Sermon 7.8.18 Rev. Victoria Long

Scripture Lessons:  Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 5:43-48                          Sermon:  After the Fireworks                                                                                     Pastor: Rev. Victoria V. Long

I suspect many of you had a wonderful 4th of July celebration this past week. Let me confess, I am always confused as to is it better to take the two days before or the two days after a holiday that falls on a Wednesday? I guess it depends on your level of celebration.

This celebrating the birth of our nation caused me to go back to readings, writings  and songs, to revisit much that is attached to this day.  One spoke to me in new and deeper ways than it did when I first encountered it some four years ago. A blog offering by Mary Luti, in which she spoke about each nation’s story gives you insight into who they are.  This thought became the seeds for this homily today.

Our Deuteronomy text tells of a people, a yet to be formed nation. It reminds them they had been saved from oppression so it will be central to who they are to become:  A people who care for the least of these.

What I remembered most about Mary’s writings was a story I had never heard before.  This is an American founding story.  Let me share it with you from the installation of Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston.  Old South is a church steeped in early American  history.  And this is the story Nancy told…

“As you know, the Pilgrims were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.”

Nancy goes on to say,  “I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. I learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.”

The America I have lived in for some 60 years certainly seemed to lead with those values.  I believed, even when we came up short, we were “trying” to be civilized. This was a country people were trying to be a part of, one seldom heard of “Americans” wanting to forgo their citizenship and move somewhere else.  Sure, I was always aware we had problems, but I still believed this was the BEST place on earth to live.

As a child I remember memorizing and singing anthems in school with words that shout, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee…” Or “God bless America, my home sweet home…”  And the pledge of Allegiance with a flag that hung in the sanctuary across from or next to the Christian flag with words that said, “One nation under God.”  All this intertwining of God and Nation, when one is just forming ideas, concepts and attaching meaning to a world.  Not a surprise that many Christians think America was “ordained” by God to be THE nation.  God’s presence in the world.  Patriotism and love of God intertwined in some sacred covenant.

As I wrestled with celebrating this Fourth of July, I remembered that our founders were agitators, treasonously so, from the perspective of Britain’s king (and many of their fellow country persons). Passion and provocation fashioned this country. Folks with an attitude and called by God; surely nothing can go side ways with a people holding these truths.

I discovered in my readings the word “nation” comes from a Latin word meaning “to be born.” It is used as away to describe a grouping based on tangibles like race and/or folks who are related by blood.   People who join because they are like one another.  It is this understanding of nationhood that Hitler reflected when he reputedly claimed that the United States was “not a nation (Volk), but a hodgepodge (mischung).” 

But, it is the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood.  We began this journey as an “us.”  

Many churches on these national holidays sing our anthems instead of hymns.  Others have members of the congregation wave flags that are given out as one enters the sanctuary.  Sermons that weave in the themes of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and the debt we each owe to this nation.  We have been taught to love our country and our God.  To pledge our allegiance to our flag somehow has become intertwined with our allegiance to Jesus.  This integration of our patriotic feeling mingled with our Christian faith makes it very easy to conflate those two and wrap the cross with the American flag.  Many of our country’s folk feel God surely is an American.  I have friends, family members, who may not be able to articulate that, but make no mistake, this is their belief.

I know I am preaching to the choir when I speak of a Jesus who held an allegiance to the God of his understanding.  This commitment placed him squarely in the midst of the least of these.  His understanding of what it means to live into the Micah command…  “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what is required of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  

This example of “how to be” requires relationship.   Jesus hung out with all the folks you’re not supposed to. He sat down and ate with the poor, the sick, the orphans, and the widowed. The thief, the tax collector, those in prison and those not invited in the temple.

Think about this man, Jesus, who lives,  believing he IS the son of God.  Talk about privilege.  Talk about a brand recognition.  And what did he do with it?

He found individuals, sometimes small groups and sat down and had conversations.  He asked questions of his new acquaintances and listened to theirs.  Broke bread, drank a little wine. Entered into relationships.  Confronted systems of power one conversation at a time.

Which brings me back to the 4th.  This year I worked, so my celebration was limited.  Hotdogs and baked beans were shared with others who were working on this holiday.  Fire works and a beer at the end of the day.  Fireworks, that by and large made a less than expected impact.  Folks went expecting big and impressive but, due to weather or product, they failed to live up to what was hoped for.  Individuals, couples or families left the event  and returned to their lives.  The parallels with all that and our political environment were not lost. 

And a deepening of an awareness that this country is on the edge of something. What?  That is something I wrestle with daily.   Who we are as a people?  Who we used to be and who are we becoming?  Where we are going?

And the nagging never answered to my satisfaction question rises – what can I do to make some kind of difference?

My job allows that I spend a great deal of the day driving from facility to facility which gives me time to mull things over.  Such as, what if the primary story about the beginnings of our nation’s narrative started with a beer run?  That we entered this story at a place where individuals worked together to solve a problem.  

An ordinary story, about ordinary people, about to embark on an extraordinary adventure.

What if we had shared the story of running out of beer rather than the creators of “a city on a hill.”  A mythic tale that places us above everyone else.  Apart from, different, better, blessed, ordained by God.  Maybe, what is exceptional is not what makes us different but all those things we hold in common?

What if, from our earliest learnings, we had been taught, that because of our shared needs we pulled together so that every one’s needs were met?  What if, we, too, attempted, in real and intentional ways, to find what we hold in common as a place to start.   This only changes if individuals become present to one another.  This is what Jesus exampled to us.  There is a time and place for outburst, but one does not need to lead with that response at every turn.

I have two folks whose leanings are polar opposite to mine.  One, I see weekly and the other is a person, from my distant past who I engage with on social media.  I have committed to being more intentional in our conversations around the things that divide us.  Not in confrontational ways, but in ways that offer opportunity for further dialogue.

Let me be frank. I am much more skilled at releasing my anger and informing you of just how foolish your point of view is, but that response does nothing to nurture fragile friendships.  I have committed to listen and hear what is at the core of their anger, their fear or their dis-satisfaction.  It is my hope they will hear me as well.

This is where change can happen; the uniting of individuals offers a chance for healing.  What if each of you reached out to “that” person in your life-friend, family member, neighbor and began your own response.

The UCC likes to say “we have a freedom for, not a freedom  from.”  We like to think we are a people  of  “soft verbs.”  We like to describe ourselves as “how to be”  folks, and not a people who tell another “what to do.”   One of the most powerful explanations of how we are to be in relationship with one another, individually as well as corporately, and at our center is that we seek to live in covenant with one another.  Covenantal language is a language of us and not me; it is a language of implied sacredness, for it is both vertical and horizontal.  It is our intention to “seek to walk together,” it examples how and not what to do! 

I still have hope in this nation of ours. My patriotism remains but it must be a compassionate patriotism, an empathetic patriotism, a patriotism that loves all this country offers and a willingness to be open to all those who seek to call it home. 

GMA reported this is the top beer drinking holiday week of the year.  So, armed with this data, my plans include finding something cold to drink and listening  to one of my favorite country music songs,  “God is Great, Beer is Good, and People are Crazy.”  Then pulling up that friend on Face Book try to find the right invitation when instant messaging him. 

So, now you know… this is what I see happening, after the fire works – maybe, just maybe a conversation begins.

May it be so! 

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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