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A Fourth of July Sermon for the United States of Pandemics

July 5, 2020

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©Wendell Griffen, 2020

July 5, 2020 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas


 Jeremiah 22:1-5

22Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, 2and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 

3Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. 4For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. 

5But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.

       I am joining many other preachers across the nation preaching from this passage on the Sunday on the day after the Fourth of July.  We are each preaching from this text as the United States struggles in the grip of three pandemics.


  • The COVID-19 virus.

  • Poverty

  • Systemic racism (including rampant voter intimidation, suppression, and disenfranchisement coupled with government tolerated and sponsored terrorism, brutality, and slaughter of people of color by vigilantes, law enforcement officer, and vicious policies. 


    And for each of us, the words of a Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved person, spoken on July 5, 1852, 168 years ago, seem fitting.  Hear them.


    At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.  O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream …For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder.”


           Douglass wasn’t a preacher.  Yet, he knew that his time did not call for sugar-coated oratory.  He lived in the turbulent years of American slavery after the United States had waged war against Mexico, a nation where slavery was outlawed.  Douglass lived as politicians did the bidding of plantation owners, slave catchers, and business people who made their living from slavery. 


    As with Douglass, we should realize we are living in a time for straight talk.  Whether we are preachers or not now is the time to tell the truth about what is happening in our society. 


    Now is the time to admit that we are living in a time of fraudulent politicians defended by fraudulent preachers who have preached a fraudulent religion to this society for generations.  Across the nation, the policies of fraudulent politicians and the religion of fraudulent preachers are working together to oppress, rob, wrong, and heap violence on immigrants, children, persons who are elderly, persons who are poor, and those who are vulnerable in other ways. 


    Frederick Douglass worshipped at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.  Rev. William Lamar IV is pastor of that congregation writes in the current issue of Christian Ethics Today (Spring 2020) about being a preacher who searches for theological fingerprints as he dusts the COVID-19 crime scene.  Then Rev. Lamar writes:


    What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to provide the universal health care that may have mitigated this crisis?  What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to invest the money necessary to end homelessness?  What kind of God-talk makes possible the racializing of criminality and poverty?  What kind of God talk gives political power to science-denying poly makers?


           Let me add a few more questions to that good list.  What kind of God-talk makes it possible to deny voting representation in both houses of the United States Congress to people who live in the District of Columbia?  What kind of God-talk allows people to feel decent about supporting a politician who lies all the time about everything?  What kind of God-talk allows politicians in Arkansas and other states to hide the truth about how many incarcerated people are infected with COVID-19? 


    I agree with Rev., Lamar that white evangelical God-talk is the answer to each of those questions.  Donald Trump grew up listening to the God-talk of Norman Vincent Peale.  The politicians who voted to give tax breaks for billionaires and who also wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act grew up with the God-talk of Billy Graham.  Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were practically silent about American warmongering around the world and racial violence against people of color in the U.S.


    Now we have the God-talk of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, John McArthur, and Paula White.  Their God talk is the offspring of the religion that practiced land theft and genocide against an existing population in this land and body theft and chattel slavery against another population.


    And so, I will quote the words of Frederick Douglass spoken 168 years ago on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, when he spoke from the subject “American Slavery,” and said.


    I shall see this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.  Standing, there, identified with the American bondsman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!  Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.  America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to the false to the future.


           168 years later, this nation is still a fraud.  It claims by its national anthem to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Yet the people who were racially profiled and are saddled with criminal records for non-violent drug offenses are not free.  Students and working people are not free from the burdens of oppressive debt.  People who want to vote without endangering their lives and health because of new versions of the poll tax.  The religion of white evangelical God-talk makes their oppression possible, and even dignifies it.


           So, it is up to prophetic people to speak the truth.  We must demand that the rulers “act with justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3).  We must not be silent, nor must we be cautious.  There is too much suffering for whispering talk.  There are too many people being mistreated.  Too many people are sick and dying because of lies told and tolerated by white-evangelical God talk. 


           Yet we must do more than speak the truth.  We must fight the power of deceit, hate, and fear.  We must not waste time in efforts to get along with people who have put more value in preventing abortions than they have in preventing genocide.  People who will not vote for children to have decent well-funded schools, neighborhoods with clean air, soil, and water, and workers to earn living wages are not pro-life.  Stop listening to them. 


           We must also recognize and confront moral and social incompetence when it comes to justice.  People who have lived in dark spaces their entire lives are not physically competent to handle bright light.  Their eyes are not strong enough.  The light is uncomfortable to them, not because the light is harmful, but because their eyes are weak. 


    That is why we must not accept leadership from people who have spent their entire lives breathing and drinking white supremacy.  They are not competent concerning social justice.  Don’t listen to them.  Don’t treat them as authorities.  Tell them to hush. 


    Finally, we must reject leaders who oppress the people God has ordered us to protect.   God has not ordered us to protect the “wealth creators.”  God has not ordered us to protect “business.”  God has not ordered us to protect the law enforcement establishment.  God has not ordered us to protect banks and insurance companies and real estate speculators.  We are called to protect the alien, children, and the elderly.  We are called to protect workers and the homeless.  We are called to protect people who are vulnerable, not people who are vicious. 


    Frederick Douglass was right when he uttered these words 168 years ago.


    At a time like this… [w]e need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.  The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and [humanity] must be proclaimed and denounced.


    Now, as then, let us agree with Douglass that


    “your 4th of July … is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness [MAGA], swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity are … mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.  There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.  Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel [anywhere], search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival.”


           What other nation dropped nuclear weapons twice on civilian populations?


           What other nation stole the labor of millions of people for almost 250 years and denies owing any debt to their descendants?


           What other nation glorifies slavery and white supremacy in its entertainment (Gone with the Wind, the song Dixie), and by maintaining monuments and statues of human traffickers, rapists, and murderers?


           Shame on a nation that will not hang its head in confession in the face of such history.  Shame on a society that would dare to celebrate even as its people are sick and dying from a global pandemic that its leaders have mishandled from the start.  Shame on religious leaders who talk about recognizing “God and Country” on the Fourth of July or any other time? 


           Do not speak God bless America!  Do not call on God to smile on America!  Do not call America a God-fearing nation.  This nation is wicked, sick, and sickening.  In God’s name say so.  In God’s name say so in the loudest ways.  In God’s name say so in the face of the self-righteous folks who have been bred, born, weaned, and matured on white supremacy, capitalism, materialism, and imperialism. 


           In God’s name, condemn this nation.  In God’s name, be prophets of truth, righteousness, and justice.  Amen.