Today, as we celebrate our nation’s birth, perhaps no greater symbol more visibly displays the desire, and call, upon our citizens to patriotism than our American flag.
In May 1776, it was not only their shared allegiance to their soon to be nation, but their shared faith that birthed our American flag. Two Episcopalians George Washington and Betsy Ross, who worshiped together at Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, worked with a small and secret committee to design an enduring symbol for our new nation’s future.
The end result was spelled out in the fabric of Old Glory – white stars on a blue background, with alternating stripes of red and white. The stars would grow in number as the states did... from the original 13 to the 50 there now. Blue, the symbol for vigilance, perseverance, justice and freedom. White for purity and innocence. And Red, hardiness, courage, valor and, of course, the price of blood so often paid for the freedom we now enjoy.
For those who love our country and all for which it stands, when called to pledge our allegiance – we stand, we remove our hats, we silence our conversation. We place our hands over our hearts and we promise yet again our loyalty – as we should – to the essential intangible qualities of a free land entrusted to our care by God Almighty.
Regardless of the polarizing strains of identity politics that some promote, the vast majority of Americans still hold to the reality that we are "One Nation Under God," and that, as our Declaration of Independence states, we are "...endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights... among them, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Today, many of us will sing in celebration, Irving Berlin’s words, "God Bless America." But for our time, it might as well be as much of a prayer as it is a patriotic hymn.
A minute or two with the headlines of any newspaper, or the first two minutes of any news channel, are enough to tell us that we need something beyond ourselves to help us. Whatever we are doing on our own, is doing little, if anything to stem the tide of cultural divisiveness, racial disharmony, pervasive political corruption and unceasing violence. We need something beyond ourselves – to help us, to save us – to bless us.
While I offer these words as a Christian pastor, my work alongside religious leaders from all traditions, would agree – that God’s blessing of America, like many things God does, is a partnership arrangement.
Yes, God’s blessings are always initiated with God Himself, but all the great stories of faith offer a deep truth – that much of what God does – is done not just "for" those made in God’s image, but "with" them – alongside them. Abraham, the Father of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims – was promised by God an inheritance, but in order to claim it, he would have to set himself on God’s path – trusting and believing, by faith, that holding God’s hand, he would ultimately receive that promise.
What, today, might help us in that partnership with God? For your consideration -- using the flag as a kind of background, let me offer a few suggestions as a 4th of July meditation of sort.
First, let the red in our flag recall for you the word, "Remember." Remember the price paid for your freedom – from the Alamo to Gettysburg, from Anzio to Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Remember, too, those who responded to terrorist attacks within our own borders. It is impossible to really take in the sacrifice of life, limb and loved ones for the cause of freedom, but it is not impossible to be eternally grateful.
Only weeks ago, my wife and I visited Omaha Beach in Normandy. As we walked off the beach, a young couple was laughing as they snapped photos with two of their toddlers – a scene not possible on the same beach that only 79 years before was soaked in the blood of allied soldiers who paved the way, not just for a free Europe, but a free world – and a scene that absolutely would never have been if the launch of D-Day had not turned the tide of that horrible war.
Later, as we gazed upon the over 9,000 graves of Americans buried just above that same beach, no words fit what only the heart could feel – humility and gratitude.
Around our globe, we see the birth pains of nations hoping and praying for what you and I have had for well over 200 years. Remember. Remember the price that has been paid. And remember a price that high is also a treasure impossible to value – except through the gift of grateful remembrance. So – remember.
Second, when you see that "white" in our Flag, let it bring up for you the word "wait" that was so often used throughout the story of God’s partnership with His children. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, "...they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint..." (Isaiah 40:31).
To "wait" upon the Lord means what it says – in all things we engage with God, listen to God’s voice. We do that by being intentionally involved in our worshiping communities.
However one feels about the comprehensive response to the pandemic, I think it is fair to say that some of the painful symptoms of cultural decline we are witnessing all around us are the fruit of our two years of being separated from one another in the holy places where we pray together, sing together, hear the old, old stories – together, in ways that we are transformed by God’s voice, and that often happens in what the ancients called koinonia – community – fellowship.
Two years into his presidency, George Herbert Walker Bush confessed in a speech, "I have been honored to serve as president of this great nation for two years now and believe more than ever that one cannot be America's president without trust in God. I cannot imagine a world, a life, without the presence of the One through whom all things are possible."
He went on to recall that wonderful quote of Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War when asked if he thought the Lord was on his side. Lincoln responded, "My concern is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's side."
Wait upon God and the complex will become simple; the unknown will be revealed, the truth will, as the Bible tells, us make itself known. And when it does, it will set you free from your agenda, to serve God and His. So – wait... and wait.
Lastly, the B of that blue reminds us of our partnership with God. Simply to – "Be." This may seem like a no-brainer – but you and I are not just called to believe the faith, but to "be" the faith.
Jesus said, "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... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? That’s easy to do ... No… love your neighbor... love your enemy... pray for your neighbor... pray for your enemy."
This is what many call one of the "hard sayings of Jesus," but there it is. Are you not exhausted by a polarized world where the culture warriors think the truth can only be found in the extremes, the ends of the spectrum? Is there not a better way? There is.
All the great faiths stand together on this one – the best way to partner with God and be active agents of God’s work in the world is to love everyone – love those who you like to love – and more importantly – love those who are the exact opposite of you.
That means if you are a Republican – you need to love Democrats with whom you disagree... and if you are a Democrat, you need to love Republicans with whom you disagree. And if you are something else – well, you find a way to love them all.
I often remind people in the congregation I serve that those who bear the image of God in their being, should not mirror the image of the world. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "Do not conform ...to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..." (12:2). The medicine for the world in which we live is always a mind that knows the greatest virtue is love.
Let that blue, remind you to "be" the person God calls on you to be – which would mean doing the most god-like thing you can do – loving all you encounter. Loving does not mean agreeing, and it certainly does not mean endorsing things inconsistent with the virtues of our great faith traditions; but it does mean loving – even, perhaps especially – those who hate us. It is not the way of the world, but it is God’s way.
We are at our best when we remember that call of John F. Kennedy so many years ago, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The best service we can render our nation is to love her, love her values, cherish our freedom, and love all those within her borders, as well as those who seek to enjoy the liberties we share. Loving service -- not selfishness – is an essential building block in the human who seeks to live out the Christian life. So,be.
Red, white and blue. Red – remember. White – wait, wait upon the Lord. And blue – be the child of God you are called to be.
Etched on the great Liberty Bell, which made its way to the colonies from the London Foundry of Lester and Pack in 1752, is a portion of Leviticus, 25:10, "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." By 1776, the bell would symbolize freedom from tyranny – freedom to be a nation unto ourselves.
This day, may we – not just with our hearts and hopes, but with our lips and our actions – "Proclaim Liberty." How can you and I do that? Respond to the invitation from Old Red, White and Blue to remember, to wait and to be the creatures of God that God created us to be.
Indeed, God bless America. Together, with God and with one another, we can bring that hope to the times in which we live, and pave the way for the blessings God seeks to bestow.