Unlike Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, Independence Day is in the Prayer Book, a major feast (as is Thanksgiving Day) and so not something for us to be embarrassed about celebrating. It is a good and distinctively Anglican thing that our church has special forms set over to give God thanks for our country, for our particular country, and for the independence that our country has.
The Anglican gift is to recognize the importance of the local, the given, of that which is ours.
Part of Jesus’ message is clearly to challenge the local and given. With regard to families, Jesus says: He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. That’s from Matthew 10. But of course Jesus himself has a family; a major theme of the Bible is the importance of parents’ passing on the faith to children; the Bible calls for care for those who lack families (widows, orphans); families in the Bible are important even for single people (he setteth the solitary in families is a famous line from Psalm 68). But families are not the most important thing. Within families, alas, there can be enemies of Jesus: a man’s foes [may] be they of his own household. So it is more important to love Jesus than to love your family.
The same is true of nations. The Bible is not against nations! God uses nations for his purposes; the people in Babylonian exile were told to pray for the city where they were; the Bible cares about government, and justice, and the provision of those things that are necessary for our life together. The Bible indeed cares about our particular civic identity. This is rather the point of nations (and not just individuals) going to Jerusalem in biblical prophecies of the end-times. Somehow in the heavenly city there will still be all those social identities that we have known. The heavenly city, Jerusalem, will somehow contain (for instance) Syria and Ethiopia and (I think we can dare to say) the United States, and somehow at the same time Texas, and even Dallas. These are not accidents that we will shed (like a snake shedding its skin) when, please God, we enter the heavenly realm. These are realities that will be redeemed at the very same time that we are redeemed.
Just as within family, so within nations there are opponents of Jesus, and we therefore must have our loyalties correct. Jesus as well as says: He that loveth city or nation more than me is not worthy of me; he that loveth Texas or the United States more than me is not worthy of me.
Yet with that said, there remains something lovable about families, even nations. And do you know? There is a way to look at your family and see that, perhaps quite surprisingly, it points to the holy family. Your mother, whatever flaws she may have, is some sort of pointer to Mary, and your baby, if you have a baby, is a reminder of the Child in the manger.
And so with country. It’s the 19th century, you’ve come from the East, and you’ve seen the Rockies. You take out your pen: O beautiful . . . spacious skies . . . amber waves of grain . . . purple mountain majesties. But you know all is not right. You ask God to crown your country’s natural good with a brotherhood that stretches from sea to . . . sea. And for the sake of that brotherhood, may God mend thy every flaw. Whose flaws does the poem—the hymn—talk about? America’s.
But then the focus shifts, and out come O beautiful, words of a patriot dream that sees beyond the years thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears! Where are these alabaster cities we sing about? They are not in California; you will not find them in Colorado; they are not back East; they are not even in Texas. Our cities do not purely gleam; they are dimmed by many human tears. But this America, the America of the poet who dreams a patriot dream, this America has alabaster cities in which all the tears have been wiped away.
She is seeing, of course, Jerusalem: the final stanza of “O beautiful, for spacious skies” opens onto a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem under the name “America.” As long as we love Jesus most of all, it is meet and right to love our land, our country, even as we pray for the revelation of its alabaster cities, for that great day when there will be no more tears.
Out & about. On Sunday, July 11, I am to preach at St. James in Dallas at the morning Eucharists (8am and 10am).