Fr. Bill Carroll – The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, July 4, 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!

America!  America! God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

Of all the “national songs” in our hymnal, “America the Beautiful” may be the best one.  That’s because this hymn is a prayer of thanksgiving.  The first stanza begins by evoking the beauty of the American landscape and the abundance of our agriculture.  Then, we ask God to shed his grace on us and bring us together as brothers and sisters.

On this Fourth of July weekend, many of us pause to give thanks for our country and the amazing freedoms we enjoy. As we show our gratitude for America today, we should remember how fragile and imperfect we are.  We should also remember the many, many sacrifices others have made to make these freedoms possible.  Today, we recommit ourselves to God’s dream for our country—and for all people, everywhere. 

That brings us to the second stanza of “America the Beautiful.”

O beautiful, for heroes proved in liberating strife.

Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!

America!  America! God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

Back in 1787, right after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a prominent lady of that city is said to have asked Ben Franklin what kind of government the new country would have.  “A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”  Franklin’s words serve as a promise and a warning to us all.  On the floor of the Convention itself, speaking to then-prevalent fears of an American monarchy, Franklin said that George Washington was a good man, but that no one knew what kind of people would follow him in office.  

We live in a deeply divided age.  We might conveniently date this to the 2000 election, when Bush v. Gore was argued before the Supreme Court. But the seeds of our country’s divisions lie further back, in Watergate, in the Vietnam War, as well as the Civil Rights movement and other freedom movements of the 60’s and 70’s—to say nothing of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the debates about the Constitution itself.  Too easily we forget how fierce the debate was about the Constitution of 1787.  No matter how we tell the story of how we got here, though, we live in an age when politicians (and ordinary citizens) hold sharply different visions for our country.

Nowadays, each half of the country seems convinced the other is crazy.  Civil discourse too often eludes us, and there is a real possibility of political violence.  We remember watching it happen on our televisions last January.  We routinely doubt the legitimacy and goodwill of public servants on the “other side”—whoever they are for us.  We have forgotten what it means to put country over party—and the common good over our personal points of view.

Again and again, the Founders warned us of these dangers.  They stressed the need for virtuous citizens to protect the integrity of the newborn Republic, even as they wrote the Constitution to restrain the vices of the powerful and the passions of the mob.  

In his farewell address to the new nation, George Washington warned us about the dangers posed by party spirit to what he called “public liberty.”  In particular, Washington warned us against the tendency of political parties to “make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

As heirs of Washington and the other Founding Fathers, we should be on guard against the dangers posed by pervasive corruption and the breakdown of civil discourse.  Even the best-devised systems of government require vigilance to preserve and perfect them.

We are not alone in our shortcomings.  In the Old Testament, the People of God rebelled against God’s own authority and asked him for a king, so that they could be like the surrounding nations.  But, even when God gave them what they wanted, they continued to break faith with God and their neighbors, over and over again. 

 In our lesson from Ezekiel today, God reminds Israel that they are a nation of rebels who have risen up against him repeatedly.  “You and your ancestors,” he tells them, “have transgressed against me to this very day.”  As Jesus himself points out in the Gospel, a prophet has no honor in their own country.  Rather than heeding the words of Jesus and loving our neighbors as ourselves, too often we choose to follow our worst passions.

But who would not be moved by the Declaration of Independence?  Who would not long for all people to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  Who would not want all people to share in the good things of life and be able to provide for ourselves and our neighbors with dignity.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration, certainly had his failings.  In theory, he envisioned a world of broad-based freedom and equality.  But Jefferson was also a slaveholder.  For the Founders, “all men” too often meant only white, male property holders.  As Americans, we are committed to freedoms unprecedented in human history.  But we are also the land of human slavery, lynchings, and the Trail of Tears.

We ought to be inspired by the high ideals of our country.  But ultimately, we are also citizens of that Kingdom where Jesus reigns from the Cross as King.  Our allegiance to him as Lord causes us to remember those who are oppressed or left behind—even when that’s inconvenient or unpopular.  And, at times, that may make us prophets without honor in our country—just as Jesus was in his.

Too often in America today, we abuse our freedom to do whatever we want.  But true freedom means loving God and neighbor.  The real torch of liberty is the Holy Spirit—God’s own love burning in our hearts.  And that Spirit gives us courage to risk everything for other people.  Out of many, he makes us one.  Out of many tribes and nations and peoples, he makes us brothers and sisters.

We are most free when we seek and serve Christ in other people.  And so, we work and we struggle “in order to form a more perfect union.”

O beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!

America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood.”  That is our prayer today.

Living for others, loving our neighbors, becoming true brothers and sisters.

That’s what freedom is for.