It is Independence Day weekend, a time that we celebrate the founding of this nation that we all love. It seems appropriate to be in church this weekend to offer prayers for our country.
By any standards this is a difficult time in our nation’s history. Just think of the events of the last month or so. We’ve seen the Supreme Court take away the rights of women to make their own choices about pregnancies.
We’ve seen mass shootings in New York and Texas, followed by the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the state’s right to enact and enforce sensible gun laws.
We see the impact of climate change causing severe droughts and record temperatures in much of the country, while the Supreme Court this week drastically cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to actually protect the environment.
We’ve seen the tragedy of 50 migrants, desperate to make better lives for themselves in this country, die in the back of an unairconditioned truck.
We’ve watched the House January 6 Commission unearth more horrifying details about how close our former president came to destroying our democracy and overthrowing the government.
And as much as we’d like to believe it is over, the pandemic still lingers.
No wonder one of my favorite writers, liberal Christian John Pavlovitz, wrote this week that while he loved America, he doesn’t really like it right now.
Pavlovitz is not alone. A Gallup poll last month found that only 13 percent of us are satisfied with the state of the country.
Maybe you’re thinking this is not the time to think about those things; it’s a day to celebrate all that is good in our country.
And celebrate we should. But holidays are time set aside not just for celebration, but for reflection, too. It’s a time to think about where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going as a nation.
The scripture passages we read today are those our prayer book designates for the Fourth of July. They give us a lens through which we can reflect on this day, as Christians and as Americans.
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 enter that long-promised land.
Moses relays some final instructions from God before they enter that land. He reminds them that God is the one “who executes justice for the orphans and widows; 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.”
In other words, remember your history, the good parts and the bad. Remember how you were treated in Egypt, and don’t make the mistake of treating others that way now that you in power.
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.'”
These are instructions about the common good — caring for the poorest of the poor, welcoming immigrants, praying for our enemies, remembering our past. These 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 us to those ideals, either. We hold up our founding documents which say 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 echoes of God’s values. But too many times our rhetoric and our reality do not align.
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.”
Harding sounds a lot like Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom of God — a time when all nations would live by God’s values — is “very near, but not yet.”
Just as scripture calls us back to God’s values, the document that was signed 246 years ago tomorrow, the Declaration of Independence, draws us back to the values to which this nation aspired from the beginning, values that are in line with God’s teachings.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Even then we fell short of those values, of course. “All men” really meant white male land owners. People of color and all women were not included.
We have struggled for almost 250 years to include all people in those promises. Progress has been made, but we are far from achieving those goals.
One of the giants of the late 20th century, President Lyndon Johnson, understood that.
Johnson came into office at the end of 1963 determined to pass Civil Rights legislation. It was a struggle, but he prevailed and the Civil Rights bill was passed into law in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Acts bill a year later.
Johnson’s words after the bill passed are worth hearing again today, when civil rights for all Americans are once again on the line.
“The purpose of the law is simple,” he said. “It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others. It does not give special freedom to any citizen.
“It does say that those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
“Its purpose is not to punish, Its purpose is not to divide but to end divisions — divisions which have lasted all too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.
“Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.
“We will achieve these goals because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do what it right,” he said, “My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing.
“We must not fail.”