Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 1, 2018
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Pop quiz: when does the new church year start?
It’s actually in late November or early December – the first Sunday in Advent. We base our new year not on when school starts or on a change in the calendar, but on the coming of Jesus into our lives.
In fact, the church calendar looks really different from the regular, or secular, calendar. We skip over New Year’s, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Halloween (although All Saints’ falls the day after). While we recognize mothers and fathers with flowers or candy, we don’t base the worship service on Mother’s or Father’s Day, and we don’t celebrate the 4th of July – though you may have noticed, I picked at least one patriotic tune for today’s service, sort of to prove the exception to the rule.
Why is the church calendar so different from the secular one? Well, for one thing, we’re busy celebrating holidays like Epiphany – when the Magi found the baby Jesus; Ash Wednesday; Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter; Pentecost; and the aforementioned All Saints’ and Advent. This year Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the relationship between Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, fell on Memorial Day weekend. These faith-focused markers help us live our lives in relationship to Jesus’ life, giving us a rhythm of celebration and reflection, preparation and compassion.
But it’s not just a matter of having other things happening on the calendar. It’s also a matter of where our faith asks us to focus – what kinds of things we’re called to pay attention to when we’re gathered as a worshiping body.
Jesus puts it this way: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
You might be asking at this point – if God is the creator of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, isn’t everything God’s? And if that’s true, shouldn’t we bring our faith into every aspect of our lives, from secular holidays to politics to sporting events?
The short answers are emphatically yes, and yes. Our faith isn’t just limited to Sunday mornings – otherwise it would be pretty anemic, maybe even pointless. We can and should be bringing God into every aspect of our lives, both individual and communal.
So why don’t we celebrate the Fourth of July in church? Why don’t we sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or fly an American flag in the sanctuary? Why don’t we ask all mothers and fathers to stand up on their special days, and have the children sing songs to them? And why don’t I preach on any of this stuff?
The answer is that while our faith permeates our lives, Sunday morning worship services are about just that – what, or rather whom, we worship. It’s a time and a place to put God front and center, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ, as Paul says, and to put everything else we might be tempted to worship – our country, our family units, even Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – in perspective.
If you grew up in the height of Christendom – the time when seemingly everyone in our country was Christian, and seemingly everyone was in church on Sundays, a time when Park Avenue was packed to the gills and the choir was huge and the Sunday school classrooms were overflowing – this way of seeing things can be a bit jarring. For decades, American Christians blended faith and civic duty together seamlessly – and some churches still do just that. But as Christianity – or any kind of active faith – began to fall by the wayside, numerically speaking, we were left with an interesting proposition: why do we get up on Sunday mornings when now, seemingly everyone is staying in to read the paper or going out for brunch with friends? What happens when we’ve been synonymous with the dominant culture but the dominant culture leaves us behind?
The answer is that we get a chance to return to our roots as “a peculiar people.” The author of 1 Peter used this phrase to literally mean “a people belonging to – specific or peculiar to – God,” but I love how the King James translation gives the sense that being God’s own people means we end up a little weird. Being God’s particular, peculiar people means we are called to see things differently, to view the world differently, to act a little funny in response to the culture around us.
Hear me loud and clear – this is not advocating the sort of separatist culture wars that reject modern values like pluralism; it’s not some kind of Luddite refusal of progress. It’s also not a theology of “we don’t really belong here; our home is in heaven” – a quick glance through Genesis reminds us that God has created us to live in and enjoy this world, and any reading of the Gospels shouts loudly and clearly that the kindom of God is here – at hand – on earth, right now, and we’re meant to participate in it here, and now, by engaging in the world.
No, being “a peculiar people” means we are fully engaged in the world around us, but that we look at it through what I’ll call “church-colored glasses.” What I mean by “church-colored glasses” is that we are the inheritors of Jesus’ gift for examining the culture we live in and recognizing how “the way things have always been done” needs rethinking, paradigm shifting, flip-flopping, or even a razing to the ground so that a new thing might emerge. Remember all the times Jesus welcomed beggars, chronically ill people, tax collectors, prostitutes? Remember how he called unsophisticated, working class people to be the core of his religious movement? Remember how he healed on the Sabbath and stopped a stoning and reinterpreted scripture to include rather than exclude? Every time he did these taboo or unexpected things, he was questioning the culture around him – gazing at it through lenses given to him by a Creator whose priorities are justice, healing, wholeness, inclusion, peace, generosity, and compassion. And often, those lenses called him to declare “Caesar can do his own thing; what God asks us to do is different.”
That principle holds true even to this very day. The administration wants to separate children of asylum seekers from their parents and detain them? Well, God calls us to care for the least of these, particularly orphans, not just with compassion but with justice. Our criminal justice system wants to put away veterans for non-violent drug offenses? God calls us to consider drug courts that use alternative sentencing – and to examine our own consciences about what we’ve asked our veterans to do on our behalf that pushes them to numb their reality.
Our work culture lets bullying or sexual harassment slide? God calls us to stand up for those who have less power than we do, and to speak the truth to those in charge. Our children’s school culture pushes us to focus on achievement and what transcripts and college applications will look like? God calls us to listen instead to the desires God has created in our kids – to attend to their wellbeing as souls “awe-fully and wonderfully made.”
I think about wearing church-colored glasses a lot this time of year. With Memorial Day in the recent rear view and the 4th of July approaching, as we all gear up for picnics, parades, and fireworks, I’m aware that our culture asks us for unalloyed patriotism – a sort of cult of the fallen where we honor and praise military service but rarely take a frank, hard, look at our addiction to violence as a response to conflict – and the terrible toll it takes on our service people and their families, not to mention God’s children inevitably on the receiving end of our militarism.
I think about how, when we’re asked to sing “God Bless America,” God might not have envisioned a world with borders separating people; how we might be called by God to bless people of all lands, not just our own.
I also think about how, when we are asked to stand for the national anthem (an anthem which, we often forget, glorifies war, bloodshed, and God’s role in delivering a victory to us and utter decimation to our enemies) – in the name of justice God calls us to examine how the way things have always been done in our country is actually a curse, not a blessing, on many of its inhabitants – our neighbors.
(Here’s just one example – our national anthem’s author, Francis Scott Key, was a slaveholder who considered people of African descent an “inferior race” and penned its third verse as a mockery of the death of American slaves who had been promised their freedom to fight for the British rather than live out their lives enslaved. Makes you see the NFL anthem controversy in a different light, doesn’t it? The US, by the way, after defeating the British in the War of 1812, demanded the return of our “property” – the approximately 6,000 soldiers of color who fought for the British – but the British refused and helped resettle the now-freed people in Canada and Trinidad.)
I think about how as God’s own, peculiar people, it’s our job not only not to worship war, militarism, exceptionalism, and institutionalized racism in our sanctuary, but to rethink the ways we participate in a culture that perpetuates those ideals.
Listen, church doesn’t have to be a downer, a place where all the things we enjoy about our way of living get picked to shreds. But it is meant to help us take a second look at “the way things have always been done,” to put on our church-colored glasses and wonder how God might call us to view everything from patriotism to work culture to social media to consumerism to political policy to family – differently.
Alright. So you may be wondering why, if I’m so against focusing on patriotism during worship, we sang America the Beautiful earlier. Well for one thing, it’s my alma mater’s fight song, as it were – written by Wellesley professor (and daughter of a Congregationalist minister) Katherine Lee Bates, it’s sung at every reunion and all-college gathering, in full harmony, replacing “brotherhood” with “sisterhood,” of course. So it has a special place in my heart.
But it would be a bit hypocritical to only sing patriotic hymns I like, wouldn’t it? The deeper, church-colored answer is that O Beautiful, for Spacious Skies, as it’s known in our hymnal, acknowledges that we, as a nation, are not beyond reproach. It talks about the suffering – “human tears” – of our nation’s peoples, and about our ongoing need for transformation and refinement – “God mend thine every flaw…’til all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” And of course, it preaches brotherhood – siblinghood, we might say nowadays – as the highest value, calling us to the biblical virtue of kinship across ethnic or biological lines. Reading over the lyrics this week I was struck by how poignant a prayer this hymn is for the current state of our nation.
But I think an even better hymn is the one we’ll sing just after communion, at the end of worship – “This Is My Song,” a hymn asking God to bless all people and to bring peace to every land. I hope as we head out into a week of barbecues and pool parties and fireworks and stirring music that this anthem might occasionally float through our heads – and that it might help us all remember to look at the world through church-colored glasses. Amen.
This Is My Song
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my prayer, O Ruler of all nations:
Let your reign come; on earth your will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give to you; let your will be done.