July 5, 2015
Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
On these summer Sundays we’re reading
through First and Second Samuel—the ancient epic of the rise and fall of the
nation of Israel—and finding in these stories some surprising connections with
our current national life and our own lives of faith.
I had a little bit of trepidation as I
began preparing this series of sermons that from time to time looks at the
connections between religion and politics—two sensitive issues that get even
more so when they are mixed. But with presidential candidates threatening to
“call down fire from heaven,” as Mike Huckabee did, and suggesting that the
Constitution can be ignored when such action suits their version of religious
freedom, as many did after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all people
to marry regardless of sexual orientation, it seems that religion and politics
are already pretty well mixed and mixed up.
So on this Independence Day weekend, we
continue reading and reflecting on Second Samuel—although I admit that it was
somewhat disconcerting to read that first scripture lesson this morning. After
all, with fireworks and jazz, yesterday was the day we celebrated our nation’s
independence, throwing off the yoke of King George III. Then we come here today
and hear a story of the people seeking out a king, coming to David and
anointing him—our nation’s story turned upside down.
And that second lesson from Paul’s
Letter to the Romans wasn’t much better. When we read: “Let every person be
subject to governing authorities,” we can be thankful that—contrary to what
some would suggest—men like Jefferson and Adams were in no way biblical
literalists. Where would we be if they had followed Paul’s advice?
But if we listen closely, Paul’s call
for obedience to governments also relativizes those governments. No government,
no nation can claim for itself the devotion that “a creature can only give to
We make an idol of our nation if we claim that it is fulfilling some divine
mandate or that it is beyond criticism.
This is a long-standing problem in our
country. It’s been observed that even Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830’s
complained that Americans stiffen at all foreign criticisms. He accused us of
“irritable patriotism,” as though we were not secure enough in our new
nationhood to admit that some features of our culture deserved criticism.[ii]
So we might find it easier this weekend
to simply cry out with the Psalmist: “Happy is the nation whose God is the
Lord!” And yet, this psalm is often used in a self-congratulatory manner.
Hearing some people you’d think that the ancient Hebrew poet was thinking about
the United States of America when those words were written.
Contrary to the way that those words
from Psalm 33 are often used, it is God
who chooses a nation and a people, not the other way around. When we listen
closely to that psalm, we hear the Psalmist singing, not of national greatness,
but of the forgiving grace of God. This grace is the “real power behind
illusions of power.”[iii]
If we understand ourselves as living “under God” then let us do what God
requires of us. Let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly.
As is often the case, we are helped on
this weekend by our hymns.
In one verse “American the Beautiful”
sings of “patriot dream that sees beyond the years…”—of the hope that looks
forward to a new age when God will wipe away every tear, of a love of country
that seeks the best for the nation and its people. It is a beautiful vision.
But we also know of the journey sung
about in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:
We have come
over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come,
treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
Recent events have shown us that many
are still on this path.
Patriot dreams must look closely at what
is in order to grasp a vision of what might be.
Indeed the beginning of hope for our
nation will only be found as we face current reality.
We begin to see the possibility in
patriotism when it is stripped of illusions. American exceptionalism must give
way to a recognition that we are one in a world of nations, aware of the power
that we hold and its potential for abuse as well as its many benefits.
Patriotism can be a great good. The love
of country leads people to make great and valuable sacrifices as soldiers and
as civilians. At the same time, in pointing out what he called the “paradox of
patriotism,” Reinhold Niebuhr observed that patriotism transforms individual
unselfishness into national selfishness. He warned that unqualified loyalty to
the nation “is the very basis of the nation’s power and the freedom to use that
power without moral restraint.”
There are many problems with patriotism
And yet, with its problems there is
possibility in patriotism as well.
William Sloane Coffin said: “There are
three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers
and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their
country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”[iv]
Loving critics recognize that the very
efforts we have made to secure our nation’s future—drilling for oil, invading
nations to fight terrorists, freeing the financial markets from regulation—have
made us even more insecure and vulnerable.
Patriot dreams call for justice in the
land. God calls us to acts of mercy and compassion.
The nation whose “God is the Lord” is
also the nation that recognizes that a ruler is not saved by a great army; a
warrior is not delivered by great strength; and that the war horse is a vain
hope for victory. A patriot dream will be based on love of country and not
simply serve as a support system for its military ventures. Perhaps then we can
see that Psalm 33 is a hymn of universalism that embraces all people and indeed
all of creation.
The hope of patriot dreams celebrates national
beginnings while remembering what has been called “our nation’s original
sin”—the continuation of slavery even as our leaders were able to declare that
“all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with…liberty.”
“Remember the women,” Abigail Adams
wrote to husband John when the Continental Congress met—they didn’t and the
phrase “all men are created equal” meant just that—all men. And yet really it didn’t even mean all men, because the enslavement of black men and women would
In time, slavery was abolished and women
got to vote and civil rights were extended and new immigrants welcomed. And
still today we are working out what it means to be a “free country.” Slowly we
have realized and lived out the idea that the benefits of liberty must be
extended to all if any are to be free.
We can celebrate the slow but certain
spread of freedom in our nation and the people and the sacrifices that have
made this possible. We celebrate the example of our own state that has a long
history of supporting the basic rights of people, from outlawing slavery while
we were still a territory back in 1839 and to our own Supreme Court’s decision
that allowed full marriage equality for all people years before the recent
John Adams thought that Independence Day
“ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns,
Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other
from this Time forward forever more.”[v]
Let us celebrate and give thanks for the toil and blood and treasure that
allowed this nation to take our first steps to freedom, for the toil and blood
and treasure that secured that freedom for all people, and for the toil and
blood and treasure that continues to allow this imperfect nation with our
flawed leaders and flawed citizens to move forward in freedom.
May God raise up within us and among us
a new patriotism that sees and seeks this nation’s good.
Paul Achtemeier, Luke, Interpretation
Commentary, pg. 205
Donald Shriver, America,
July 2, 2007.
“Psalm 33,” New Interpreter’s Bible
William Sloane Coffin, Credo, quoted
by Donald Shriver, America,
July 2, 2007