Faith and the Fourth

Being faithful and patriotic on a national holiday.

I am proud to be an American citizen, even if my pride is not expressed as jubilantly as Lee Greenwood’s song. I pray for God to bless America (even as I pray for all the nations of the world). Even if I do not fly the flag at my house, I pay my taxes, obey the laws of the land and vote after careful, prayerful, thoughtful reflection. I sincerely believe that it is among the many blessings GOD has granted me, that I am an American.

This weekend I am sure I will be asked why we didn’t sing any national songs, even though they are in the hymnal. I will again try to explain that in the church calendar it is not Independence Day, but the 4th Sunday after Pentecost and Jesus wants to talk about sending our disciples. I will try to point out that we gather on Sunday to worship God, not a nation and that part of the church’s mission is to give thanks, AND call to account the injustice and suffering caused by our nation, just as Jesus and the prophets of Israel did.

For me, the 4th of July is about celebrating the revolutionary principles that have held us together as a people. I was taught that even though the story of George Washington and the cherry tree might have been mythic, truth was woven into the fabric of the nation. I revered a nation who had welcomed my immigrant ancestors when they came here to find opportunity, fleeing poverty and famine. It was driven into my heart that liberty and justice was for all – not some; and that “all” meant “all.” No one was above the law and, as was powerfully demonstrated by a President in my teen years, that the powerful would be taken from their thrones if they ignored our democratic ideals.

All that said, I have to say that as much as I respect and value this country, it seems to me like I don’t really know my own country anymore. Truth, justice, equal opportunity and the rights of every person to thrive have been replaced by an ugly and inhuman set of “values” that promotes everything we tried to throw off when first shots of revolution were first fired. Men, women, and children who have been drawn to the promise of America are being kept in concentration camps where they are treated as criminals and dehumanized. Hate groups press agendas that urge us all to choose a side and hate neighbor, with apparent support from the powers that be. Our leaders lie so rapaciously and with absolutely no sense of guilt or shame. The result is a moral collapse and loss of meaning for anything. We have been led not to the brink of despair, but into the pit from which there seems no escape.

That means that for this person of faith, the 4th of July is bittersweet – with maybe a growing taste of bitter and some notes of despair. Here is where you may choose to sharpen your knives and say, “Love it or leave it!” I’ll simply say to adore something so blindly that we cannot accept the fact that everything in this world is broken; that there are things rotten in America, just as there are good, is not patriotic, it is idolatrous. Luther taught that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint – and that includes the nation. Until humility, honesty, and confession take their place again in the heart of the nation, we are lost.

When Jesus was asked by those trying to trap him, “Shall we pay our taxes to the Emperor?”, Jesus requested a coin and asked, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” “They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) So, what exactly belonged to the Emperor and what belonged to God? What was created in the image of the emperor? Just the coin. Everything else belongs to God.

The biggest spiritual problem in our nation today is 1) we think the USA allows God to exist, when it is just the other way around; 2) that God’s purposes are the same as America’s; that faith includes worshipping the flag as much as worshipping Jesus. This idolatry is making us arrogant and tearing us apart. God is, always, and must be, first, or we are worshipping a false god, and it might be named the USA.

Caesar established the city of Philippi as a place where loyal, retired legionnaires from the Roman military could live rewarded with property and live well as citizens of Rome. Being loyal to Caesar and a citizen of Rome meant everything to them and that city. When Paul came along preaching about the Christ, he found that the message could easily be snuffed out because it ran up against the culture of patriotism. Here is what he told them: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21) Translation: I may live in America, but I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven; my leader and chief is Jesus.

What has made America demonstrate greatness of any kind has been the grace of God and the ways in which, as a nation, we have contributed to the cause of God’s reign of peace, justice, mercy and grace to others.  This has made us, in some ways, a powerful nation. But we must recognize that our power has also been advanced by the assertion of power over others – whole people, nations and individuals – citizens and others who have been enslaved, killed, forced out, ignored and robbed of their voice and rights. The role of the faithful is to celebrate the blessing God grants through this nation and to work tirelessly to call the nation to account for what does not stand in God’s reign.

So, don’t for a minute think that I’m not going to celebrate the 4th of July. I will not go out and by a new mattress or car to honor the nation, as the ads suggest. I will not thump my white, male chest with pride, because pride is a sin and I had nothing to do with the place of my birth.  What I will do is take time to, with solemnity, give thanks for all that makes this nation blessed (for God alone is great). I will also pray for those who suffer from the injustice and violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of the USA. Then I will pray for us all. The next day, it will be back to work as a citizen of heaven who, with thanks, happens to be American.

Pastor Tim Olson

Copyright 2019 Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

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