I love the 4th of July—parades, speeches, honor guards, readings from the Declaration of Independence, the smell of charcoal, folks huddled together on blankets, sparklers, fire works, and the grand finale—bursts of sound and bolts of light crashing through the sky.
I love the 4th of July. A national holiday largely uncomplicated by family and family expectations. A day nestled in neighborhoods. A day celebrating country and community. A holiday where someone like me—a person with family far away—can feel that I belong.
I do so love this day—the smells, the sounds, the songs. Purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. Patriots dream and pilgrims pride. Freedom ringing from the mountain side. Calls for brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
What a holiday it is—no cards to write, no big meals to prepare, no gifts to get—a day without obligation. A holiday. A total holiday. One that’s celebrated on the day on which it falls. No postponing to a Monday or a Friday. 4th of July always falls on the 4th of July. What a concept. What a gift!
For us—for we who follow Jesus—the gifts of the day lie not so much in the sights, the smells, the tastes, the sounds, not so much in what the 4th is or isn’t but in the questions the day raises, the challenges the day poses. This day, this holiday, gives us pause. At least I hope it does. I hope this day raises for us—for you and me and for Christians throughout the land—questions about where our loyalty lies, questions about how we live in this land whose independence we celebrate today, questions about our place in the parade.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, makes clear that our citizenship is in heaven. The author of Hebrews urges followers of Jesus to live as strangers in the world, aliens, folks seeking a homeland with God, folks living with their sights set on a city with solid foundations. Where does our loyalty lie?
Sometimes people hear Jesus say we have a kind of dual loyalty—loyalty to the state on occasions of state and loyalty to God in the things of God. A bifurcated loyalty. A loyalty that allows one to be a citizen in two worlds. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant at all when he talked about things of Caesar and things of God. Think about it. Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” In all of creation what does not belong to God? Could it be that our loyalty lies not to the powers and principalities of this world but to the reign of God?
Yet how are we to live in this land where our fathers (and mothers) died? How are we to live in this land of the Pilgrims’ pride? How are we to live as followers of Jesus, as lovers of God? This is a question Christians have struggled with for centuries. Paul grappled with it again and again and again. Early church fathers and mothers agonized over this question. I think it’s a key question in the Gospel of Matthew, both in the passage we hear today and throughout the Gospel.
Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s a standard of living I’m not prepared to adopt. Impossible. Defeated before you set out. “Perfection. Without flaws.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he rounded out that portion of the Sermon on the Mount. I think Eugene Peterson comes closer to Jesus’ meaning:
You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created
identity. Live generously and graciously towards others the way God
lives towards you.
Living generously towards all of God’s creation, standing in solidarity with those whose need is great, responding to that need by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger—with no test save that of deep human need.
The parade is forming. We need ask, “What is our place in the parade?” There are those who say, “We have no place in any national parade.” “Stay home,” they say, “our place—our place as Christians is with God.” Perhaps they’re right—at one level. We are Christians and we follow God. Think of the hymn, “God of our Fathers.” Remember the words, “Be Thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay; Thy word our law, thy paths our chosen way.”
There are others who urge us to join in all the hoopla of the day. “Render unto Caesar” after all. “Let the Fourth be the Fourth,” they say. In at least one town somewhere in our country, church has been cancelled for today. At least that’s what the folks at RevGal’s blog report.
Canceling church. That’s not the answer. That’s no way to follow Jesus. That’s no way for Christians to engage the 4th of July.
Could there be another way—another way for us to engage this day?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might say, “Lead from the side. Set the tempo, set the pace.” Remember his strong plea made not long before he died? “…say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say that I was a drum major for righteousness.”
Perhaps that’s the way to engage this day—as drum majors for peace, drum majors for justice, drum majors for righteousness, drum majors for the reign of God.