Sunday, July 5, 2015
Text: Ephesians 4:1-16 (The Message)
When I was a boy in elementary school, we started every day with Bible reading, prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. These “opening exercises” were as predictable and normal as anything in my life. No one gave it a second thought. The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954. I was 7 years old at the time and anticipating the second grade. I have a vague memory of a minor disruption in the rhythm of life as we had to remember to include the new words when we recited the pledge. I don’t remember anyone in my small circle objecting to the addition.
I have more vivid memories of 1962-63 when the Supreme Court ruled that required prayer and Bible reading was not permissible in public schools. I was in high school by then, and I remember my father was outspoken in support of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Though the decisions were unpopular in Boise, Idaho, my dad saw them as consistent with his deeply held Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. Still, American Civil Religion carries weight in this country. Ignoring the growing diversity in religious belief and practice, we still tend to use rhetoric of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in attempts to elevate our discourse and/or get elected to public office.
After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, it became common practice to sing “God Bless America” in lieu of, or along with, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh inning stretch. But, friends, the United States of America is not the “Promised Land” nor have we any right or reason to expect special blessing from God or to claim that “God is on our side.” The privilege bought by the wealth and power of our nation has no special connection to the great God of the universe and the way we exercise that privilege has little to do with Jesus of Nazareth. It is as much a sham to claim that this is “one nation, under God” as it is to pretend that there is “liberty and justice for all.” Independence Day is not a religious holiday and that is why I choose not to celebrate it in worship.
This year, as the 4th of July approached, we were reminded dramatically that this is not “one nation,” that we are not “under God” in any sense of holding for ourselves a relationship more real and significant than other people on the planet, and that we are a long way from “liberty and justice for all.” In recognizing the holiday, one pastor friend chose to reproduce Langston Hughes’s poem, “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, writes about the American dream:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again.
I offer these words as neither hymn nor gospel, but as the passionate yearning of one gifted black man for dignity and respect, for the recognition of his humanity and inclusion in whatever common enterprise that engages us as citizens of this land. In these days when hatred and violence have been so evident in our own backyard, when racism and white supremacy have been exposed as an ugly infection in the body politic, when fear of the foreigner and distrust of difference rule the day, Hughes reminds us how much yet needs to be done to make this “one nation…with liberty and justice for all.”
As people of faith who have reason to claim that we are “under God,” we do have responsibility to consider how our faith might inform and shape a society “with liberty and justice for all.” Hughes’s dream for America is not the dream that Paul had for the church but there does seem to be valuable interface between the two. Beloved Baptist ethicist and prophet, James Dunn, who served twenty years as director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and who died yesterday on the 4th of July, wrote, “To translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy is a massive and sometimes tricky undertaking but our generation is not the first to try. God’s children have been bringing morality to public life for centuries. Christian social ethics is a well developed discipline, not merely a collection of reactions to news reports” (Quoted in his obituary).
What if our sense of being special is not because we live in the United States of America but because we are children of God, the body of Christ? Special not because of any elevated status but because we have heard and responded to God’s call to service. Our motivation to work for “liberty and justice for all” is not because it’s the American way. We’ve already established that this a dream unfulfilled. What if, instead, our motivation is our desire to see the Beloved Community of God come to fulfillment on earth, which surely is a call to “translate the revealed message of God’s love into public policy”?
“I want you to get out there,” says Paul, “and walk…on the road God called you to travel…And,” he continues, “mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.” He calls us to be “…Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”
In an all too racist society, what would it look like for us to pour ourselves out for each other in acts of love? And I don’t mean sweet, patronizing acts of charity. I mean real, transforming love that sees and respects difference while working to bind all together in love. The God who made us, who loves us with unexplainable love, who calls us to communion with the Holy One and community with one another, sees beyond the American Dream. It is a larger vision of hospitality and inclusion. I know some in the USA have claimed that as our dream, but the failure to bring it to reality speaks to our inadequacies when we try to go it alone. As soon as we begin to get ahead, we suddenly want to reserve the vision of liberty and justice for ourselves rather than for all. We want to confine life to borders that secure our privilege and power because we’re afraid that there just isn’t enough to go around.
This makes me think of the simple wisdom of Malvina Reynolds who sang, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” In fact, real love is only love in the giving. It cannot be hoarded. I understand that there are challenges to reaching across lines of race and class, to welcoming the stranger in the land, to learning new languages and cultures, to eating strange food and singing unfamiliar songs. But remember God’s challenge to Peter from a couple of weeks ago – “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). We used to sing it in Sunday School, “Red, yellow, black, brown, white, all are precious in God’s sight.” What if we committed ourselves to looking within this beautiful diversity for the God-ordained unity that sees every one as precious – yes, even the ones you really struggle with – maybe especially the ones you struggle with.
Let’s be clear though to say that “all lives matter” is not the same as to say “black lives matter.” The call for unity can never gloss over difference nor deny the painful picture painted by Hughes in his poem. Paul says we have to “notice differences,” we have to see and acknowledge the other’s pain and struggle, hopes and dreams. Racism and white supremacy are real. Until we see and understand those realities there will never be “liberty and justice for all.” If one us is not free then none of us is truly free…and God deeply desires freedom for all creation.
Let me close with some words from another poet of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, who, along with his brother, Rosamond, wrote what has come to be known as the black national anthem:
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Or in the words of Paul, “…I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.