Dear America, Can we talk?

Dear America, Can we talk?

Following is a sermon delivered at South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society on October 9, 2016.

The video is available (Starts at about 10:00)

You can download a PDF of this sermon here

Dear America, Can we talk?

Dear America,

Hi.  It has been too long since I last wrote America.

I know that.

I know, I should have kept in touch.  George Washington said, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”  

I won’t offer excuses America – just fill you in a little on what kept me away.

I went to Seminary (Go Iliff!), did two chaplaincy residencies, passed the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, and passed my Chaplaincy Board Certification Interview in California.  

But I should have made the time for you America.

Because I think I am feeling disappointed in the status of our relationship.  

I hope that this does not turn into a “Dear John” letter America.  

Though I am troubled.  I still love you America.  I do.

I grew up a latch-key kid.  Both of my parents worked.  

I am an aging Gen-X idealist America, and I guess I feel betrayed

When I was growing up you promised me a country

governed for the people and by the people.  

I totally fell in love with you America

I fell in love with what that represents

I fell in love with the hope, the dream, the promise

When I was a child

I learned about a nation that was founded on the idea

That different people could work together

To build amazing things

I heard about America the melting-pot

Which as I have grown has become actually a bit heart-breaking

The idea that cultures and peoples get cooked and melted together

But that was not the myth that I was taught a child

The myth that I was taught was more like a tapestry maybe

Where diversity, multi-culturalism, tolerance was our ideal

As I grew the dream became ways that our diversity

Could be welcomed, invited, and the wonder

The amazement that we could gain by taking

A sacred curiosity in each other

And listening to our many different stories

Experiences

That was the dream America

I fell so in love with you America that I grew wistful

When things remind me of you

I remember hearing

A phrase in the movie Gladiator

“Once there was a dream called Rome”

Oh, it made me think of you America, every time

Something about that wistful voice

That hope, the dream of what Rome could have been

And the rough, bumpy, decaying, so very real reality

That Rome actually was only made me love the dream all the more

Rome was far from beautiful, or kind, or equitable

Far, far from it.

It was brutal, dirty, broken place, but it was also full of hope

“Once there was a dream called Rome”

Rome was never really a “progressive” society

In Rome at large America, compassion was even viewed as a vice

A vice.

And yet, the person who spoke that phrase

\Marcus Aurelius had a different vision of Rome

For Marcus there were two Romes

The city that had to be dealt with, handled, managed

And a dream that captured his heart.

“Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome

He was trained in Stoic philosophy

He sought to rule justly according to the precepts of Stoicism

Stoicism taught improvement of ethical and moral well-being

by having a will that is in agreement with Nature

By practicing four cardinal virtues

wisdom (“sophia”), courage (“andreia”),

justice (“dikaiosyne”) and temperance (“sophrosyne”).

America, according to Stoicism, a lack of kindness was a loss of basic nature

Compassion was not a vice to Stoicism, it was a mixture of the virtues

For the Stoics, the universe is a single living, breathing body

In which each of us must play our parts, our moral parts, so that it can grow

When Marcus Aurelius had a dream of Rome

That dream was built upon that stoic vision

The dream included basic services, like water, shelter and food for all people

It included a place where the government provided roads,

And even some basic public health care

Yes, Marcus’ rule was marred by incessant warfare

And the tiresome task of dealing with a new fanatical religious sect

Known as either Nazarenes or Christians who refused

To take part in the festivals of Rome and, further, would not honor the gods of the state.

It might be hard to understand America, I know, but in ancient Rome

There was no separation of church and state

The national anthem, the pledge of allegiance

Included paying homage to the divinity of Rome itself

And the troublesome Christians

Would not pay homage to the divinity of Rome

A bit like refusing to stand during our National Anthem today America

In spite of his constant challenges,

Aurelius sought to improve the lives of the citizens of Rome

End even those in the outlying regions of the Empire.

He is recognized as the last of the good emperors

in that he consistently placed the needs of the people

before his own desires or visions of glory.

When I think of what Marcus said

“Once there was a dream called Rome”

America, it makes me think of you.

It makes me think of the American Dream

In its early incarnations

James Truslow Adams is credited with the origin of the American Dream

In 1931 Adams wrote that

“life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dream}

That was the first incarnation of the American Dream

The vision of what you could be America

life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone

regardless of social class or circumstances of birth

Now that America, I think, is what draws me to you.

And I think maybe we have lost sight

Of the very thing that made me fall in love with you

America

 

A dream of a place where all people, regardless of birth

Have equal opportunity

A place where our differences are a resource

Maybe a challenging resource, but a resource, not a liability

“Once there was a dream called America”

 

But you know America, I don’t think

The similarities between us and Rome

Stop with Marcus Aurelius and wistful quotes from popular movies

There is a phrase that comes to mind America

I hope you will forgive me for speaking of such things

“Bread and Circuses”

Bread and Circuses refers to something,

as extravagant entertainment,

offered as an expedient means of pacifying discontent

or diverting attention from a source of grievance.

(http://www.dictionary.com/browse/bread-and-circuses)

 

The phrase is used today to suggest that we

The masses, the 99%, the people

Your people America

That phrase means that we can be kept happy

Even satisfied with the state of our union

Through careful use of fast food

and faster, more exciting entertainment and games

Well America, that phrase too, like our dream

 

Came from ancient Rome

Its origin in the Latin was Panem et Circenses

From the Roman poet Juvenal (circa A.D. 100).

In its satirical context,

the Latin Panem et Circenses refers

To the idea that the historical birthright of the Roman populace

The once vibrant political engagement of a republic

Could be redirected by free wheat

And exciting public games and entertainment

 

America

As I look around me at the media today

The phrase “Bread and Circuses”

Really seems to come to mind to describe our relationship lately

 

I mean seriously, as if the phrase

“Reality television show”

Was not an oxymoron

How do you create a make-believe show

That is real?

And what on earth is going on

With your political race right now America?

Seriously?

How did misogynistic posts on Twitter

Become a core issue

Of a political race for your highest single

Office America?

How did that become the criteria by which

You put forth the leader of the free world

America?

And America, you say that you are a Christian

I hear it from your lips everyday America

But let’s get real America

Who would Jesus deport?

Hmmm?

I do not understand how you came to believe

That it is Christian to build a wall

To keep hungry people

From food.

Seriously.

What on earth is going on?

I feel like I am taking crazy pills America

This is not the country, the nation, the dream

That I fell in love with.

Where is the sense of accountability?

To the American People

In our political leaders today?

I mean our presence in the world America

Looks profoundly hypocritical to me

There is some sort of a disconnect in our empathy America

I mean how many of us who live here would fancy the idea

Of a foreign power operating drones in our skies?

Yet we operate drones every day in countries around the world.

Even when innocent women and children are killed

Our media and leaders do not encourage us to weep over our mistakes

 

America

When I hurt someone, I weep over my mistake

And I try to make amends

I am not sure that I see you sharing the same sentiment America

 

Like Rome, we have come to justify our efforts

In every corner of our economic empire

To “defend our way of life”

Make no mistake America

I know that there is a financial element to the places we send our military

 

I am not saying that this is simple America, not at all

Maybe I am saying exactly the opposite

This is complex, it is hard, it is painful, dirty and oh so very real America

And maybe that is why, we have to hold onto that vision

Tighter than ever.

 

That vision of diversity guiding us, of respect, curiosity and interest

When it comes to our differences

Instead of suspicion and fear

America I do not think our relationship

Can afford to be about bread and circuses any more

 

James Madison

In his work on our Constitution

Helped to construct an exquisitely balanced political mechanism

Ambition countering ambition, interest countering interest

Madison was a realist about human nature

Like most of your parents were America

Even Madison though

With his understanding and acceptance of human nature

Conceded, that there had to be at least a smidgen of virtue

In the system somewhere

To paraphrase, Madison said that if there

Is not sufficient virtue among the people for self-government

Then only “the chains of despotism can restrain them from

destroying and devouring each other.”

(http://www.nationalreview.com/article/420615/vision-founding-fathers)

If we do not have sufficient virtue America

Then only chains limiting our liberty can save us

From destroying and devouring each other

America, when I look at the way our two political parties

Are at each other’s throats today

I am afraid that Madison had a serious point

 

When I look at the way that our police are at odds

With our diversity and our cultures

I cannot help but believe that Madison had a point

 

Even before Madison, in his first State of the Union speech,

George Washington stressed a similar point,

The “security of a free Constitution,” he said,

depends on “teaching the people themselves to

know and to value their own rights;

to discern and provide against invasions of them;

to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority;

. . . to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness,”

and to unite “a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments,

with an inviolable respect for the laws.”

 

America, I think that the bread and circuses have distracted us long enough

Washington, like many of those who set this dream

Of a modern Rome in motion

Thought that if we citizens start to take our liberty for granted,

If our culture — molded by journalists and writers, preachers and teachers

Starts to hold values other than liberty in higher esteem,

Then the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out.

America, if we The People do not hold our collective liberty

At the center of our heart and our soul

On the tip of our tongue, in the midst of our voice

Then the spirit of the Constitution – YOUR spirit America

Will die.

Your heart, your soul, the dream that was America

Will die

“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile.  And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

I don’t want you to die America

I love you

 

I don’t know America

Maybe this has to be a “Dear John” letter of some sort

When I see husbands, fathers, sons

Gunned down in the street because of color or culture

By the very powers that we put in place

To protect our safety America

Then I have to wonder, maybe it is time that you and I said goodbye

America, you have been a bride of privilege since the start

We tell ourselves that you were built through the calloused hands

Of the working class America

But I think the truth is more complex, more dirty

A little more like the truth of Rome

Who paid the workers America?

Well, whatever emperors paid them,

it was that dream that kept them going

Wasn’t it?

 

America, don’t get me wrong

it is not like we have not had any breakthroughs

In our relationship

We elected an African American President America

That was a moment, wasn’t it?

It was a big, proud, beautiful moment for the two ofus.

 

The dream has to stay alive America

Oh I am feeling wishy washy

Maybe I don’t want this to be a “Dear John” letter

Maybe we need to try some time apart

 

America, you have been the bride of white privilege

Rarely have you ever tasted any other colors America

I think it might be best for us America

If you found a new privilege to hang out with

At least for Friday or Saturday nights

And instead of trying to keep you going all the time

I can get out to a men’s circle and try to re-connect

With some real human spirit, instead of that empire and power

 

America, I never thought I would be writing you a letter like this

But I think I love you too much

To want to continue to see privilege and empire

Kill your heart, your soul, that dream that I fell in love with.

I know America, I know.

You wanted to stay together forever

But that same Marcus Aurelius

Who had a dream called Rome

Said

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”

(http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/marcus_aurelius.html)

Perhaps America, it is time that your thoughts turn to some other colors

Many other colors.  There are so many…

 

Its time you dated around a bit America

And quit spending so much time with so many white dudes

 

Don’t worry America, I will still be here

You can still call me on a Saturday night

But I think instead of painting the town

It will be for a listening ear

Its time America that I started listening to the other voices

Around you America

And gave them some space

Some space to keep the dream alive

Because I don’t know if I can do that on my own

America

I wish you the love and peace

That passes all understanding

And more than that

I wish you transformation

Go become the dream we whispered together America

It needs your attention, your love

The dream needs space America

For it is so fragile, I fear it may not survive the winter

God bless you America

Love

John

 

Web Resources Accessed Writing this Sermon

Generation X (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X)

Dear America Sermon (http://www.uua.org/worship/words/sermon/128663.shtml)

Stoic Philosophy (http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_stoicism.html)

Marcus Aurelius (http://www.ancient.eu/Marcus_Aurelius/)

Bread and Circuses (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-astore/bread-and-circuses-in-rom_b_3414248.html)

Terence Crutcher (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/terence-crutcher-shooting-tulsa-oklahoma_us_57e0411fe4b0071a6e08db5f)

http://www.uuberks.org/sermon/beautiful-invincible-reason

http://uuprairie.org/talks/reasonablereligion.htm

http://www.uuftc.org/minister/sermons/2007-sermons/reason-and-reverence/

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/05/generation-x-americas-neglected-middle-child/

 

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