“A Better Country”
I begin with a word of warning: this sermon is a bit thin in the joke department. My assignment is to preach about Independence Day, and you can’t talk about the Fourth of July at All Saints without at least mentioning our public life. Now obviously, there is a lot of hilariously stupid stuff going on in American politics right now, but it’s hard to think up a joke about the election that won’t get All Saints Church back in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. It is nearly impossible to say anything sane and rational this year without making it appear that you’re be taking sides. So: homiletical hands off the presumptive nominees. Then again, I probably could make some fun of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, but since this is Independence Day we Americans should probably not be too contemptuous of people who have followed our lead in deciding, in the words of our own Declaration, to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”. So hands off Brexit as well.
Two weeks ago today I had the opportunity to spend the day in Washington, D.C., the city from which Kathy and I moved back to L.A. five months ago. It was a lovely, if muggy, late spring day, and instead of going back up to the cathedral and finding out how well they were getting along without me, I decided to walk from Union Station over to the Capitol and then down the length of the mall—past the museums, the Washington Monument, and the World War II Memorial--to the Lincoln Memorial at the mall’s west end. I wasn’t really sure what was drawing me there, but I knew that given everything that is going on in America these days, I needed a good dose of Abraham Lincoln if I was going to make it to November.
When you climb the steps and enter the Lincoln Memorial, you see before you a giant statue of a seated President Lincoln. On the north wall to your right is inscribed the full text of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. On the south wall to your left you can read the Gettysburg Address. You turn around facing east and remember that on the steps of this building Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
Having lived and worked in Washington D.C. and hung around our government for a while, I am pretty jaded about America’s displays of civic piety. But on this Sunday morning in June I was surprised and moved to feel myself caught up in what the Lincoln Memorial embodies about America and its aspirations.
And maybe because we have spent the last several months subjected to so much xenophobia and race-baiting by political figures both here and abroad, it was the composition of the people gathered in the Lincoln Memorial itself that most impressed me. On that Sunday morning I found myself one of the very few white people in the building. The group gathered that day was a tapestry of the makeup of the American nation: African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Whites, and even some Native Americans all mingling together and paying tribute not only to our greatest president but also to the vision of America he lived and died to advance.
I spent many years before coming to All Saints in the 1990s teaching American literature to high school and college students. In those years of living with American texts, it always struck me as pretty obvious that from its colonial beginnings our nation has lived with two visions of itself: one exclusive, the other expansive. For some, like Benjamin Franklin or Jay Gatsby, the “American Dream” is the possibility to make it big in terms of money, fame, and what we otherwise label “success”. For others, like Walt Whitman or Frederick Douglass, the “American Dream” is the opposite: a communal vision of shared hope and mutual accountability. Is America about Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the Social Safety Net? Yes generally to both, but only to one for those of us who follow Jesus.
I have never been one of those who want to to talk about America as a “Christian nation” or of the Founders as Christian people. Please. The Declaration doesn’t mention Jesus at all. It talks about a vaguely defined “Creator” as “Nature’s God”, and in the excerpt we read together, “Divine Providence”. Half of those guys gathered in Philadelphia were Deists, and Deism isn’t even really a religion. It’s a philosophy. So don’t go looking to the Declaration of Independence for religious advice on personal or social issues. Nevertheless, from the beginning in America there has always been an interfaith religious community surrounding the world of politics, and up until the 1980s these faith voices consistently pressed for communitarian values and social change. Think of the 18th century preaching that advocated revolution, the 19th century Abolitionism stoked by Christian preachers, the 20th century vision of a Social Gospel that did so much for workers and children and women’s rights. And then of course there was the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King.
Bill O’Reilly once interviewed Michael Moore and asked him, given all the social positions his films advocate, if he was a socialist. Moore replied, “I’m a Christian.” For those of us who follow Jesus, there can only be one version of the American Dream—a dream of racial, social, economic, political justice. That dream has been articulated not by fast-buck entrepreneurs or evangelists with French cuffs and razor cut hair, but by women and men who have felt the call of allegiance to something bigger than themselves. These Christian change agents have steadfastly looked to the example of Jesus and the way he lived—saying “No” to imperial pomp and oppression, saying “Yes” to compassion and liberation—and they have brought those values right squarely into our political discourse. Doing this is hard work. They held to a vision of America that was not universally held or admired. Remember that we killed runaway slaves, beat striking miners, murdered Civil Rights workers, and burned crosses on integrationists’ lawns. What kept these visionaries going?
I think what kept them going was the Christian hope we heard articulated in our reading from Hebrews this morning. The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah who left their home for a new country, and they did so without any guarantees, only with the divine promise of a place “whose designer and maker is God”. It’s a hard thing to leave your homeland. You only do so in hopes of finding a better one. The author of Hebrews spiritualizes the journey and makes it a pilgrimage. To Sarah and Abraham, this new country was not an imperial dream of colonialism in Palestine. It was a pilgrimage toward a place in the imagination, in the mind of God and in the hearts of humanity. It was a better country, a heavenly one. As the Letter to the Hebrews says:
All of them died in faith. They did not obtain what had been promised, but saw and welcomed it from afar. By acknowledging themselves to be strangers and exiles on the earth, they showed that they were looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country from which they had come, they would have been able to return to it. But they were searching for a better country, a heavenly one. So God is not ashamed of them, or ashamed to be called their God. That is why God has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11: 8-16]
Those of us who follow Jesus will always be, like Sarah and Abraham, “strangers and exiles on earth”. Like them, we will always be divinely discontented in a social order that fosters or even allows social, racial, gender, sexual, or economic injustice and inequality. Like our biblical forbears, we 21st century followers of Jesus will ever be restless to establish what the author of Hebrews calls “a better country”, that is “a heavenly one”. This divine restlessness doesn’t mean that we’re going to try to put the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or have kids say the Lord’s Prayer in our classrooms. It does mean that, together, we who follow Jesus will work to have America resemble the inclusive and egalitarian community that Jesus established in the face of the Roman Empire. That is the same vision that our communitarian precursors in America have always envisioned: a nation not of power but compassion; a politics not of advantage but of justice; a social order not of privilege but equality; and a society where there are no insiders and everyone knows what it means to be valued and at home.
To my mind, Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president. He was also the least conventionally religious of our leaders. But he did know something about God, about politics, and about history. As I stood in his Memorial two weeks ago, I took the time to read again these words from his Second Inaugural inscribed on the north wall:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
What is this but the articulated vision of that better country toward which Sarah and Abraham yearned? You and I will always be strangers and exiles in any society that falls short of the vision of justice and peace the gospel holds out for us. On Independence Day—especially one in the middle of an election year--we who yearn for a better country do not have the luxury of wallowing in our shared alienation. “Let us strive,” as Lincoln said, “to finish the work we are in.” Let us not just look toward that better country. Let us walk toward it and build it here and now.
We will not see or achieve that better country by looking back to some imagined time of privileged greatness. We will achieve it in walking toward the better country, by making common cause with all those who are inspired by the dream of a place where God’s priorities and ours just might resemble each other.
So let us look, and let us walk, and let us build. Let us welcome that country from afar and bring it nearer with our prayer and faithful action. Together we can achieve Lincoln’s dream of “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”. Walking there won’t be easy, but it can be fun. And as we go there together we will come to know in our hearts and in our lives that the country we build and inhabit is being achieved for us, for our sisters and brothers, and for God. Amen.