Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To Be an American Christian

What does it mean to be an American Christian?

On my first real trip overseas, I was accosted in a restaurant in Bangkok by a British ex-pat who accused our group of Americans of abandoning our allies during the Falklands War. “Where were you during the Falklands War?” he demanded of us. His yelling continued. I interrupted to tell him that I wasn’t even two-years-old at the time and that I was probably at home with my parents, oblivious to American foreign policy and instead learning how to say words like, “Falklands War.” He was not amused.

Later on that same trip, I visited a war monument in Ho Chi Minh City. A pile of twisted army-green metal and other wreckage was on display with a proud Vietnamese flag hoisted at the top of the pile and next to it a photograph of a war hero who had shot down that B-52 bomber. I immediately thought about my next-door neighbor who had fought in Vietnam and whose sacrifice still seemed to characterize his life. We honor our war heroes, and, of course, our enemies honor theirs. It was a strange trip.

What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American Christian?

Today is the eve of Independence Day, and, since we don’t have church tomorrow, it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So, with apologies to the lectionary and the rubrics of the prayer book, I want to focus on a peculiar religious celebration that is Independence Day.

Our national experiment was founded 237 years ago. It was initiated with hope and promise. It was built upon the dreams of those who had set sail in preceding generations. These United States were organized around principles like liberty and justice and equality. We left behind the old ways of being a people and started something new. For many of our patriot ancestors, America was a bright and shining “city on a hill”—a beacon of hope and freedom to all nations. As the collect for Independence Day states, the work of our founding fathers was to “[light] the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.” If it wasn’t to be paradise, it was to be close.

There’s a reason these lessons were chosen for IndependenceDay. The author of the letter to the Hebrews recalls for his readers the pilgrimage of Abraham, who set off in faith in search of a new homeland. Throughout the centuries, God’s people continued their search for that promised land, though, as the author reminds us, their hearts were set not simply on a land flowing with milk and honey but on a heavenly country where God would be pleased to be called their God. In case you haven’t figured it out, that heavenly country isn’t the United States of America. As much as we love our country, our hearts are still set on someplace else.

Of all the gospel lessons to read on Independence Day, why do you think the architects of our lectionary picked Matthew 6: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” What a powerful thing to remember on the anniversary of our nation’s birth. We might be following God’s plan, but we do not have an exclusive claim to his providence. The “land of the free and the home of the brave” might be the new chosen land, but only if our sights are set on welcoming the stranger. As American Christians, we should celebrate the birth of our country and all things patriotic. We should process our flag and set off our fireworks. But, while we hold our sparkler in one hand, we must hold God’s word in the other.

We must remember what it means to be citizens not only of this great nation but of God’s kingdom. How can we make this country look more like heaven? The answer isn’t by draping everything with red, white, and blue bunting but by loving our enemies, opening our arms in a loving embrace, welcoming those who are different from us, and remembering that in God’s peaceable kingdom love is showered upon all people alike.

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