Deut. 10: 17-21 & Matthew 5: 43-48
From the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 , to now, the United States of America has fought tyranny, oppression and lawlessness. The words of my favorite national hymn, Materna, better known as America O Beautiful, took on a new significance, especially for my generation, after the tragedy of September 11th. “O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam un-dimmed by human tears!” Our ongoing struggle to ensure this nation remains free and democratic is inspired by our understanding 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.”
This country was built on those words, as well as the blood, sweat and tears of people who sacrificed their lives to make sure we could exercise “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The honor, dedication and sacrifice demonstrated by our forefathers serve as perpetual inspiration to generation after generation of Americans. These attributes can be found in countless Americans now, especially in our courageous men and women currently serving in the Armed Forces.
With July 4th falling on a Sunday it’s only fitting that we sing our favorite patriotic hymns. Today is a festival day in the life of our church. With this said, though, we need to keep in mind that we are here not to worship the flag or our nation, but to worship God. Our faith assures us that only by the grace and omnipotence of God do we have the lives we have, live in the country in which we live, and experience the freedoms, the opportunities, and the privileges we often take for granted. Today we give glorious thanks to our Lord for the blessing that is the United States of America .
Both those who fought for the creation of this country, and those who resisted it, were people whose lives were defined by their belief in the Judeo-Christian God. They disagreed over how that God should be worshipped, among other things, and from those disagreements rose the soaring language of the Declaration, with its radical insistence that all men were created equal. And because they were equal, they were free: free to resist conformity in all aspects of their lives: religious, political, communal, social and familial.
Now, more than 200 years later, the Declaration and the subsequent Bill of Rights have created the most religiously free and religiously diverse nation the world has ever known.
In the lives of many American Christians, the bond with country is second only to the bond with God. In mainline Protestant churches like ours and in the Roman Catholic Church, commitment to God and fealty to Caesar rarely, if ever, conflict. Still, we compartmentalize the two: we place our faith in one sphere, and our patriotism in another. To us, patriotism is in our political life what our faith is in our religious life.
In many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations, on the other hand, love of country and love of God are intellectually and theologically inseparable; in many of these churches, the U.S. Military is regarded as the army of God.
That said, one would have to be living under a rock not to recognize the polarization of our nation right now, especially as it relates to our political and religious life. A spirit of seething distrust permeates what we think and feel. We’re suspect, reluctant to engage with anyone who believes differently than we for fear of a verbal character assault.
What does Jesus think about this? You know his prescription. It’s simple. And it’s medicine that, as always, is plenty hard for us mortals to swallow. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he tells his disciples. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?’” (Matt. 5:43; 46-47).
Clearly, Jesus has not been listening to much talk radio recently. Or checked out the number one movie at the box office.
Some of you may remember the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. He’s now retired, but he was the long-time activist, preacher, and pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City . He said recently, “The true patriots are those who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country as a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.” (1) Let me explain. Coffin is saying that patriots are those who love their country enough to address its flaws. In other words, patriotism is not blind. Our country affords its citizens the right to have honest debate about its government, its past, present and future, without their having to sacrifice their allegiance to it or be condemned for it. This is democracy defined. This is the gift we celebrate today.
The second part of Coffin’s quote also deserves our attention: “The true patriots are those who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country as a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.” The Bible is a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with his creation. If the Old Testament is anything it is a boxing match between lovers. Think of God and Job. God remains steadfast and faithful, loving his people, but he names their sins, names their shortcomings, confronts their self-righteousness. God’s love is unconditional, but it is not blind. Let me say this again: God’s love is unconditional, but it is not blind. Jesus came to finally put an end to the quarrel: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Freedom from the law, freedom from death’s sting of our sins. But we still quarrel. Jesus quarreled, but he never stopped loving; he never will.
You know it’s really an astonishing blessing we have, as American Christians, that we can quarrel in love with our nation, with our church, with each other. I suppose we always will until justice finally is blind. You know, America is not just a country, it is an idea. America is an idea that brings with it equality without conformity. This is our highest calling and the hardest to reach.
God knows, it took us a century to abolish our greatest sin of slavery. Even if we fail in this enterprise of true freedom and equality, it is better to fail in what is worth pursuing than to succeed in what is not. Thus our freedom, rightly understood and rightly practiced, is a means and not an end. As Christians, Jesus would demand that we think of the freedom our country grants us, as the mandate to pursue and practice the three great theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Amen.
(1) William Sloane Coffin, A Lover’s Quarrel with America, Videotape, Old Dog Documentaries, Inc., New York , NY , 2003