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It’s Still True: United We Stand, Divided We Fall!

Matthew 7:24-28

Back during the Golden Years in Hollywood, many people were known far and wide for their practical jokes. Perhaps none more so than a man named Jack McDermott. He was a writer and a film director. To give you an idea of this man’s approach to life, his house was replete with secret tunnels and sliding panels and two-way mirrors. The house also featured a room which was upside down. The rugs and furniture were fastened to the ceiling. The drapes, pictures, and even the fireplace were upside down. The floor had a gorgeous chandelier thrust upward from its center.

You can imagine that someone like Jack McDermott enjoyed playing devious tricks on his friends. His favorite gag, however, revolved around his custom-made, fully restored Model T Ford automobile. McDermott had installed in the old car secret foot controls so that he could drive the car safely and effectively using only his feet. He would take unsuspecting guests for a ride in the mountains near Hollywood. He would go careening around curves at perilous speeds, and when a guest would complain or plead with him to slow down, he would retort: “So, you don’t like the way I drive? Well, I’ll show you!” With that he would dramatically yank the steering wheel from its post, and toss it out of the car, and over the side of the mountain. His guests, not knowing that he had complete control of the car with his feet, and thinking they were plummeting helplessly and hopelessly down the mountain road, would scream with fear—or in some cases, faint dead away!

Well, there are those who look at what’s happening in our nation today, and they feel like they are caught up in a “Jack McDermott-like joke”. They feel that things have turned upside down and that we are plunging down a steep and dangerous road with no steering wheel. But then along comes Thanksgiving—this great national holiday which serves to remind us of who we are and whose we are, and where we ought to be going.

That’s why I am not one of those pessimists who believe that we have lost the steering wheel and that there is no hope. There are some dangers we are facing, yes, but I do not believe that it is yet too late to overcome them. So let’s look together at a couple of our most glaring problems, and then let’s take a look at the solution.

First, the problems.

One of the problems is that we are in peril of becoming a society of splinter groups, separated tribes, polarized cliques, interest groups concerned only about feathering their own nest with little or no concern for the welfare of the nation as a whole. As someone put it recently: “We have always been ‘E pluribus unum’—’out of many one’, but these days we seem to be more ‘pluribus’ than ‘unum'”. Too many groups and individuals today are forgetting that the “U” in “U.S.A ” stands for “United”. It may sound like a platitude, but it is still profoundly true! “United we stand, divided we fall.” I know perfectly well that we need representatives for the varied interests of all of our people. I understand that, but I also know that there are times when our vested interest and our partisan politics need to give way to what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole. I want us to be a united people, not a polarized or fragmented people.

The second problem lies in the mistaken notion, which some people have today, that freedom of religion means freedom from religion. Stephen Carter in his wonderful book entitled The Culture of Disbelief, pinpoints the dangers of that notion that religion should be avoided and eliminated from American life. That position gets pushed to some ridiculous extremes. For example:

  • In November of 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the sentence of a man who had murdered a 70 year-old woman with an ax on the grounds that the prosecution in the case had cited Biblical law to the jury in his final arguments.
  • In Decatur, Illinois recently the word God was discovered in a phonics textbook. The students were ordered to ink it out of their books on the grounds that it is against the law to mention God in the public schools.
  • When Hillary Rodham Clinton was seen wearing a cross around her neck at some of the public events surrounding the Presidential Inauguration, many observers were aghast, and one T.V. commentator asked whether it was appropriate for the First Lady to display so openly a religious symbol.
  • The town of Oak Park, Illinois, not long ago, blocked a private Catholic hospital from erecting a cross on its own smokestack because, said members of the city council, that would be offensive to some of the local residents.
  • In Rhode Island, a Rabbi was asked to pray at a high school graduation. He tried to pray a prayer that would be non-threatening to any one or any group. He simply gave “thanks to God for the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected.” A lawsuit followed, and that prayer was ruled unconstitutional. The court decided (are you ready for this?) that the prayer would have been fine if the Rabbi had left out all references to God!

Now please don’t misunderstand me; I know that we have great diversity in our nation. I know that we are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. I know that we now have more than 1200 different religious bodies in this country. I know that there is a need for respect and understanding with regard to our religious differences, but I also know about our faith heritage as a nation, and I know that a nation’s identity is shaped by its morality, and I know that morality comes from faith.
How can we debate great ethical issues like nuclear arms or the death penalty or euthanasia or bio-medical technology or drug addiction without reference to religion? How can children be educated fully without any reference to our spiritual heritage? It’s impossible! We need some common sense here. So much of who we are goes back to the great lessons of the Bible. So many of our present day laws go back to the Ten Commandments. So much of the civilizing process for humankind is rooted in the doctrines of faith. And so much of the best of who we are goes back to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the very idea of removing all references to religion from American schools and American life absolutely distorts our understanding of the influence of faith upon American culture, and it prevents people from drawing on our country’s rich and diverse religious heritage for guidance. Stephen Carter, puts it this way: “One cannot pretend that the nation’s history was different than it was. And one cannot make sense of large chunks of that history without understanding the religious traditions that helped create it.”

Which brings me then to the solution.

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that life built on a weak, shaky, and unstable foundation will crumble when the storms begin to blow, but life built on a rock-solid foundation can withstand any wind that blows, any rain that falls, and any storm that strikes.

The United States of America was built upon a rock-solid foundation. Our nation’s motto “In God We Trust” was first inscribed on our coins in 1864, but the belief was present here long before that time. In fact, the theme of trusting God as our sure foundation has been a central part of our heritage right from the very beginning. It held our leaders together. It motivated them. It inspired them. It undergirded them. They wanted freedom. They wanted to build a better life. They wanted to forge a new nation in a new land. And somehow they believed that God was with them, and that God was in it all. It’s our heritage as a nation to see ourselves as partners with God working for a better world.

It was Phillips Brooks who said: “I do not know how one can be an American, even if one is not a Christian, and not catch something with regard to God’s great purpose for this great land.” How true. Faith in God has been woven tightly into the fabric of our national life. When those settlers landed on American soil at Jamestown, each one of them carried a written affirmation which said: “The way to prosper is to serve and to fear God.” When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock—the historians documented—they worshiped God with prayers and hymns of praise, and that devotion to God only grew stronger in the cold, harsh, difficult days that were to follow. Then in 1786, when the Constitutional Convention was called for the purpose of creating a nation, Benjamin Franklin stood before the assembly in Philadelphia and said: “I read in the Bible that unless the Lord builds the house those who build it labor in vain. If a sparrow cannot fall without His knowledge, surely a nation cannot rise without His blessing. Therefore, I move that all sessions of the convention shall be opened with prayer to Almighty God.” It was done. And on the strength and power of those prayers this nation was built- and the great American dream was born.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

We must hold fast to the faith, the hopes, and the dreams out of which this nation was born. How do we do that? The noted political philosopher Montesquieu described the three primary forms of government and what they required. Dictatorships, he said, rely on the fear of the people. Dictators have to keep people afraid of their leader. Monarchies, he said, rely upon the honor of the people. The people must respect and venerate their rulers. But democracies, Montesquieu said, rely on the virtue of the people. The people must believe in righteousness, goodness, trust, honesty, and love.

Now I believe that those virtues are of God; that they are at the heart of the Christian faith and the American dream, and that they will endure to the end of time. A few years ago, the Berlin Wall came a ‘tumblin’ down and freedom came to Eastern Europe. On that historic Sunday, a church in the East, a church which had withstood incredible persecution over all those years, placed a large sign in the church’s front yard. It read: “The Lambs Win!” That is my hope and my dream for this land. Come what may, virtue will win! Truth will win! Freedom will win! God will win! America has always been a nation of great destiny. I tell you, it still is!

Let me finish with this….

Recently a young man on vacation in Washington D.C., went to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He noticed an older man there, tenderly touching that wall where the names of all those Americans who died in the war are listed. Tears were streaming down the cheeks of the older man. The younger man was moved to compassion, and he said: “One of yours, sir?” The older man replied: “Not one of them, son, all of them!”

That says it so well. We are all in this together. That’s why on this Thanksgiving Day I want us to remember that it’s still true: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

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