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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
How did misogynistic posts on Twitter
Become a core issue
Of a political race for your highest single
How did that become the criteria by which
You put forth the leader of the free world
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?
I do not understand how you came to believe
That it is Christian to build a wall
To keep hungry people
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
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
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.”
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
Your heart, your soul, the dream that was America
“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
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
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
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
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
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/)