07.02.2021 – For Purple Mountain Majesties

This coming Sunday is July 4.  How shall we celebrate the Lord’s Day when it falls on Independence Day?  And how shall we celebrate Independence Day when it falls on the Lord’s Day?

I’ve just entered my second year of retirement, so the question of Lord’s Day worship on July 4 takes on more of an academic tint than it had when I was planning worship week by week.  For sure, my musings are more for me than for our church here in Auburn or the church we will attend this Sunday in Memphis during a visit to our daughter and her family.

The question of July 4 worship (or first Sunday in July worship) has been a question since maybe 1776, but perhaps it takes on a new urgency in a time when a malignant nationalism has badly infected too many American churches.

Some churches will drape the flag over their crosses, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing God Bless America, and, if their tech team is up to it, explode indoor fireworks during the worship hour. A few pastors may find opportunity to curse the country, while still others will faithfully preach the texts given for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Earlier in the week Christianity Today published an online column arguing against much red, white, and blue in this Sunday’s worship. One of the Twitter responses to the column was  less than friendly, “You’re a disgrace to America and the world. You’re a disgrace to our faith.”  I take it “Your Mom” (The Tweeter’s handle – but not my mom) did not agree with the columnist’s conclusions. Such are our divided times.

Many parishioners in the congregations I served as pastor wore some combination or red, white, and blue to worship on the first Sunday of July.  I sometimes encouraged the habit. More often than not, a portion of the worship service would be given over to a time of “Thanks for the Gift of the Nation.” We’d likely sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” and perhaps “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” And, yes, Psalm 33:16–17 would find a place in the service:

The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

I hoped we might acknowledge the gift of our nation as a gift of God’s common grace while avoiding the heresy of nationalism. And, frankly, it was an answer to those who wanted us to sing “God Bless America” on the Sundays closest to Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving Day.

Some would say that I am an American only by accident of birth.  While a good Calvinist does not like the word accident, it is certainly true that I did not choose my nationality. It is also true that my nationality has given me much privilege, sometimes at the expense of those in other nations.  We Americans are privileged at birth and often by circumstance.

Might the privilege of birth or circumstance be used for Kingdom good?  Women of Herod’s household used their privilege to provide for Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:3). Lydia used her privilege to host Paul, Silas, and Luke, and perhaps help found the Philippian church (Acts 16:11-15). Paul used the privilege of Roman citizenship to share the gospel with the Roman Imperial Guard (Acts 25:21, Philippians 1:12-14).

Has American privilege been used for great harm in our world? Yes.

Might American privilege be used for Kingdom good?  I think so.  I have seen American privilege at work for much good in Brazil and Burundi and Guatemala.

Rightly, then, American Christians might sing of purple mountain majesties, and of patriot dream that sees beyond the years. And rightly we humbly beseech God to mend our every flaw.

Rightly, then, we hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., as we sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and then leave worship to work for that day when freedom rings from every mountainside, “from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.”

Dare we acknowledge Independence Day during Lord’s Day worship?  Does the malignancy of MAGA nationalism preclude our singing of the “patriotic hymns?” The question is not academic for those who have planned this Sunday’s worship services.  Pray for them and pray that God and God alone might be glorified in our worship.

As for celebrating Independence Day when it falls on the Lord’s Day, it’s an easy answer. Worship first. The barbecue can wait.