Sunday, July 4, 2010

America, The Beautiful -- Independence Day, 2010

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day, everybody.

We have a strange and strained relationship between days like this and the church. I think it’s because we tend to cluster around two poles when we think of God and country.

The first – let’s say over here on the right -- is American Exceptionalism. This is the idea that the United States has a special favored place not just in the world but actually in the eyes of God. And that God has actually selected this nation for a special purpose.

The biggest problem with American Exceptionalism is that there is nothing in scripture that supports this and plenty that works against it. The idea of a special status for one nation – particularly the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth goes against our belief in a God who demonstrates in scripture that if she has a preferential option, it’s for the poor and not for the powerful. Against our belief in a God who loved the whole world so much that God became human in Jesus Christ.

And yet American Exceptionalism and it’s cousin, Manifest Destiny, have been prime shapers of American domestic and foreign policy for most of our nation’s existence.

The second -- let’s say over here on the left --is the use of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to say that religious ideas and faith and the political realm shouldn’t mix and the church has no role in politics.

Now that’s a legittmate stream of belief. Not one I hold to, mind you, and certainly not one Jesus did. But you can’t get there using the establishment clause. Does anyone know what the Establishment Clause of the first amendment actually says? That’s right – that there shall be no establishment of religion … and it’s also been read to say that the state can’t show preference of one faith over any other. Not that you can’t bring religious ideas into the conversation and certainly not that the church shouldn’t get involved in public life.

So we have these two poles and neither one of them really works. And in true Anglican fashion, I believe there is a third way, a middle way between American Exceptionalism and complete separation of faith and our public life. And the road map is one of our most treasured hymns … America the Beautiful. Take out your hymnals and take a look at it, it’s hymn 719.

America the Beautiful was written by Catherine Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. In 1893, Bates was 33 and took a train across the country to Colorado and was inspired by the nation she saw along the way. And at the end of her journey, standing on the pinnacle of Pike’s Peak, the words of the poem came to her, and today it is one of the best-loved American songs.

For Bates it was a love sonnet. Had she been from Ghana, and had just finished traveling from Mole to Accra, she would have written it about Ghana. But she was an American who was overwhelmed by the beauty of her own homeland. There’s a special love for home. A place that home has in our hearts that nothing can replace, nor should it. And so Bates wrote this love song not because America was the best place on earth, but because it was beautiful and most of all it was home.

That needs to be OK for us to own. That needs to be OK for us to celebrate. It needs to be OK for us to thank God for and love this nation passionately and have it have a special and even exceptional place in our heart and not have that mean we think America has a special or exceptional place in God’s heart.

So let’s name it. What do you love about this country? What about this country makes your heart sing?

The congregation responds

Ray Simon is going to help us out a little bit here. With all these things on our heart, let’s stand and we’re going to sing the first verse of America the Beautiful.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain,
for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

All those things that are good about America. All the things that we love. We are so thankful for them and we should be. We should thank God for America, the Beautiful. America our home. But look again at those last lines.

America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown they good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. This is what makes this hymn different and remarkable. Look at what we’re asking from God. We’re not asking God to “give us what we deserve because we’re so wonderful.” We’re asking God for two things.

First is grace. Grace is unmerited love. Unmerited. Grace is forgiveness. Grace is love for the sake of love, not for the sake of anything we are or anything we’ve done. Far from American exceptionalism this is a recognition not that God is using us for great purposes but that we deeply need God to be fully alive, to be whole, to be the nation and people God dreams for us and all nations to be.

Second, we’re asking God to take what is good and crown it with what? With brotherhood. Of all that is good about this nation, we are asking God to make our highest good a quality of relationship that is unparalleled in love and fidelity. As wonderful as anything else about this country is, we’re asking God to put in our hearts a deep love for one another and have that be our crowning good.

What’s remarkable and beautiful about this hymn is that we’re saying yes, America is Beautiful, but we’re not there yet. The deepest beauty. The most profound good has yet to be achieved. And that good – faithful love to one another – is our standard. And because by ourselves we fall short, we are appealing to God to continually shape us more into that image.

And that means it’s not only OK to name where we fall short of that lofty dream, it is our duty as citizens to name it just as much as it is our duty as Christians to name those places where we fall short of that other love commandment --- to love one another as Christ loves us.

So we named what makes our heart sing about our country. What makes your heart weep? Where do we fall short of that vision of being a grace-filled nation, whose good is crowned with brotherhood.

The congregation responds

We as a nation generally don’t do this enough and don’t react well when people do. We call people America haters or worse. Martin Luther King did this and he got called a communist. But if those insults are hurled at us we must not turn our faces away, because this literally is a matter of life and death. As Christians it’s a matter of life and death because we give our lives over to Christ, we put our whole selves, souls and bodies, on that table as a living sacrifice to that love. But as Americans it’s a matter of life and death because our nation’s actions mean life and death both for the people who sign up to defend it and also for the millions and even billions more whose lives live in the ripple effects.

And that’s why we sing this second verse.

O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved,
and mercy more than life!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.

People have served in our armed forces for many reasons -- from volunteering, to the compulsion of the draft to economic compulsion. But whatever the reason, that service represents a willingness to put their lives on the line for a greater good. To offer, if necessary, what President Lincoln rightly called "the last full measure of devotion."

As Christians, we have to respect that, because that act of self-giving is at the heart of our call to be disciples of the one who gave himself for the love of the world. It must be acknowledged, celebrated and even revered. In fact, the willingness to offer that "last full measure of devotion" is so sacred that we as a nation have a sacred duty to make sure it is never demanded except when absolutely necessary. That it is only demanded, as in the case of those honored dead at Gettysburg, literally to preserve not our nation's economic interest or our strategic position but the dream of a good crowned with brotherhood.

That's why in addition to honoring those "who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life," we must ask God to "mend our every flaw." The soul of our nation must be confirmed in self-control, her liberty in law.

America has been called a grand experiment and a dream in search of realization. As Christians we believe true greatness comes from the same things that Catherine Bates sings about in this hymn – the ability to put our sisters and brothers before ourselves, our ability to control our appetites and distinguish between freedom and license, our ability to acknowledge our flaws and seek a higher wisdom and will than our own in the face of them.

The dream of America. The dream of Catherine Bates. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King. The dream God had when God became human in Jesus. These dreams are one. They are the dream that we would all become fully alive in the way that can only happen when we give ourselves for each other and the life of the world. And our duty as Christians and as Americans is to hold on tight to that dream. To not let go of that dream. But to not only be dream-bearers but to be truth tellers. Not proclaiming American exceptionalism and not saying the Gospel has no place in the public square, instead living that third and most excellent middle way. To, in the words of Gandhi, be the change we wish to see in the world, in our nation, in our church and in our lives.

As Christians it is our duty to be engaged in the public life and to celebrate the goodness and beauty of our nation and also to hold ourselves and our nation to the standard of love that Catherine Bates sang and Jesus Christ lived. That is the dream we celebrate this day. A dream that though it at times has been in deep, deep disguise still lives in our hearts and in the heart of this and every tribe, nation and people.

O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam,
undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.


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