03 November 2008


On My Honor

From Isaiah 55
This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

“Why should men love the church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of life and death, and all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard and hard where they like to be soft. She tells them of Evil and Sin and other unpleasant tasks.” - T. S. Eliot

Governor Sarah Palin, during the debate with Joseph Biden:
“You said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that’s not patriotic.”

From Tom Friedman, commenting on the above:
I grew up in a very middle-class family in a very middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, and my parents taught me that paying taxes, while certainly no fun, was how we paid for the police and the Army, our public universities and local schools, scientific research and Medicare for the elderly. No one said it better than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Each week I stand in judgment. If I am fortunate something I say will shed some fresh light on a corner of your mind. If I fail, maybe something will give you comfort. But in utmost honesty, both of these are vain if they are just words. No eloquence or logic can replace what Emerson declared 170 years ago, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.” I pray each week that I find the courage to do that.

Election Day is finally here, to all our reliefs. Preachers need to beware of speaking unwisely, but neither should they decline to speak what wisdom they have. Honestly, though, I am struggling. Not with candidates and parties but something more.

Should we love our country? It is assumed that we should. Bumper stickers say, “Proud to Be An American,” and “God Bless America.” But in contemplating this sermon I have found myself questioning whether I do, or even should, love my country.

This is not due to some disgust with our political process. I know enough history to remember that candidate Thomas Jefferson was called an infidel, Grover Cleveland a fornicator, and that both were accurate. I know that candidates have wrapped themselves in all manner of false virtue – the flag, the bloody shirt of battle, a republican cloth coat. What seems excessive today is all too typical, sadly.

Nor is my mood due to current policies, though a war begotten of lies and an economy on the skids and a constitution that has all but vanished amply warrant gloom. These too have their precedents in history unfortunately, and my sense of America is larger than t the last decade.

My doubt springs from something deeper, a question of character. A sociologist like Robert Bellah, or an historian like David McCollough would now unfold a piercing disquisition on those things. They would do far better than I could, but a sermon is not a lecture. All I have is my own soul, roasting in the fire of scrutiny, and my hope that in giving it to you, your own will feel a similar heat, which is what a sermon is supposed to do.

During another election season, the last time the Republican candidate was from Arizona in fact, I pestered my parents to let me join the Boy Scouts. Some other time I may detail the ups and downs of that experience. What matters today is that something in that world, something I sensed and later found, spoke to a deep place in me and still does. In many ways, despite all the teasing I got then and get even now, I am a boy scout.

At the center of boy scoutness is the scout oath. You who were part of it with me still know it today as sure as your boyhood telephone number. “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country...” it begins. Despite growing up in the 1960s and in a Unitarian Church, despite parents who taught me to love jazz and Lenny Bruce, despite my own youthful drug use and my desperate unfulfilled sexual longing – things clearly at odds with the clean cut halo of boy scouting – I believed in the oath and the scout law. I believed there was something to the idea of honor and duty.

To say there was some cognitive dissonance in those years is to state the obvious. Not just my own, but could see the same struggle in boy scouting itself. In my day it was favoritism despite the promise of fairness. For example, the scoutmaster’s son became the boy leader. I was the same rank and age and experience but was never asked to serve in leadership. So much for fairness.

Scouting taught me that institutions formed on ideals are ever falling short of them. At first this is shocking, then it is infuriating, and finally discouraging. I left scouting when the summer camp where I was employed hired a non scout and recent marine to be my supervisor barely a week before camp. I was fat and slow and he ridiculed me publicly. Not very “friendly, courteous or kind,” as the scout law requires, but he wanted me gone and being the grown up, I went. So much for it being about “Boy” Scouting.

Yet I saw the same failures in high school, where athletics always counted more than academics and success was always about who was popular; also in my liberal church, where religious freedom and tolerance did not actually extend much beyond the humanist majority. Every young person faces this crisis, of course. It is what they do with it that matters. I ceased to be a scout in person but not in spirit. And despite the failure of liberal religion to be liberal, I believed the ideals were still worthy of my loyalty and made it my life’s work.

Turning back to the beginning, I do not love my country if love means “in love,” starry eyed and smitten. Scouting and school and church taught me the folly of loving those things like that. But I believe in America the way I believe in the scout oath and the hope of liberal religion.

I believe in what America stands for. As great as the purple mountains and amber waves and all the majesties I have seen, it is the words of the Declaration that make my throat clench, the Gettysburg Address that renews my faith, and Emma Lazarus and Dr. King and Woody Guthrie who redeem my hope. I love what America says it could be, and therefore what I could be, which is something more than I already am.

To hold yourself, or your country, or your church, to a higher standard is what honor and duty are about. Every day I judge myself, asking if I have done as much as I should as well as I could, for what I believe in. Every day I fail. But over time, over the years, slowly, I have become better. On the one hand I am never good enough and never will be. On the other hand I have become better than I was or would have been had I not believed I was honor bound to do my duty.

America has done the same thing. America is an oath, a promise; a promise to become a nation of “liberty and justice for all.” That promise is its identity, as Hannah Arendt said. America is not there yet. Every day is a day of judgment and every day the nation falls short. Over time, though, the nation has gotten closer. It took a century, but the blight of slavery came to an end. It took another century, but the principle of equal justice is now established.

Progress? Yes. But it was not automatic. Dithering about slavery led to a brutal civil war. Equal justice required struggle to enfranchise women, and remove segregation, and end voter intimidation and protect worker rights. We have yet to treat all citizens equitably, notably LGBT folk and immigrants and the poor. Just as I cannot assume I will get better without trying to do my duty, so we cannot blithely assume America will get better without trying to do its duty.

Today, when I look out on my country, what I see, though, is a culture that denies we have any duty at all. “It’s a free country,” right? Freedom is what America is about, we are taught and told. Logically, then, anything that constrains freedom must be anti-American. Fundamentalist Christians complain that teaching evolution and prohibiting prayer in schools encroaches on their freedom of religious expression, for example. Corporations claim regulations restrains free enterprise. Only two things are required of us as citizens by law. One is to obey the law. The other is to pay taxes. Judging by the governor of Alaska, that is too much. Judging by the way people drive, obeying the law is disposable. America has become the cowboy republic, where true-blue Americans show the patriotism by looking out for number one, where citizens owe nothing to anyone, except themselves.

This year I am asking what it means for religious liberals to live faithful lives. We have looked at work, relationships with others, and now turn to the groups to which we belong. Needless to say, I am talking about citizenship today, the Sunday before Election Day. Also obvious is that the very concept of living faithful lives means living by promises we make. We are the promises we make. No law or government can make any one of us do our duty. It has to be a promise you make on your own, something you do to be faithful to yourself as much as your country.

That, friends, is the key to how you should vote come Tuesday. Which candidate, which party, will keep the promise of America best? Not perfectly, as that cannot be done. Equally important, which candidate or party will prompt you to keep your promise? If you vote for your personal preference, such as lower taxes, or for your particular cause such as reproductive rights, no matter how you clothe it in arguments you will not do your duty, either to God or your country. Your duty, my duty, our duty is to call our nation and ourselves to account, to demand that it and we fulfill the promise to be a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, a nation that pays the promissory notes of justice delayed, that lifts the lamp of hope beside the golden door, that says it will be a place of ‘liberty and justice for all.’

Every day we stand in judgment, measured by the distance between our personal promises and personal our deeds. Every day our nation stands in judgment, measured by that same distance. The nation can do its duty only if you do yours. So the question is not whether you will vote, or for whom or what, on Tuesday; but what will you do on Wednesday? Raise you hand. Say, “On my honor I will do my duty…” and mean it.


Jill Ward said...

I admit, I was hoping you would reveal on your blog version of the sermon that one vice (sin?) that you decided was too racy to say out loud in the pulpit (even for FSC, eh?). :)

Still, nicely done Fred. How often do you get applause in church?

Anonymous said...

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

Learned at age 11, now a spoken oath every week with my sons. Still believe it, still try to live it.

Good sermon, Fred. Sorry I was with the Orthodox on Sunday.


Candace E. Chivis said...

I missed your sermon yesterday, because I was out working for my candidate. I agree, and have had similar discussions, about paying taxes. Without taxes, bridges collapse in the Mississippi river. Without taxes, levees break and public schools fail. The rallying cry of one party is "the other guy will raise your taxes" when higher taxes are better for the economy and better for us. I wrote a letter to the press(that didn't get printed) about how higher taxes mean that the average response time of the Grand Rapids Fire Dept. would be lower.

Candace E. Chivis

WFW said...

Jill, I did say. The phrase "sexual longing" reads better than it sounds coming from a pulpit. Hence my gentler reference to "wishing for an accomodating girlfriend."


Jill Ward said...

Ah, now I see. "Accomodating girlfriend" was a fantastic line, one full of suggestion and humor. Well done.

WFW said...


That was completely spontaenous too, like my typing sometimes. Doesn't always work of course.

Got more applause my first year, but oddly enough I find it both disconcerting and disturbing. The siren appeal of applause could easily distract me from the real task which is to press toward truth even when it is unpleasant.