Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
This sermon is about being a people of faith and how that can make us better citizens.
The 4th of July always reminds me of my grandpa. I remember traveling to Tulsa as a kid to spend the holiday weekend with family—with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousin. My grandmother made shrimp salad and hot dogs for the kids. We had bomb pops—those red, white, and blue popsicles—and set up cheap aluminum lawn chairs on the rooftop of my grandpa’s downtown office building where we gathered to watch the fireworks over the river.
I remember the tinny music emanating from someone’s boom box as a patriotic backdrop to the pyrotechnic display in the distance. It was fun and something completely out of the ordinary that stuck in my memory, but I feel quite certain that it was hollow and meaningless to me at that time.
It wasn’t until recent years, in the nine years since my grandfather’s death, that I have begun to have an inkling of what the day meant for him—what it meant to him as a Marine, a veteran, the son of a congressman, as a child of the Depression, a lawyer, a husband, father, brother, a history buff, and most importantly as a Christian. Independence Day held so much meaning for my grandpa because he believed that being a person of faith made you a better citizen. He saw a direct correlation between the health of souls and the health of the nation.
My grandpa loved his church, and he loved his country. He was even known for preaching some years at a special service on the morning of July 4th. So, when I hear a song like “God of Our Fathers,” which we will sing at the end of the service, it conjures up powerful memories.
The second verse of the hymn reads:
Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
In this free land by thee our lot is cast;
Be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay,
Thy word our law, they paths our chosen way.
These words were written by an Episcopal priest, Daniel C. Roberts, in 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Roberts had served in the Civil War and was rector of St. Thomas and Grace Episcopal churches in Brandon, Vermont, when he wrote the formidable lyrics to this hymn.
They speak of God’s omnipresent love, guiding us as Christians in this land of freedom. God, we pray, be our ruler, our guardian, and be our steady guide. For God’s word is our law; and the path of Jesus, our chosen way. That means living our life the way Jesus would live it if he were you or I. And that transcends all aspects of our lives, from our work, to our family, to our civic life and beyond.
So why talk about Independence Day from the pulpit you might be asking yourself? Why are we singing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” and “My Country, Tis’ of Thee”? We are talking about these things because in the kingdom of God, relationship is primary. We are talking about these things because so many of us doubt, and the antidote to doubt is not certainty. The antidote to doubt is community, and we are members of many communities. We are members of the Epiphany community and the community of Seattle. We are part of civic organizations, guilds, boards, schools, teams, clubs, and gyms. And I firmly believe that being a person of faith ripples out and has a profound impact upon each and every one of these communities in a significant way.
Our virtue and morality are informed by our religious faith and that in turn directs our civic life. Therefore, our faith should inform our actions in the public sphere as well as shaping our views on public policies both foreign and domestic. But before you get uncomfortable (if you aren’t already… as I transgress the cardinal rule of not talking politics from the pulpit), remember that pluralism means faith can lead us to different conclusions and that is just fine.
Being a person of faith can make you a better citizen, but we must caution against linking God, faith, and public policy. That is dangerous because when that happens, we tend to take on a conviction of righteousness that we are right. And when we are convicted that we are right, we want to impose that will or bias through public policy.
All of this leads me to wonder, “What kind of God do we invoke when we ponder the life of a nation—every nation—and the destiny of a planet?”
In an article entitled, “God, Freedom, and the Fourth of July,” theologian Bruce Epperly writes:
“Christian doctrine affirms the omnipresence of God, but seldom explores the lived and practical meaning of this doctrine. To say that God is omnipresent is to assert that God is present and acting in every person and situation. From this perspective, there are no boundaries either to love or revelation, that is, if we affirm that the God we worship reflects the life and teaching of Jesus. For Jesus, love was the primary spiritual principle. God’s love included our enemies as well as our fellow citizens; it embraced the poor as well as the wealthy, and the forgotten as well as the privileged. Accordingly, God’s presence and action are to be understood primarily in terms of love. The only power, from this perspective, that God embodies is loving power and this must ultimately include everyone, not just a select few. There are no outsiders to God’s love, and this includes nations as well as individuals. God loves the U.S., and God loves every other people.”
God’s loving power, the kingdom of heaven, has transformed the measuring standard for human greatness. As preacher Thomas Long says, “It is not fame, power, wealth, or any of the other scales of value that operate in the old order; it is fidelity to the kingdom of heaven, being a follower of Jesus” (Long, Thomas, pg. 127).
That is what we are called to do. We are called to be followers of Jesus. In my life, my grandfather was that role model. He lived his life the way he believed Jesus would have lived it.
In my office, on the top shelf of my bookcase, there is a tattered Bible, literally falling apart from decades of daily use. On top of that Bible is a framed photograph of my grandfather, the man who plum wore out that Bible. His photo is there to remind me of the example he set of someone who never stopped working on his soul. His life was a spiritual journey with a trajectory towards being a stronger man of faith and a better citizen.
This Independence Day weekend, let us pray to embody the words of another great leader in our nation’s past, Abraham Lincoln: “Let us pray not for God to be on our side, but to be on God’s side in our personal and national lives.”
As a “people of faith,” we strive to live in God’s kingdom. What Lincoln was talking about was exactly this. When we pray for God to be on our side, we are perpetuating Kate’s kingdom or Jim’s kingdom, never God’s kingdom. But, when we pray to be on God’s side, we are seeking a deeper place of faith and expressing a desire to engage God’s kingdom. And when we do that, we become stronger men and women of faith and ultimately better citizens.