16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 07/01/2012
America, The Beautiful
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
O beautiful for heroes prov'd
O beautiful for patriot dream
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
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.
And songs, at times, especially patriotic ones, especially these American patriotic ones, they are also telling us a story. They want us to learn
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 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
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.
My Country ‘Tis of Thee
My native country thee,
Let music swell the breeze,
Our fathers' God, to Thee,
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.’
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.
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.