I love the Fourth of July. When you’re in Philadelphia, it’s kind of hard not to feel patriotic this time of year. When I was a little kid the Fourth was a big deal because it was my grandmother’s birthday. We’d always have a special party with hot-dogs and the like on the afternoon of Independence Day, and at night our neighbor would put on a highly illegal fireworks display in the street in front of our house. All the neighborhood kids would come out, and it would always be fun. There are tons of great memories I associate with this holiday.
Now, however, I guess I try to think more about the purpose of the celebration. I don’t want it to be just an excuse for a cookout or a glorification of “America’s great and all the rest of you countries suck.” I want this day, for all of its fun and hoopla, to be a cause for reflection.
This week I’m drawn to the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for Pentecost Seven, Isaiah 66: 10-14. It’s a call for the people of Jerusalem to rejoice over their homeland:
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her— (v. 66:10)
Isn’t this what our national holiday is about? We rejoice for our homeland because we love her, even though we might also mourn over her.
In Isaiah 66 the Hebrew exiles have returned (although most of them had never been to Jerusalem before, they were born in Babylon and only learned about it from their parents) to their ancestral homeland to find it pretty jacked-up. The great temple of Solomon was in ruins, and the city had not been repaired since the Babylonians had torched the place a generation before. There was plenty to cry about. BUT, there was also God’s promise that they were still, in spite of all the mistakes they had made and all the rotten things which had befallen them, God’s very own people. This desolated homeland would become like a mother to them. The place would offer comfort, become a refuge, and be a land of prosperity.
I wonder if the early American patriots felt the same way about their new land when our war of revolution was over. After all, they had pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors, and a lot of what they’d pledged was lost. The war claimed about 25,000 American lives (most died of disease while in the military), cost millions of dollars and ran up a national debt while destroying homes and farms, and led to some very dishonorable behavior towards fellow citizens in the form of retaliation against loyalists as well as riots and desertions. I try to imagine what those first Americans thought when the dust had cleared out and they were left with the responsibility of making a nation out of the wreckage. Did they sense the need to rejoice as well as to mourn?
On this national holiday, I feel a need to do a little of both. I may not believe that the United States is exactly the New Jerusalem, but I’m still pretty jazzed and feel darn lucky to live here. And I still feel that there is great promise in this land. Granted, we’ve done some pretty stupid things in the recent past, and we have some big messes we need to clean up. We are still mourning forty-nine people massacred in Orlando by a lunatic with an assault rifle. Homes are being destroyed and lives lost by floods in West Virginia. Huge parts of this nation are strangled by massive unemployment while heroin use soars. The so-called Global War on Terror continues to take our young people to Afghanistan, and our wounded veterans’ needs are overpowering the ability of the VA to service them. Income inequality is eroding our democracy and turning us into a feudal state, and the hyperbolic rhetoric of this current presidential election isn’t helping the national mood a friggin’ bit.
Rejoice? Mourn? Love? All of the above.
Like those Hebrew exiles who returned to a devastated Jerusalem and those early Americans who tried to carve a nation out of the rabble of thirteen war-weary, debt-ridden, and culturally diverse former British colonies, we in the US can rejoice that we are not abandoned by God. Granted, I don’t expect the Almighty to rescue us from the consequence of our own idiocy, but I don’t believe we have been left destitute either.
One of my favorite quotes in recent political history comes from former President Bill Clinton: “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.” We are still a democracy. We are still rich in resources—the most powerful of which is the imagination of our citizens. We still enjoy fundamental freedoms of expression and of belief, and we don’t have a war raging on our home soil. We are fortunate people, indeed, when compared to many on this planet.
I believe that God is always good to us, just as a parent continues to love a disobedient child. My bishop, Claire Burkat, said when she accepted the episcopal position that she knew God would provide her with everything she needed—no more, no less. The seventy disciples Jesus sends forth in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost Seven (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20) are sent with only the clothes on their backs. They take no extra provisions for their mission. They must move ahead in the faithful belief that God has already given them everything they will really require to proclaim the Kingdom.
As Americans, blessed with overwhelming material wealth and prosperity, we still have a mission to spread some of this prosperity abroad and try to contribute as best we can to peace and compassion around the globe. As God’s church, poised as we are on the brink of fiscal doom, we can remember that we are no worse off than those seventy disciples who set out with nothing to proclaim the Kingdom. As individuals, we will know in our hearts that we are beloved of our Creator, and that on our worst day we will still be the beneficiaries of more blessings than we can count. We have God and we have each other. And it is enough.