This weekend we observe the founding of our great nation in a July 4th celebration like no other in recent memory. No fireworks, no running of the Peachtree Road Race, no parades or baseball games, no large gatherings of family and friends.
Many of these ways in which we typically celebrate have become dangerous in this age of pandemic.
Of course there is more than the pandemic going on here. Journalist Dan Rather wrote this week, “This is a Fourth of July of pain, of anxiety, of uncertainty, and also of reckoning with the injustices of our past and the terms by which we will define our future.”
New York Times’ columnist David Brooks cites a recent poll finding that 71 percent of us are angry about the state of our country, and 66 percent are fearful.
“A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country — how black Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work — and none of it makes sense,” Brooks says. “None of it inspires faith or confidence. In none of it do they feel a part.”
Brooks attributes much of the country’s dis-ease to a core problem. “It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.”
We see that clearly when so many of our fellow citizens refuse to wear masks to help protect one another from the coronavirus.
With that backdrop it seems appropriate to recall today’s scripture readings, which are those our prayer book designates for the Fourth of July.
In the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel. Their long years of wandering in the wilderness are almost over. They are about to cross into that long-promised land.
Moses relays some final instructions from God before they do cross over. He reminds them that God is the one “who executes justice for the orphan and widow; who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing.”
“You shall also love the stranger,” God tells them, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Then in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'”
Caring for the poorest of the poor, welcoming immigrants, praying for our enemies — those are God’s values. God judges a nation not by how wealthy its richest and most powerful citizens are, but by how the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized are treated. God is always concerned about the common good.
Israel did not always live up to those ideals. Time and time again God sends prophets to call the nation back to those core values — care for the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized, the enemies. God’s greatest anger is provoked when they are forgotten.
Of course, America does not always live up to those ideals, either. We hold up our constitution which says all are created equal. We memorize the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Those values are an echo of God’s values. But as Dan Rather says, there is a fault line between our rhetoric and our reality.
The late Rev. Vincent Harding, an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., described America as an ideal, not yet a reality.
“The United States of America is a work in progress,” he said, “a shadow on the wall of a multiracial, compassionate democracy that does not yet exist.”
And yet, we must keep trying. We must keep those values, God’s values, in our own hearts and lives, and must do all we can to make them a reality in our nation.
Dan Rather says we are in a time of reckoning of our past. That is a good thing. It is not until we reckon with our past, with the ways we have fallen short of those ideals that guide us, that we can move toward a more faithful future.
This Fourth of July we give thanks for this great nation, and the many ways we do live up to the values God calls us to embrace. But loving this country also means wanting to make it better.
A prayer I came across this week sums it up well. It’s a perfect prayer for this weekend:
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, cultures, and creeds 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. Amen.