The State Of Our Union: What This Country Really Needs
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who had a terrible temper and losing his temper landed him in frequent trouble. His father became concerned about his behavior and decided to try to teach him a lesson. And so he gave to his son a hammer and a large bag of nails and he instructed the little boy that every time he lost his temper he was to drive a large nail into the back fence at the house. That first day that little boy drove 37 nails into the fence. But gradually the number of nails driven into the fence began to diminish because that little boy discovered that it was actually easier to hold his temper than to drive those big nails into that fence. There came a day when, for the entire day, not a single nail was driven into the fence. The father said to the son: “That’s wonderful, but Son, now I want you to do something else. Every day when you are able to hold your temper all the way through the day—at the end of that day-I want you to remove one nail from the fence.” The days passed and there came a day when, at long last, there were no more nails in the fence. At that point the father took his son’s hand and led him to the fence and he said: “Son, you have done very well and I am extremely proud of you. But I want you to do one thing more. I want you to look at that fence. Look at how many holes remain in that fence. You see, whenever you say or do something wrong, a scar remains. You can stab another human being and draw the knife out and you can be sorry and you can even be forgiven, but the wound is still there. The scar remains.”
You get the point, don’t you? Life has consequences. When we pursue behavior that is wrong or destructive, sooner or later the consequences come back to haunt us. Let me be blunt. Here in America in recent years we have lost touch with the understanding of goodness. We have, subtly to be sure, but we have nevertheless endorsed violence, obscenity, dishonesty, and misplaced priorities. We have trusted too much in expediency and not enough in character. We have worried way too much about the next election and worried way too little about the next generation. And now we are living with the scars. William Bennett, in this little book The Death of Outrage, has a biting analysis of our national condition in this day and time. It is his contention that because of bad choices and bad decisions and bad behavior over the last quarter of a century, we, as a nation, are now living with the painful consequences. What is the answer? I must tell you the answer is crystal clear to me. Last week I listened to the President’s “State of the Union” address. It was a long litany of the things our elected leaders feel this country needs. Things like more police and better schools and fewer cigarettes and solvent Social Security and more efficient healthcare and on and on and on the list goes. The problem is, those things do not address the problem. Those things are superficial. Those things are symptomatic. Fixing them will not fix the deeper problem which is ours in America today. And therefore, I am presumptuous enough today to want to deliver to you my own state of our union address. I want to focus on what America really needs today, and I can tell you that I can do it in a lot less than an hour and a half!
You see, what America needs is to re-ignite, re-energize what made America great from the very beginning. America, right from its dawning saw itself as a nation accountable to God. John Fitzgerald Kennedy correctly declared: “A nation’s future arises out of its past.” Therefore, we must recapture what it means to live under the law of God—the law as summarized in the Ten Commandments and the law as captured in a single sentence in the New Testament by our Christ. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in one line. He said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbors as you love yourselves.” We must recapture what made America great in the first place. And therefore, I want today to take the Old Testament Commandments and the New Testament Christ and show you how together they are what this country really needs.
The first four Commandments call us to loyalty to God. No other Gods. No graven image. No taking God’s name in vain. No devaluation of the Sabbath. Commandments five and seven call us to loyalty to the family—honoring parents and being faithful in marriage. Commandments six, eight, nine, and ten call us to loyalty to other people. Don’t kill or steal or lie or covet. Loyalty to God, loyalty to the family, loyalty to other people—there I contend is what America really needs.
America really needs a sense of loyalty to God.
Have you seen the latest greeting card? The one that is appropriate for all occasions? It has, right on the front, printed in great block letters, GENERIC GREETING CARD. You open it up and on the inside it says: “Whatever”. Golly, you know there are some people living life like that; giving their allegiance to “whatever”. Whatever happens to be in vogue at any moment along the way. Yes, we have adopted this kind of generic “whatever” belief. We’re so afraid we might offend someone that we’ve neglected the only One who can save us. The first four Commandments take us by the scruff of the neck and say that won’t work. Put God first or face the consequences. We must recapture a sense of loyalty to God.
It was the great 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.” It was Benjamin Franklin who 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 to the ground without His knowledge then surely this nation cannot rise without His blessing.” Right from its very beginnings, America has been a nation where loyalty to God was woven into the fabric of the national life. Right from its very beginnings ours has been a nation, a government, a people who paid their homage to God. And that is why we actually went so far as to change the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag to include the words “one nation under God”. That’s the way it has been all along… until about twenty-five years ago, perhaps. Now we’ve begun to move God out of the equation of our national life, and consequently we are in danger of losing our sense of morality as a nation. And let me tell you something as honestly as I know how, more police and better schools and good healthcare will not save a nation whose moral foundations have crumbled. That is nothing less than the unmistakable verdict of human history.
In a very simple but very solid little book called The Ten Commandments, Dr. Laura Schlessenger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel remind us that the Ten Commandments are nothing less than the blueprint of God’s expectations of us. And they are nothing less than God’s plan for a meaningful, just, loving, and holy life. And it is no accident that those Commandments begin with a call for loyalty to God. Please hear me. Forget about the rubbish that you are hearing about the separation of church and state in our time. The doctrine of church and state was never, ever meant to exclude God from our national consciousness. Nor was it meant to silence the church in the national forum. In fact, it was meant to do just the opposite. It was meant to be sure that the government never controlled the church, that the church always stayed independent of the state. Why? So that the church could be the moral conscience for the nation as a whole. And therefore, I declare to you today that what America really needs in our time is a sense of loyalty to God. We must put God first in our national life.
And what America really needs is a sense of loyalty to the family.
Commandments five and seven remind us of the importance of family in a nation’s health and welfare. Those Commandments remind us that strong families create a strong nation. Weak families produce a weak nation. Just look at how that is being played out in the nation of which you and I are now a part: drug abuse, physical abuse, public profanity, emotional illness, all sorts of cruel, horrendous crimes, homelessness-I could go on and on with the list of the social problems which are impacting now not just our big cities but our small towns as well all over this country. And all of those problems directly or indirectly are caused by the breakdown of family life. Do you realize that nine out of ten of the people in our prisons today will tell you that their problems are rooted in some bad, dysfunctional, destructive situation in their home and family life?
James Moore tells about a little boy named Bradley. Bradley was eight years old and Bradley came to the conclusion that the world owed him everything. It is an attitude rather easily contracted in this society of ours. And so one morning Bradley came down to breakfast and he put a piece of paper, all neatly folded, right next to his mother’s plate. When his mother opened up the paper, this is what she read:
What Mother owes Bradley
For running errands-$3.00
For taking out the trash-$2.00
For sweeping the floor-$2.00
Total of what Mother owes Bradley-$8.00
His mother never said a word. At lunchtime when Bradley appeared at the table she handed him $8.00. He was thrilled. He took the money, stuffed it into his pocket and was already beginning to dream about the things he was going to buy. And then he noticed right next to his plate a piece of paper, neatly folded. He picked it up and opened it. This is what he read:
What Bradley owes Mother
For being good to him-nothing!
For preparing his meals and cleaning his room-nothing!
For providing clothing and toys-nothing!
For nursing him through his chicken pox-nothing!
Total of what Bradley owes Mother-nothing!
Bradley didn’t say a word. He got up, pulled the money out of his pocket, handed it to his mother and hugged her tightly. Lesson learned. Do you understand that it is the home where we receive our first instructions in the virtues of life? Where we receive our first lessons in what is right and what is wrong. Where we receive our first experience of unconditional love. Where we receive our first encounters with true faithfulness. Strong homes produce a strong, virtuous, enduring nation. That is why I declare to you today that what America really needs is a sense of loyalty to the family.
And what America really needs today is a sense of loyalty to others.
The other four Commandments, six, eight, nine and ten are a “how-to manual”, showing us how we are to do what Jesus called us to do—to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I know that I risk being charged with over simplification. It doesn’t matter. I want to say to you today that the true spirit of America has never, ever been: What do you owe me? What can I get from you? What do you have that I don’t have? The true spirit of America has never, ever been “I did it my way”. Or “do your own thing”. Or “get what you can get while you can get it”. The true spirit of America is now and always has been “how may I help you?” I call us to give ourselves to a sense of loyalty to other people.
Back in the fourth century, there was a dashing young soldier in France. His name was Martin. One day Martin was leading his regiment in a military parade through the streets of Amiens in France. He noticed someone at the edge of the road—no one else seemed to notice. But Martin did and Martin pulled his horse to an immediate stop. What he noticed was a beggar; hands outstretched, face lined and haggard with starvation. Martin’s heart went out to the man but Martin had no money in his purse and it was then that he had an idea which was prompted by the cold wind whistling through the air. He took the great, heavy military coat around his shoulders. He drew his sword and he cut the cloak in half and he wrapped half around the shoulders of the beggar and he kept the other half for himself and he rode on. His soldiers labeled him a fool for doing such a thing as that. That night Martin dreamed a dream and in that dream he saw Jesus. Jesus was in heaven, surrounded by angels. Jesus was wearing half of a military cloak and Jesus said to the angels: “Look at what my friend Martin gave me.” And Martin went on from that point to do deeds of love like that for all the rest of his life and today he is honored as the Patron Saint of the nation of France. And the symbol of a sword cutting a cloak in half has been the international symbol of compassion.
Dear friends, do you understand that the Old Testament Commandments and the New Testament Christ call us to treat other people as if… as if… as if they were Christ Himself in disguise. That’s why I declare to you today that what America really needs is a sense of loyalty to other people. For then…then America shall be what America is meant to be.
After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress did not have sufficient money to pay the soldiers for their effort. A group of rabble-rousing soldiers got mad about that and they stirred up other soldiers and they formed a rebellious army intending to march and overthrow the new government. It was at that point that they were confronted by General George Washington. Washington said to them: “If you continue in this manner, you will open the floodgates of civil discord and you will drown this new nation in blood.” They seemed to pay no heed. They were determined to take the power of the nation for themselves. And it was at that moment that General Washington remembered that he had in his pocket a letter from the Continental Congress—a letter of pledge that when the funds were available the soldiers would be paid. He reached into his pocket and he pulled out the letter and he opened it up and obviously in that moment, he suddenly seemed quite bewildered and confused. The soldiers were surprised. They were used to decisiveness from General Washington. They couldn’t imagine what in the world was wrong. And it was then that General Washington reached into his pocket once more and he pulled out what no one had ever seen him use before—spectacles, eyeglasses. As he put them on, he said to the soldiers: “Forgive me that I must wear these spectacles, but you see, I have not only grown gray, but also almost blind in the service of my country.” The soldiers were so moved that they broke ranks and gathered around the great general. They hugged him and they wept and the rebellion was over. One-year later, Thomas Jefferson, writing of that incident said…listen: “The virtue of General Washington in that time of crisis prevented the loss of the freedom this nation had so dearly won.”
That is exactly what I am trying to say to you today. In this time of crisis in this country it is people of virtue that will prevent the loss of the freedom which we have so dearly won and which we so deeply cherish. Therefore, my beloved, I call us all to be people of virtue, for then God will bless America in the future just as God has blessed America in the past.