Sunday, July 5, 2015

Is America So Beautiful? Or, I Didn't Expect to Write a Fourth of July Post

Yesterday was the Fourth of July; Independence Day in the United States of America. Of course, this day means lots of different things to different people (and some people who have no idea what it means). For me, when I began reading through some of the more erudite parts of the Book of Common Prayer, I found out that Independence Day is actually a feast day in the Episcopal Church (listed under "Other major feasts"). So really, we should be having church services on the Fourth of July, even though most of the churchy people that I know are really uncomfortable with bringing in any kind of semi-patriotism into church.

But regardless of any of that, I sang "America, the Beautiful" at church today. All the verses, not just the first one or the last one. I think those ones are sang most often because they are thought to be the most poetic. They are certainly the most platitudinous.

If you've not sang or listened to all the verses lately, here's your chance:

And if you're one who thinks that takes too long, you can read them here

So if you're paying attention, you'll notice that the end of second and the third verse include conditions. This isn't just a song of praise, it's also got some expectations in it:
America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine! 
This morning, as I was singing this, I was realizing that it's not just a Hoo-rah! Murica's the Greatest! song. This one is specifically asking for action on the part of God and on the part of the people present. As I was singing this song, I realized that the prayer it contains is going unfulfilled. 

Our national gains are not divine. Far from it, I think that many of the "gains" are for the privileged and taken from the downtrodden. I'm thinking in economic terms here. Wealth is often collected in the hands of the wealthy, not used for the good of all.

How many "successes" can we say are actually noble? On Independence Day weekend, I'm thinking about the red, white, and blue decisions that come down from Capitol Hill. I don't think there's a whole lot of nobleness there. Heck, I think that the successes we've seen lately have come from the streets. They're hard-won but I'm still not sure I would call them noble.

Self-control is popularly thought to the opposite of liberty and freedom. This always makes me laugh out loud, since I would cry if I didn't. More often than not, I encounter Americans who have an attitude of "In Murica, I'm free to do whatever the f*** I want." But that's not what was intended when our founders started talking about whether we really were interested in protecting Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. 

So that's my soapbox and you can stop reading here if you want. But I know that some of you, dear readers, come to read my blog because I've usually got the "Church, for the rest of us" attitude. And of course, that's true again today. 

In both the Revised Common Lectionary and the USCCB lectionary today, there are the same readings from Ezekiel and Mark. 

In Mark's gospel, Jesus has returned home but he can't do anything because the think he's just the carpenter's son. It's here that he says, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." He has no impact. 

In the story of Ezekiel, he is getting his commission from the Lord God to go to the Israelites, who have been rebellious. They have not given pause to the ways of God, so Ezekiel is sent to be a prophet and call them back. But you can see how the people in Jesus' hometown parallel the Israelites being described to Ezekiel and Jesus himself is being compared to Ezekiel. 

What does this have to do with "America, the Beautiful?" I'm glad you asked. 

I'm of the persuasion encapsulated in "Trust in God, but lock your doors." I think was phrased much more pastorally by Pope Francis: "You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works." If you go back and look at the lyrics of the song, read them and think about how God will not magically wave a wand and make prosperity and nobility the norm in America. It's up to God-filled people acting in the name of Christ to make any of these things (security, caring for the poor and hungry, a prosperous and equal nation) a reality. 

In other words, if we continue to act like the cynical, ignorant people in Jesus' hometown, or act like the Israelites rejecting God's will, we will never get to the ideal that is described in the song. I'm sick of people who think that "America, the Beautiful" describes some kind of present reality. It doesn't. I think it describes an ideal that we need to work toward, with God's help. 

And there's a key in that. It's up to us to see the truth in God's ways and we need to work toward making them reality. But if we continue to just act on our own, that ideal will always be outside our reach. 

I've written before about it is to believe in something or someone. In Mark's gospel, the people did not believe in Jesus. We need to believe the truth of God's ways if we are going to make our ideals into reality. To say this another way, to have the transformation that Jesus and Ezekiel preached of, we need to give them influence and feel their presence in our lives. 

I'm a citizen of the U.S. of A. I was born here. I'm not free from implication in all of this. I want to live up to the ideals that we give ourselves in songs like "America, the Beautiful." I want to die to the current way of things and be resurrected to greater compassion and harmony. But none of that is possible without transformation. 

So please, listen to the words of Ezekiel and of Jesus Christ. Let them have an impact on you. Let the way of God transform you so that we can work toward and live in the kind of world we say we hope for in songs and poetry.

~ ~ ~

Have Ezekiel, Jesus, or any of the other prophets had an impact on the way you act? Do they have a presence in your life or help you live into your ideals? Do you think I've totally drank the Kool-aide and I'm just babbling now? Please start the conversation in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook

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