Patriot Dreams

Ancient Testimony – Romans 8: 18-25, 31-39 John 21: 15-17

July 03, 2011

by Ed Powers

Katherine Lee Bates in 1893 stood at the summit of Pike’s Peak surveying the land as far as her eye could see. She called her vision “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” and conveyed the vista and dreams of the nation her heart and view embraced.

Interestingly, when President Nixon visited China in 1972, “America the Beautiful” was played as the welcome music. The Chinese characters representing the U.S. mean “beautiful country.”

Among Bates’ phrases: “O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years…” That’s our theme for this morning. Amidst the maelstrom of issues, conflicts, regrets and hopes that confront this nation, what is it to be a patriot; what dream guides one; and beyond the moment, what can we see?

On the eve of the nation’s birthday, what can we celebrate; what can we lament; what can we hope for; and what are the perils and the promise? What do we see beyond these years?

For the citizen, dare we say the Patriot, there are two primary symbols: the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty. Both share common themes, some date convergence and a long look beyond the present.

For the Christian, the call to the service of freedom has prayerful and theological links as does the Declaration: “Endowed by their Creator.” God…shed grace, refine gold, mend flaws—part of our seeing.

In spite of its appeal to Bates, the word patriot and the definition of being patriotic needs context and definition and a continuing hard look. The dictionary is clear: the basic definition is 'one who loves his or her country and supports its interests/authority; it has to do with belief, loyalty, faithfulness, passion, and a sense of core values.'

So put the two together: the loyal citizen/the patriot and the one who brings a Christian/biblical perspective to passion or loyalty. How do they interface? What are the salient 'Patriot Dreams' on the eve of the nation’s birthday?

First, today's patriot dreams that truth will be sought and honored.

Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jesus’ ministry was in many ways definitional. What do loyalty and trust mean? What does it mean to be human, to be made in the image of God? Who is my brother or sister? Who is my mother? Where is your treasure? When one is dying by the roadside, who is my neighbor? Who condemns you and by what authority? What is love and how far is its reach? Read the Gospels; it's all there!

In the age of sound bites, social media, and brutal, divisive politics, the issue of the truth making us free has, perhaps, never been more urgent.

As people focus on the 'silly season' looking toward next year’s elections or try to avoid the crushing impact of not raising the debt ceiling or find ways to achieve marriage equality, the questions of what is fact, what is politics, and what are outright lies -- reported often enough to sound plausible, 'He was not born in the U.S.; he’s a Kenyan').

Alice in Wonderland may have set the standard: “I have believed six impossible things before breakfast!”

Never, in my experience, has there been a time when 'just the facts,' are required just to find the core realities on which human beings could start to move forward or to disagree.

Truth, it has often been said, is the first casualty in war. Today, truth may be a casualty of life with its sound bites, quick fixes, social media.

Truth, a common understanding of the facts of the case: is there global warming? Is there anything to the notion of evolution? On almost any subject there are more than two sides, no common core of truth or fact and lots of red herrings thrown in.

The situation is serious enough that Washington Week in Review has added a new feature to its Friday night wrap-up—someone who will challenge the distortions carried in recent sound bites. And, Anderson Cooper defines his journalistic effort as “Keeping them Honest.” Both sites are very busy.

There are truths, as the declaration contends, which are self-evident. We should capture those, move them beyond sound bites, tell stories to illustrate them. So, for the Christian who believes in a God of truth whose integrity is real, being a patriot involves insisting on facts and truth and challenging distortions.

A passion for truth, truth-telling and fact-based decision-making is the first line of duty of today’s patriot.

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free!

Second, today's patriot dreams that our passion will be for inclusion, welcome and universality. 

The Book of Acts introduces the disciple Peter (trying to get it right after the resurrection) who began his speech, “I perceive that God shows no partiality…” He had discovered the breadth of Jesus’ outreach and the limitlessness of God’s love.

Not only does God not show partiality, God’s loves extends to all. God cares about their well-being and bids us think of them as neighbor.

Our bulletin cover focuses on the Lady in the Harbor, conveying her unfinished business. The Statue was created to celebrate liberty but it remained for a poet, Emma Lazarus, to answer the question:

“Liberty for what? Liberty from what?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Mentioning Lazarus’ poem reminds me of a congressional hearing I attended in 1980. Its purpose was to gain citizen perspectives on immigration legislation making its way through Congress at the time. The hearing moderator was the Asian Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. She listened patiently as a rough, burly guy stood at the mike and cursed out immigrants in the most gross way as cheats, job stealers and a menace to public safety.

After he finished, the moderator said, “Emma Lazarus just turned over in her grave!!,” smiled and moved to the next speaker.

Emma Lazarus is turning over a lot these days.

At the core of being today’s Patriot is the capacity, while holding one’s conviction, of connecting with others of different view seeking common ground—or, at least the basis to agree to differ. Find the humanity in the difference.

A really beautiful example of this was the comment by State Senator Tom Duane as the New York Senate debate on marriage equality was moving toward a decision. “There are only heroes here,” he said of his fellow senators. Though the no votes had to hurt him in his deepest gut, he seemed to believe that each senator acted out of an examined conscience and, together, created the beautiful drama. That’s majestic, and I believe an example of patriot dreams that see beyond the years.

Lincoln was criticized once for talking with enemies, connecting with others who didn’t agree with them. Remember his “team of rivals” in his cabinet. Abe said, “don’t I defeat my enemy if I make a friend of him?”

This is a hard one for me, but I believe it’s true. I am a passionate, partisan person. I have strong convictions and loyalties. It’s easy for me to become enraged at Tea Party people or fundamentalists or those without regard for truth. So, I have to work at it. God does show no partiality, and as a nation at our best we have been welcoming to all, seeking to meet across boundaries, to find common ground with others whom we might otherwise dismiss. Judson church’s heritage itself is testimony to that mission.

I did it right once. I was in Pennsylvania walking the streets on behalf of John Kerry’s presidential candidacy. Just as I started to go up the steps to ring a doorbell, a young man dressed to the hilt with Bush paraphernalia came toward me.

I said “Hello.” He ignored me. “Just a minute.” He stopped but would not look at me and then shot a look of contempt at me.

I said, “I’d like to shake your hand.” “No way,” he shouted.

“Give me a minute,” I said. “Do you believe in the Constitution?” His reluctant, “Yeah.”

“Do you also believe that part of what makes America great is you and I can decide who to support and that we can try to convince others of our view?” Again, “Yes.”

“Then, let’s shake hands and move on.” We did.

Patriot dreams: God shows no partiality, nor should we.

Third, today's patriot's dream focuses on the central purpose of our country and its people - a vision beyond years. 

The Declaration of Independence is clear about that purpose: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, and that all are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

This vision, this seeing beyond the years  is about our nation, within a family of nations bound together. The use of resources to achieve human capacity for everyone. Seeing difference as a form of delight rather than a challenge.
Building structures for peace, justice and human cooperation. Welcome and inclusive.

An illustration of this core, these common self-evident truths, recently came to me when I attended my grandson Ross’ graduation at the University of Virginia. The storied, lush, green UVA campus was the setting. The elegant Georgian buildings and covered walkways designed by Thomas Jefferson conveyed that sense of rootedness, yet creative openness. The school, having done its best to emphasize the importance of public service and the command of serious knowledge, was ready to send off my grandson and his peers into their new world.

I am here to tell you that Thomas Jefferson is alive and well in Charlottesville. Each graduate received a pamphlet from the Alumni Association with the text of the three Jefferson accomplishments which he valued enough to want them placed on his tombstone: The Declaration of Independence, the Freedom of Religion Statute, and founding the University of Virginia.

Chris Matthews, the NBC journalist, has an ad for MSNBC in Time magazine's issue on the Constitution. Matthews contends that “Over time, people who advance liberties tend to win the argument, whether it’s for women, African Americans, immigrants, or the Gay Community. In the end, America takes the side of the people looking for rights. That’s one of the wonders of this country: eventually, we live up to our ideals.”

Speaking of seeing beyond the years…one felt powerfully committed to the Nation and the State of New York late the night of June 24th when the Marriage Equality Act was voted and signed into law. Good things, miracles can still happen. Thank God!!! Seeing beyond the years. Capture these moments—savor them!!

In a recent listserv email, Donna Schaper reflected on recent lessons learned in Albany as she sought to move the vote for Marriage Equality forward: “We learned that we are living through a change from the old ‘horse-trading,’ nearly Marxist, overly material approach to politics and emerging into a more spiritual, moral, conscience-driven kind of cultural politics. God is Still Speaking. And that theological statement matters more to the deportee, the down and out and the gay 17 year old who jumps off a bridge than any horse-trading we could ever do. We still want to be smart about the material while being enchanted by the spiritual.”

Today’s Ancient Testimony captures the interview between the Risen Jesus and the baffled disciple Peter. Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He asks the question 3 times (perhaps remembering Peter’s 3-fold denial some nights ago) and receives a “yes” answer from Peter. Each time Jesus offers a command: “Feed my lambs…feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17).

But since this is Agape, let’s look deeper at the dialogue. Let’s look behind the English at the Greek roots. The Greek language has three words for love. Let’s focus on two: Phileo—brotherly/sisterly love and Agape— unconditional, far reaching, widely embracing love.

The first two times Jesus uses Agape : "Simon, Son of John do you agape me?” Both times Peter says, “I love you like a brother Phileo.”

The third time Jesus changes the word. He drops the Agape: “Do you love me like a brother?” Peter, troubled, says “yes.”

Peter’s got work to do. Somehow, he, like we, have to learn to move from brotherly/sisterly love to the fullness of Agape.

Can we Agape a country that is inclusive? Can we build a country true to itself welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”

This is not a new country, not an alien vision. It is our country when true to its heritage, it is a vision of recovery, of “the better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s classic phrase.

Let us move to the Agape meal.

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