Jul 5th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Proverbs 14:27-34
Click HERE to view and download bulletin.
We use a lot of “code words” around the church world. When we moved to our little farm in 1968, we visited the Valencia United Presbyterian Church, which became our home church. On our first visit, in the summer of 1968, I opened the bulletin and saw an announcement that read, “The L.S.D. Class will meet in the lounge next Sunday.” In the summer of 1968, I thought we had found a rather progressive congregation with a superb outreach strategy for young adults. We later found out that “The L.S.D. Class” was church-speak for “The Laura S. Dickson Sunday School Class,” which was populated by the matriarchs of the church. “Code words.”
We don’t just find them in church bulletins. Sometimes we come across them in the pages of scripture. “Righteousness” is something of a code word. “Righteousness” is how we translate the Hebrew word “tsadak.” “Righteous” means much more than being a “good person.” Righteous people, and righteousness, are grounded in an understanding of and connection with a righteous God. Righteousness is a reflection of God’s way - God’s values - God’s moralities. Righteousness is the canvass upon which God painted the universe and all that it holds.
When God’s people are righteous, we are living in God’s way and doing what God calls us to do. When we are living in righteousness, we are bringing God’s will and way into the fullness of our lives. When righteousness is being practiced, justice, fairness, equality, and integrity are on full display.
So, the words of Proverbs seem full of patriotic pride when we read: “righteousness exalts a nation.” Justice, fairness, equality, and integrity “exalt a nation.” We love that! We inscribe such thoughts on our national monuments. We paraphrase the words and incorporate them into political oratory and campaign speeches.
Still, those words also cut us to the quick. Justice, fairness, equality, and integrity are observable and measurable things. We know when they exist. And we sometimes know when they do not exist. We know when they are the possession of all. And we sometimes know when they are denied to some. We know when we are treated fairly. And we sometimes know when some are treated unfairly.
We try to gloss over those moments and events when we fail to be righteous. We re-write history, or offer such slanted views of history, that the truth is obscured and prevents us from feeling the guilt we rightly bear. We romanticize a version of history - events and practices - that never really existed, but which offers us comfort and pardon for our complicity. We rationalize history, reassuring ourselves that we weren’t a part of that - and neither were our ancestors - that it was all the result of “them,” whoever “them” is that week, that day, that hour.
At this time of year, I am always drawn to the phenomenal poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.” As an African-American writer, Hughes brought his experience as an oppressed minority in the early years of the last century into each line. But, he did not limit his words to just the plight of Black Americans. He spoke for the poor, the forgotten, the overworked and underpaid, the immigrant, and all those who were not experiencing for themselves the promised prosperity enjoyed by an elite few.
In part, the poem reads:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek -
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean -
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today - O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home -
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
If America is to be America again, we must find a new righteousness. We must discover, or rediscover, a new moral core for our nation - a new sense of right and wrong that is grounded in truth - a new commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” That is what will exalt our nation - not empty slogans, not promoting falsehood as truth, not by demeaning other people and nations in an attempt to make ourselves look better by comparison.
A reclaiming of the way of God - the way of justice, truth, and compassion - is what Lincoln - who really did worship at a Presbyterian church - referred to as “the better angels of our nature.” When we live into the pattern in which God created us, when we embrace the way of life God intended for us, when we reflect the love of God in word and action, God is experienced and the nation is exalted.
There is an old Chinese saying that reminds us: “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
That means, my sisters and brothers, that if the nation is to be righteous, we must drain the poisons of hatred and division from our hearts. That is where it begins. If righteousness is to be seen in the nation, we must pursue justice for all, freedom for all, and opportunity for all. If righteousness is to be known in the nation, we must apologize to the indigenous peoples who have been and continue to be robbed and who have been and continue to be treated as less than human and we must make amends. If righteousness is to be known in the nation, we must apologize to the descendants of slaves who have been treated as 3/5s of a human being for far too long and we must lift them out of the indignity with which we have enshackled them for over 400 years on this continent. If righteousness is to be known in the nation, we must learn the age-old lesson that we must not look for our own advantage but look out for the betterment of the other.
This is not political. It is Christian - and Jewish - and Muslim - and Hindu - and every other religion and philosophy that teaches the practice of love. It is the very heart of the ancient commandment: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
Wisdom. Truth. Insight. Justice. Righteousness.
For now and evermore. Amen.