In a few days we will be celebrating our nation’s birthday. The Fourth of July is a festive holiday, full of parades, fireworks, and cookouts. It is a day to rejoice and give thanks for this great country in which we are privileged to live.
I think one of the best ways to celebrate this holiday is to do what we are doing today – to come to church to pray for our nation, to give thanks to God for the blessings we have, and to repent for the ways in which we as a nation fall short of what God would have us be.
Our scripture readings and prayers for today are those that our prayer book and lectionary designate for the Fourth of July.
We’ve heard a lot in recent months about making America great. The scripture readings we hear today are about what it means for a nation to be great in God’s eyes.
We make a mistake when we read scripture and think it is only addressing us as individuals. Of course, it does and we try to shape our individual lives by the demands of our faith.
But much of scripture is also addressed to the nation. Most of the Old Testament is about the relationship between God and God’s people, who eventually became the nation of Israel. And in much of the New Testament, Jesus addresses and confronts the political powers and principalities of his day.
Scripture is innately political. Not political as in partisan Republicans and Democrats. But political as in God cares about the polis, which is Greek for city-state. That means God cares about the life of the city, the state, the nation. God cares how God’s people are cared for and live together.
When we read the texts for this day, our national holiday, we don’t find anything about patriotism as we usually define it. God doesn’t care whether we stand or kneel for the national anthem.
We don’t find anything about military might. God doesn’t judge a nation’s greatness by the strength of its military prowess.
We don’t find anything about being the richest or most powerful nation in the world. God created all the nations and peoples of the earth and cares equally about all of them.
God has very different standards by which a nation is judged.
We hear them in Moses’ words to the people of Israel, who at this point have recently been rescued from slavery in Egypt, and are still wandering in the wilderness, hoping to someday make it to the Promised Land where they can establish their own nation.
Moses first reminds the people who their God is – God is awesome, great, and mighty, Moses says. And here’s how those attributes are known:
God “executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”
Orphans and widows are Biblical code for women and children who do not have the support and protection of a man. Even today around the world, including in this country, single mothers and their children are often the most vulnerable among us and the poorest of the poor.
Moses is reminding the people of Israel that these are the people who are God’s first priority. A nation that wants to be great in God’s eyes must first and foremost take care of the poorest among us.
That means when Congress and the president are putting together a budget the first question people of faith should ask is: how does it provide for the poor? How does it help our modern-day widows and orphans?
If caring for them is not our first priority, then we have failed in God’s eyes.
Closely tied with widows and orphans are the strangers, sometimes referred to in scripture as the resident aliens.
“God loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing,” Moses says. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Care for the resident aliens, the immigrants (documented or otherwise) is one of scripture’s most recurrent demands.
In fact, I did a google search this week on biblical references to strangers and aliens and found 56 separate items. Each of them commands us to care for the stranger and alien in our midst.
Moses tells the people of Israel why this is so important:
“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You were the outcast; you were the aliens; you were the slaves – and I rescued you and set you free, God says.
When you get into your own land remember that. Don’t treat the aliens among you as you were treated by the Egyptians.
Can’t you hear God saying that to us today?
“You, or your parents, or grandparents were immigrants to this country. You came here seeking a better life. You came here fleeing oppression. You came here because you wanted your children to live freely, to have a chance at the good things in life. I brought you here safely.
“Treat the resident aliens, the strangers in your midst with dignity and kindness. Provide them food and clothing. Help them make better lives for themselves, because you were also strangers.”
The issue of immigration in this country is complex and difficult, but kindness to and respect for the immigrant and refugee is where we begin.
God has zero tolerance for policies that separate children from their parents, or for those who shower hatred and abuse on the strangers and aliens in our midst.
That is why yesterday hundreds of thousands of people in 750 cities in every state across this country (including some of you) marched and protested our nation’s cruel and inhumane treatment of those coming here seeking asylum. Those protests were for many people an act of faith, as well as an act of patriotism.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us a third measure by which God judges a nation’s greatness:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus says. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus calls us to remember as individuals, and as a nation, that all people are created in the image of God, and are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect – even those who are our enemies or who wish to harm us.
That is why in our baptismal covenant we promise to seek and serve Christ in all people — no matter what their religion is — and respect the dignity of every human being — no matter what the color of their skin is, or who they love, or where they are from.
We have much to be thankful for in this country. We have been blessed in many ways. Our responsibility as people of faith, and as citizens of this country, is not only to give thanks, but to share those blessings, and help make this country we love one that is truly great in God’s eyes.
A prayer I came across this week states it well:
Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our land as your love would make it:
A land where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a land where the benefits of life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a land where different races, creeds, and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect;
a land where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord.