(A Sermon preached on Sunday, July 4th, at All Saints' Littleton, NH)
Today is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. The readings reflect this. It cannot escape our notice, however, that this is also Sunday, July 4th: Independence Day.
When July 4th falls on a Sunday, clergy are often faced with difficult and uncomfortable decisions. July 4th is not a universal Christian holiday. Of course, there is nothing in the Bible about it, and for 1700 years the church existed without it. And yet it manifests in churches in many ways: from ribbons on altar flowers of red white and blue, to particular national prayers and music. Sometimes it really goes to extreme: like using the flag to cover the bread and the wine.
Independence Day is, actually, recognized by the Episcopal Church. Directions are found in our supplemental book Lesser Feast and Fasts, which contains liturgical materials for moments in our sacred history. These are to be celebrated by the Church when you do services on the particular day: IF the day is not a Sunday or a Principle Feast Day, which is Easter Day, All Saints’ Day, Ascension Day, Christmas Day, The Day of Pentecost, The Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday.
Independence Day falls into the next category: “Holy Days”, which consists of Feasts of our Lord, Major Feasts, and Fasts. Independence Day is considered a Major Feast: along with All feasts of Apostles, Saint Mary the Virgin, All feasts of Evangelists, Saint Michael and All Angels, Saint Stephen, Saint James of Jerusalem, The Holy Innocents, Saint Joseph, Thanksgiving Day, and Saint Mary Magdalene. They are to be celebrated when they do not fall on a Sunday. When they do occur on a Sunday, the procedure is to transfer the day to the first convenient open day within the week.
Good luck with transferring July 4th to a different day. (Then again, maybe that’s why Littleton had it’s fireworks on July 2nd. Who knows?)
It is interesting to note that even this “Major Feast” status of Independence Day is not without historical controversy. Lesser Feasts and Fasts says:
Proper Psalms, Lessons, and Prayers were first appointed for this national observance in the Proposed Prayer Book of 1786. They were deleted, however, by the General Convention of 1789, primarily as a result of the intervention of Bishop William White. Though himself a supporter of the American Revolution, he felt that the required observance was inappropriate, since the majority of the Church’s clergy had, in fact, been loyal to the British crown.The Convention which had called for the observance of the day throughout “this Church, on the fourth of July, for ever,” White said, “The members of the convention seem to have thought themselves so established in their station of ecclesiastical legislators, that they might expect of the many clergy who had been averse to the American revolution the adoption of this service; although, by the use of it, they must make an implied acknowledgment of their error, in an address to Almighty God.... subjecting themselves to ridicule and censure.”It was not until the revision of 1928 that provision was again made for the liturgical observance of the day.
You might be asking yourself: “What’s the big deal today?” Well, there are a number of challenging things about celebrating Independence Day, and other displays of National significance in church.
Consider the Collect for Independence Day:
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace… (Book of Common Prayer, p. 242)
The Honorable Byron Rushing, Massachusetts State Representative and long time Deputy to General Convention, reminds Episcopalians in the United States that many of us do not consider the words--"the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us"-- to be accurate. He suggests that we look around our congregations and reflect if all the ancestors of the "us" got their liberty then.
Certainly not women. Certainly not African Americans.
Frederick Douglass clearly made this point in a famous speech at Rochester, New York, serving as the Independence Day speaker in 1852. He first, beautifully, reflects that Fourth of July is "...the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God." In powerful language Douglass describes how the nation was born. He then says:
"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony....Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
It’s not just that the promise of July 4th hasn’t been lived out for everyone.
The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, writes:
Have you ever been asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at the time of the call to worship in church? I have and, believe me, I hope it is a “once in a lifetime” experience! We also recited the “pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag” – did you even know there was such a thing? What made the experience even more uncomfortable was that I was sitting in the pew that Sunday morning with a leader of the Evangelical Church in Germany who I was hosting at a national church gathering (the Protestant, mainline congregation was not, fortunately for me, UCC!). Christians from Germany are, understandably, profoundly uneasy with any mixture of religion and patriotism, having seen what can happen when cross, blood, and soil become demonically intertwined. Today most Germans visiting US churches are shocked simply by the presence of an American flag in the sanctuary. As my guest stared at me in stunned disbelief, I prayed that the floor would open and swallow me up.”
National symbols in churches, be it flags or the celebration of National holidays, are so complex. We need to be aware that the message may be mixed, and the vision incomplete. That, however, does not mean that the answer is avoidance.
Rev. Thomas continues:
There was a time in my life when I would have gladly stripped every sanctuary of an American flag and purged the liturgy of any reference to nation. We are citizens of heaven, says Paul, and it is from there that we expect a Savior. True enough. But in fact we are also citizens of this nation. And while there is much to judge, there is also much cause for gratitude. Racism and xenophobia are real in this land, but we can celebrate that opportunity is expanding for many. Our politicians are not pure, but their corruption pales when seen in the light of what many nations endure from their leaders. Most do in fact seek to serve the public good and when they don’t, they can and do end up in court. Our safety nets for the poor are imperfect, but they are there in ways that simply isn’t the case in many parts of the world. When I drive our interstates I watch for the next rest stop, not a roadside bomb. And when I engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House a couple of years ago to protest the war in Iraq, I was out of jail in time to make my flight (home) that evening.That probably wouldn’t be the case in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, or many other places in the world. To sit aloof from and in relentless judgment over our nation’s achievements and betrayals, accomplishments and injustices may feel “prophetic.” But in fact it is hardly Biblical....For the Christian, patriotism is not a flag in the lapel or the politician’s ritual incantation, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” It is, rather, recognition of our deep complicity, for good and for ill, in our nation’s moral grandeur and tragic failure, a complicity that demands thanksgiving and repentance, gratitude and judgment. Somehow our liturgies on days of national significance need to acknowledge this.
The Episcopal Church, in addition to be descended from the Church of England, has a uniquely American character. Our history, structure, and flexibility are due largely in thanks to the principles found in the Declaration of Independence, and the freedom created by the separation of church and state. The irony of July 4th is that we celebrate both being uniquely American and, at the same time, free of state control of religion, and its equally destructive reversal where one particular religious belief controls the government.
So, this morning, we have music that celebrates our country, and yet at the same time, plainly states that there is work to be done.
James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the African American national anthem, does not shy from “the stony road, the bitter and chastening rod felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet this hymn ends in and almost startling commitment rather than the presumed estrangement: “Shadowed beneath your hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.” (Rev. Thomas)
“This is My Song,” from the Methodist hymnal, beautifully states our love and hope for our nation, while acknowledging that God is the God of all nations, not exclusively ours.
Katharine Lee Bates’ soaring hymn, “America, the Beautiful,” names the tension as well. The lyrics recognize good that still needs to be crowned with “brotherhood,” gold yet to be refined, and flaws yet to be mended. (Rev. Thomas)
The joy and promise for American Christians on SUNDAY, JULY 4th, is not that God will specifically bless our land over others, but that God is working here in a wonderful way: that we are to remember what was accomplished back on Independence Day, and that we are to be inspired to continue the work started by those who have come before, learning from both their successes and mistakes, striving for justice, freedom, and peace for all.
That story continues today, in not a superior, but a uniquely American way.
Consider, if you will, one final story...
Thomas Luck, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse, recently performed a graveside service for the friend of a parishioner. He writes (in Episcopal Cafe) that the parishioner, a woman, has received the Congressional Gold Medal for logging 1,000 hours flying military aircraft in World War II.
“The people who gathered with her were an amazing group of people! Among them was an elderly couple that particularly caught my attention. One of the women in the couple had a small tattoo on her cheek and bright lime green fingernail polish. The other woman in the couple was wearing ladies sandals, pink socks, a red dress and had long, flowing, fire engine red hair. But as I came closer to the burial plot I realized that the person in the red dress with the long red hair had the face and voice of an elderly man. From my limited knowledge I think that this person is transgendered, someone who is a woman in a man's body. Yet, here they were, a loving couple, and obviously friends of our highly decorated parishioner.Later we went to the apartment of the parishioner for some refreshment and conversation. Sipping wine and eating cake I heard a number of amazing stories. And then someone asked the person wearing the red dress to tell her tale of the time she almost died in combat in her previous life. Then, with utter seriousness, she talked about fighting the Chinese in face to face combat in a frozen river in Korea. This person was critically wounded and lying helplessly in the river, partially under the ice. She realized that the Chinese were going around and bayoneting to death everyone who was wounded. So she kept her eyes wide open, staring off into space pretending to be dead. It worked, and she was the only person in her platoon to survive. When she was found by medics she could only blink her eyes.As I was listening to this story I wished that I had a video camera, for the impact of seeing this lady in her dress and long red hair telling this tale of courage and patriotism was extremely profound. I was left speechless. The living room in this apartment was full of patriotism from people whose own lives have often been full of disregard or ridicule....On July 4th we celebrate the independence of the United States of America, an independence that was hard fought in the Revolutionary War, and which has continued to be hard fought to our own day. Many of those who have helped preserve our independence over the years have themselves not always been granted the full rights that their citizenship entitles them to receive; from the African Americans who fought for the North, to the Navajo who helped provide the secret code that helped win WWII, to the women who flew military aircraft in that war but did not receive veteran benefits until the 1970's, to people such as this lady, to those who live under "don't ask don't tell" today.America is not only for these people too, it is especially for these people. The United States is the last best hope on earth for the dispossessed, the different, and those who are loathed simply for being who they are. It is why your ancestors and mine came here. And as an Episcopalian who loves the Anglican Communion, I am proud that the Episcopal Church may be the last best hope in Catholic Christianity for the dispossessed, the different and those who are loathed simply for being who they are.”
May your July 4th be a blessed one…