Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Pastoral Reflection on the Fourth of July

Because many of you may be out of town this week, I thought I would send out my sermon notes for next week’s message early.

As you know, it will be the Fourth of July. I felt that I should deliver a message that celebrates what is good and noble about our nation while remaining true to the gospel we are responsible to proclaim in our Sunday worship.

I ask for your prayer and any feedback you wish to give.

Worshipping God; Loving Country
Romans 12: 18 – 21; 13: 1- 8

Julia Ward Howe (1819 – 1910) could read and write in seven languages. She was an accomplished poet. She was also a fiery preacher at a time when few people believed it was possible for a woman to preach. She carried these gifts under the oppressive authority of an arrogant husband. He rarely allowed her to speak in public or to publish her work. However, a few years before her husband’s death, she published a series of poems. These poems expressed the depth of her anguish and loneliness. They shocked Boston and humiliated her husband but they also made a place for her at the highest levels of American intellectual life. She soon became a friend of Mark Twain and other great American thinkers. In so many ways, Julia Ward Howe expressed the spirit of her times and gave the issues of those times a voice. From slavery to female suffrage, Julia Ward Howe spent her life exploring the meaning of the phrase “liberty and justice for all.”

Few Americans now know the name of Julia Ward Howe. But she wrote one thing that everyone in this room, indeed that most Americans, learn before they can read and write.

She wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

She published the lyrics in the February edition of the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. Abolitionists immediately began to use her song in their meetings. It was then adopted by soldiers. Soon, every American, North and South had made it one of our nation’s most beloved patriotic songs. Since then, it has been used more often than any other music for presidential inaugurations and burials. It is arguably more familiar to our citizens than the National Anthem. Although it is often satirized and abused, just hum a few lines of it. Soon, every American within earshot will be humming along!

Today is the Fourth of July. It is a good day to express my own feelings about faith and patriotism. I thought that the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic would be the best way to do that.

I’ll confess that I am a little nervous, preaching a sermon about patriotism. Our age has become so polarized by political pundits that one learns to keep quiet about politics. You never know who may become deeply offended if your opinion differs in some small way from his.

Most Americans now tend to believe that there are only two possible political positions: the Right and the Left.

If you do not hold to every point embraced by the contemporary Left, people on the left may identify you as fundamentalist, racist, fascist, environmentally irresponsible and hopelessly ignorant.

On the other hand, if you do not agree with every point embraced by the contemporary Right, then people on the right may identify you as free-loving, anti-democratic, socialistic, tree-hugging and secularist. You might even be French!

Too many Americans have become angry. We are continually whipped up into rage by entertainers who financially profit from our current polarized situation. Many of us have just decided keep quiet, waiting for opportunities to speak words of kindness and comfort into the life of our troubled nation.

Perhaps the fourth of July is still enough of a common celebration to allow me to do that.

Many people have urged me to clarify my political views. I have resisted doing that for several reasons. The central reason is this: I don’t believe that the pulpit is any place to grind a political ax. There are, to be sure, social issues that a pastor must address if he intends to remain faithful to the gospel. To be honest though, were we to do that consistently, everyone one here would probably be offended. The gospel is deeply at odds with many of the ways of our world, whether we label those ways “Liberal” or “Conservative.” The best thing to do is to just teach the Word, worship the Lord, serve the people, and love God in such a way that believers sooner or later grow into a real relationship with Him. A relationship with God always causes a person to reevaluate their options about everything – including their opinions about culture and political life.

Another reason I do not deal much with national issues though, is my belief that piety and patriotism should not be mixed.

I am deeply patriotic. As a young boy, I memorized several great American speeches, the preamble of the Constitution and the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. I love American history. The principles our nation officially proclaims are some of the most enlightened concepts ever developed by human beings and I fervently believe in them.

Every branch of my family tree goes back to an ancestor already living on this continent long before the American Revolution. My family has given its sons to nearly every war this country has fought. I can take you to the graves of my ancestors stretching back two hundred years. I am undeniably an American.

However, I also know that history is full of examples of what occurs when a people confuse piety with patriotism. The outcome has never been good for: Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia or any other country. As Jesus taught us, God and Caesar require different kinds of loyalty and respect from their subjects. What we owe God and what we owe our nation are different things and touch us at different levels.
President Lincoln addressed this very issue in his second inaugural address. In the closing days of the civil war, he refused to claim that God was on his side. Instead, he asked the nation whether we could find a way to get on God’s side.

In today’s reading, St. Paul tells Christians living under the government of Emperor Nero (who was actively persecuting the church at the time) to respect the government. Indeed, he teaches that God has delegated to the government certain kinds of authority in order to maintain a well-ordered society and to provide for the common good of its citizens. Believers do not rail against their government, even when they are opposed to it. We are taught to “bless and curse not.” Sometimes, that is difficult; especially when the will of the state and the principles of faith seem to be at odds.

As we have been reading about the life of David, we have watched as he struggled over defending himself against a king who had turned evil. But he did not strike back and he did not lift his hands against the anointed of the Lord. Many of his Psalms are prayers for God’s vindication and defense because he refuses to disrespect the ruler of the nation. This is the way believers act.

This is always a dilemma for a Christian, especially when holding high office. How does he or she determine how to should carry out his or her patriotic responsibilities in the light of a gospel that recognizes no national boundaries and privileges no group of people? The Kingdom of God is eternal; nations are temporal. The Kingdom of God recognizes no ethnicity, language or borders; nations are defined by such things. How does one remain loyal to both God and country?

Today’s passage gives us some guidance about how to develop an attitude like that of Sir Thomas Moore who said to King Henry VIII, “I am the King’s good servant; but God’s servant first.”

On this Fourth of July, I want to help us understand how to be both good citizens and faithful believers.
Pastors, as private citizens, may have political opinions. We can even belong to a political party, like anyone else. However, pastors in their role as pastors must represent the Kingdom of God; and the Kingdom of God is barely concerned with such things.

Presidents, generals, governors, and other political leaders on the other hand, are called to deal with such issues. If they are believers, they must be loyal to the kingdom of God. However, as political leaders, they must make difficult decisions on behalf of the nation that may displease some of God’s people. How does one balance such things?

American leaders on both sides during the civil war pondered this very question. It was agonizing for them to realize that both sides were calling on the name of the same God. It was not unheard of for officers to allow preachers to pass through the lines from one side to the other to minister to enemy soldiers. Near the front lines, each side could hear the sounds of prayer and singing coming from the ranks of the enemy.

Intelligent people were shaken by this perplexing conflict between faith and national interest. President Lincoln and President Davis, the various generals and officers of both North and South often wrote about this in words that can still bring tears to the eyes of an American man or woman.

This was the climate in which Julia Ward Howe wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic. Although it was written in the North by a Northerner; and although it promoted the abolitionist cause, it drew from the deepest cords of Holy Scripture to express the agony of a nation seemingly trapped by a conflict neither side could avoid or end.

The first stanza observes all the carnage of war and labels it as the judgment of a righteous God. Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the Battle Hymn does not attempt to frame the war as the cause of a righteous North against an unrighteous South. The composer claims that the war is the manifestation of God’s wrath against the entire nation.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

This image of “grapes of wrath” comes from the Book of Jeremiah where God descends among His people in judgment. God afflicts the nation until blood is flowing like wine. God does this because His people have been tolerating great wickedness even though they profess to be His followers. We don’t like this picture of Divine vengeance. However, the Bible warns that God is capable of wrath and that occasionally judges a man, a city or a nation. Many of the leaders of both North and South came to believe that the war was an expression of God’s wrath. This song certainly makes that claim.

The writer continues in the second stanza to develop this view that the nation is under Divine judgment.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

The composer depicts soldiers building an altar to God in the humid hours at the close of day. Then as the soldiers prepare for sleep, the words of scripture leap out from the dim light of their candles and flares to announce the truth: God has pronounced a righteous sentence against this the nation that cannot be resisted. Although God will accept their words of piety and devotion, He will not remove His hand of judgment until there is repentance. The Day of the Lord will keep marching until God’s sentence is fully carried out and the land has fully submitted to God’s Will.

The next stanza is never used in our times. It’s much too Christian; much too prophetic.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman; crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

This strange and rarely used word “contemner,” makes it difficult to understand. However, the word means “those who resist the law.” In other words, God will deal with people according to how they submit to the sentence he has proclaimed against the nation. “The fiery gospel in burnished rows of steel” is God’s judgment against a people who have so far refused to repent for their grievous national sin.

It seems utterly remarkable to me that a people just a few generations ago could sing such a song. You wonder why they didn’t stone the woman who wrote it! Then we remember that the president himself would say the very same thing in a public speech; “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’ After saying these words, the president asked his nation, whether in the light of its renewed submission to God could it now hope that God’s wrath against the county would cease?

Julia Ward Howe outs it this way: if the people reading the sentence of God by their dim and flaring lamps would simply submit to God, then “that Hero born of woman would crush the serpent’s head.” It’s not the human enemy that must be crushed but the enemy of human souls that deceives both us and our foes.
One wonders if ten percent of our country now would even understand these words! They are quoted from the first chapters of the Bible where God promises a sinful people that He would send a Savior born of woman that would crush our ancient foe under his heel. Mel Gibson begins his film, The Passion of the Christ, by depicting Jesus in the Garden praying. The serpent craws near to gloat over our Master’s misery and suddenly finds himself ground under the Lord’s vengeful heel.

Believers know what that scene means!

In the next stanza, Julia Ward Howe asks us to wake up. We must realize that God offers us an opportunity for salvation from His wrath, both as individuals and as a nation.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

God will not turn back. Either that nation will submit or it will be annihilated. The evil must be purged but the Lord is not willing that any should perish. There is a way to escape God’s wrath.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Here finally is the balance and contrast we need to understand between piety and patriotism.

Jesus belongs to everyone, everywhere. We acknowledge in the song that he was “born across the sea;” not across town. We also confess that it is God’s glory in the bosom of Christ that transfigures people; not a national vision or a political agenda. Human beings cannot create utopias – only God can do that. Nonetheless, we have a social responsibility. This song claims that sometimes it requires our blood to set people free. Although we cannot make people eternally free, we can – and we must – be willing to lay down our lives to make people as free as it is possible for them to be on this earth. Justice requires human attention as well as Divine grace. A society’s common good requires the sacrifice of its citizens on behalf of one another.

Americans have been willing to lay down their lives to save others in many conflicts. I understand that not all American soldiers are believers. As in every nation, some of our soldiers in some of our wars have done very bad things. However, American soldiers also marched into Dachau and Auschwitz, taking cans of food to feed the living corpses that filled those camps. They carried in blankets to cover those prisoners’ nakedness. I mention this because my wife’s uncle lost his life on his way to those very camps. I held his rifle the other day. I thought about how short his life was. He died to make men free, just like the song says. I honor that, especially on this Fourth of July. I know you do too. That is the best of our country and we ought always to urge ourselves to be that sort of people.

Finally though, Julia Ward Howe asks us to look at the war they were facing in the light of a coming eternal victory for all people everywhere.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty; He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.

Just as the sunlight creeps over the mountains just before revealing its full power, God is coming into our world. For those who have eyes to see, God’s glory is already rolling like a mighty wave into our world. This glory is wisdom for the mighty and “succour” – that is to say “help,’ “power,” or “ability” for those courageous souls who proclaim Him.

Whatever our circumstance now, Julia Ward Howe says in this stanza that we must look to the coming Day of the Lord, when the world will be His footstool and the soul of Time His slave. Until then, those who serve the Lord within their various nations and eras of time must live lives (and sometimes even give their lives) in ways that reflect the “glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.”

On July 4, 1776, a group of people signed a document that everyone here should go home and read. It is short and powerful. It affirmed that Nature’s God had called into being a new nation, dedicated to the proposition, “that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – that is to say, “a God-given vocation.”

The document goes on to state the reasons why the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not believe that their vision of human life could be pursued while remaining a part of the British Empire.
The signing of that document is, of course, the reason for our national celebration today. Most Americans know the first words of the document by heart. However, it is important to notice the ending of the Declaration:

“For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

As Julia Ward Howe wrote so powerfully in her Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Christian people serve this nation best not by making the nation into an idol but by living lives submitted to God and then offered to the nation we love. We worship God. We give Him our highest loyalty. However, because we are God’s faithful servants first, we are able to serve our country in ways that bring to that country the blessings of God; most especially our unique understanding of freedom that comes to a people who know they are made in His image and His likeness.

As the people of God, we are a blessing to our country; not because we demand or coerce, but because we have the courage to continually call this nation that we love to justice – peacefully, lovingly and respectfully.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Praying for you as you speak this coming Sunday. May God's words fill your mouth, and may all of us truly hear Him and obey. Is that word, "obey" politically correct :)

Donald said...

Pastor Scott, Using Julia Ward Howe in your sermon expressed a good background for her national song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I strongly disagree that one should be reluctant to exclaim Patriotism of our country. I taught US History and had bulletin boards on the Flag, Founding Fathers, etc to encourage the student to respect and love our country and for what it stands. You mentioned concerns about dealing with Patriotism because it might be "risky, or cause distrust, or create suspicion". If someone is offended or think one is not political correct in dealing with such an honorable position, then I could become offended. This is a Christian nation, founded on its principles...let us not be afraid to speak and proclaim our basic freedoms...yes, even behind the pulpit!