A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 4 July 2021 [Independence Day];
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48
Principles & Lenses
The first thing I feel compelled to say in what is my “Independence Day” sermon is this: I love my country, but it is not my religion.
Especially in this present time of great and bitter political polarization, being grateful to live in America (which I am) does not exclude the periodic need to be critical of our nation’s orientation and behavior. Quite the contrary, it is from a deep respect and an abiding sense of care that I, for one, often find myself in a kind of lovers’ quarrel with our country. My evaluation’s intention is to root my assessment from a position of faith, that is, from a position that strives to remember what life is like with God at the center. Specifically, my love of country comes from a sense of biblical stewardship; and my sense of “patriotism” springs from what it means to hold America to its highest principles. And it is about these principles that have distinctly marked America that I wish to address in this sermon, doing so as an admittedly imperfect, American steward of God.
I find that a sound place to start comes from our Collect of the Day. Allow me to read it to you again.
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On the one hand, I find these words to be stirring, especially as they note the historic place our country has played in generating honor for freedom in human life and binding “liberty and justice for all” together in a common cause. Freedom’s mission and the demands of living in what the Collect expresses as “righteousness and peace” (that is, living in right relationship and good will) have brought out the best in our country’s identity and history. The principle of freedom and righteousness, of living together as individuals with equal human status and opportunity, drew millions to our shores with the hope and prospect of new life – my own family on both parents’ sides is an example of what biblically may be expressed as the “the Exodus to America”, an Exodus that continues today, especially on our southern border. As commentator Jonah Goldberg has written recently, “American was founded on principles of universal human equality and dignity. China wasn’t. Germany wasn’t. No other country was.” Goldberg concludes, “[Even] slavery in America was different because America is different.”
Yet, as our history shows, particularly around the attending issues of slavery, we have too often fallen short of the high calling of our national identity. Again, with reference to the Prayer Book’s Collect for “Independence Day”, significant words are used that too easily slip from our lips without deeper consideration. Listen again: “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us…”
For folks like me and for folks like you, those words carry a great deal of freight; but not all of “us” have historically been equally included in what the Collect points to as liberty’s victory. And this is the painful snag that has always been present in our national fabric. It is a snag that has become more public in our own day with fellow citizens who historically have not been an equal part of the advertised “us” now call our country to account for this inequality.
The issue of slavery and all that springs from it in our history have our country roiling over the incomplete attention we have given to our nation’s principles. Again, Jonah Goldberg (who by the way writes from a conservative perspective) puts the historical issue of slavery this way: “There was nothing hypocritical about slavery in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. To the extent those civilizations had charters, creeds, or some other form of fleshed-out ideals, slavery was consistent with them. [Yet,] in America, slavery was a grotesque hypocrisy whose horror was eclipsed only by the actual horror of the institution as practiced.” Goldberg continues, “Since long before critical race theory became a bogeyman, I’ve argued that schools should teach the evils of that hypocrisy – not to dwell in guilt and self-flagellation, but to both acknowledge the facts of history and to celebrate America’s story of overcoming it. Acknowledging this hypocrisy is valuable and important because it illuminates the very ideals being violated. Without principles, you can’t be a hypocrite. You would have nothing to fall short of or betray.”
Along these lines, another comment, this from a former black State Representative, community activist, and servant Episcopalian, adds to the important discussion of principles. When referring to a contentious black neighborhood’s desire to rename its historic designation because of the unsubstantiated charge that the “Dudley” of Dudley Square, Roxbury, Boston might have been a slave holder, Byron Rushing soberly (and with no small amount of courage) wrote: “[This renaming movement] is not about re-writing history at the expense of forgetting its lessons.” New and even challenging lessons from history often require new lenses and the recognition of new stories. Discerning how we gain an enriched picture of ourselves, recognizing “things done and left undone” requires courage and honesty and ultimately a desire to be better in terms of guiding principles.
That is what our Constitution is for. More importantly for us, this is what our Baptismal Vows are all about.
Acknowledging our nation’s principles of freedom and equality and striving to live in these ideals is what makes America historically distinct. Being defined and guided by the principles (for instance, those expressed in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights) is the true and unsullied meaning of this country’s “exceptionalism”. Such principled words are our national “talk”, and that “talk” matters, to be sure; but the key in all cases is measuring to what extent we truly walk this high talk. Or. as Jesus reminds folks like us, “Those to whom much is given much is required.”
I love my country, but it is not my religion.
This is the reason that we must be aware of the lenses we use to see ourselves as others see us – especially those “others” who are not exactly like us, much more the lenses that God uses to see us. This is the reason on this particular 4th of July that I believe that a sense of biblical stewardship needs to overshadow and discipline patriotism. More importantly, biblical stewardship must always distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Caring for what has been given to us but is not something we possess (or take for granted), sharing this precious gift of freedom and mutual respect gratefully with all those we meet, and humbly walking with one another and with God toward that promised life that only the Holy One can provide: This is the stewardship of our nation – a stewardship that eagerly celebrates with true thanksgiving while at the same time a stewardship that publicly acknowledges the incompleteness of our efforts to create what Lincoln so eloquently described as “a more perfect union”.
So, the question of this day is this: “How do Christians love their country well?” The biblical answer is “by pursuing justice, not by pursuing power”.
We have “miles and miles to go before we sleep”. For biblical people, for people who care for the God-life in our midst, a love of country is always a matter of living the petition printed on today’s bulletin cover: “Lord, keep this nation under your care; and guide us in the ways of justice and truth.”
Justice and truth: God’s justice, that is, God’s “reunion”. God’s truth, that is, “God has made us and not we ourselves; we are [all] God’s people and sheep of his pasture”.
The unalloyed part of loving this country is to allow nothing short of these eternal and holy principles to prevail. So help us, God. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer. Collect for “Independence Day”;
 Jonah Goldberg, The G-File: “American Passover – Juneteenth as a great American holiday”, June 18, 2021.