The 4th and the Lord’s Table

Like many other United Methodist churches, we will celebrate Communion on this first Sunday of the month.  Of course, it is also the 4th of July, a time for many Americans to drape themselves in the red, white, and blue, enjoy small explosives (called fireworks), and sing songs about their love of America.

Christian pastors and theologians disagree over what kind of challenge the 4th of July and the celebration of Christian worship represents.  Is it a conflict of competing political orders? Is it “The Kingdom” vs “The Flag”?  In North American evangelical circles, a renewed interest in Anabaptist ecclesiology has led many to see this – rather simple – bifurcation as the story of this Sunday.

I don’t buy this though.  Augustine spoke of natural forces by which our “bonds of affection” would create earthly loyalties in the civic arena.  The City of Man is not to be confused with the City of God, but it too, has its place.  For me, then, the issue becomes one of rightly ordering our loyalties.  And granted, in the modern West, this is a difficult task.  One reason I am wary of those who worship government authority is a theological conviction that we should not expect from the State what God alone can provide (for instance, eternal security, comfort, and peace).  The goods of the state are always contingent and apt to fail, and we should treat the state as such.

The details of this, when it comes to doing church, are where the devil lies.  Some churches turn their Sunday morning into a full-scale patriotic celebration (and think nothing of it).  Others will make a point to do nothing remotely patriotic in the interest of loyalty to Jesus or love of being counter-cultural (some think that these are the same things).  I’m trying to trod a middle path…though I like to think I’m being a bit ironic by using a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a day when we celebrate our independence from Britain.  I think we can and should recognize what the people in the pews are celebrating, join with them when we can, criticize it when we should, but all the while try to keep it about Jesus.

The peaceful life of families and communities that we all appreciate would not be possible without the political “sword” that Paul speaks of in Romans 13.  At the end of the day, the sword of order that is a gift of God’s love is wielded by flesh and blood, men and women who have made and continue to make great sacrfices so that we might be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.  People like my friends George, David, Alicia, and Trish.  Their service, and that of our forebears, deserves praise – but not the same praise that is reserved for God alone.

I think an example of this “middle way” is found in the communion liturgy for tomorrow that has been suggested by the United Methodist Church.  Perhaps this makes me a “company man,” but I think they struck the right tone and balance here.  What do you think?

A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day

Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us
as we join with your people in every land on earth
and with all the company of heaven
in your unceasing praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.

On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”

When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”

And so we remember and proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.

So pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.

Copyright General Board of Discipleship. Used by permission.

3 thoughts on “The 4th and the Lord’s Table”

  1. I think we can be grateful, but we should be critical as well. For example, consider the line, “Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation / an opportunity beyond measure / to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.” That implies that what became the United States was previously unoccupied and claiming it didn’t involve genocide. I find this highly problematic. I also think any celebration should offer a universal perspective, lest we forget that the Christian family transcends national boundaries and lest any (non-American) visitors leave with the impression that we are unaware of this.

    Often, when Americans enumerate their freedoms, they attribute those freedoms to the sacrifices of others (i.e., American soldiers). Personally, I’m happy to “be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.” I’m not happy that American soldiers kill others to achieve (somehow) that freedom for me. It’s not simply a matter of sacrificing self but (more often) a matter of taking others’ lives–lives too often mysteriously related to my freedom. In other words, I don’t understand how it has been necessary to kill any Iraqi or Afghani to secure my freedoms. And, in the event that it has been necessary, I’d gladly forfeit my freedoms. I would that no soldier kill anyone in my name.

  2. Chris, glad to hear I’m not the only pastor that occasionally panics on Saturday night!

    Stephen, thanks for stopping by, as always. I am thinking that you may be reading too much into this liturgy. When it speaks of “an opportunity beyond measure” it leaves open whether and to what extent we took advantage of that opportunity. I know you are a more careful thinker than this, but calling what happened to the native americans ‘genocide’ is not accurate. Genocide implies a systematic and intentional destruction of a people. The native peoples that died as a result of the American experiment certainly were a tragedy, but not all of them were intended. I’m not sure you can call smallpox, for instance, genocide. I think that weakens the real injustices (such as the trail of tears) that they did suffer. Nevertheless, getting people to keep their allegiances properly ordered is difficult enough on July 4; engaging in a treatise on the darker side of American history might be liturgically suicidal (many folks would get so angry at such an insinuation, true or not, that the worship would cease to be about God). But your point is well taken.

    Lastly, are you happy that others chase down, arrest, and incarcerate others so that you may enjoy your freedoms? I for one, am. Someone has do that, in the interest of basic social order. I see the soldier’s function as an extension of that necessity to the international scale.

    I’m sure there are many acts of violence that save lives which we know nothing about, and never will (think of the stars on the wall at Langley). But to be an American means that others will occasionally engage in violence on your behalf. If this is unacceptable, there are places one can go where this is not the case, like Sweden. But few people find the violence of our soldiers so egregious that they would rather live someplace else.

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