Our Songs

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/01/2012

America, The Beautiful
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thorough fare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Ah, patriotic songs.  I love them. 

I’ve been singing them all my life, and I love them.  Even though I can’t always tell them apart, as I discovered when preparing this sermon.  Of course, the Star Spangled Banner is easy enough to distinguish.  But I found for the rest of them that I’d have to start singing them to remember which title they were and then to figure out if they were different songs from each other.  I lost “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” for a while there, in fact, until I realized that it really wasn’t the same as America the Beautiful after all.

I think this is true for many of us who were raised in the US or raised as Americans in other countries, like I was.  We’re completely conditioned to sing patriotic songs with very little prompting.  If someone came up to you and sang “God…bless…A-mer-i-ca…” you would start singing the next line

and you’d probably have the whole thing stuck in your head all day long.  Granted, like Christmas songs, we may only be able to sing the first and maybe the last verses from memory – but those verses are IN THERE, all wrapped up with our synapses and our emotions and our first school experiences and all the rest.  These songs are there to stay, for most of us.  They say musical memory is one of the last things to fade in Alzheimer’s patients, and so I’m sure that you could go to an Alzheimer’s unit and get the whole group tapping their toes to the patriotic tunes that we’ve all known so long and so well.

These songs are important to us, as a nation.  They are songs that we share in common, no matter which shining sea you grew up closer to.  And even if your amber waves of grain have been under a mall for as long as you can remember, there’s something about these songs that call us together in a collective memory of sorts, and a shared experience.  They also do the work of telling our story, telling our story to ourselves and the next generation of Americans as they learn the songs. 

But storytelling is an interesting thing.  Because when you tell a story about something, the message and meaning of the story can be true even when the facts of the story are not.  If you think back to stories that Roy has told in our services this year, for example, you may have found them to be foundationally true in a deep way, but it’s probably not factually true that there was really a Dot that dreamed of limits, for example, nor was there likely really a Hindu god who killed a monster with a backpack full of lightning bolts.  We don’t need to believe that wolves can talk in order to learn from the story of the three little pigs.  The point of the story is to tell you about something, not to bedazzle you with its realism, if you know what I mean. 

And songs, at times, especially patriotic ones, especially these American patriotic ones, they are also telling us a story.  They want us to learn

something, that may or may not be factually true, but which holds meaning for us nonetheless.  These songs can be clues to the parts of our culture and heritage that the mainstream deems most worthy to mention and to celebrate.  And sometimes the messages are aspirational, they are a goal that we’d love to meet as a country, but one that in actual fact eludes us regularly and always has.

Look at America, The Beautiful.  Is there anyone here who already knew the middle two verses, not just the first and last ones?  I didn’t know those two verses at all. 

As a story, the first and the last verses are easy to get behind – they say our country is beautiful, which it is, and describes the beauty in pleasing ways.  At the very end, we have the bit about brotherhood from sea to shining sea, which is a noble goal for all of us and not one that we’ve been very good at living up to these days. 

The verse right before the end, the one about the alabaster cities gleaming undimmed by human tears, I don’t remember that verse at all from my childhood.  What I do remember it from, is 9/11.  The notion of a patriot dream that sees into the future, that sees beyond the present anguish, to a time where our cities are undamaged and we don’t have to cry for them, that was a compelling verse when the towers came down and the Pentagon was hit.  And that’s another power of story, that it can become meaningful in new ways as time progresses and situations change.  I didn’t need that verse as a kid in the 70s, but I needed it in 2011, and it was right there for me, for all of us.  We sang as a way to heal.

The middle verses are unfamiliar to me.  I notice that they do an interesting job of demonstrating what seems to be a sort of New England Protestant way of looking at the world.  When we look at the lyrics, we can determine

whether or not the story that is being told is one that we think is important and meaningful.  This song’s story tells us that it is beautiful for pilgrims to beat a path for what they call freedom across what otherwise the song considers to be a wilderness.  That’s certainly a traditional viewpoint of what happened when the pilgrims came and settled in an otherwise-occupied land.  Is this viewpoint one that serves us today? 

We also see the praise of qualities like self-control, of self-sacrifice in war, and for the acquisition of riches under God’s law.  Are these qualities that we want to lift up through our American story and song?  Who is included in this way of thinking, and who is left out?  There are some of these qualities that I like more than others, and some that I need to give more thought to. 

But overall, when I sing this song, I know I’m telling a story about my country.  Is the story I’m telling one that meshes with my values, my American values?  Or do they veer off into national values that I think are damaging rather than inspiring?

My Country ‘Tis of Thee                      
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of Liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim's pride!
From ev'ry mountain side,
Let freedom ring!

My native country thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees,
Sweet freedom's song.
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
the sound prolong.

Our fathers' God, to Thee,
Author of Liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

We just sang of freedom, and of a country that is so embedded in freedom that freedom rings off the very rocks and hills that we live upon.  This freedom is born of God, and protected by God, and the song asks that freedom sing on the breezes that we feel and in the trees that shelter us and that it ring off our tongues, and it asks that those who are sleeping awake to freedom, and that the very rocks break their silence so that they can shout of freedom, and freedom can be heard through the land.

Our nation has made a noble and grand experiment with freedom, and it is an experiment that has always been incomplete, that is incomplete today.  Millions of us, Americans and those living in America, do not know what it is like to be free, no matter how loudly we sing this song, no matter how proud we are when we hear it. 

So let us all take a moment here to contemplate freedom – where it is, and where it is not.  What can we do to spread the passion and truth of this song so wide that there is no place in this land where freedom is not?  How can we move beyond well-spoken aspiration to a full and true reality?

               Star Spangled Banner
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The Star Spangled Banner is perhaps my favorite of the patriotic songs, although I might just think that because I get to sing it more often than the others these days.  I think it’s mostly the tune that resonates with me, even though it’s usually set in a key that makes me sound like a tortured squirrel when I sing it.  The lyrics are buried in the cadence of the song, which makes it a little hard to track where, say, any particular sentence begins and ends.  I think this is why some of us just learn the tune and the approximate sounds that the words are supposed to make, which leads to embarrassing lyrical gaffes like the one Christina Aguilera made at the Superbowl last year.

But the lyrics to the national anthem have particular power, which has been written about by Rev. Kate Braestrup, a UU game warden chaplain up in Maine.  She has some compelling things to say on this topic, so I’m just going to quote her at length. 

She writes, “I’m fond of my own country’s hymne national, although I admit to being among those who can’t hit the high notes (“and the rocket’s red gla-aaare!”) without standing on my toes, and sometimes not even then.  Still, what I love is that this song – our national anthem – isn’t triumphalist or even particularly martial, though the poem was written after and about a battle.  It doesn’t wind itself up with a great blare of trumpets, a crash of drums, and the conclusion that we’re number one!  It concludes with a question:  O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Excellent point that Rev. Braestrup makes.  What can we say about a country that asks itself a question in its national anthem, a country that holds before it a question about whether or not we are living up to our ideals?  In many ways, this questioning makes this a better song for us, a better story to tell than My Country ‘Tis of Thee, even though that song has so many beautiful images and much the same theme. 

But I think the Star Spangled Banner is better because its embedded question is a tacit acknowledgement that our quest for freedom is not a fait accompli, that it’s hard work, that we aren’t done with it, and that it is our patriotic duty to keep at it and never rest until it is finished.

Rev. Braestrup goes on to write, “What distinguishes us from every other country on earth is that America began and remains an extraordinary and courageous experiment in human freedom.  While wealth and power are agreeable things for a nation to have, they are not what defines us.  Nor are we defined by the landscape – however beautiful – or by a shared history, shared skin color, or even the shared language of our citizens.

An American is a human being willing to participate in the experiment, willing to agree and believe ‘that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

This America is a rare, delicate, and precious thing.  Our anthem sensibly asks us to check, every time we mumble, warble and shriek our way through it:  Look around you, friends.  Can you see if the Star - Spangled Banner is still waving over a land that continues to belong to the free, a land that remains the home of the brave?”

I could not say it better if I tried.

Our songs tell us all sorts of stories.  They tell us that our country is beautiful and abundant and vast.  They tell us that we have been and continue to be in search of divine inspiration and divine Providence in the nation-building that we’ve done and continue to do.  They tell us that freedom is and has been a core value of ours.  These stories are true, each in their own ways, although none of them are complete.  Each of them gives us a little snapshot of America, of American hopes and self-understanding.

But it is the one that asks us to keep going that I like the most.  It’s the one that asks us to make sure that we’re still including everyone that I like the best.  It’s the one that admits that some of what we tell ourselves isn’t true for all of us, and rather than ignoring that fact, those of us who are benefiting from America’s graces still have work to do in making them real for others.  The question asked gives us the power to keep working at the national experiment that we’re all of us a part of, that we’re all of us beholden to. 

And so I hope that you will get to enjoy hot dogs and fireworks and singing and red white and blue this Fourth of July.  And I hope that you’ll keep asking yourself, this week and every week, does my flag still fly over the land of the free, and the home of the brave, and if that land is not yet free and brave enough, what can I do to make it so?

So may it be.