June 30, 2013
Rev. John Watts
I started last week with a few questions so you could show off how much you know. Unfortunately, I don’t think you got many of those questions right. So here’s one more so you can make up for last week: Does England have a 4th of July?
Yes, actually they do. They also have a 5th and a 6th and a 7th of July. But of course, only in America is the 4th of July a national holiday. Our 4th of July marks the day our Declaration of Independence was signed which, long before our War of Independence was won, boldly proclaimed our independence from England and our beginning as a nation.
I’m not sure when they preach their patriotic sermons in England, but C.S. Lewis heard one. The preacher went on and on about the greatness of England. It made C.S. Lewis uncomfortable. So afterwards he spoke to this clergyman. He said, “I love my country as much as anyone, but isn’t it true that all people everywhere think their own men are the bravest and their own women the fairest in all the world?” The clergyman thought this over for a moment and then said, “Yes, but in England, it’s true!” (The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis, pages 44-45).
On this Sunday before the 4th of July, I want to talk about American exceptionalism. I wonder what you think of when I use that term. Some of you probably think it sounds like the American equivalent of that British clergyman. It sounds arrogant. It sounds ignorant. It sounds narrow-minded. You’ve heard it used as a slogan in political campaigns, which means some of you probably really like it and some of you are really turned off by it.
Here’s what I mean by American exceptionalism: Not that our country is better than every other country, but that our country is different from every other country. TheUnited Statesis one of a kind. We are unique. We have certain qualities and values and ideals that set us apart from every other country that has ever been. We have a story that is all our own. There are parts of that story that make us wince. There are parts of that story that make us proud. There are parts of that story that stir our souls and put a lump in our throats. We love our country, not because we think God loves us more than anyone else, but because we know that God has given us an incredible gift in this exceptional country we call theUnited States of America.
One word that we cherish in this country is the word “freedom”.
But freedom is not an American word. It is a Biblical word. It goes back to Adam and Eve who were created free to obey or disobey their Creator, to Moses who demanded that Pharaoh set the Israelites free, to Jesus who said the truth will set us all free, and finally to Paul who wrote the words we read today: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Freedom is our natural condition as human beings. Slavery is what we tend to fall back into. And it’s fascinating how that cycle has repeated itself again and again in history. The historian Arnold Toynbee identified a predictable pattern. From slavery people move into spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from great courage to freedom. We saw this played out in the founding of our nation. We had little freedom as colonists underGreat Britain. Then faith, then courage, then freedom. But Toynbee said the cycle isn’t over yet. Freedom leads to abundance, abundance leads to apathy, apathy leads to dependence, and dependence leads us right back into slavery.
That’s a pretty gloomy prediction. But the great thing about freedom is that we are free to break this cycle! We aren’t condemned to repeat the patterns of the past. We can create a new future. And that is specifically part of what makesAmericaexceptional!
Let me illustrate with an old book that has been made into a movie six times now, including one that is still showing in the theaters, The Great Gatsby. You can catch the matinee on your way home from church today. So I won’t spoil the ending. Jay Gatsby was born with a less elegant sounding name. He was James Gatz. He was born into poverty in North Dakota. He fell in love while he was training to serve in World War I. The woman he loved was several rungs above him in social class, but that didn’t seem to matter to them. They were going to marry after the war.
It was while he was fighting in the trenches of France that he got a letter from her. She was informing him that she had changed her mind. Their engagement was off. She was going to marry someone else, someone who also was wealthy.
Thus begins the quest to win her back. It begins with a name change. But it would also take some money. A lot of money. So Jay Gatsby figures out a way to become rich. Maybe he followed the Dave Ramsey plan. More likely he was involved with a few illegal activities. However he does it, he becomes one of the wealthiest men inAmerica. He’s still a young man. He buys this unbelievably ornate castle that is not coincidentally just across the bay from the girl he still loves.
The narrator of the story lives next door and becomes friends with Gatsby. He describes him as, “the single most hopeful person I have ever met.”
Hope is part of what this country is all about. We may be the single most hopeful nation there has ever been. It’s right there in our founding documents. We were fighting a war against the greatest military power on earth. We never should have had a chance to win our Revolutionary War. The war was going badly for us. So what do we do? We declare our independence!
No country had ever before recognized “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as rights to be guaranteed by government. We went one better. We called them unalienable, God-given rights! Not given by government. Therefore, not to be taken away by government.
Our constitution was a document filled with hope. The greatest nations up until then had been nations with unlimited powers. Those in power could do whatever they pleased. Might made right. And now a constitution to limit the powers of government, and with the first ten amendments guaranteeing certain basic rights that could never be taken away. Including the right to criticize your government and the right to do exactly what we’re doing right now — to worship as we please.
And ever since,Americahas been a place where people are free to be whatever they want to be. Where people can re-invent themselves. So James Gatz, the pauper, becomes Jay Gatsby, the multi-millionaire. And so Barry Soetoro, whose father abandoned him at birth and whose mother was too busy to raise him, becomes Barack Obama, President of theUnited States. Americais a place where people can dream big dreams, impossible dreams. Where hope is not wishful thinking but the first step on the way to a dream come true. Where the way things are is not the way things have to remain. There’s that saying, “Only inAmerica”. That’s American exceptionalism in a nutshell.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Let’s hope and pray that “only inAmerica” can Toynbee’s sequence of freedom, abundance, apathy, dependence, and then slavery be broken.
And now we come to verse 2. We’ve been on verse 1 up to now. There are 14 verses in our scripture lesson. I hope you don’t have any plans for the rest of the day! Verse 2: “Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” You’re probably wondering: How is he going to get from circumcision to the 4th of July?
Some of us heard an amazing speaker at Annual Conference last week. Her name is Phyllis Tickle. She is almost 80. She was on her feet talking for 4 1/2 hours and she spent her lunch break signing books. A brilliant woman with fascinating insights into Christianity in today’s world, and also with a wicked sense of humor. One of her laugh lines had to do with circumcision. She was talking about the church atJerusalemwhere you had to first become a Jew before you could become a Christian and the church atAntiochwhere everyone was welcome. She said that inJerusalemthey said, “You have to be circumcised,” and inAntiochthey said, “You have to be kidding.”
So what does circumcision have to do with the 4th of July? Paul is using circumcision as a way to contrast what matters and what doesn’t matter in the living out of our faith. There are the ceremonial rules and requirements. Circumcision is one. And there is what really matters. We skip ahead to verse 6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” Those are four of the most powerful words in sequence that you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. “Faith working through love.”
There is the ongoing debate about faith versus works in the Christian life. This verse says in isn’t either-or. It’s both-and. Our faith needs to be at work. And not just working any old way. “Faith working through love.”
That’s a key insight for all Christians. And I am going to be so bold as to say it also is a key insight for all Americans. Not that you have to be a Christian to be an American. Or a person who professes any faith at all. But if you believe inAmerica, you’d better believe thatAmericahas a mission that has something to with love.
It was the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country in its early years who first used the word “exceptional” to refer to America. And he is also the one who first said this: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
If you believe in God, you have an extra reason to want to do good through your country. But if you believe in America and nothing more, these four words in a book you don’t regard as sacred had still better be sacred to you: faith working through love. Especially the last word. And Paul puts it pretty well in our last verse: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Love means caring about the other person, and not just about yourself. Love means service. Love means what you can do for your country, not what your country can do for you. Love for many has meant the ultimate sacrifice on fields of battle. We talked about this on Memorial Day Sunday. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Love means seeing this country, good as it is, and working to make it better. It means eyes wide open to see what’s wrong with America, and then daring to do something about it. As the line says in that great patriotic hymn, “God mend thine every flaw.” Love means being a mender, not a complainer.
It was on a June afternoon in 1791 that two gentlemen on horseback looked down from Jenkin’s Hill onto a stretch ofMarylandflatland touching thePotomac River. One was a French-born architect named Pierre L’Enfant. The other was a surveyor, a farmer, and a general, who was now in his third year as President of theUnited States, George Washington.
They were looking over what was to become the nation’s capital. They were finalizing their plans. Jenkins’s Hill, their vantage point, was perfect for something grand, L’Enfant suggested. It was a “pedestal waiting for a monument.” How about the new Capitol Building? Jenkin’s Hill has long since been forgotten. We call it today Capitol Hill. A stately mansion for the President was also envisioned, connected to the Capitol Building by a “public walk” of a mile-and-a-half.
Of course no Lincoln Memorial could be envisioned on that day. Lincoln wouldn’t be born for another 21 years. Nor were there any plans for the Washington Monument. That had its beginnings in 1832, the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Construction didn’t begin until July 4, 1848 when Freemasons laid the cornerstone. It took a long time to complete. It was dedicated in 1885. It is law that no building can be constructed in Washington, DC that is higher than the 555 feet, 5 inches of the Washington Monument.
I opened today with a trivia question and I’ll close with another one. What are the words inscribed on the very top of the Washington Monument? These are words I suppose only the birds ever read, but they are there. The birds would have to understand Latin to read them. The words are, “Laus Deo.” So what do these words mean, placed at the highest point over the most powerful city in the most successful nation in the world? “Laus Deo” means “Praise be to God!”
As we worship each week, we come to praise God, not to praise our country. God comes first. It’s God and country, not the other way around. But here in America, one reason we praise God is because we are so grateful for this exceptional country in which we are so privileged to live. So “Laus Deo”, “Praise be to God”, for the United States of America!
Dear God, many of us are greatly concerned for the future of this country as we approach another anniversary of its birth. We do trust you for the future in all things. But remind us today that there is no place for cynicism or pessimism for those who love both you and this country. Hope is central to who we are as Christians and as Americans. So we place our hope in you and we offer ourselves to you as we seek to do your will as citizens of theUnited Stateswho are also disciples of Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.