Happy Fourth of July! When this holiday falls on a Sunday, we get a double celebration: a day to praise our Creator and a day to celebrate our country. Let’s celebrate the genius of our Founders back in the 1770’s. America was the first Western state to not have a State religion. The founders' faith was in The Creator, not in a specific religion. Their intent was that in America, God is in the heart, not on the Flag. To be without a state religion doesn’t mean that the Founders expected all Americans to be secular. Rather, each individual American was expected to cultivate their own relationship with the Creator, not take the “easy” - or coerced - way of buying in to a state authorized creed.
That we were a nation founded under God seemed self-evident and was constantly referred to by Jefferson, Washington and Congress assembled. Decades later in 1863, in the midst of the profound partisan divides of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln pointedly reaffirmed this principle. At Gettysburg Lincoln said:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
More decades later, in 1954 President Eisenhower and Congress amended our oath of allegiance to the United States of America. I remember stuttering over the change back when I was in high school. The phrase, Under God was added as a caution to us all that our constitutional neutrality with respect to the method or mode in which we worship our Creator, does not mean we are separated from God our Creator as our guide, source and goal.
This isn’t just an American truth. For the past eight weeks our lectionary of scripture readings has been giving us the prequel to this principle of the American story. Our readings have focused on how Israel came together to be a people and a nation. Through these scriptures we are reminded that individuals, families, households, nations and peoples live UNDER GOD.
We’ve been hearing recently about King Saul. Saul was tall, physically powerful. He looked like a King. He spoke like a king: forceful, self-confident, sure of himself. He was a successful warrior. The people wanted to be led by someone like that; by a king. Saul was also more than a little nuts as some leaders can be. Prophet Samuel warned the people that in choosing to be led by a king instead of God, disaster upon disaster would befall them. They would lose their property, their produce, their wealth, their freedom.
Israel got the king they asked for. Disaster followed. Our readings have described how Saul pursued his power grabs; how he maniacally pursued David for years, bent on killing him out of fear and jealousy. Now, finally, King Saul is dead. Last Sunday we saw David lavishing praise and forgiveness on the now dead King Saul. David praised and thanked God for the good that Saul did. Certainly not what I might have said! David’s attitude toward his nemesis was a model of forgiveness and a model of humility before God. Unlike Saul, David knew that even a king, even a leader, lives Under God. In today’s reading, we see the people responding to David by returning to God. They choose to follow the lowly shepherd’s youngest son, David, because the Lord chose David:
The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel." 3So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel
This was the beginning of the reign of the line of David, the line of Jesus. God was with David in all he did. David reigned for forty years. David first reigned over Judah for seven years; then reuniting all the tribes of Israel David ruled in Jerusalem for another thirty-three years. We read, ”David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inwards. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”
The Millo was an ancient fortification of the Jebusites, early inhabitants of the area. We’re told David started at this ancient fort in Jerusalem and built the City of David, as he named it, inwards, not outwards. He took what existed from old times and did not destroy it, but rebuilt it and strengthened it within - inward, reunited, strengthened. The City of David was built on a hill that already existed. David didn’t sweep away the past. He strengthened the old, rather than tearing it down and building something new.
David was not interested in expansion of the kingdom, like Saul or the other kings in the region. David strengthened his charge inward. David was a man who loved the Lord God with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might. David listened for God and he heard God, whether silently in his mind, or as God spoke to him through prophets. David built on the past in unexpected ways, but these were God’s ways. David rebuilt the nation of Israel by reuniting the clans of Israel under God.
Why do we humans so often want a King Saul leading us? Why not God leading us? Part of the answer can be found in our reading this morning from the Gospel of Mark. A prophet is not without honor except in their hometown and among their own kin, and in their own house. Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth were settled in and figured they knew this Jesus pretty well. The town culture “heard people saying” that he’s just another guy, nothing special. Bit full of himself. The town culture heard that “this guy can’t do anything special, he’s just an ordinary guy.” They got stuck believing that their human senses and abilities were all. They put their faith in human powers - sort of like trusting King Saul.
That trust in human wisdom has an impact. You are what you believe. Faith, whether in God or in medicine or in random chance has an impact on what happens. Your body cells have ears. If you believe a new pill will work, your body cells hear your faith and respond, “Okay, guys, let’s get to work extra hard now, because we are being called on to deliver.” Your very cells, “get the memo.” Change happens. If you believe nothing can help, your cells get THAT memo.
If you believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to deliver the graces of patience, kindness, perseverance, goodness, hope, and you ask in faith, your whole body and heart and mind “get the memo.” Change happens. Prayers are heard. If we give the spirit the chance to work, the Spirit can work. If we deny the Spirit, the Spirit cannot work.
If like Jesus' Nazarene neighbors, you are convinced this has to be bunk - after all, we know what this all is. It can’t work. This is nuts. - Then the result will be as Mark tells it. “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”
Mark goes on, “Then he went out to the villages preaching. He instructed his disciples to travel light. If they believe you, they and you will have everything you need. If they don’t believe you, shake the dust off your shoes as a warning to them, and get out of town. Go where they will listen to you.”
Those who happily placed themselves under God, were able to receive the blessings God weeps to lay blessings on us. He loves us and has wonderful, almost unbelievable joy and wellness for us. If we are convinced this is not so, guess what? It is not so. For you. But if we are convinced that this is true, that God has blessings in store for us, guess what? It is true. We already have the solid foundations. Every day as we pray, as we open ourselves to the endless power of God, our faith grows. As our faith grows, we experience the life-changing strengthening that flows from our Creator. He wants us to be sons and daughters born of the spirit and of our own will that it be so. We are given the choice. If we believe, it will be so. If we do not believe, it will in like manner, be so.
We are a nation under God. Some don’t know it. Some know it but struggle not to believe it. Voices, dark voices lure them with false promises. Other dark voices relax them into pessimism, skepticism, fatalism. They long for a king. We have a King. We are under God, Our Father, Our King. He hears our prayers, he wants our prayers. He loves our prayers. He gives us more than we know how to ask for. He heals our souls. He redeems our souls from this dusty journey, and brings us back home to him, to sit on his lap and be loved by him. He gives us life, everlasting life.
Believe it and receive it. We are individuals, families, households, and a nation under God. Let’s celebrate!