The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In the last few months I’ve been working on a music project, which you’re sharing in today. I’ve been collecting some of my favorite American sacred music. Most of it is from the 19th century, and from the South, where so much of our nation’s soul is to be found. The music includes African-American spirituals, Appalachian folk hymns, tent meeting songs, gospel tunes, and white spirituals from collections like The Sacred Harp.
This music captures something of the American soul. It’s deeply religious music, coming from a time and place of real suffering: slavery, poverty, Civil War, failed crops, sickness and death. Life was hard then. As the common folk wrote songs on their guitars and fiddles, they poured their faith into this music, expressing a pure, uncomplicated passion. It’s a feeling of unashamed devotion and longing for a better life with God - for liberation, peace, and plenty.
Much of it seems to be about heaven. But it’s also about this world, about making this nation a reflection of the heavenly city. The slave spirituals are a good example of this dual meaning. They sing of freedom to be found in the sweet by and by, but this was also code for the end of slavery, for the Underground Railway, for the North.
So they were pilgrims, journeying through one promised land into the next, from America to heaven. They were grounded in scriptures such as our reading from Hebrews today, which hearkened back to the first pilgrims of our faith tradition: Abraham and his tribe.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance… he looked forward to the city…whose architect and builder is God…they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth…[so] they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
This is what American pilgrims believed: that God was giving them this land as an inheritance, and they were to build a city whose architect was God. They were to found a New Jerusalem, a place that would reflect that better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Of course we know that this sense of divine mission cut both ways. They were grateful for the beauty and resources of this land; but in order to take full advantage for themselves they exploited the earth and all people of color. Like the Jews before them, when they arrived in the promised land, they overlooked the fact that perhaps God had already promised it to others before them, people who already lived here.
And yet, at the same time, they succeeded in their vision, to some degree. We have a justice system that protects people’s rights pretty well, better than most nations. We are freer than millions who live under oppressive governments. All you have to do is travel a little to see this, and to be grateful for it.
Yet we always have further to go in our pilgrimage. There is always a more to do, because new problems and greater complexities demand it. We’re never finished building this promised land. And people of faith, just like our forebears, look to our scriptures to tell us how we might do so.
Our scriptures tell us first of all, right there in the first sentences of the book of Genesis, of a Garden of Eden. The earth is a sacred, abundant, and harmonious place, and our Creator has asked us to steward it well. So we sing of this American Garden of Eden: purple mountains’ majesty and fruited plains, shining seas and God’s blessing over all. We have been given stewardship of a heaven on earth.
I’ve traveled all over this land, and I feel this way. And so as I look at the ongoing disaster of the oil gush in the Gulf, my heart breaks. But I pray that this horrible tragedy will prove to be for us our big opportunity to return to that sense that we are God’s stewards of a sacred garden.
I pray that we will remember that God’s earth is not ours to poke holes in with flimsy mile-long pipes, hoping they won’t break, with no back-up plan, driven only by urgent demands for more oil, more jobs, more money. We have no business treating God’s earth with such risky short-sightedness. It’s not ours to exploit.
This tragedy is our big chance to question our environmental policies. I hope it will help us wake up. I hope we will find the will to figure out how we can both create prosperity and care for this fragile earth, our island home. The question is, can we learn to lovingly care for God’s Garden of Eden as we make our pilgrimage through it?
Our scriptures, in fact our reading from the Old Testament today, also tell us that God calls us to execute justice for the widows and the orphans, for the poor. What does this say about providing healthcare for all? We get all wrapped up in debates about the welfare state and government regulation, but aren’t we supposed to care for those who can’t care for themselves? Why shouldn’t we provide good healthcare for everyone? Aren’t we a compassionate nation, founded on biblical principles of mercy and sympathy for the most vulnerable?
The Old Testament lesson today also asks us to love the stranger, giving them food and shelter, remembering that we, too, were strangers in this land once. What does this say about the current debate about immigration? Before we get too exercised about security and jobs, perhaps we need to remember that we are a nation of immigrants. Can we see ourselves in the eyes of Mexican immigrants, knowing that we, like them, were strangers in this land once? Can’t we strive for security and hospitality, at the same time?
Our scriptures speak again and again of nonviolence and forgiveness, as our gospel does today. This is a hard one. Many lay this aside entirely, saying that for individuals, this is fine, but for a nation, it is unrealistic. Look at Hitler, they say: even Gandhi said that nonviolence wouldn’t work with him. You don’t approach terrorists with compassion.
But for us, Jesus’ teachings cannot be aside too quickly or too indiscriminately. We need to struggle with them. He said, in today’s gospel, that we, like God, are to rain down justice and compassion on the good and the evil alike. We are to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us.
How can we then, as followers of Jesus, jump enthusiastically into pre-emptive war? How can we justify civilian deaths in air strikes, unlimited access to all sorts of guns, or the death penalty?
As followers of Jesus, I think we should be voices of caution when it comes to violence. We should be the voice of conscience for our violent nation. Surely we can send the rain of justice on our enemies in some way; surely we can exercise compassion even for those who persecute us. We can contribute to their economic development, we can take seriously their legitimate needs and concerns.
As we give thanks on this national holiday for this blessed and abundant land, for the many freedoms and privileges we enjoy, we also know that there are no easy answers to any of these thorny questions of national policy.
But we can listen carefully to our scriptures, and wonder what they might say to us about how we exercise our citizenship. We can listen to what they say about peace, freedom, equality, and mercy, and strive towards a greater fulfillment of them.
Our forebears listened, and what they heard was a call to be pilgrims, moving through a sacred landscape. Along the way, they wanted to build a promised land here on earth, as a reflection of the one they were headed towards in heaven. I think we still do.