We Hold These Truths

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | July 4, 2021

Micah 6:6-8 & Ephesians 4:25-32

The statement, “I love my country,” seems to have become a perilous thing to say of late. But I do and I always have. That love, like any love, has changed over the years. It has ebbed and flowed and grown shall we say, wiser with the passage of time.

Moving back to America a couple of years ago presented me with the opportunity to rethink and reset what it means, for me, to be an American. If you ever want to feel especially American, go to a different country.

When I lived in Scotland, it was as if I was the interpreter for all things American. Especially during election seasons. Even complete strangers on overhearing my accent, on the bus or in the grocery store would engage me in conversation; wanting to know what I thought about whatever was happening in the USA.

There was no escaping it, other than to keep my mouth shut; and that wasn’t always possible. Sometimes people would launch into a tirade about an American politician they despised, wanting some sort of explanation or assuming I was in agreement. The most I could in those cases was send in my absentee ballot and hope for the best.

Children would ask if I had ever been to Disney World, what movie stars I knew and did I have a big house in America; no, none and not at the moment.

When we left America at the beginning of 2004, there were political divisions. These had been developing for some time and became starker in the aftermath of 9/11. When we returned in 2019, divisions had widened and had evolved into subdivisions and factions beyond politics and into all areas of life.

Now it’s as if we are constantly being confronted with this question, “Which side are you on?” And if you choose to answer, even in your own mind, there’s someone shouting with bile that you are a lousy human being.

Sometimes if someone is curious about karate and the fact that I have a black belt, (Hey, I’ll brag) I say, “I’ll show you the most powerful move in karate. Now you stand there and hold still.”

Usually they’ll stand there, nervous like I’m going to pull a fast one, and I say, “Are you ready?” and then I turn around and walk away. There is a mental, emotional and spiritual equivalent of the best offense being a good defense.

Not long ago in conversation with one of my children, I said that what I’m trying to realize at this stage of my life is that phrase at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, our God-given inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What does that mean, and how does being a follower of Jesus inform that pursuit? And how do we act out our responsibilities in relation to those rights?

That’s a lot to try and answer in one sermon, so the best I can do is touch on some ideas and raise some questions and leave you to connect the dots as you see fit.

When the prophet Micah asked what God requires, he wondered if more is better, but he concluded that enough is just right – Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. That’s a good formula for navigating our current cultural landscape as well.

A basic definition of justice is, “Seeing that people get what they deserve.” We spend billions of dollars in this country in pursuit of that ideal. That anyone ever really gets what they deserve is a matter for debate.

On one level we can do justice by simple acts. Donating to the food shelf, supporting charitable causes with our time, talent and treasure. It might not seem like we are accomplishing a lot, but without our effort, nothing might happen. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “My work is just one drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made of many drops.”

When I lived in Clarion, Iowa and ran the local food shelf, one summer day a couple of guys came around asking for groceries. These were young fit guys and I asked them, “What brings you to the food shelf.”

Turns out, they were in town working for a contractor who was building a storage bin for the co-op elevator. When the job was finished, the contractor skipped town without paying them, leaving them stuck with no money to travel or buy food.

An injustice for sure. It could have been tough luck for sure. But it so happened that an elder in the church I served was on the co-op board. I called him and they were able to tell their story. The co-op had not yet paid the contractor, so they arranged payment to the workers and deducted that from his bill. They ended up better off than if he had paid them and he ended up with a bad reputation as a contractor.

In the larger scheme of justice there are profound inequalities to be addressed. It can seem so overwhelming at times. Sometimes we have it within our power to do justice, and it’s often the sort what would Jesus do that we can do. And of course, we know that our society today is burdened with multiple issues of injustice. What can we do? We do what we can, when we can, when we know that we should.

With kindness.

I was volunteering for a shift as chaplain in the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center. It was late at night; the places was crowded with people who needed medical attention. There were people sitting in chairs inside the ER waiting their turn. In those chairs it never seems like things are moving fast enough. There was this one big guy who was starting to get agitated about it. In that setting if someone starts acting out, it always goes badly. A nurse came over, as busy as she was, and spoke in quiet tones to the guy and gave him a sandwich and a carton of milk. That one simple act of kindness changed the whole atmosphere of the room. At least for that time and place, it made a profound difference. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Think about how you approach your average day. The people you meet, the places you go. Think about how as if you put a filter over the lens of your life; a filter of kindness. The things you do, the words you speak, a filter of kindness.

With humility.

To walk humbly. This is probably the greater challenge. Not because we go around thinking we’re better than anyone else. Humility involves seeing the worth and dignity in the other people, even those with whom we disagree. Humility also involves seeing our own worth and dignity.

I learned a great lesson in humility when I practiced karate. Everyone starts at the beginning, no matter what. In the beginning my fellow classmates were mostly children. At gradings, there would be the moms and dads sitting by watching their children test, and then there was me. After some months of classes and training, I started moving up the ranks, along with the children and young people, and more into the ranks of adults. And no matter how much I progressed, there were always people who would always be ahead of me and always better than me.

One day our instructor came to class – Sensei Mike – one of the best in the world, and he was wearing a white belt. He said, “Sometimes it’s good to go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of where you started from and to remember that no matter how accomplished you might become, you will never know it all and there is always something more you can learn.”

That has been a great help to me in navigating our culture and in working with people. I will never know it all and there is always something more I can learn, from you. In any church I’ve ever served, there have always been positions and opinions amongst the people that I didn’t agree with. But as I often say, my job is not to change people to my way of thinking; my job is not to tell you what to think or what to do. My job is to encourage you to think and to think about what you do and how you do it. Jesus is the one who will change you.

I’ve discovered, and you probably have too, that when our interactions with folk are not about convincing someone of something or trying to win an argument, that people are much more open and honest with us. We have the freedom then to discover our common ground.

Some years ago we were in Japan. We had places to go and for some legs of the journey we rode the commuter trains in Tokyo, during rush hour. The trains are like any trains, there’s only so much room. It didn’t take long for the trains to fill up. But there is so much room. At the next stop, more people would get on. And then at the next stop, station attendants would wedge people onto the train. And then finally it’s full.

And you’re standing there, more people in one space, packed in like sardines and the oddest thing is that you still have this micro-space of your own personal space. The common ground of everyone trying to get where they need to go.

We can look around our world and wonder, “What do I possibly have in common with those people?” or, “There’s no room here for the likes of you.” We can ask ourselves, “How much room is there at the foot of the cross?”

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; it still means something; it’s still worth trying to make that ideal a reality. Amen.

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