SECOND TO NONE
Rev. John Kha Tran
French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said, "I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests--and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning--and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution--and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!"
I like this beautiful poem:
I know three things must ever be,
To keep a nation strong and free:
One is a hearthstone bright and dear
With busy, happy loved ones near;
One is a ready heart and hand
To love and serve and keep the land;
One is a worn and beaten way
To where the people go to pray.
So long as these are kept alive,
Nation and people will survive.
God keep them, always, everywhere,
The hearth, the flag, the place of prayer.
We are in the presidential election season. Candidates from both parties are talking about their visions for America. They want America to be a strong country second to none. They want security for all Americans. They want to build a strong economy. They want to promote and protect freedom and liberty. They want to provide opportunities for all. Their speeches are eloquent and appealing. The question is how are they going to help us to become a strong nation second to none?
Moses, in the first reading calls his people to faithfully observe God’s commandments. If they listen and observe God’s statutes and degrees, they will be a great nation and wise and intelligent people second to none. People of other nations will look up to them and envy them. This is the secret revealed from God. If we want to become a great nation, there is no other ways, but to have faith in God and to be faithful to God. A nation without faith in God will not be a strong nation. America is an exceptional nation because our founders want America to be a nation under God. Our people believe in God therefore they become good people. They are good people therefore they help others, welcome others and accept others. The sad thing happening now is that many of our leaders in government are forgetting this foundational truth and source of goodness. They abandon our inherited religious values and side with the unbelievers and the anti-christian people to promote ungodly policies. They embrace many anti-religious values rather than influence others with our great Christian values.
Daniel Webster, a leading American statesman during the period leading up to the Civil War, said, “Finally, let us not forget the religious character of our origin. Our fathers were brought hither by their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light, and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of their society and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political, or literary. Let us cherish these sentiments, and extend this influence still more widely; in the full conviction, that that is the happiest society which partakes in the highest degree of the mild and peaceable spirit of Christianity.”
The Essence of Religion
We still have reason to be hopeful. There are still many churches in America. You continue to gather to worship God here at our church every Sunday. Our people are still filling up the seats in many churches around the nation. Religion is still very much alive in America. When we talk about religion, however, we have to talk about a life of faith and moral living. A religious person is a person who practices his faith. Religion, faith and morality always walk together. A truly religious person must be a good moral person. Moses points out in the first reading. The people of Israel believe in God. They are religious people. God reveals Himself to them. God gives them the Commandments. Therefore they are expected to be good moral people. And Moses assures them that faithfully observing God’s commandments is the evidence that they have wisdom and intelligence. Their fidelity to God will be the shining light to show other nations that their God is the true God. And they are great people.
The tension between the Pharisees, the Scribes and Jesus over the gospel reading today clarifies the importance of the relationship between faith and religious practices. The Pharisees and the Scribes challenge Jesus, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” Jesus is the person of religion and for religion. He reads their minds and knows their hearts. He knows that they misunderstand the meaning of religion. They are not concerned about being faithful to the laws and defending the laws; rather they want to challenge Jesus and discredit his authority. Jesus takes the opportunity to assert the true nature of religion. Rituals and religious traditions are important, but they are not the essence of religion. The essence of religion is in the heart and will of a person who wholeheartedly commits to embrace their religious faith and practice that faith in daily life. This practice of God’s commandments from their faithfilled hearts will generate goodness. This is the evidence of their relationship with God. The Pharisees and Scribes pay so much attention to the laws that they forget this very essence of religion. They worship the laws rather than God. They value the laws more than God’s people. Jesus uses the words of Isaiah to rebuke them, “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
Religion that works
St. James also reminds us in the second reading that we should not only be listeners but also doers of the words of God. If we want our nation to be a great nation second to none, we have to take the words of God today seriously.
When native converts of the island of Madagascar used to present themselves for baptism, it was often asked of them, “What first led you to think of becoming Christians? Was it a particular sermon or address or the reading of God’s Word?”
The answer usually was that the changed conduct of others who had become Christians was what first arrested their attention. “I knew this man used to be a thief; that one was a drunkard; another was very cruel and unkind to his family. Now they are all changed. The thief is an honest man; the drunkard is sober and respectable; and the other is gentle and kind in his home. There must be something in a religion that can work such changes.”
The words of Moses reassure us today, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you . . . Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”