• Adam Schell

The Red & The Blue | A More Perfect Union


As we come together to worship this morning, we are just five days removed from Election Day. And even though this year’s election has been different--due largely to precautions we’ve taken because of COVID-19 and a massive increase in absentee ballots--some things never change. Now that we’re a few days removed from the election and most of the ballots have been counted, about half of all Americans are excited that their candidate is in the lead and the other half are disappointed that their candidate isn’t. But, right now, I think we’re all ready for every last vote to be counted and every legal challenge to be resolved so we just know who our President will be on January 20th.


But to be completely honest with you today, I’m not feeling excited that my preferred candidate is in the lead or disappointed that the person I voted for isn’t. I’m not here to tell you that our nation will be saved by the guy that’s leading the race or that we’re doomed because the other one isn’t. And that’s because I don’t see Election Day as a day when one party or one candidate wins and the other loses. Instead, I see Election Day as a chance for us to live up to the words Gouverneur Morris--a man who has been called the "Penman of the Constitution"--wrote in the preamble to our Constitution, where he spoke of forming a more perfect union.


And what is that more perfect union supposed to look like? Well, I think Thomas Jefferson gave us a pretty good standard in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As Thomas Jefferson sat at his desk, paying meticulous attention to each of these words, he wrote about problems of a bygone era. He wrote of an era when kings were still kings, not merely figureheads presiding over the pomp and circumstance of a nation. He wrote of an era when one man was literally in control of the lives of millions. And he was free to do whatever he desired. So Jefferson declared that we have rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness because these rights had long been denied to the American colonists by the British monarchy for a long time.


But ever since these words were penned, they’ve told us of what our “great experiment”--as George Washington called it--has been striving to accomplish. And even though our nation and our world have greatly changed, these words give us a way to measure the more perfect union that we’re trying to form.


So, clearly, the ideals and unalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson wrote of are not just the rhetoric of a 244-year-old document. Jefferson’s words have seeped from the pages of the Declaration of Independence and pervaded nearly every aspect of American culture. So we, as Americans talk about our right to vote...and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about our right to vote for the next President of the United States or our right to vote to send someone home from Dancing with the Stars. And we, as Americans, talk about our freedom to choose for ourselves--and it doesn’t matter if we’re choosing to vote for a political party, or to attend a certain church, or to pick out our favorite brand of breakfast cereal when we’re at the grocery store. And, as Americans, we know that these unalienable rights are supposed to be guaranteed to every American.


As a matter of fact, one of our most cherished cultural landmarks makes this point clear. All you have to do is read the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty. That inscription reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

And that’s what our nation is supposed to be about. We’re supposed to be a place where the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses can breathe free. We’re supposed to be a place where everyone has freedom, independence, and inalienable rights. We’re supposed to be a place where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


But here’s my question for you: If the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the measuring sticks for our success as a nation, how are we really doing?


Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to life when we live in a nation with the highest murder rate in the industrialized world? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to life when we live in a nation that still has the death penalty? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to life when some of the men and women who have spent the last few days making sure that every ballot that was cast in the 2020 election have also been receiving death threats? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to life when we have seen the way that people of color like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been treated?


Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to liberty when we live in a nation where the 600 wealthiest people in our nation saw their fortunes increase by over $400 billion during a pandemic that cost 38 million Americans their jobs? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to liberty when we live in a nation where corporate lobbyists have more political pull than entire constituencies? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to liberty when we live in a nation where 40 million people struggled with hunger and 15 million people didn’t have access to enough food to feed their families?


Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to happiness when we live in a nation that still stigmatizes mental health? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to happiness when we live in a nation where one out of every eight adults struggle with both alcohol and drug use disorders simultaneously? Can we say that we are forming a more perfect union where everyone has the right to happiness when we live in a nation where half of all American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage?


The truth is that if we want to measure the success of our nation based on the unalienable rights that our Declaration of Independence describes, then it doesn’t matter if the candidate you voted for won...because none of us have much to celebrate. We cannot celebrate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that is described by our founding fathers when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are denied to so many.


So maybe instead of celebrating the results of this year’s election or lamenting a loss, we should all take stock of where we are as a nation right now. Maybe we should pay more attention to the areas where our nation as a whole and we, as individuals, are coming up short. And maybe instead of thinking that the winner of this year’s election will either save us all or condemn us all, we all need to work to fix the problems we have so that we can form that more perfect union we’re supposed to have.


Maybe this is why some of Jesus’s words have been ringing in my mind as I've prepared today's sermon like the bells of liberty ringing across our nation on the 4th of July. After all his words found in Matthew 11 are just as relevant today as they were when Jesus spoke them centuries ago.


And just as a reminder for you, the book of Matthew is one of the four books in our Bible that we call the Gospels--so there’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And we call these books the Gospels because the word “gospel” means “good news.” And each of these books tells us the good news of who Jesus is. So these books are all essentially biographies of Jesus. So these books tell us about Jesus’ birth and baptism. They tell us about Jesus’ ministry and his miracles.


And, in the passage that we’ll be reading today in Matthew 11, we’re going to be told part of what it means for us to be followers of Jesus. So let’s take a look at Matthew 11, we’ll start reading in verse 16. As Jesus says:


16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works...”


25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.


27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.


28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”


Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Common English Bible)


So clearly the words that Jesus spoke in this passage inspired the inscription that I mentioned earlier on the Statue of Liberty. And if we, as Americans, are called to live up to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty or the words that flowed from feather quills onto the Declaration of Independence; then we, as Christians, are called to live up to the words that Jesus spoke in this passage.


28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”


But if this is our standard, as followers of Jesus, we're falling short in this case too. And I think Brian McClaren, who is a prominent pastor, author, speaker, and leading figure in the emerging church movement, illustrates this point well in a story he shares in his book Everything Must Change. As McClaren writes:


It was May 1994. My daughter and I joined a group of 55 young...leaders at a conference center near Bujumbura. Most were from the Tutsi and Hutu tribes from Rwanda and Burundi, and there were even a few Twa (also known as pygmies – one of the most ill-treated people groups on the planet). As well, there were several guests from Uganda and eastern Congo. Their homelands were a random sample of the most violent, poverty-stricken, and dangerous countries in the world.


At our first gathering, I remember looking through the windows as Claude began to speak, the mountains east of Bujumbura rising hazy and brown in the mid-morning light. He spoke in his native tongue, Kirundi, which was translated into French for the Congolese participants and whispered into English to my daughter and me...


“Friends, most of you know me. You know that I am the son of a preacher, and as a result, I grew up going to church all the time, maybe 5 times a week. What may surprise you, though, is to learn that in all my childhood, in all the church services I attended, I only heard one sermon.” At this, eyes got larger and people seemed curious, maybe confused. One sermon in all those years?


He continued, “That sermon went like this: 'You are a sinner and you are going to hell. You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.' ”


At that, almost everyone began to laugh. They weren't laughing at the idea of going to hell or the idea of believing in Jesus; they were laughing in recognition that this was the only sermon they had ever heard too. Sunday after Sunday, year after year, different words, different Bible verses, but the same point.


Then Claude got serious. “When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption. Over a million people died in my country in a series of genocides starting in 1959, and nearly a million in Rwanda, and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many of them, hungry. This is the experience we all have shared.” Around the room, people leaned forward, their heads nodding.


“So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption, and injustice, and nothing ever really changed. Eventually, I realized something. I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities. Did God only care about our souls going to heaven after we died? Were our hungry bellies unimportant to God? Was God unconcerned about our crying sons and frightened daughters, our mothers hiding under beds, our fathers crouching by windows, unable to sleep because of gunfire? Or did God send Jesus to teach us how to avoid genocide by learning to love each other, how to overcomes tribalism and poverty by following his path? How to deal with injustice and corruption, how to make a better life here on earth – here in East Africa?”


Claude walked a few steps closer to the center of the group, seated around long tables arranged in a semicircle. “Let me ask you a question. How many of you from Burundi and Rwanda have ever heard even one sermon telling Tutsi people to love and reconcile with Hutu people, or Hutu people to love and reconcile with Tutsi – or telling both Tutsi and Hutu to love the Twa as their neighbors and brothers and sisters?”


Two hands went up. Both it turns out, were Anglican priests – and they had preached these sermons themselves in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. But nobody else had ever heard a sermon addressing the most pressing issue of their lifetimes, before or since the Rwandan genocide.


Claude continued, “Over the years, I have come to realize that something is wrong with the way we understand Jesus and the good news. Something is missing in the version of the Christian religion we received from the missionaries, which is the message we now preach ourselves. They told us how to go to heaven. But they left out an important detail. They didn't tell us how the will of God could be done on earth. We need to learn what the message of Jesus says to our situation here in East Africa. And that is why we have to come together.”


Over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve preached through this series of sermons on “The Red & the Blue”, what I’ve wanted to do is to talk with you about how we, as followers of Jesus, can live out our faith in the face of partisan politics in our nation. So we’ve talked about our need to be political without being jerks. And we’ve talked about the kingdom that we are really trying to build...the kingdom of God.


But today, I want to remind you of why we have come together. And we have come together for the same reason that Claude told the pastors at that conference in East African that they had come together. We have come together so that the will of God can be done not only in heaven but also on this earth.


And God isn’t only concerned about more souls finding their way inside of the pearly gates on the other side of eternity. God is concerned about the hungry bellies waiting to be filled in our world and in our nation...so we should be concerned too. And God is concerned about crying sons and frightened daughters, and mothers hiding under their beds while fathers crouch by their windows because of violence in our world...so we should be concerned too. And God is concerned about the hatred that has caused ongoing tension in our nation and genocide in other nations...so we should be concerned too. And God is concerned with injustice and corruption...so we should be concerned too.


God is concerned about all of the pain and all of the suffering in this world. God wants this world to be a better place. God wants us to live in a world where we all are truly free and can enjoy our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


But it’s not hard to look around and see that we’re not there yet. There is work that still needs to be done. So right now, in the aftermath of another election, we can sit back and celebrate if our preferred candidate is winning or we can be upset if our preferred candidate isn’t. Or we can move past the red and the blue divide that we hear so much about every four years. And we can work together.


We can work together to build a more perfect union. We can work together to make sure that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We can work together to bring the kingdom of God to this world. So let’s come together. And let’s do the work that God has called us to do.

© 2020 by Adam Schell