“Who We Want to Be” Colchester Federated Church, July 4, 2021, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Psalm 148)

Today is the 4th of July—a holiday when Americans commemorate the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Many Americans celebrate with barbeques, fireworks, baseball, fun gatherings of all kinds with loved ones, and might not think too deeply about the history behind Independence Day.  It also can be a tricky day when it comes to the Christian Church.  Because Christians are called to worship God, not worship our nation.  In fact, when Christianity finds itself in a position of power in any empire or nation, it doesn’t tend to go well.   

If we think about the heritage of our church here at Colchester Federated Church—a congregation that belongs to both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ—we can remember that the people who championed the separation of church and state in our nation were American Baptists dating back to colonial times.  We can think about the separation of church and state as prohibiting the government from imposing religion in peoples’ lives.  We are not just a Christian nation after all. 

There are Americans who are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, belong to other religious traditions, and those who do not belong to any religion at all.  We are not so much a melting pot where everyone has to give up their individual faiths to be exactly the same.  We’re perhaps more like a salad where we can have lettuce, cheese, croutons, tomatoes, onions, dressing, and other fabulous ingredients.  We’re all part of the salad together, and we retain our unique identities.  Who wants to eat a salad that’s just lettuce anyway?  We’re not rabbits! 

In our country, the government cannot impose any particular religion on us. Additionally, we can think of the separation of church and state as protecting people for religion.  That is, the individual believer and their religious institution doesn’t have the state interfering with the vibrant faith that any of us are seeking to develop.

Baptists experienced persecution here in New England (often by New England Congregationalists).  All the more remarkable that our church federated and came together in 1949 from the New England Congregationalist and American Baptist traditions considering this history.  Baptists used those experiences of religious persecution to deepen their understandings of religious freedom.  Roger Williams helped establish Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom.  Isaac Backus was a Baptist pastor from Massachusetts who argued for religious freedom before the Continental Congress.  John Leland was a Baptist pastor who helped ensure that the Bill of Rights guarantees religious freedom and the separation of church and state.  Because from the beginning Baptists were suspicious of anybody apart from the church trying to define what religion is and telling people how they should be practicing their faith.[1] 

We can keep this history and our church’s heritage in mind when we come to worship on the 4th of July.  It is a blessing to live in a nation where we are not told that we must belong to any particular religion, let alone told how we should worship within that faith tradition.  We can give thanks for the value of freedom that is part of the founding documents of our relatively young nation.  My concentration in college was European history and some of my professors used to jokingly refer to American history as “current events”.  Because the truth is that the United States of America is a young nation compared to many others.  We are a work in progress.  And that’s a good thing! 

We can also remember on this Independence Day that as Christians we are called to worship and obey God first and foremost.  It was Peter who declared in the Acts of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than humans!”[2]  Yes, we can absolutely give thanks for being part of this country.  We can pray for this country and help make it a place of true freedom and justice for all.  At the same time, the worship of God comes first and foremost in the lives of Christians.

Now let’s turn to the poem (that was eventually set to music) “America, the Beautiful” to contemplate further.  This poem was written by Katharine Lee Bates—an English Professor at Wellesley College.  Bates was the daughter of a New England Congregational minister in her father and a schoolteacher in her mother (her mother had a college degree, which was rare during her lifetime.)  She loved to travel.  Historian Jill Lepore wrote a foreword in the National Geographic book America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs that details how “America the Beautiful” came about.  Lepore writes that Katharine Lee Bates had “been to Syria.  She’d toured Palestine. She’d ridden a camel in Damascus. She’d hiked the Alps. She’d even seen the Dead Sea. But Katharine Lee Bates is best remembered for a single trip she took in 1893, a pilgrimage across the United States, and for the poem she wrote about that trip.”[3]

Katharine Lee Bates took that trip across America in 1893, some of it with her partner (also a professor at Wellesley College) Katharine Ellis Coman.  Like many Americans, Katharine Lee Bates was awed by the beauty of her country and simultaneously contemplated the struggle for justice.  The Civil War broke out when she was just a baby, and the 14th Amendment was ratified when she was just 9 years old which guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race, but not sex.  There were many conversations during her lifetime about the best path forward after the Civil War, and the country remained bitterly divided. 

“America, the Beautiful” speaks of the beauty of this country, beauty that can be seen from sea to shining sea.  “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain” (reflecting what Katharine Lee Bates saw in Kansas).  “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!” (reflecting what Bates saw in Colorado).  “Thine alabaster cities gleam” (reflecting what Bates saw in Chicago at the Columbian Exposition).  We live in a diverse and beautiful country. 

It’s also a religious poem—it does have a place in our Christian hymnals.  Because her words give thanks for God’s blessings and ask for God’s blessings.  “God shed His grace on thee.”  One can read that as a prayer asking for God’s blessing.  As in, God, please, shed your grace on this country.  “God mend thine every flaw.”  As in, God, please mend the flaws here in this country.  We do not live in a perfect country; Bates was asking for God to mend what is broken here.  “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!”  Our laws must reflect our values.  And we will probably always debate what that means with one another. 

In the end, and on this Independence Day, we can pray for God to shed God’s grace and mend the flaws present in our country.  We can remember that we are called not to worship our country, but to worship God.  While still giving God thanks for living in a place where religion is not imposed on us, and we are free to worship as our hearts desire.  For you and I can walk in the footsteps of Jesus, working together for the good of all in this little corner of our great big country.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jeffrey D. Jones and Debra L. Sutton, “Religious Liberty” in We Are Baptists: Studies for Youth, 19-20.
[2] Acts 5:29, Common English Bible.
[3] Jill Lepore, “How ‘America the Beautiful’ was Born,” National Geographic, November 3, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/how-america-the-beautiful-was-born

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.