Scripture Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17
I took last Sunday off as Lisa and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. We did many fun things, but mostly we celebrated our marriage by temporarily getting rid of one of the lasting side-effects of being married for 17 years—namely, our three children! We dropped them off on Friday with some friends who kept them until Sunday! I’m reminded of that great Paul Simon song on Graceland, in which a father tells his children about meeting and courting his future wife, their mother: “Well, that was your mother/ And that was your father/ Before you was born, dude/ And life was great/ You are the burden/ Of our generation/ I sure do love you/ But let’s get that straight.”†
We also went to Little Five Points on Saturday night, to the Variety Playhouse, to see one of our favorite bands—who were considerate enough to schedule their Atlanta concert on our anniversary. As we were driving to the theater to park the car, I spotted a few members of the band walking on the crowded sidewalk. I said, “Hey look! There’s Carl Newman and Dan Bejar!” They’re two leaders of the band. No one else seemed to recognize them. They blended in. After we parked, we were trying to decide where to eat, and Lisa said, “Look! There they are!” They were walking into a Thai place. And I said, “Let’s go eat there!” And we did. Not only that… We were seated at the table next to theirs. I tried to be cool, but I wanted to say something. I waited for a lull in their conversation. And I lied—a little—by pretending to act surprised and said, “Oh, I see we’re sitting next to the band that we’re going to see.” And we engaged in a little small talk. To put things in perspective, if you like golf, sitting next to them would be the equivalent of sitting next to Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. That’s who these people are to me!
I bring this up because music is obviously very important to me, but especially rock and roll—which, on this 4th of July I hasten to point out—is a uniquely American form of music. Even though the band that we saw on Saturday is from Canada and so much great rock music has been made by the British and others, the music I love couldn’t have been born anywhere other than the United States… this wild hybrid of black music—R&B, blues, and gospel—and white country and western music. And like so many other good things in this country, it was born in the American South—in part because poor, economically marginalized white people like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins by necessity lived and worked among economically and socially marginalized black people—and out of this cross-pollination of cultures a music was born.
Well, I could go on, but the point is that this music that was born here—it sounds like America to me. It sounds like freedom to me. This American music is something that I celebrate when I celebrate the 4th of July. And you have your own things that you celebrate about living in this country. I want to share some of them. [Read texts.]
It’s very appropriate that we celebrate our nation in church. Why?
Because think about the things that makes our country great—whatever they are: its abundant natural resources; its economic opportunities; its religious and political freedoms; its relative equality and commitment to justice; its freedom to pursue individual happiness—including all the other things we’ve named. These good things are not made possible simply because our Founding Fathers were incredibly smart and wise and insightful—although they were that. They’re not made possible simply because the documents that these men crafted—the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights 11 years later—were works of great ingenuity and insight—although they were that. They’re not made possible simply because so many courageous and selfless people through the years have stood up time and again, answering the call to defend and protect our nation and its highest ideals and principles—although they’ve done that and continue to do so.
They’re ultimately made possible because of God—who has graciously inspired and encouraged and strengthened and comforted and given wisdom to American men and women throughout these past 234 years. God has worked in and through and sometimes against and in spite of the people and events of our history to form us and shape us. Inasmuch as we are a good, loving, and just people, it is because we are reflecting God—the Source of all goodness, love, and justice. All of these good things about our country—which we so easily take for granted—come to us as gifts from God. Indeed, as the hymn says of our country, God has “shed his grace on thee.” It’s all grace. It’s all unearned. It’s all a gift. And so for these gifts, we—the people of God at Alpharetta Methodist—gather this morning to give our thanks and praise. Amen.
We take a healthy kind of pride in our country—we are without shame or apology patriotic—acknowledging at the same time the true Source of our country’s greatness. And as we do so, we are reminded of Jesus’ hard words, “to whom much is given, much will be expected.”
The bold experiment of America is that We the People can govern ourselves—and that’s a risky proposition. We are a government of, by, and for the people—a democracy. I like what Winston Churchill said—let’s not forget that his mother was American. He said, “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the rest.” He wasn’t kidding.
As Christians we ought to be acutely aware of and unsurprised by the problems that will exist with any institution so conceived and comprised. When people get involved with anything in our world, people tend to disappoint us. Not because they’re evil. Not because they’re dumb. Not because they’re acting in bad faith. But simply because they—and we—are sinners. All of us are sinners standing in need of God’s grace at every moment. It’s hard for us Christians, therefore to sit too tall in the saddle of our high horse when we know what’s in our own hearts that needs to be changed by the grace of God. And evil, the Bible and our Christian tradition tell us, has a tragic way of insinuating itself into all human affairs. When we consider these facts, it’s not surprising that we Americans often fail as a people to live up to our highest ideals and principles—what’s surprising is that we succeed as often as we do! That is truly God’s grace.
Now, by contrast, consider the country in which the Christians who originally received today’s scripture lived. They live in the Roman Empire under the rule of Caesar and the religion of Rome. Rome happily tolerated any number of strange religious cults—as long as these cults didn’t interfere with the status quo or the religion of the Empire, which was the worship of Caesar as Lord and Savior.
Think about the threat that the young Church posed to Rome: these Christians proclaimed and worshiped a rival Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth—someone that the Romans had already taken care of, they thought. Yet, in spite of Rome’s great skill at murdering people, this Jesus, the Church proclaimed, did not stay dead. And his followers believed that they too would share in Christ’s victory over death. They believed it so much, in fact, they were willing to suffer and even die for the sake of Jesus—in doing so, they were following in their master’s footsteps, taking up their cross and following. “Man,” the Romans must have thought, “if these people are unpersuaded by all of our threats and demonstrations of violence and murder, then they are truly beyond our control! What are we going to do about them? And in the meantime, they’re telling our slaves and peasants and women and prisoners that they’re all equal in God’s sight—brothers and sisters of Jesus and children of God—that message will turn our world upside down!”
It’s no wonder that the people’s Christian faith brought them in conflict with the powers that be. No wonder 1 Peter makes frequent reference to standing firm in the face of suffering. It was personally costly and even dangerous to follow Jesus—in a way that is foreign to most Christians living in the West, at least. Yet Peter says something remarkable to them: “As servants of God, live as free people…” Live as free people?—these Christians who have no right to free speech, no right to free assembly, no right to worship freely—and whatever freedom they enjoyed was constantly threatened.
How could these Christians possibly live as free people?
They could do so because this freedom that Christ offers is far greater, far deeper, far more profound than any kind of freedom that a nation can offer or guarantee. True freedom, as Jefferson rightly understood in the Declaration, must surely be something that comes as a gift—an endowment, he calls it—from our Creator. And it’s a kind of freedom that we possess regardless of what happens to us. If we are truly made free in Christ—no human being, no human institution, no terrible or tragic event in the world, no disappointment or heartache, can ever take that freedom away from us.
Our souls rest securely in the strong hands of our loving Lord, who is always present with us, always caring for us, always sustaining us with a love from which nothing can ever separate us. The question that 1 Peter addresses is a question that I want us to consider: If we follow Jesus, what do we have to be afraid of?
And yet I sense that so many people in our country are afraid for our country… Well, there’s good reason, right? The economy’s still not great. I’ve heard talk of double-dip recession. Many of us are still unemployed or underemployed after months or years. And unemployment benefits aren’t being extended any longer. The prospects for our children living more prosperously than their parents seem increasingly dim. And we’ve got this terrible ecological nightmare in the Gulf—is that well ever going to stop gushing? And what about the people whose livelihoods have been lost in the meantime? And then there’s Afghanistan… There are signs that that war is never going to end. And then there’s terrorism, illegal immigration, unsustainable debt… And if you listen to talk radio or watch cable news, you just get whipped into a frenzy of fear by partisans of all stripes whose main interest is not the welfare of our nation—after all, the American Dream has come true for them a thousandfold; they’re doing just fine—but higher ratings!
Sometimes I think we just need to take a deep breath and remember who’s in charge here! We know that our faith, our security, and our hope do not reside with people riding elephants or donkeys—or anyone else’s political agenda. Thank God! They reside with God—and God is the ultimate solution to the very real, very large problems that we face as a nation.
The good news is that God loves this country. God hasn’t lost patience with us or given up on us. In fact, God is calling us, the church, to join him in his mission to love and serve and share our Christian witness with our fellow Americans—and others.
We have good reason, in the name of Christ, to reject all this un-Christian pessimism that so many people want to sell us. We have good reason, in Christ, to be optimistic.
In fact, the soldiers at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan will soon have about 1,400 reasons. [Hold up a bag of Oreos.]
† Paul Simon, “That Was Your Mother,” Graceland, Warner Bros. 25447, 1986, compact disc.
We’ve got work to do!