4th of July sermon preached by the Rev. Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., July, 2005
Before I became a marriage and family therapist, I was a minister. The last church I pastored before retirement was a church in Brush, Colorado, a community that politically and theologically was my opposite. I embraced a liberal mindset; most in that rural community were very conservative. Indeed, it was an act of grace that I worked successfully in that church and community for ten years. One of the last sermons I delivered to the Brush community was during a worship service in the park, a part of the fourth of July celebration. It was a sermon that used Mark 2:21-22 (provided below) as its focus and reflected upon Jesus’ story in light of the founding principles of our country. As events of the last five years have unfolded, I was reminded of my sermon. It is as relevant today—perhaps more so—than it was in 2005, when I delivered it. Here is an edited version of that sermon:
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.Mark 2:21-22, NRSV
Political oppression, taxation without representation, the laws of the land based on religious dogma and beliefs, the intolerance of difference at all levels of life, and a stubborn attachment to the status quo as defined by the privileged members of society—these realities are the harbinger of humanity’s inhumanity to each other. When these realities reign supreme, people will be divided and as history repeatedly demonstrates, such principles lead to a social order that is unjust, cruel, intolerant, and insensitive to the needs of others. When these “old wineskins” become entrenched in the social order and people suffer from the weight of their oppression, they will risk their lives and the safety of their families to find a province of peace where a new wine rips the old wineskins apart by promising a life of liberty and justice for all people, principles that if followed will end the tyranny of the old wineskins.
Over 350 years ago, people imagined such a place and began a dangerous voyage across troubled waters to a land they hoped was a haven of freedom where their dreams of political and religious tolerance could become a reality. They came to the shores of America to boldly engage in a new experiment of government. The experiment was supposed to result in a new wine that would destroy the wineskins of old. If the experiment was successful, all the strife, all the danger, and all the self-sacrifice would be worth it.
If we are to perpetuate the experiment that the founders began, we need to do a bit of soul-searching, and look deep within ourselves, taking a moral inventory and assuring that our loyalties are not to the wine of the old wineskins.
As they worked to fulfill their dreams, they found that the process of vinting new wine was not easy; the old wine and the wineskins that held it were not easily dismantled. Once again political ideologies and religious dogma began to divide the town-folk. As religious beliefs became law in many areas, people were arrested and sometimes executed, believing in a different way being their only crime. The result was divided loyalties setting neighbor against neighbor and defining justice as that which favored one’s group…not all people. Into the climate of liberation and freedom a grave intolerance was once again introduced creating political oppression that led human beings into war with each other. Once again, people were tortured for their differences and destroyed because they did not or could not conform to the status quo of old wineskins.
In the midst of all of this, the experiment seemed hopeless, and the dream of liberty began to dim. But some had tasted the new wine. They were filled with its inspiration and would not turn their backs to its promise. Instead, they poured the new wine into the old skins knowing full well that the old wineskins would be destroyed. Into the wineskins of tyranny and oppression, they poured the new wine of liberty, and the old skins began to rupture. Many tried to patch them, but the patches would not hold.
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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
Under the inspiration of the new wine, the treachery of the old was challenged by promises inspired by stories of the prophets of old and the words of Jesus. These words birthed the idea that unalienable rights are the foundation of social order and the guide for future laws of the land. A government that embraces these rights is one where the weak take the place of the powerful, the poor lay siege to the palaces of the rich, the least of these find the treasures of salvation and those who hunger for justice take the place of people motivated by greed and selfishness. It was the new wine that inspired the imaginations of men like John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. It created within them an intoxication manifest in an intolerance for old wine and the skins that held it. Into these wineskins, they poured the new wine of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
From their collective efforts a new wine of independence was vinted, one that threatened to rip open the old wineskins. Inspired by new wine, they renewed the governmental experiment that dared to believe that all people were created equally, a principle of justice that promised respect for people regardless of their place in society and their religious beliefs. This was a demand for something radically new. It was not like the governments of old. It was to be a place where people were not measured for what they had, their family tree, or their position in life. The promise of new wine measures a person based only on the content of their character.
The new wine—this declaration of independence—was a promise for something new, a bold experiment in government that empowered the founders of this great country of ours. And despite the flaws of the men who framed it, flaws that often meant they failed to live up to the promises of the new wine, it defined a government that elevated the poor and powerless above the rich and powerful. The government of the new wine is an unfished government that is constantly changing, constantly striving for new ways to strengthen its commitment to the principle that all are equal and the moral voice of the prophets that champion the content of character over loyalty to false gods of avarice and hubris. The faith of those empowered by new wine is that government is and always will be a work in progress. The thoughts of no one has the final word. It is a faith of listening that embraces a better way if that way truly serves equality.
If we are to perpetuate the experiment that the founders began, we need to do a bit of soul-searching, and look deep within ourselves, taking a moral inventory and assuring that our loyalties are not to the wine of the old wineskins. The experiment that these men defined is a government that is never equated with a religion nor a church. It is exempt to political ideology because it is open to debate and a commitment to entertain difference. It is a commitment to continue the search for justice as equality and the inclusiveness it demands.
The wineskins of old are the wineskins that cannot hold the new wine of freedom and liberty required by principles of equality. Old wineskins are not just, for they are noted by their denial of the principles of equality based on an imaginary past that never existed. They denigrate gender differences and are intolerant and hateful of sexuality that is not consistent with their imaginary worldview. The old wine is closed to the voices of others that may challenge the status quo as the old wine defines it. All of this is an affront to the new wine, and if we are to follow the footsteps of Jesus, we—like the Founders of our Country—must dedicate ourselves to continuing the experiment they began. We must commit ourselves to the new wine of salvation, a wine of liberation and freedom, which works towards the creation of a place where all might have access to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our call, brothers and sisters, is to serve people that all may know the privileges of life. Our call is a call to fight on behalf of the “tired, [the] poor [and the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of [our] teeming shore.” Our call is a call to challenge and oppose oppressive institutions whether they be political or religious institutions that all people, Jewish and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, Islam and Buddhist may live together in peace. Our call is a call to discipleship where the needs of human beings are placed above the platitudes of political ideology and the dogma of religion. Our call is to the work of peace as we forge a place where Black people, Latinos, Asian people and Europeans, American Indians and white people may live together as brothers and sisters.
229 years ago, the founders of our great country acknowledged the new wine and responded in a spirit of liberation. It was not a perfect response and their words, while inspiriting, remind us of the task that is not yet accomplished. The new wine birthed an experiment in governance predicated upon equality and inclusiveness. Now, 229 years later, we must continue the work by drinking deeply of the new wine of liberation and justice.229 years later may our commitment be to the bells of freedom that ring from the church tops and social centers of our land proclaiming the truth of the new wine—the process of working out our unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. May it be so, Lord Jesus, may it be so. Amen.