Saturday, July 17, 2010

Strange Pew-fellows

Most American holidays are insignificant for the life of the church. Arbor Day, Valentines Day, President's Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Halloween, all of these come and go with nary a mention in my church. There are a few holidays, which are relatively insignificant as far as the liturgy goes, but which warrant a brief mention during the announcements. I'm thinking here of Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veteran's Day and New Years Day. None of these are Christian holidays, but we take the opportunity to note them, and wish well to those involved. Then you have Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, which all have great impact on the liturgy and life of a church.

But there is one American holiday in particular, which has a strange relationship with the church. I'm thinking of the fourth of July. Patriotism and Religion have always been strange pew-fellows, and the mixture has always made me uncomfortable. This year the issue was pushed to the fore, since the fourth fell on a Sunday. I would like to offer a few thoughts. I have intentionally waited a couple of weeks so that those who feel strongly about the issue might have the emotional distance necessary to consider the case anew.

In one sense, the fourth of July falling on a Sunday highlights the truth that each of us as human beings have a complex identity, that is made up of more than a single component. To use myself as an example, I am both a Christian and an American (also a husband, father, son, pastor, and many other things...). Of the two, I would identify primarily as a Christian, and secondly as an American. But of course, this is not to say anything amiss about America or my status as a citizen. I love this land, I feel a certain amount of patriotism and pride in living here, and unless God radically changes the direction of my life, I don't plan to move. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for living in this country at this point in time. I enjoy celebrating the fourth by eating a hot dog and watching fireworks.

But my identity as a Christian is much more significant for understanding who I am. I belong to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a member of the household of God, a part of the covenant family. And this family knows no boundaries, political or otherwise. It is an international family, composed of people who identify as citizens of all sorts of countries. This means for me, that I feel like I have more in common with a Mexican Christian or a Ghanaian Christian, than I do with an American who is spiritually lost.

So what are we to do when the fourth falls on a Sunday? Should we mention it? Should we sing the patriotic songs found in the far back of the hymnal?

I vote no. For two reasons. First, when we gather as the body of Christ, we have something so much more grand and glorious to engross ourselves in. We are gathering specifically as the church of Christ, in union with the saints throughout the world and across all the ages. We are not a civic organization, we are a gathering of the elect. This is a category that knows of no tie to political organizations or eras. When we come to church, the fact that most of us in the room are Americans is completely incidental.

Secondly, what would we say if a believer from Mexico, China, Peru or Kenya came to church on that Sunday, expecting to find a familiar culture of Christianity, and instead finding us enjoying our country rather than our covenant. I would be embarrassed to alienate a brother or sister in Christ by appearing to cherish our citizenship on earth as deeply as our citizenship in heaven.

Again, none of this should be taken as disrespect for our country or our history. I like our country, but I like the church even more. And as believers, our identity as members of the church will be far more eternally valuable than the fact that we were citizens of this particular nation.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I view a situation like the 4th falling on Sunday as an opportunity. Not one that must be seized but that could be. Since I was scheduled to preach on the 4th, I preached on "Christian Citizenship" from 1 Timothy 2:1-10. The applications were drawn out of the text and not out of Americana. And I think that worked well.

I think we have to see that "third option" available on American holidays and/or when significant events have happened (such as 9-11). You exegete your audience and determine whether they need discipleship in a certain area and whether the event on everyone's mind is an important to utilize. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

I don't preach each week at this point, but if I did I would say that I probably take those opportunities once or twice per year, as God leads. More often, these things will fit into the applications somewhere. After all, the holidays represent values (good or ill) that must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ. Ignoring 'em is another way of doing that, since silence can speak louder than words; but sometimes words speak more clearly.

Thanks if you've made it this far. This has been too long of a comment!