We are, most of us, possessed of joyful memories of the mid-summer rituals celebrated as “The Fourth of July.” Family gatherings, parades, picnics in the park, food cooked over an open flame, patriotic music and the loud claps of fireworks exploding overhead make up the elements of these rituals. This is how Americans celebrate and aspire to such noble attributes as ‘Freedom,’ ‘Liberty,’ and ‘Justice for all!’
Unfortunately, we do this but once a year! I for one would love the opportunity for more time with family, good food and more fireworks! My memories extend back to a time when, at the age of three or four, I was sitting in my mother’s lap at Fairmont Park in Riverside on the Fourth of July, feeling her soft hands covering my ears to shield me from the noise of the “bombs bursting in air.” I think I liked then the feeling of being secure in my mother’s lap even more than the quiet afforded me by her loving hands.
Flags still inspire us to salute when unfurled, stand when they pass, and maybe draw a tear when raised. We think of battles, victories and the courageous acts we did or had done for us in the name of what the flag represents. Much like a civil sacrament, a flag represents much more than the fabric, the colors, or design contained on them. Few look at the flag of the United States and see only three colors, 50 stars and 13 stripes. The combination, however, might spontaneously provoke in us strong feelings and nostalgia. The flag represents the country in which we live, but also the benefits we receive from living in it.
As citizens of the United States, we have much to be grateful for in the abundant blessings of liberty. We guard jealously the benefits of freedom, liberty and justice while living well under their blankets that comfort. We are shocked when people disregard, dishonor or attempt to erode these gifts and wish for the full weight of the law to fall on them. We may become complacent with the value of these blessings, but we never shrink from a fight if we are required to protect them.
These days, after the death of our brother George Floyd, we are challenged to examine the just and universal application of the rights guaranteed all citizens. It is not enough for us to recite, “… liberty and justice for all…” while entire segments of our country are systematically deprived of that justice.
We are cautioned against a response of shame when, God willing, we realize our passive complicity in oppression and systemic injustice. To do so is to steal the important ‘light of truth’ that is being shone on the people who themselves have suffered from the injustice. A similar caution is urged if we express anger and furor just hearing that we are complicit in any infringement on liberty. As the meme says, “If you haven’t danced in the streets when equal rights had to be extended to you by decree, you are among the privileged.”
All that being said, how does the relationship we have with our country relate to our commitment as followers of Christ? News articles and television ‘talking heads’ frequently assert the “Christian principles” upon which this country was founded, but this is highly subjective. After all, “Christian principles” include feeding the hungry, healing the sick, welcoming the marginalized, housing the homeless, and providing for the poor. Though a few of these receive honorable mention in the founding documents of this country, they do not ring true if those principles are used to force a particular religious perspective down the throats of citizens.
Instead of being a source of compassion, the value of our citizenship has decayed a bit – becoming an instrument that seeks to mark us as separate or superior to others. The flag – our patriotism – can be used as a weapon when it denies the same rights to someone marginalized because of circumstances or status. As a nation, we wrestle with these exclusions in courts and in the legislature. As Christians, I believe, we have no choice.
Our greater objective, our deeper citizenship, rests in the Reign of God. As children of the Almighty, our kinship extends beyond geographic boundaries, race, religion, and political connections. The life of Jesus is the invitation to consider the plight of all brothers and sisters and extending to everyone the benefits of what it means to be members of the Reign of God. The command to feed the hungry does not end at the Mexican or Canadian borders, but goes to all corners of the earth. The cry for justice cannot be silenced by political infighting, but falls on our ears with all the force of exploding fireworks!
This neither denigrates nor subjugates the beauty and blessings of our nation nor of our citizenship as Americans. In fact, with the protections promised in the U.S. Constitution, I believe we have the best chance of enacting the very values that Jesus gives us. If the flag narrows our vision, or distracts us from our greater membership in God’s family, or if patriotism is used to draw lines between people, we fall far short of the call to live in God’s Reign.
Our understanding of Eucharist gives us a unique vision; one that leads us to see much more than simple earthly elements on the altar. We find in bread and wine the food of heaven, the strength to work for reconciliation with the Creator, and the very definition of who we are! This epiphany carries us beyond citizenship in a country or allegiance to political constructs. It propels us upward to see beyond boundaries, parties, and nationality. Being the Body of Christ compels us to stand beside all our brothers and sisters struggling to live free, to fight with those seeking justice and the liberty promised to all. Once noticing their lack and our complicity, the forgiveness of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit will empower us to welcome them, feed them and shelter them in the arms of God who loves us all in equal measure.
We are blessed and free to worship God and to study God’s word this week on Zoom: Morning Prayer at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We pray at night on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. In order to ensure online security the ZOOM links aren’t published, but it’s easy to get them; just email me and I’ll get them to you.
May the freedom of being God’s children inspire and empower you to be the love of God in the world.