This newsletter article, a reworking of a past blogpost, appeared in my congregation's July newsletter. My sermon for the 4th of July also touches on church/state issues.
The 4th of July this year falls on a Sunday. Though there will be flags waving outside of houses, and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products, at church there will be no flag on display or any patriotic celebration. This is intentional.
When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God. Worship is a time of praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God. Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music. Yet if a hymn's theme is secular, it is not appropriate for Sunday morning Christian Worship.
Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership. This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully considered.
And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance, such as we did here at Resurrection at the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009. But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns might guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers. However, such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God's Word.
Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community. Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies. Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the county parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies" is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.
There is a time and a place for everything – and though we can and should pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism. As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples. We don't cease being Americans when we come to worship, but we don't come to worship to celebrate our American heritage. We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
May we start our Independence Day holiday this year at church, honoring the day of the resurrection by praising God, receiving our Lord in Word and Sacrament, and offering prayers for our church, nation, and world. And then let us go out into the streets and give honor to our country by celebrating with neighbors and friends the freedoms we share.
Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.
Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.
Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.