Because It’s Ours

Presenter: 
Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 06/30/2013

Here
comes the Fourth of July on Thursday, right on schedule on the fourth day of
July, and maybe you’re one of those overworked Americans who finds themselves just
sweetly delighted to have the day off, or even a long weekend, and the only agenda
is to relax in a particularly American, summery sort of way, and you’re pretty
okay with doing just that. 

 

You
aren’t spending a lot of time with deep thoughts about the state of your
country and its actions through history and throughout the globe on the Fourth
of July.  You aren’t wondering what it
all means, or what could be improved upon, or whether it’s good or bad, or what
you can do to make a difference in a vastly complicated system where you mostly
have very little direct influence. 

 

Perhaps
you are just happy to have a summer day off, and to do things that seem
comfortable and easy, like have a barbeque or eat potato salad or see a parade
and watch some fireworks at the middle school. 

 

That’s
what I tend to be like, on the Fourth of July. 
It’s one of my favorite holidays, and I think that is because it’s so
culturally relaxing for me.  I spent a
lot of time overseas as a young person while my parents worked for the US government.  There was always a party at the embassy or
American club for the 4th, and there were grilled hamburgers and
hotdogs and Cokes and a color guard and fireworks, maybe some baseball or
Frisbees, and it was a time and a place where I was culturally comfortable,
which was a pretty rare feeling for those times and places in my life. 

 

I
still find the 4th culturally comfortable, even though I live back
here now.  That’s sort of funny to say,
considering that the everyday Americanness I practice now doesn’t routinely
consist of grilled burgers or Cokes or fireworks.  But each year the fourth of July rolls around
and I love it.  I find it relaxing to
just participate in cultural Americanisms once a year.

 

But
for those like us who have spent a good deal of time in their regular American
lives keeping track of what America does, the 4th of July can create
more mixed feelings than it traditionally does for me.  For some, celebrating America can feel false
if you aren’t really excited about what we’ve been doing, or what our history
has been like. 

 

Unitarian
Universalists tend to be the sorts who watch our national moves through the
year and are critical of them when critique is called for, and Unitarian
Universalist worship services this time of year can sometimes use this holiday
to call out the United States for transgressions foreign and domestic, for failing
to live up to its startling promise or its stated promises. 

 

For
some, a full-throated celebration of the Fourth feels a little
disingenuous. 

 

As
my colleague Rev. Dr. James Kubal-Komoto who serves the Saltwater Church in
Washington state wrote last year, “For me, celebrating our nation’s birthday is
always a bit like going to a birthday celebration for your uncle, say your
Uncle Sam, and everybody else is making toast after toast saying what an
absolutely wonderful, nearly perfect person he is, but you know, while he has
some good qualities, in his darker moments, he can also be an abusive drunk.”[1]

 

The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly just wrapped
up this year in Louisville, Kentucky, and one of their featured speakers was
the poet Wendell Berry, who gave a worship service right before a public
witness event.  He shared a poem of his
there, called “Questionnaire”, the sort of tough, challenging poem that the
sort of American that I am 364-days-a-year really likes.  The poem is phrased just like a
questionnaire, and the questions go like this.....[visit http://everydayliturgy.com/questionnaire-by-wendell-berry/]

 

It’s
the sort of powerful poem that calls us out as Americans, reminds us why what
we do as a nation matters, why when we fail it’s important, why trying harder
is important. 

 

But
there’s something about it that’s not quite consonant with the 4th
of July holiday, you know what I mean?  I
want to be able to relax and celebrate my country this Thursday, on the one
hand, and do so thoroughly.  On the other
hand, this hard stuff, the Wendell Berry stuff, is something I know about and
care about.  How can I reconcile it all
in time for the holiday?  How do I
celebrate my Uncle Sam, when I know so much bad stuff about him?

 

Rev.
Kubal-Komoto looked at the situation this way last year.  And he decided on an approach, which he
describes in a way l’ll just read to you:

 

I want to suggest that to be a real
patriot we should love our country like we love our families. What do I mean?

 

Most of
us experience love, the experience of loving and being loved, most strongly within
our families (he names here families of origin, families we’ve created…)

 

However,
we do not love them because we believe they always do the right thing and are
superior to all other people. For those of us who are partnered, mutual
attraction may have brought us together in the first place, but we
don’t love our spouses or partners because they [objectively] rate
higher on some scale of desirability than other possible partners. For those of
us who are parents, we can certainly can be proud of our children, but it’s
possible and preferable - - unless perhaps you are a recent first-time parent
or grandparent - - to love one’s children without believing they are the best
children in the world, or even necessarily above-average.

 

(I’ll
put a plug here for parents, too, not needing to be the objective best in order
to succeed at being the most important thing in their children’s lives: in
fact, my favorite phrase to describe “perfect” parenting is that one must be
Extremely Good Enough.)

 

But then why do we love the members of
our own families? Well, to put it simply, we love them not because they are
perfect or best but simply because they are ours. Because we are a part of them
and they are a part of us. Because, to a certain extent, we share the same history
and our lives are wrapped up with their lives.

 

Is it possible for us to love our
country in the same way we love our families, not because it is the absolute
best, but simply because it is ours, because we are a part of it, and it is a
part of us, because it is “the house we live in”? I think it is.

 

I’ve given this notion rather a lot of thought over the
past few weeks, this comparison between the very belonging to your family as
being the cause of love, and the very belonging to your nation as being reason
enough to love and celebrate it.  Now,
family is one of the most complicated social structures we have, and the depth
to which it can inspire and motivate us is equal to the depth to which it can
damage and deplete us.  Unfortunately,
there are many times when a person must decide that their family – whether it’s
their family of origin or their family of choice or birth – is so damaging that
they need to separate from it, they need to untangle the roots and become more
than one tree yet again.

 

And yet so many more times, the roots stay tangled
up.  You might rage and protest, but you
belong there and you’re from there in a way that cannot be untangled.  It’s a little easier to see this with
nationality, because there aren’t all that many people these days who become so
upset with the U.S. that they leave it for another.  We have threats of succession sometimes, but
no-one has actually done that either.  Is
there something about the way we are intertwined with our country that is in
and of itself deserving of love and respect? 
And if so, what does that mean for how we behave towards our nation and
within our nation?

 

When we love something, not because it is objectively
worthy, but because it is ours, does that affect how we act towards it?  I think it does.  When we love something because it is ours, we
don’t stop loving it when it becomes tarnished, or when it acts out or has a
tantrum.  We don’t stop loving it - and most
of all, we don’t leave it - when it doesn’t do what we want, or appears to have
faltered.  No, when it is ours, we stick
with it.  The way we love, when something
is ours, isn’t the shiny infatuated love of early romance.  It’s the committed love of later marriage,
when a whole bunch of Worses have joined up with the Betters – or at least we
think so, that week or month or year. 
How do we respond to tough times, when something is ours?

 

Rev. Kubal-Komoto says when we think of our nation this
way, “we won’t always be uncritically and
unquestioningly supportive of our country. 
As Carl Schurz, a nineteenth-century American, once said, “Our country,
right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”

 

(And
Kubal-Komoto quotes) Frank Church, the
late senator from Idaho, a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, and the
father of Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church, [who] once spoke of
his love of his country this way. “One loves his country as one loves his own
child,” Church said, “with a will to serve its inmost needs and to see it reach
fulfillment; to dream its best dreams, to labor to make them come true."

 

As
I was considering this form of love over the past couple of weeks, there was
another social structure that came to my mind, along with family, and
country.  I also thought of church –
Sugarloaf in particular.  I thought about
all the many people who come through our doors, and experience a great service
and meet so many friendly people and see a place that is so inviting.  They fall in love with us, which as we’ve
learned from the reading, any fool can do. 
And it comes to pass, inevitably, that this thing they’ve fallen in love
with, this church, it begins to appear less shiny.  A little tarnished.  Its blossoms are falling off the branches and
the temporary madness is lifting and suddenly you find yourself wondering if
you really love the church at all. 

 

Like
in our reading, you’ve come to a decision point.  If you look down and you see that your roots
have grown together under the ground, not only grown together with this place
or with the leaders or ministers or the name or the history, but also with each
and every person who has ever walked through its doors, worshipped here,
striven to make good decisions here, inspired others here, been heartbroken
here…if you look down and you see that your roots have grown all together and
you are no longer separate but you’ve become one tree, then you know that you
love this place.  You love it not because
it’s pretty and not because it’s inspiring but because it is yours. 

 

That’s
the kind of love that lasts.

 

Rev.
Dr. Kubal-Komoto made this statement at the end of his sermon last year.  He said, “I want to suggest to be real patriots we should have hope
for our country. I think back to our Founding Fathers, men like Washington,
Adams, and Jefferson. They did not risk their lives and their fortunes for
their country for what it was - - it was not yet much of anything. Rather, they
risked their lives and made commitments and sacrifices in hopes of what it
might become.”

 

I
ask you, Sugarloafers, family members, Americans:  What does it mean to live, to act, from the inside of love and hope?  What work, what sacrifices might you make for
something that is yours, so embedded in your flesh or in your heart or in your
culture that it demands your attention and your service?  Is it possible that the more things that we
see as ours, the more we’re going to have the passion to change?  See what happens when you start looking at
the world in this way. 

 

I
end today with a poem, called “For What Binds Us,” by Jane Hirshfield.

 

There
are names for what binds us:

 strong forces, weak forces.

 Look around, you can see them:

 the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,

 nails rusting into the places they join,

 joints dovetailed on their own weight.

 The way things stay so solidly

 wherever they've been set down—

 and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

 

 And see how the flesh grows back

 across a wound, with a great vehemence,

 more strong

 than the simple, untested surface before.

 There's a name for it on horses,

 when it comes back darker and raised: proud
flesh,

 

 as all flesh

 is proud of its wounds, wears them

 as honors given out after battle,

 small triumphs pinned to the chest—

 

And
when two people have loved each other

 see how it is like a

 scar between their bodies,

 stronger, darker, and proud;

 how the black cord makes of them a single
fabric

 that nothing can tear or mend. [2]

 

May
there be between you and that which you love something like a scar between your
bodies, something strong, dark and proud, that makes of you and the things you
love a single fabric, that nothing, nothing, can tear. 

 

Amen.



[1]
See the whole sermon at http://www.saltwaterchurch.org/drupal/istherehopeforamerica,
preached July 1, 2012.

[2] "For
What Binds Us" by Jane Hirshfield, from Of Gravity and Angels. © Wesleyan
University Press, 1988.