Happy Fourth of July. This is a day for thanksgiving, as we stop to consider the many rights, privileges, and joys that come with our national life. We are blessed in many ways. But I find that the biblical injunction to give thanks in all things is put to the test for me these days, given current political discourse. So here’s how I’m responding to that test:
I am unexpectedly thankful for the current campaign as it calls us to debate this question: What makes for the greatness of a nation? We get answers, for sure, from the candidates. Do what you will with those.
But are there any answers which come from scripture? Did Jesus have anything to say on the matter? This holiday gives us opportunity to think about these questions. Independence Day is one of the national holidays that has found its way into the liturgical calendar. July 4 is a feast of the church, with prayers and readings selected to offer a faithful vision of common life.
So on this day, we are asked to consider a reading from the book of Deuteronomy, as the Lord tells the people of Israel what it will mean to be a great nation, as they enter the promised land: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We might suggest this passage to the platform committees of both parties.
And on Independence Day, we are asked to consider an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” How would such teaching find its way into the political debate? How would MSNBC and Fox exegete such a passage?
Our church asserts that these passages inform our common life on this national holiday. You may or may not agree. But as we hear a call to greatness, I’ve been thinking about what Jesus said when his disciples were getting all political on him, shamelessly jockeying for positions of prominence in the kingdom that Jesus would usher in. (See Mark 10.) “Let me be VP.” “Let me be chief of staff.” “Give me a corner office.” Jesus called the disciples together, called them on the carpet and said the following:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
As citizens of this nation who are also followers of Jesus, a call to greatness has something to do with service. The quote from Martin Luther King in the column on the left makes that point. Greatness is accessible to all. Dostoevsky said that the greatness of a society can be seen in the way it treats its prisoners. Mahatma Gandhi said it could be seen in the way it treats animals. What would you say?
On this national holiday, can we pause to offer thanksgivings, and dare to dream that a holy greatness will be the mark not only of individuals but it will also be the mark of our communities, our towns, our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our cities, our nation.
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
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