The great theologian Karl Barth used to advise young theologians to ‘take their Bible in one hand and their newspaper in the other.’ I’ve always appreciated that. The Bible doesn’t sit as some inanimate object in a museum of religious artifacts; it’s more like a living voice - sometimes a wise elder, or a teacher, sometimes a debate opponent, or an advocate, sometimes a judge, or even a friend.
Scripture is in conversation with life. Over the years I’ve found myself reading the Bible in conversation with many things – current events, a personal experience, a pastoral concern, a movie or book, a poem or song… any number of things. I read the scripture text and something springs to mind; or I’m mulling over something and a scripture springs to mind… I find myself wondering what the one asks of the other and what word scripture brings. It’s like a conversation in my head. Over the years you’ve indulged me as those voices become public in my sermons.
This week I read the texts with the Fourth of July on my mind. I found myself thinking about the images in the texts we heard, and I could swear I heard echoes of the values of this nation’s founding.
Our country wasn’t founded on the basis of any one religion; our founding fathers had the wisdom to separate religion and state and not insist that its citizens belong to one church or another. By the time of its official founding, the land was already a big umbrella with people of many beliefs. What’s more, our founders understood that if ‘faith’ was imposed on a nation of people it would simply be taken for granted, and not cherished as it should be; or it would be rebelled against in yet another religious war. Thanks to them we enjoy religious freedom, and do not take that liberty for granted.
But clearly our nation has Christian roots. The Europeans who first came to this land and the founding fathers who created this nation were fully versed in Christian scripture. Their interpretations of scripture varied, of course, but they all knew the content well. No wonder we hear echoes of scripture in our nation’s past.
Take the image of a New Jerusalem from our Old Testament passage. The promise of a “New Jerusalem” first appeared when the people of Israel were in Exile. Their nation had been conquered by the Babylonians; the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; everything they believed in was in question. And yet prophets like Isaiah gave them hope that there would be a new Jerusalem, a place of prosperity and delight, a place where they would once again flourish, and other nations flourish because of it.
The Puritans who settled this country heard these promises as their own. Appalled at what they saw as the apostasy of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, they came to this country with the fervent hope that they could literally create “a truly righteous nation” in this new world. As one scholar describes,
The vision of the New Jerusalem… is a quite profoundly theological vision, rooted in scripture, with the passage of time… increasingly generalized and secularized, and becomes transformed into a kind of vision of America having a redemptive role in world history, simply by being America, simply by being the kind of nation it is….
It’s the root, for instance, of what was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite themes: that our nation is the “city on a hill.”[i]
Like any theological claim, this can be used for good or ill, which is often in the eye of the theological beholder. It can be used to make the claim, for instance, that God loves us more than other people or other countries, which seems to me to be naïve and childish at best and arrogant and dangerous at worst. If we are convinced God is always on our side, then we can burnish anything with a veneer of pious godliness, as if the sheer fact that we’re doing it justifies the action, because somehow we’re God’s chosen people. The idea that we are the “New Jerusalem” can be easily abused.
And yet… the vision of a “New Jerusalem” is a noble, beautiful ideal. It is a vision of aspiration. Such a vision of goodness and blessing can revive hope in us; it can reawaken our own imagination of what the world could be. It reminds us that what exists now isn’t all that’s possible; we can do better, we can be better than we are, not only as individual people, and as a people. That idealism has gotten us through some terrible, tumultuous times; our nation has been reformed again and again.
The image of the “New Jerusalem” reminds us that our country was rooted in hope, and that is no small thing.
I heard echoes of our nation’s founding values in our passage from Galatians as well. The Apostle Paul was writing to a small enclave of Christians in a sea of different religious beliefs, and I daresay he would have been surprised to hear these values undergirding a brand new nation centuries later.
And yet they did. The spirit of humility and egalitarianism, with a warning not to think of oneself as more important than another... The emphasis on personal responsibility and doing one’s own hard work… The need for mutual care and concern, not only serving one’s own self-interest… The simple goal of ‘doing good.’
Those are the values I was brought up with, and it wasn’t just because my parents were belonged to the local Presbyterian Church. They were part and parcel of what it meant to be a citizen. I think they still are.
There are inherent tensions within those goals, but that seems almost inevitable, I think. If we do too much to carry others’ burdens, are we letting people off the hook about ‘each person carrying their own load’? If we emphasize individual responsibility, are we using it as an excuse not to take care of other people?
Our political system rings with debates around these tensions. But no one I know thinks there shouldn’t be both personal and communal responsibility. We’re more than a collection of individuals; we’re a village, we’re a state, we’re a nation. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
One of my favorite parts of Paul’s letter is the line where he says, “Let’s not grow weary in doing good… ” If there’s anything I love most about living in this country, it’s the extraordinary generosity of spirit. What people do for others is astounding.
When we are at our best, we look beyond our own needs; even beyond family, what Uncle Joe and Aunt Susie need. We look beyond our neighbors, the ones whose kids grew up with ours. We look beyond our church, our village, our schools… When we are at our best we do not grow weary in doing good even for total strangers…
I think about local leaders coming together to address the food desert in Newark, redesigning and beautifying a corner of the town so it meets not just need for food but for beauty and belonging… and others helping at Coalition of Care, so they can keep working with people trying to get through a crisis and get their lives back…. I think of others reaching out to communities in West Virginia, swamped by the horrendous floods… It goes beyond our borders, like mission groups who are going to help refugees in Greece, making the dangerous crossing…. I think of our own Sarah Kosling in Nepal, working in agriculture with people halfway around the world. There is so much generosity of spirit.
In a recent op-ed piece David Brooks wrote about his recent travels to some of “the most economically stressed parts of this country.”
The social fabric is tearing across this country, but everywhere it seems healers are rising up to repair their small piece of it. They are going into hollow places and creating community, building intimate relationships that change lives one by one.
I know everybody’s in a bad mood about the country. But the more time you spend in the hardest places, the more amazed you become.[ii]
Bear one another’s burdens, the Apostle Paul said. Do not get tired of doing good. That’s not just what we believe as Christians, I think it’s part of our nation’s DNA.
As people of faith, we of all people know better than to think God loves our country ‘best.’ We know there people all over the world with high and noble values, people of other nations and other faiths who work tirelessly for the sake of a better world. It’s easy to forget when we most hear about the acts of horror. It’s easy to despair.
But let’s not forget our roots: A vision for something better. Hope that it is possible. And the determination to keep working for the good of all.
Each generation has to live that out, has to forge that vision again, give it flesh and blood. We need to decide what it means to be a good nation.
A post-script: When I ran this sermon by 2 friends, one Republican and one Democrat, they both said the same thing. Beyond all the cynicism about politics today, what do you aspire to for our country? What could we be, if we desired it? If we don’t think America is a force for good in the world, what can we do to make it that way? With the faith of our forebears echoing in our ears, can we embrace a vision, too?
May it be so.