Jeremiah is our text this morning, from
the second chapter:
Hear the word of the
Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of
Israel. 5Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
6They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?’
7I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
8The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
9Therefore once more I
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
11Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
12Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water.
There stands on the west side of the
University Oregon campus on 13th Street a bronze figure, larger than life. The inscription on the base reads simply “Pioneer”.
He strides forward confidently, his gaze straight ahead, his
bearded face strong and sure. His ruggedness and sense of purpose
stand as a tribute to the white men who first came across the Oregon
Trail to settle this valley 150 years ago.
A block or so south of the Pioneer is
another figure dedicated to those first settlers which portrays a
completely different image. Sitting quietly in the less visible
courtyard behind Collier House is an older woman in repose. Stately and
serene, her head tilted downward, she gazes past the heavy book (a
Bible?) in her hands into the distant, yet painfully recent, past as
portrayed in the two plaques on either side of the marble base which
commemorate the Oregon trail.
One depicts a team of oxen
pulling a covered wagon up a steep trail, urged onward by the whip of
the pioneer walking alongside.
The other shows a makeshift camp
of wagons and a mourning woman, comforted by friends, standing over an
open grave as the parson reads from the Bible.
the other memories of joy and sorrow, hardship and victory, are forever
etched into her bronzed, weather-worn face. The dedication on the base
reads in part,
...after the hardships and the
battles and the sorrows of pioneering were past, she sat in the
afterglow of her twilight days resting from her labors. ... her rugged
endurance has mellowed with her fading memories: but to us there lives
that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity to remember.’
The inscription on the front
of the base reads, “The Pioneer Mother, Pax.” She shares both title
and face with another sculpture located in Kansas City created by the
This Pioneer Mother, however, sits atop a wearied
horse, holding an infant, “the hope for the future of the West,”
her pioneer husband walking at her side, leading a tired pack
horse. In contrast to the horses, this confident looking mother
leans forward, looking expectantly straight ahead. Alexander Phimister
Proctor, the artist, said of his creation, It seemed to me that most
people, in thinking of pioneers, thought solely of the men. I considered
the heroism of the women equal to, and perhaps greater than the men’s.
As Mark Twain said, ‘The women had to endure everything the pioneers
did, and then they also had to endure the pioneers!’
Taken together, these glimpses into our
past reveal much of the mythos at the basis of our identity as western
Americans. They represent much of what we admire and cherish most
in our nation: the strong sense of destiny and purpose, individuality
and identity, freedom and courage.
Archibald Willard, a cartoonist and
artist, captured that same spirit in his painting “The Spirit of ‘76”,
commissioned for our first centennial. You know it: the
ragged, battle-torn trio, carrying the flag of their newly, declared
independent country in victory. Leading the procession is the
white-haired soldier, beating the drum of liberty. The image is one that
stirs a sense of pride and patriotism. It is in that spirit that
audiences at baseball games, concerts, political rallies and all sorts
of occasions have often sung since 9/11, “God Bless America, land that
I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with light from
above.” It is a powerful image which our ancestors carried from “the
New York islands to the redwood forests,” over “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain,” “from the
mountain to the prairies to the ocean white with foam.” There is much
in that image to celebrate and appreciate.
However, that image of the destined
settler, of the rugged individual, of the victorious soldier, of the
godly eagle, strong and free, also represents our greatest peril. For in
it is the implicit and sometimes explicit inference that somehow, this
nation, under God, is divinely guided. That the American way is God’s
way, that this is the Promised Land and we are God’s people, chosen to
save the world. Jonathan Edwards, the fiery preacher of
the early 18th century credited with starting the Great Awakening which
evangelized the northern colonies, echoed this sentiment well,
“America has received the true religion of the old continent; ...
(but) inasmuch as that continent has crucified Christ, they shall not
have the honor of communicating religion in its most glorious state to
us, but we to them.” Perhaps such a view had a perfectly
justifiable logic in those early years of nation building. Such
confidence that God was not only with our founders, but blessed and
actively supported their efforts to create a more perfect union, was
critical to the success of this grand experiment in liberty.
I am equally sure, however, to continue
propagating such a viewpoint, is more than misguided and short-sighted.
It is also wrong. And that, I believe, is a cautious understatement.
is more than wrong, it is dangerously wrong and plainly unbiblical.
the combination of patriotism, which I think can be good and healthy,
with religious fervor, has throughout the course of human history led to
enormous tragedy over and over and over again.
Case in point: prayer was once
commonplace in schools. Here is a prayer recited throughout the 1930s:
Almighty God, dear heavenly father,
in thy name let us now ... begin our instruction. Enlighten us, teach
us all truth, strengthen us in all that is good, lead us not into
temptation, deliver us from all evil in order that, as good human
beings, we may faithfully perform our duties and thereby, in time and
eternity, be made truly happy. Amen.’
That prayer was required by law not in
Tennessee, Iowa or Georgia, but Germany.
Among the great tragedies of
Nazism was its success in co-opting a great portion of the German church
to support its nationalistic ambitions as the will of God. It is this
combination, you see, that is so dangerous. My favorite Old Testament
professor in seminary, Rolf Knierim, is a German who immigrated to the
U.S. in the 50s. Whenever we would study a passage such as this one in
Jeremiah, he would preach to us, sometimes for an hour or more, on the
sin of religious nationalism which resulted in Nazi flags draped from
the chancels of many German churches. He would walk up to the front row,
and to emphasize his point, he would literally drill it into the
forehead of any unfortunate student sitting there who either did not
know better or arrived late and that was the only seat left. [Heavy
German accent] “And that is why,” he would say, “we must never,
ever worship the flag in this country the way we did in my country.”
The first time I sat in the front row I came away with an indention in my forehead that lasted a week and an
impression that will last a lifetime.
Which is why, when Francis Hyland asked
me if I would like to lead us in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a
worship service on July 4 some 14 years ago, I said no. Francis, God
bless her, was a little shocked I think. I explained to her that I can
say it anywhere else, but to pledge allegiance to anything other than
God in a service of worship is nothing less than idolatry.
Just a few weeks ago I was on
my way to the church when I came up behind a pickup truck. At the top of
his rear window was a decal which said “Jesus Freak”. Nothing wrong
with being proud to put your faith out there for the world to see.
below that was an American flag and a bald eagle, not just any eagle,
but a very vicious looking eagle with out-stretched talons ready to grab
any unsuspecting pray in its powerful claws. And my reaction was one of
immediate horror. What is it about our faith in the Prince of Peace that
seems to align itself so frequently with such flag-waving, militant nationalism?
Craig Watts, Disciple pastor
in Florida, provides a very helpful reflection in this month’s
DisciplesWorld. He quotes Harvard University political
scientist Samuel Huntington who has found that more than any other
people, “Americans are overwhelmingly committed to both God and
country, and for Americans they are inseparable.” Well, what’s
wrong with that, you might ask. Should we not believe in God and
The problem, says Watts, is that once we blend the symbols,
words and songs of nation with the worship of God, the result
is four disastrous consequences.
First, we create, as described by
Jeremiah, a false God, a cracked pot than can hold no water. “The God
who has a special concern for America,” writes Watts, “a covenant
with this nation, the God who has in some sense ‘chosen’ the United
States as a special instrument, is not the Christian God. The God
revealed in Jesus Christ is the God of all, without discrimination. This
God alone is the source of our freedom, security, hope and pride and is
solely deserving of our praise.”
Second, Watts when we come to worship,
all of the particularities of our identity, hair color, skin color,
profession, age, etc. are incidental. Our national identity has no more
significance to God than our favorite football team (but then, he’s
not a Duck fan so what does he know!) “We gather in worship as a
people who are one, not with those who share our nationality but with
those who share our faith in Christ, no matter where they are.”
National flags by their very nature
divide people into us vs them, citizens and foreigners, Jews and
Gentiles--a notion that goes against the very essence of the Gospel
where national identity is replaced by the sacrifice of Christ for all
Third, it is not our relationship to
our country but our relationship to Christ that matters. Whether one is
proud of their national heritage or ashamed of it, all are welcome
here. Lastly, when we equate in any way our
allegiance to our country with our allegiance to God, we hinder our
spiritual discernment. Hence, Watts contends, American Christians
supported the war in Iraq for far too long while the vast majority of
Christians around the world condemned it. Only when we separate God and
country in heart and mind can we grow more spiritually clear-sighted.
This is precisely the message of
Jeremiah. The beauty of the Hebrew faith as witnessed in the Bible is
that it not only tolerated freedom of speech, but it published its
greatest dissenters. Had a “love it or leave it” attitude prevailed
in Jerusalem, names like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Micah and the rest of
the prophets would be unknown to us. For they were the voices of
dissent, the ones who dared to shout what no one else would think to
whisper. Jeremiah dares to challenge the sacred cow, or more precisely,
the sacred bull, by condemning the idolatrous worship of national
deities which were gods in name only.
In this morning’s text, likely one of
the early oracles he gave when Israel was at the pinnacle of her power
long after Assyria ceased to be a threat and decades before Babylon
became one, calls the nation to account in a court room drama as
dramatic as any your will find on TV. Look far and wide God says through
the prophet, look as far as you can see, north and south, east and west,
and tell me, is there any nation anywhere on the earth that has changed
its gods. Yet that is precisely what Israel has done. Let the entire
heavens witness and be appalled, shocked, utterly desolate, says the
Lord, for my people have traded in God, their fountain of living water,
for their own faulty cisterns they built with their own hands, cracked
pots that can hold no water. From the earliest prophets on down to the
Revelation to John, the rule of nations and the will of God are
presented as separate and often opposing forces. So I will insist that
equating our country with the promised land or our history with God’s
will is unbiblical, and yet I can still affirm the presence of God in
our heritage which provide us glimpses of the realm God would have us
Our nation was founded on the
notion that there are times when the dictates of conscience as provided
through the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, according to the
Declaration of Independence, take precedence over the rules of
I would argue that the true greatness
of our country which we should rightfully celebrate as Christians this
day is not found in our military strength, our natural or technological
wonders, our agricultural or industrial production, our system of
government or courts of justice, but in our commitment to an idea,
namely that there are certain truths which are self-evident, that all
people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the
We might argue the source of this
truth, as is often debated in letters to the editor, whether based in
the Christian faith or natural law of reason as developed in the
Enlightenment or both, regardless, I hope that we can agree that the
notions of equality and liberty are central to our faith as well as our
“You shall know the truth”,
proclaimed Jesus, “and the truth shall make you free.” Alexander
Campbell, the most influential of our founders, proclaimed, “it is not
possible, ... to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of
action, in the state, and to hate it in the church; or to love it in the
church and to hate it in the state.”
I submit to you, that when
our patriotism is centered on these founding principles of our country,
it is appropriately celebrated within the church as consistent with the
proclamation of the gospel. This is the true greatness, the shining
beauty of our nation, a light which even the darkest periods of our
history cannot extinguish.
One final postscript: When Archibald
Willard painted the Spirit of 76, and sought to portray the face of
liberty on that white-haired drummer, [photo 19]the face he chose was
that of his recently deceased father, Samuel Willard, a Disciples of
Christ preacher. Likewise when the young Pioneer Mother was dedicated in
Kansas City in 1927, Alexander Proctor, hunting companion of a Disciple
preacher in Colorado and member of the Christian Church in New York,
chose Burris Jenkins, a Disciple preacher of note, as the
In a sermon entitled “The Pioneer
Mother” delivered a month later, Jenkins, citing the examples of Ruth
and the mother of Jesus, strongly endorsed the “pioneering”
role of women of that day in “politics, economics and even
international affairs.” The result, predicted Jenkins, would be more
decent municipal government, the abolition of child labor, decreased
infant mortality, justice between the classes and even the abolition of
war. “If this is a chaotic time in religious and moral matters, and it
is,” said Jenkins, “our pioneer women will bear their share of
enduring the long journey and of finding their way to the new home and
the new peace.”
Perhaps it is the sheer fantasy of a
wishful preacher, but I would like to believe that it was such preaching
of the gospel that inspired not only the likes of Archibald Willard and
Alexander Proctor, but also the poets and song writers, the philosophers
and politicians, the artists and the artisans who crafted this nation
from the vision of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated
to the proposition that all [people] are created equal.”
Dedication plaque by Burt Brown Baker,
May 7, 1932.’
 Alexander Phimister Proctor, Sculptor in Bucksin, An
Autobiography. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. p. 184.
Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and
Historical Realities. Oxford University Press, 1971. p. 21.
 Virginia Conley, Eugene Register Guard, Letter to the Editor,
February 10, 1993.
 Craig M. Watts, “Do We Believe in God, or in America?”
Disciples World, September 2007, p 12.
 Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.
 Osborn, Experiment in Liberty, The Bethany Press, 1978‚ p. 25.
 I am indebted to Dr. Osborn for the information on Willard and
Proctor. See Osborn, op. cit., p. 39. The additional information on
Proctor cited here comes from a phone conversation with Dr. Osborn on
July 3, 1993.
 Burris Jenkins, “The Pioneer Mother”, The Christian, December
15, 1927, p. 54-56.
Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”. 1863.
Photo Credits (in order of
appearance): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 20, Dan Bryant. 13, 14,
15, 16, Disciples World Magazine. 8-12, 17-19, various web sites.