Jeremiah 29: 7, 11
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
11 For surely, I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Since we are on the 4th of July weekend it seemed appropriate to talk about this holiday that celebrates America’s birthday in the context of Christian faith.
The 4th of July is not commonly celebrated in the United Church of Christ and I can think of a few reasons this is the case.
First, it is not on the church calendar. The church calendar fits the readings of scripture. And since the Bible was written without reference to the US or any modern nation for that matter, this is not going to be a part of the calendar in this season of Pentecost.
Secondly the 4th is a secular holiday. My memories of this holiday are not church, unlike Christmas or Easter. It involves fireworks and loud explosions, of picnics and grilling hamburgers, sometimes a vacation or a fishing trip.
Thirdly, we are a global church. The United Church of Christ partners with the United Church of Canada which celebrated their birthday on the 1st of July. We are part of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which have sister denominations across the globe. And the Christian faith itself is a global reality, not just an American one.
Fourthly, there are those, including in the church, who believe that America is God’s favored nation and the corollary other nations are not. And that our obligations only extend to those within our borders.
There are some who believe that America, its ideals, and symbols, are co-extensive with Christian faith such that our country has become an object of worship, an idol. The term for this is Christian nationalism and if you google this you will a lot of articles and books on the subject.
But we know as Edgar Brightman writes
that if “an individual finds God he finds the universal God of all. It is henceforth impossible for him to think of his religion as a mere relation between himself and God; it is necessarily a relation to all of God’s children. It is the most public and social thing about him, binding him with ties of love to every person in the world”
For God so loved the world says John 3:16. It is the heart of Christian faith. The name of Peoples Congregational harkens to the language of peoples or nations in the Bible.
As Acts 10 says 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.
And Acts 17 6 From one ancestor[i] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[j] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’
Or as the Reform Jewish prayer books
“God made all peoples through one ancestor that no man may say that my lineage is greater than yours”
Given the universal character of Christian faith, of every monotheism that claims God as creator of all maybe we should not be celebrating a day that picks our people, our nation as somehow different. At least in the life of the church which testifies to a God who is the God of all.
And yet I believe there is a case for celebrating the 4th of July and that as Christians it can be important to do so. So, I want to present a case for how it might be done in a manner fitting to what our faith calls us to be.
I will start with Aristotle, who I use when I teach Ethics at MSUB, and his idea of concentric circles of obligation.
You start with the family because that is the basic unit of obligation where you learn your first lessons in life and learn to relate to others.
Then you move out to your school or workplace or the military which brings in a wider group of folks from different walks of life.
Then you move to your community, in this case Sidney and Savage or whatever town you are from. Then the state of Montana, then the west, then the United States, then on to the rest of the world.
Every circle that you move to a wider set of obligations and relations, but the key is you learn from the previous circle how to be a good neighbor.
And you must do the smaller obligation well before you can move on to a wider set of obligations. The most important lessons in school may not be just the facts kids receive but how they learn to relate to other students. Sports, 4-H, the Scouts, the same.
Adults cannot help or love or serve children around the world if you cannot help and love your own children, then the children of your neighborhood, then school, then city, state, nation, the world
You cannot help humanity without being involved at the community level. You start with those sets of relations around you and then move outward.
The Christian principle involved in this move is that we only meet the God in the particular. We meet God in the people we meet, interact with, spend time with, have a history with. Our church, our friends, family, co-workers.
It’s also there that we have the means to affect the most good because to seek the good of others requires knowledge of the good in other peoples lives and that is had by knowledge of them which is had by being in direct relation to them.
And in the Bible, we meet God in a particular person, Jesus. And God establishes a covenant with a particular people, Israel. So, our Biblical story is one rooted in how particular individuals in one place interacted with God. The purpose of which is told to Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations.
So, the second Christian principle is, to be a blessing to the nations. That is, as we expand the reach of our obligations into wider circles, we care called to never stop in that expansion until we encompass the whole world God loves.
If we stop in one of the circles, there is a breakdown. If we support our kids but will not do a thing for the neighborhood kids, or if we say our school is all that is important and the other school is nothing, or if we say that we should help Montanans but say North Dakotans are worthless, or America matters but Canada is nothing, then we failed at that basic obligation of being a blessing to God’s people.
Racism can operate this way, nationalism operates this way, religious exclusivism works this way. It stops at our group and says us but not you.
Yes, we should love the UCC, it is our denominational home, but if you dismiss Methodists, or Baptists, or Catholics or Lutherans as somehow not people of God, as somehow less, this is a problem.
Anytime there is a stopping line where suddenly, we have no more concern, we have stopped doing what God does, which is to care for the whole.
I am grateful to be where I am from and I think gratitude is a helpful word.
Proud can turn into something exclusive, but grateful is a recognition of the gifts we have for where we are and who we are connected to.
I’m grateful to be an American, I want to celebrate America in all of its particularity its bigness, its character, its beauty, the texture of what it means to American is different than any place on earth. It is my home, my native land.
But gratitude brings responsibility, to care for the country, to seek its well-being. Our scripture from Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city, is an appeal to this. If we are grateful for the gifts of God, we will want to build a good place, a good city, state, nation that is responsive to God’s call for us.
Where, as the Psalms say, justice and righteousness will kiss, where in Micah, no one is afraid and all have enough, where in Isaiah, war is no more, where in the Gospels all feel welcomed and included at the table of our God, where in Genesis we are called to stewardship of our land.
Communion itself is a visible representation of the particular and universal. We meet God in bread and cup, all coming from different walks of lives and yet we come together as a people in a rite that binds us to Christians all over the world even as we participate in this church, in this town, at this hour.
We are reminded of who our immediate neighbors are and yet how we are connected to something much bigger. May our faith, may our nation, may our lives reflect this, care for each other and care for the whole world. Amen.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings and summer interim at Peoples Congregational in Sidney MT and First Congregational in Savage MT.