One of the strengths of national holidays is that we are given an opportunity to reflect on the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are. Many of us are afforded some federally mandated time to pause and to remember the values and the struggles that have brought us as a country to where we are today. (Let’s be honest: some of us just sleep in and troll parades for free candy. But we have the opportunity nonetheless).
When you think about it, every nation has an origin story. The Israelites had the Exodus, which, as Mary Luti observes, was the unique place “where God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.”
The Roman Empire in which the early Christianity got its start had a founding story too. You may have heard it—according to the myth, Mars, the god of war, fathered a set of twins and then left them to die in the woods. By chance, a she-wolf finds the twins and raises them to adulthood. But whey then grow up, the twins became bitter rivals, and ultimately one of them, Romulus, murders his brother Remus in a fight. Romulus goes on to found a city that will bear his name—Rome—and which will grow in power until its power reaches to the edge of the world (as they know it). Mary Luti reflects that “Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.”
Now, our country has a founding story too. And Nancy Taylor, the pastor of the historic old South Church in Boston, home of many a revolutionary in its day, tells our story in the following way
As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.
I don’t know about you, but that is not the story I learned in grade school. My teachers tended to focus on other ideals: liberty, freedom, democracy. We lifted up the pioneering and independent spirit of those intrepid Pilgrims, who endured all sorts of difficulty to build a new life in America. We talked about their search for religious freedom in a new land. We read sermons in which they committed themselves to being a new and Christian nation, shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope and an example of Christ to the world. We certainly didn’t talk about them getting lost and setting anchor because the kegs ran dry.
That’s the thing about the stories that we tell. And that is this: what we put in is just as important as what we leave out. The stories that we tell about who we are, who we were meant to be, have the power to define not just the past, but direct the present. “Who we are” becomes the lens by which we see and respond to the world around us.
We have been exploring the Psalms, and as we reflect on our national heritage and celebrate our unique identity as Americans in this time and in this place, perhaps it is fitting that we turn to the Psalms once more to reflect on the story that they tell us about who we are meant to be according to God’s Word.
So far, we have explored Psalms of Praise, of Thanksgiving, of Trust and Lament. And today we turn to possibly the most important category of all: the Psalms of New Orientation. These Psalms reflect upon the story of God’s presence with the people throughout history, and how God has moved us to a new place in the present. They are, in their own way, Patriotic Psalms, Psalms that celebrate who we are by remembering WHOSE we are.
Consider Psalm 40. The speaker begins in the following way: “I waited patiently for the Lord.” In the original Hebrew, it is more like “I hoped hopingly for the Lord.” This isn’t just someone sitting around hoping… they are hoping HOPINGLY! The prayer layers hope upon hope, to give us the sense of how intensely the prayer desires God’s presence. And he is not disappointed. God shows up. According to Psalm 40, God:
- drew me from the pit of chaos,
- set my feet on a rock,
- makes my steps secure,
- puts a new song in my mouth,
- “digs out my ears” in verse 6 so that he can hear God’s voice.
The story we are meant to hear about God is loud and clear: God. Is. Here. With. Us.
And you might think that this is enough, that the story can end here. But we are just getting started. It turns out that it is precisely this story—the story of God’s providential care—that gives the Psalmist the strength to endure what comes next. It is the knowledge of God’s presence that encourages the Psalmist as he continues his prayer and turns to lament, crying to God “Do not withhold your mercy from me. Keep me safe. Deliver Me.” In other words, continue to do that which you have done for your people from the beginning. Be the God you have revealed yourself to be.
Now here is the important question: where on earth did the Psalmist get the idea that God would show up? Is it merely the person’s personal experiences of God that has taught him this, or is there something more? The answer, it turns out, can be discovered in the story that his people tell about who they are. And who are they? Why, the people of Exodus, of course. Psalm 114 gives us a picture of exactly what kind of power that story has to frame and guide the people of Jerusalem.
Exodus, according to Psalm 114, is not just a historical moment. It is also a present experience, a state of being that is relived over and over again by a creation that is being continually transformed by the power of God. Exodus is experienced as the profound transformation that God visits upon all of creation, and it is so profound that the heavens, the earth, all of creation quakes and trembles at what God can do. The God of Exodus, who drew water from the rock, is the God of infinite possibility. And this same God can do whatever is necessary to secure the people in the present.
This is what is possible when the people of God fully claim the story that they have received. When the story of God becomes our story—we become those who sing a new song, who see evidence of God in every place we turn, whether we cry out in praise or lament, victory or defeat. One important thing that I think we cannot forget is that the story of Exodus was not just a story that the people of God told to make themselves feel superior or invicible. The people who claimed the story of Exodus saw within their struggle a calling to have compassion in the present on those who are foreigners, who are widowed, who are orphaned, who are wandering. Their story drew them into relationship with the oppressed of the world, and challenged them to seek healing for all of God’s creation. Their story moved them to action.
So what about our story? In reflecting on the “alternate” story of the Pilgrims (you know, the beer story), one of my seminary professors had this to say:
One thing I’m going to ponder (this fourth of July) is what our country might be like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, and not the story of our set-apartness. What we’d be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities. That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.
If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.
Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we’d understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all.
Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.
It is my prayer for our nation that we might mark this holiday not only with fireworks and flags, but with lives committed to the ideals upon which our nation was founded: liberty, justice, freedom, solidarity, and peace. For all. No exceptions.