Sunday, July 5, 2020

Sermon: "Make A Joyful Noise: This Is My Song", Psalm 33, 10-16, 20-22 (July 5, 2020)


Independence Day weekend is often a complicated thing for churches to navigate, and I’m already worn out from…well, life these days. I’m sure you are too. So I’m gonna go ahead and make this easy for all of us. Instead of building up to the message with a clever metaphor or a cultural reference or something, I’m just gonna get straight to the point of telling you what the scripture reading and the hymn are teaching us today. Here it is:

It’s not wrong to love your country. It’s wrong to assume that God loves it more than others.

Before I continue, I want us all to stop for a minute and take stock of our emotional responses. Notice how that statement made you feel. Did it make you uncomfortable? That’s okay. But sit with it and think about why you’re experiencing discomfort before you react in anger. Hear what I said, not what you THINK I said. On the other hand, did it seem like an obvious statement to you? Don't interpret that to mean that you have nothing to learn about the intersection between patriotism and faith. Think about how your reaction of “Well, duh!” might lead you to complacency or an inability to recognize your role in allowing patriotic idolatry to persist. No matter what your knee-jerk reaction to this statement is, hopefully we can all agree that there's opportunity here for all of us to learn and grow, right? Okay, moving on.

There’s nothing wrong with being a patriotic Christian. Jesus, after all, came into the world to participate in the society that human beings created. And contrary to the hopes and expectations of many, he explicitly chose NOT to overthrow the existing political structures and reign in their place. But we do need to remember that even as we embrace our national identity, our first allegiance, our primary duty, is always to our creator, redeemer, and sustainer God.

Throughout scripture, we’re told that God is our sovereign ruler over all others. While we should respect the secular authorities that help order life here on earth, if we’re ever in a position where we need to choose who to follow, God wins every time. Remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace? The point of that story was that they refused to bow down to the king, even though the law demanded it— because their ultimate allegiance was to God. Same with Mordecai in the book of Esther. In fact, the whole reason that the biblical Kingdom of Israel ultimately fell to the Babylonians was because the people insisted on becoming a monarchy instead of the theocracy that God desired for them. They chose human authorities over divine ones.

These biblical stories are all case studies in the principle outlined in today’s reading. We human beings tend to organize ourselves into nations and political alliances and secular systems of government, and that’s all well and good—vital, even, when our society is made up of people from diverse faith backgrounds. But no matter how righteous the plans of a nation are, no matter how strong its army, no matter how powerful its influence, it’s as nothing before God. God’s sovereignty is absolute. Any patriotism that we may feel has God as its source by definition: God is the one who molded the hearts inside us that beat with national pride; God is the one who shaped this land that we call our home. So where then should we, as people of faith, ultimately put our hope, our trust, and our loyalty? I mean, hopefully I don’t have to connect the dots for you, because it should be obvious. Nothing comes before God, not even our beloved homeland, because God is in charge, and God is the one to whom we owe literally everything.

Now, this idea can create painful cognitive dissonance for some people—sure, God is important, but how can ANYTHING come before national pride? When the human brain encounters cognitive dissonance, it immediately tries to reconcile the contradictory ideas. The easiest way to resolve the tension between “love of country” versus “love of God” is to assume that the church and the state are parallel institutions, that God’s will and the will of our nation are always in sync. We must be the ones the psalmist talks about in verse 12, right? “Happy is the nation who’s God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.” Lucky us; we don’t HAVE to choose!

But y’all…be honest. Our country (like all countries) has a dismal track record for holding values aligned with God’s will. Jesus accepted, ministered to, and loved all people as family, regardless of their status, nationality, health, or ability; we KEPT OTHER HUMAN BEINGS AS PROPERTY for hundreds of years simply because we erroneously believed that their darker skin made them inferior.[1] Jesus entrusted women with the good news of the resurrection; we didn’t even trust them enough to vote until 100 years ago.[2] The Jewish Law clearly instructs the faithful to treat foreigners the same as citizens, again with no conditions;[3] we keep refugees in cages in inhumane conditions. This doesn’t mean that our country is beyond redemption (with God, all things are possible!), but it certainly means that we must let go of the lie that the United States is somehow especially favored by God or that we’re in lock-step with God’s divine plan—that we’re the next best thing to heaven. Objectively speaking, we’re simply not.

Friends, scripture is clear: no matter how wonderful our country may be, it is never more important than God. For Christians, at least, God should be the one who defines how we practice patriotism, not the other way around. On Independence Day, it’s so easy for us to get caught up in the excitement and pride that we feel in our country. And we SHOULD feel excitement and pride, that’s an understandable reaction of gratitude and joy. But we should be careful not to get swept up in the tempting belief that our nation is somehow more central to our identity than God is.

Our nation may hold a special place in our hearts, and it certainly holds a special place in God’s too, but just as we can’t allow it to consume our identity, we can’t expect that it consumes God’s, either. The truth is, NO country (not the Vatican, not the United States, not even modern-day Israel) is more beloved than any other to God. And when we assume that God plays favorites among nations, we grievously distort our relationship with one another to the point where we can no longer view human beings from other countries as our siblings in Christ. Of course we’re allowed to love our homeland…we just can’t forget that others love their homeland just as much because God created and loves them all, too.

That’s why today’s hymn is one of my favorites. “This Is My Song” is a newer hymn in the purple hymnal, and since the first time that I heard it, it’s held a special place in my heart. I don’t think I’ve every sung it—not once—without tearing up with emotion (we’ll find out shortly if reading the lyrics silently has the same effect). It’s not a patriotic song in the sense that it celebrates our country especially, but it is in the sense that it shows how patriotism is, at its core, a form of love—which, as is the case with ALL love, has God as its source. It celebrates the fact that EVERY human heart is capable[4] of beating with a holy love for their country, and that every nation is connected by the love of God that covers us all. And, to me at least, that’s a far more beautiful version of patriotism than perfunctory cheerleading for our “team”.

So as we celebrate our national identity and our love for our own country this weekend, let’s remember to keep it all in perspective. We don’t need to reject patriotism, just reframe it from the hyper-partisan, vehemently performative thing that it can sometimes become. Patriotism not as the belief that our country is superior to others, but that our nation is a wonderful gift to us from God; one that we have a responsibility to nurture as it nurtures us, to honor as it calls us to honor others, and to help it live up to the lofty principles upon which it was founded: liberty and justice for ALL. May God bless America, this and every day, as God blesses all God’s beloved nations. Amen.


[1] And even when we stopped keeping them as property, we still refused to treat them as family: (and we still haven’t figured out how to).

[2] To say nothing of non-white women, who still weren’t guaranteed a vote for ANOTHER 45 years:

[3] Leviticus 19:33-34.

[4] Not everyone experiences this love, because many people have been let down or even harmed by their country. Minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, even military veterans have been historically ignored or oppressed in the United States, so it’s understandable if their frustration overshadows their patriotism. They still have the capacity to love their country, but it’s unreasonable to expect someone to love the very thing that’s actively mistreated them so often.

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