Deuteronomy 10:17–21; Psalm 145:1–9; Matthew 5:43–48

On a sabbatical a few years ago I had a chance to spend nearly two days with my family exploring the towns and beaches of Normandy in France, tracing the events of the D-Day invasion of June, 1944. That was when the Allied forces launched maybe the most remarkable military invasion in history, to begin taking back Europe from the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of English, Canadian, and American troops crossed the English Channel under cover of night and then poured onto the beaches at dawn.

It was enormously moving to walk through the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where more than 10,000 American soldiers are buried. Row after row of white crosses dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. This was holy ground, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of the way our country fought at great cost to defend the cause of freedom around the world.

A little American history will tell you that not all the wars we have fought have been so noble or necessary, and our own country has been deeply divided about the current war in Iraq. But standing on the beach at Normandy, I couldn’t help but think how precious freedom is, and how grateful we should be for our country and for the soldiers who have given their lives to protect it. My sense of patriotism ran deep and strong those days.

Three days from now our nation will celebrate the Fourth of July, the nation’s birthday, and our most patriotic day. It’s in many ways the highpoint of summer, with its picnics, parades, fireworks. For most of my adult life I’ve spent the Fourth in a tiny community in rural Tennessee, with a parade including every fire engine in the county blasting its horn at full volume, Shriners circling in their miniature motor-scooters, horse-drawn carriages with local 4-H Club queens plodding nobly down the street, and two or three marching bands strutting along. People line the streets cheering as the paraders toss candy to the kids. Nearly everyone is dressed up in their red, white, and blue.

Now as a Washingtonian I’m learning that D.C. too has its parades, picnics, and fireworks on the Mall. Only the celebrations here are anything but small and quaint. Wherever you are in this country, my hunch is that it’s hard not to feel patriotic on the Fourth of July.

It has to be said, though, that patriotism is a complex thing. We have every reason to love our country. It has in many ways fulfilled the dream of John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who called on the settlers in this new land to be “a city on a hill,” a beacon of freedom and hope to the world. In the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson and the other signers held up a vision that has continued to have revolutionary power—declaring that all human beings are created equal and are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But there were troubles in our nation from the start. Many of the signers of the Declaration, for example, were slave-owners, and slavery wasn’t to be outlawed for nearly a hundred years. In the new Constitution, African Americans had no votes, no legal rights, and for political purposes were counted as three-fifth of a white person. The nineteenth century saw nearly all the native Americans either killed or forcibly removed from their lands to make room for the white settlers. Women didn’t get the vote until 1920.

It was a great vision of liberty and justice that America held out for itself, but America has always been a nation of flawed human beings, including many who have been eager to promote their own interests at the expense of the well-being of their country.

Part of the essential greatness of America has been the way it has welcomed disagreement and dissent. Over the past 231 years of its life, Americans have argued vehemently over just about everything. Not long ago I heard a young teenager, in response to the bitter polarization in this country over the war in Iraq, say, “I wish Americans could still be as patriotic as they used to be.” It’s easy to forget that deep disagreement is at the core of what it means to be patriotic. It’s this very freedom to disagree and debate for which our soldiers have fought and died through the years.

William Sloane Coffin, the former Chaplain at Yale in the divided Vietnam War days, and a tireless American prophet during his years at Riverside Church in New York, has written that “There are three kinds of patriots. Two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. The good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.” We love our country enough to want it to fulfill the dream it was founded to embody, and sometimes that will call for passionate argument and even strong opposition.

Coffin goes on to say, “How do you love America? Don’t say, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ That’s like saying, ‘My grandmother, drunk or sober’; it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t just salute the flag and don’t burn it either. Wash it and make it clean.” Love your country, he’s saying, and work to make it the best, most generous, most compassionate nation it can be.

Christians necessarily have hard questions to ask of our country. Our Old Testament lesson is a vigorous reminder that we Christians are accountable above all to a God who knows no national boundaries, and who calls all nations to lives of justice and peace. In fact, God’s only partiality seems to be toward those who are poor. Listen to what Moses has to say to Israel:

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. [We could translate that, You shall love the immigrant, for your people too were immigrants in the land of America.] You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship.

When we Christians love our country, we are called to love God, and God’s vision for all human life first. And that means we will have many lover’s quarrels with our country—about how it treats the poor, how it treats immigrants, how it treats its prisoners, how it relates to the other countries of the world.

And then we hear more from Jesus in our gospel reading:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Those words were addressed not to a nation but to Jesus’ disciples. But they are marching orders for Christians in how they seek to influence whatever nation they call home. Where was this vision, for example, in the lead-up to the Iraq war as militaristic Christian leaders seemed to be leading the march to battle? Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, whose sermons are watched by millions of viewers, said, “God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.”

Dr. Gregory Boyd, a leading evangelical pastor, has written a book called The Myth of Christian Nation, lambasting his conservative Christian colleagues for trying to build a certain kind of Christian nation—with prayer in public schools, displays of the Ten Commandments on buildings, an array of take-no-prisoners positions in the many culture wars, outlawing abortion and gay unions. It isn’t the political positions themselves that Boyd finds disturbing, but the determination to impose one set of religious views on an entire nation, and demonizing those who oppose them. It is idolatrous, he says, and unfaithful both to the gospel and to America’s deepest principles.

The fact is that at the heart of the founder’s vision of America was a conviction that there would be no state religion, no Christian America. Thomas Jefferson called this new way a “fair experiment”—to have a nation that embraced religious liberty for all and refused to make any one religion official.

That has been part of the genius of America, and oddly enough, religion has flourished in this country in the last two hundred years more than in any other Western developed nation. And maybe most importantly, it encourages religious people to keep a healthy tension between their faith in a God whose love transcends all borders and loyalties, and their own loyalty to their country.

The great cellist Pablo Casals once said, “Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the border?” That’s what Jesus would say. There are no borders to Christ’s love, and nor can there be for Christians. When it comes to an issue like global warming, or immigration, Christians can’t ask simply what’s good for America. We have to ask what is best for all God’s children and what is God’s will for the whole human race? The greatest question isn’t what will keep the American economy expanding at a certain rate, it is how can America best use its immense wealth for the sake not only of its citizens but the world?

And so patriotism will always entail both pride and love of our country, and also a lover’s quarrel with an America still striving to live by its highest ideals. We are called to a humble patriotism, a servant patriotism, a patriotism that loves America, but that loves all of God’s people even more. Whenever we hear a politician end a speech by saying “God bless America,” we Christians should silently add a second prayer, “And God bless the rest of the world too.”

At the end of Communion we’ll have a chance to sing what is for me the most moving of all our national songs, the one I wish were our national anthem. “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” we’ll sing, and we’ll celebrate all the beauty of this glorious land we have been given. Then in the second stanza we will sing the words not just of our love of America, but of our lover’s quarrel:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.

Those lines make a good national hymn a great one.

Patriotism is a noble virtue, this loyalty we have to our land and to the idea of freedom. But patriotism alone, apart from God’s love for the entire human race, can be a dangerous thing.

And so let us give thanks for this nation, for this land of the free and home of the brave. Let us praise God for it’s purple mountains’ majesty and its fruited plains. Let us be grateful that we have the privilege of living in a nation that is the envy of the world for its freedom and prosperity, and that has welcomed millions upon millions of refugees seeking a better life.

And as Christians let us love America with a humble patriotism, and with an awareness that our truest homeland is finally not America, but God.