We celebrate our country’s independence with fireworks and flag-waving, parades and political rallies, barbecues and baseball. In the church we also pray and consider the relationship we have with our nation, and the responsibilities of loyal citizens. There is perhaps no greater scriptural guidance than our text this morning. Here the apostle Paul outlines the obligations for people of faith to obey governing authorities, pay taxes, show respect. There’s a tinge of irony in this “law and order” approach, for Paul himself wrote it while under house arrest and was soon to be executed for crimes against the imperial Roman State. Yet we soon realize there’s a larger context, a law in fact that fulfills all laws (and presumably challenges ones that deny it). A reading from the letter to the Romans in the thirteenth chapter, verses one through ten. Listen for God’s Word to the church and its members who are also citizens of the United States of America. [Romans 13:1-10]
America assuredly is NOT a Christian nation, nor was it ever intended to be. Our forebears established it with the song of liberty resounding in their hearts and a vision of freedom and equality guiding the path forward. They may even have understood the formation of the united colonies as an expression of the Creator’s will but its realization was far too exclusive to reflect God’s embrace of all people. The enslavement and trafficking of humans (the first Africans were brought to these shores in 1619), and the near-genocide of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the land preclude Divine determination. All men are created equal….the first brave declaration of independence was chained to patriarchal and racist theories denying these rights to people of color—even the ones who lived here first—and women. With respect to religion, the framers of the Constitution took great care to separate Church and State; no ecclesiastical leader would rule in the civic arena. Puritans (our Presbyterian ancestors), French Huguenots, and others immigrated to this land to escape religious persecution, and practice their faith as they believed right. They did not seek to enshrine it in political structures.
So here we are, 247 years later. I appreciate the line in the hymn we sang earlier about our alabaster cities “undimmed by human tears,” but no longer agree with it. We are in a hard time, rent by division and hostility, with hard lines drawn around completely different understandings of reality. There are tears aplenty, shed in frustration and anger, fear and disappointment. Our political and philosophical disagreements have corroded goodwill and shredded the social contract towards a shared vision of thriving. Instead there is weeping and dimming hope in the face of such hatred, violence, destruction. What are we to do? How can we make change?
I am an American, and even more than that I am a Christian. I worship a God of love, a God who is love, and One whose love exceeds the narrow boundaries of any country to embrace the whole world. In Christian faith there is no room for nationalism or cheap, bumpersticker patriotism. But I wonder if a true love of country could actually help address the frustrating impasse and bring us together to form—and reform— a more perfect union?
Inspired by Central’s new intergenerational writing group (who also read the first draft and made many helpful corrections), I was moved to express this hope in a letter, a love letter to my country.
I look with awe upon your face
your forests, plains and craggy peaks
grand canyon, great lakes, mighty rivers—
whole worlds of intricate design, breathtaking beauty
fields of dreams, wide open spaces, and
an interstate highway system that brings it to my reach.
I admire your mind
Articulate vision of one nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (but see—in this expression of our nation’s high ideal—those not included). A constitution and the rule of law. Freedom to worship according to our lights. Freedom to speak our truth. Freedom to gather with others of similar view to advocate and protest, make peaceful change. The paradox of individual liberty for all, while hewing to a notion of the common good. A voice, a vote, a self-determined say in who we are and who we’ll be.
I crave your spirit
Restless, on the move, perpetual seekers.
Explorers, pioneers, voyagers in ships across wild waters, in swaying Conestoga wagons, my ancestors from Ireland and everywhere—immigrants, refugees hungry for a new and better way. (But see—indigenous peoples killed and captured, their sovereign nations destroyed with white man’s lies). A new wave of pioneers, insisting that your promise is for all: suffragettes, Black power leaders, LGBTQ+ communities, pushing boundaries, demanding justice, creative energy channeled into innovation, invention, ridiculous optimism. These mountains? We can climb them. These conundrums? We will crack them.
I adore your heart
Generous, passionate, fierce as a mama bear defending her own, daft as a grandma letting you win. An unprotected heart, not hardened by suffering, but broken in empathy.
Spontaneous, gangly like a newborn colt, eager to please, apologetic. Easy to distract with the latest, greatest thing, but not too self-absorbed to forget the most important things. Friendship. Family. A hunger to connect with something more.
Awe, admiration, craving, adoration—unconditional love, though tinged with disappointment. Deep gratitude for your abundant gifts and graces, yet open-eyed about your hardened side.
For you are human—-God, how human! Divine image smudged and marred, flawed, fallible, failed and fearful. The sin of Adam (Smith) taints the generations to this day. Your greed for gold built wealth for some upon the backs of others. Haves and have-nots. Insiders. Outsiders. Blue states, Red states. Urban and rural and never the twain shall meet. E pluribus multis….out of many, many?
I weep for you, dear country—which means I weep for us.
For the lies and half-truths, the stubborn refusal to admit error, the exceptionalism displayed like a preening peacock, sure of its greatness, oblivious to the wrens and robins and sparrows around it. I weep for structures and systems that define and divide, devoid of justice and mercy.
I weep for the unhoused man, his hitching step suggests an old wound never healed; for the single mother juggling two jobs that barely covers rent; for the farmer cooking meth, the highs disguise despair: it’s never enough. I weep for the trans youth afraid to share his truth, for the elementary school student frightened by another active shooter drill. I weep for prejudice, untreated trauma, undiagnosed mental illness, police brutality, and for all the ways we hide from them.
I weep because it seems we are asleep. Self-medicated, numbed and paralyzed. Sleepwalking through the motions.
So much sleeping. So much weeping.
But here’s something: tears contain stress hormones, so when we cry we are actually relieving and releasing stress from our bodies. They help our bodies produce endorphins that lift us up to live again. When I weep for you, my country, I let go of grief and disappointment, and receive again the gift of peace.
I love you, America,
like a mother loves a wayward child,
like a dog with a bone
that won’t let go.
I won’t let go. I am a true lover. I will stick with you to my dying day. For love is not a feeling, but a practice.
Because I love you, I will seek your best. I will argue with you. I will vote my conscience, formed by faith. I will respect you and learn from you. I will remember your history whole—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will sing your praises and dance, holding hands with your precious children. I will pay taxes in gratitude. I love you my country, and will anticipate your bright future…