At noon the Governor will place his hand on the Holy Bible and take his oath of office, and utter the words, “So help me God.” In doing so, he follows a tradition first established by George Washington himself. When Washington was sworn in at America’s first presidential inauguration in 1789, he actually bent over and kissed the Bible and added to the prepared oath his own words, “So help me God.”
His invocation of God’s aid had precedent. Two years earlier, 81 year old Benjamin Franklin, stood up and implored fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention to pray daily for the help of God in drafting the Constitution. He told them that the Continental Congress, too, had prayed for divine help. He reminded them, “Our prayers were heard…and they were graciously answered. All of us…observed the frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favour…Have we forgotten that powerful Friend?”
Two hundred and twenty five years later, America stands as the world’s preeminent superpower. But this morning it is worth asking that same question: Have we forgotten our “powerful Friend”?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian novelist and Nobel winner, concluded that the principal trait of the entire 20th century, the explanation for two world wars, genocidal madness, the assault on the traditional family, and the abject poverty amidst material abundance, was evident. He said, “Men have forgotten God.”
This morning we gather to pray and remind ourselves of the presence of God, to recognize the divine dimension of life, the sacredness of each and every life; and to pray for our governor and his fellow leaders so that they receive the wisdom that is needed to govern the affairs of men.
This prayer breakfast honors democracy’s high ideal of self-governance. We place our hope in God, not government. The wisdom of our founders in crafting the delicately balanced First Amendment that prevents the establishment of religion and protects the free exercise of religion – this wisdom came from what Franklin called “superintending providence.” This balance allows people of diverse faiths or no faith at all to live in harmony, with mutual respect; and it allows the government to resist a drift toward either a theocracy or another form of state-imposed religion: a secularism which denies Divine Providence and moral truth.
We know that Thomas Jefferson, who many secularists claim as their father, did in fact invent the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”
But many may not know that two days after coining this phrase, Jefferson himself attended Sunday worship services in a government building with the Marine band playing the hymns, no less.
It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and that is true. But what is the price for religious liberty? Are we willing to pay it? Today our hearts break as we ponder the plight of Christians in stretches of Syria and Iraq, and in many countries in Africa, where a state religion is ruthlessly imposed and religious liberty ritually extinguished.
But we also see in the West what happens when government neutrality toward religion stealthily becomes government hostility toward religion. Some don’t want freedom of religion. They want freedom from religion. They want to confine the practice of faith to only places of worship and keep faith-based organizations out of the public square. Without our vigilance and willingness to pay the price for religious liberty as Washington and our founders did, it is only a matter of time before our country, too, forgets our “powerful Friend,” and loses God’s “favour.”
That is why it is appropriate for people of diverse faiths to pray together and to implore God’s grace on this very morning when Governor Scott begins his second term. Leaders are led. He needs our prayers. If I may ask forbearance from my non-Christian friends, I want to read the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, Chapter 15. “Live on in me, as I do in you. No more than a branch can bear fruit of itself apart from the tree can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”
So it is fair to ask, how will we know that we are connected to the vine, or more precisely, to the Divine? How can we best remember God?
Of course prayer is indispensable. Mother Teresa used to say that if you are too busy to pray, you are too busy.
When I worked at the White House I remember once going into the Oval Office before 7AM to see if President Bush needed anything for a morning event I was staffing, and I found him alone at his desk, reading Oswald Chambers daily devotional, “My Utmost for his Highest.” The President knew his need for God, as busy as he was. Do we? Are we too busy to pray?
And after we bow our heads and pray, what do we do for our neighbors in need? The prophet Ezekiel tells us of our responsibility as shepherds to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, and bring back the strayed and lost.
Jesus expanded upon the holy prophet’s words by saying that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to God. Thankfully, in our midst in Florida are people who are following this command to love thy neighbor. My friend Dave Lawrence in Miami gives his life so that little children will be school-ready and have a fair chance in life. The folks at Aging with Dignity help our elders who are lonely and frightened by the complexity of their health care choices. Jean Vanier’s “The Ark” communities are celebrating 50 years of caring for the developmentally disabled all over the world, including in Jacksonville. There are so many fine people doing the humble works of compassion in Florida.
And thank God they do because the need for faith in action is great. Wherever you look, you see Floridians who are struggling, including countless families in search of stable employment and housing, and farmworkers seeking to maintain their God-given dignity in spite of back-breaking work.
And Florida also knows spiritual poverty which is every bit as debilitating, as seen in those hurting souls who are starving for the bread of company or thirsting for tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.
So there is plenty of work to be done to honor Florida’s proud history and fulfill its destiny and our Governor can’t do it on his own. He needs the help of God and the prayers and efforts of each of us. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Governor, we are grateful for your faith in God, your leadership, and your good desires as you begin your second term today. We will pray for you and all of Florida’s leaders. We pledge that we will not forget God, and not forget you.