you doing? This man is a Roman citizen!”
So the commander went over and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I certainly am,” Paul replied. “I am, too,” the commander muttered, “and it cost me plenty!” Paul answered, “But I am a citizen by birth!”
The soldiers who were about to interrogate Paul quickly withdrew when they heard he was a Roman citizen, and the commander was frightened because he had ordered him bound and whipped. Acts 22:22-29
One of the features of the Roman empire, was the sturdiness of its laws regarding citizenship. Paul appealed to this law when he was threatened with examination by torture. Ancient Israel also prided itself on its laws. In a truly great nation law is higher authority than any personality. Even the president is subordinate to the law.
In the 2000 presidential election, the decision came down to the uncertain numbers in Florida. The numbers were so close that any method of checking and recounting would have a statistical measure of uncertainty greater than the margin of victory. Each side hired lawyers. The case went to the supreme court. Meanwhile the nation waited.
I vividly remember the waiting and my happy pride in what was happening.
The most powerful office in the history of humans was up for grabs. The election results were ambiguous. In many nations this situation would have led to tanks on the streets. People would have died. Cities would have been ravaged. Instead, grown-ups went to work as usual. Kids went to school. Tourists continued to fly into SeaTac Airport. Except for a few politicians and lawyers life went on as usual. In a contest for the most powerful position in the history of humanity, we acted as a nation of laws. We allowed our courts to make a decision even if we disagreed with it.
And we avoided the catastrophe of civil war or riots. I was proud to be an American.
Laws don’t always work the way they are supposed to. We as a nation sometimes violate our own laws. One egregious example was the imprisonment of our citizens of Japanese descent during WWII.
And sometimes our laws are themselves unjust and wicked. Witness the 246 years of legal slavery here in our fair land.
Because this land is a gift from God, it is our obligation to aim at godliness. It is our calling to aim at higher justice, a better community. Always. In 1988 we took a step in the right direction when Congress voted the Civil Liberties Act which included a formal apology and some compensation to the Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned. Even though most of the president’s party opposed the act, he signed it into law. It was a step in the right direction.
In 2008 we took another small step in the right direction. The U. S. House of Representatives formally apologized for slavery. It was a small step. But it was a step in the right direction. I’m glad we did it.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus authored a poem for a literary and art auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. The poem was titled, “The New Colossus”. In 1903, the poem was engraved on a plaque and installed inside the pedestal of the statue.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, [a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes]
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–1883 Emma Lazarus
When I read these words, I’m proud to be an American. What a high ideal. These words could have been written by Isaiah or by Amos. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” What a noble ambition. To be a nation that defends the lowly, that cares for the needy, a nation committed to truth and justice, a nation that welcomes the tired and poor from all around the globe. Let us never grow weary in pursuing these noble ambitions.
On Thursday, after I left the marina I headed to Picolinos cafe in Ballard (32nd Ave NW and NW 65th St.) to work on today’s sermon. I sat at a table in the North end of the café. At the far south end of the room was a map of the world.. Africa and Europe were in the center of the map, China and India off to the right. It was a relief map. So I noted the Himalayas running across the top of India and the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. None of that held my eye. I noted them mostly so I could tell you I saw them. What held my eyes with irresistible allure was the chain of mountains running up the West coast of South America thru Central America. In Mexico the line of mountains widened out becoming the mountain West in the US. The Rockies, Sierras, Coast ranges, and the Cascades. My eyes landed in Seattle. I couldn’t actually see Seattle at the scale of the map and the distance I was from the map. Still my eyes landed at the place Seattle occupies, east of the Olympics, west of the Cascades, northwest of Mt Rainier. Nestled between the salt water of Puget sound and the fresh water of Lake Washington.
Given a vision of the whole world, my eyes wandered home to this place built by volcanoes and accreting terrains and sculpted by Canadian glaciers and the floods caused by pineapple expresses and by Scandinavian engineers. My mind came to this fair place, this sweet corner of the world we call home. And I gave thanks. And I pledged myself anew to faithful stewardship of this gift from God. May God grant us gratitude and faithfulness to his glorious ideals worthy of the magnificent gift he has given.
When I sing this land is your land, this land is my land, I’m thinking of our glorious landscapes, yes, and I’m thinking of our ideals. Our ambition to be a truly great nation – a nation that defends the lowly, that cares for the needy, a nation committed to truth and justice, a nation that has welcomed the tired and poor from all around the globe.
We have been favored by God. We are called to extend the favor to others.