Things that Pass Away: A Reflection on Our Nation’s Birthday

Today is unlike any other Sunday in the church year.  It is the Sunday on which we acknowledge the birthday of our nation, which we celebrated Thursday last.  It is easy to overdo or underdo this day.  “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but give to God that which is God’s,”[i] after all, and on this particular day we’re never entirely sure which is which.  I once attended an Independence Day church service during which uniformed soldiers at arms marched in procession and the American flag preceded the cross.  The patriotic fervor of guns and grenades around the altar of God crosses a dangerous line, it seems to me.  I have attended other such services in which no mention of the nation’s birth was made at all.  The readings, the hymns, the prayers self-consciously ignored July the Fourth.  That seems to me to pretend we live in a world in which our religious lives and our civic lives do not intersect, which is the height of folly.

Fireworks

And so, we do our best.  We sing songs that hearken both to God and to our patriotic impulses.  We say prayers for the nation.  And as we struggle (I hope always with some discomfort) to strike the balance, perhaps we keep as our compass the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln to a clergyman in the summer of 1864, when the preacher asked the president whether he believed God was on his and the Union’s side.  Lincoln responded, “I am not at all concerned about that…But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”[ii]

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General WashingtonThis Independence Day has been unlike any other for me personally, due to an odd confluence of circumstances in my own life.  Some of you will already know that I am addicted to books.  I am rarely as happy as when I am reading.  So it was that two weeks ago I picked up the next book awaiting me on my stack.  It happened to be Joseph Ellis’ fine biography of George Washington.[iii]  For the past two weeks this inscrutable marble figure in American history has come to life for me as a real flesh-and-blood human being.

And then, on June 24, I did something Washington never did.  My family and I left this fair country to travel across the Atlantic and visit the ruins of the Roman Empire.  We visited Ostia Antica, forty-five minutes outside of Rome.  Ostia was the Roman Empire’s great port city.  At its height, Ostia was home to seventy-five thousand people.  It was the lifeline of Rome, and its road, the Via Ostiensis, was for several hundred years the main artery between the Eternal City and the outside world.

We flew home from Italy on July 3, and on the ten hour plan ride I read more about George Washington.  The following night, as I was still battling the restless fatigue of jet lag, fireworks began exploding in the night sky, heralding the two hundred and thirty-seventh birthday of the United States.

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In today’s Epistle lesson (Hebrews 11:8-16), the author of the mysterious Letter to the Hebrews reminds us once again of Abraham’s journey of faith.  He tells us Abraham, “obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”

That last bit strikes us as strange, because we know exactly where Abraham was going.  We know the whole story, how Abraham traveled to Canaan, how his descendents became slaves in Egypt, how Moses led them home, how David built the nation of Israel, and how Jesus was born of the lineage of David.  To us, Abraham is merely an early chapter in a long story, and we’re much further along in the plot.  But for him, all must have seemed uncertain at best when he traveled that road in the beginning, without a clue where he was going or how it might all turn out.

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Nothing seemed uncertain to the Romans.  By the time Ostia reached the height of its prominence, Rome was already seven hundred years old, thriving first as a republic and then as the world’s imperial super power.  The Via Ostiensis, the Way to Ostia, was not a road into unknown wilderness but a solid and sure path that had been and would be forever.  The amphitheater, the capitol, the splendidly preserved apartment blocks and temples of Ostia all declare that Rome is timeless, that its people and its laws and its traditions will never pass away.

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica

Except they did.  That is the overwhelming, almost crippling sensation one gets when walking along the ancient road’s paving stones, some of which are clearly indented by the grinding chariot wheels that traveled them for centuries.  Ostia, once the center of the world’s commerce and trading, is now a tourist attraction.  The Empire is long dead.  What was believed to be eternal has passed away, as scripture assures us all things do.[iv]

Ostia stayed with me for the rest of our trip, as we visited Florence, where once the Medici held the world hostage with their purse strings, and Venice, which was in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the greatest republic since Rome.  But not now.  Whether touring the Boboli Gardens or the Doge’s Palace, one again is overcome with the sense of Ostia, that all things are transient.  All things of this world pass away.  The way forward is always uncertain.

My daughter walking the Via Ostiensis

My daughter walking the Via Ostiensis

Ironically, no American understood this more clearly than the First American.  In his biography, Joseph Ellis points out that, though we look at the dynamics of the American Revolution and recognize Great Britain’s exercise in futility in trying to subdue a continent, from George Washington’s perspective victory was never foreordained.  He always had fewer men than his British counterpart.  His supplies were always scarce.  Disease always threatened.  Even his own abilities as a general were unsure.  Washington was always cognizant that the way ahead was uncertain and risky.

So, on this Independence Day weekend, what kind of Americans are we?  I don’t mean liberal or conservative.  I certainly don’t mean Democrat or Republican.  I suppose I mean to ask, are we like the ancient Romans?  Have we slipped into the illusion that the United States is permanent and sure?  Or, are we like the good General Washington, who knew that the outcome was unknown; who knew that each battle, each winter quarters, could be America’s undoing; who knew that the way ahead was always uncertain.

Of course, the United States is not permanent.  If we manage to keep the world intact long enough, then the day will come—a century from now, a thousand years from now—when someone will travel with his children to the ruins of our most storied cities and monuments and walk through them listening for the whispering of ghosts who were sure that these things would never pass away.

But here’s the kicker this Independence Day weekend: Recognizing our transience is a victory for us, not a defeat!  Because it offers us two measures of grace.  The first is that, God willing, this recognition prevents complacency.  The ideals that motivated George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abigail Adams, and their ilk—these truths we hold to be self evident, that all human beings are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights—must be championed anew, everyday.  When our elected officials devolve into childish fights; when our leaders engage in international folly; when our businesses and our citizens put personal gain before the common good; we must, like Washington, remember each day that all hangs in the balance.

The ideals that have made us the hope of trampled people everywhere and the model for other nations do not exist apart from those of us who have the courage to embody them.  It is not foreordained that this greatest nation the world has known will endure.  We must fight for it.

The ideals that have made us the hope of trampled people everywhere and the model for other nations do not exist apart from those of us who have the courage to embody them.

And second, our transience reminds us of that which is permanent.  There is a Way that is sure.  It is not Via Ostiensis, nor Via Americana, but Via Christi, the Way of Christ.  Abraham was able to set out on that mysterious and unknown geographic road because his map was spiritual.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us “[Abraham] looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.”  And not the God of our religious right nor secular left, but the God of Jesus, who is peace and love and grace to all people, the God whose path is open to all.

In other words, this Abraham, like Abraham Lincoln, didn’t ask God to be on his side.  Rather, he sought on whatever road he traveled to be on God’s side, to be a blessing to all people, to follow God’s path and vision for the world.

That is what will ensure the vigor and promise of our national life, however long God deems to preserve it.  We who claim to be Christian are followers of the Way of Jesus even before we are Americans.  And because we are followers of Jesus and find our identity in him whose way truly is eternal, we can, in the words of Thomas Jefferson two hundred thirty-seven years ago, “with firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence…pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to embody as a nation the hope of all people.


[i] Matthew 22:21.

[ii] Quoted from Lincoln on War: Our Greatest Commander-in-Chief Speaks to America, edited by Harold Holzer, pg. 272.

[iii] His Excellency George Washington.

[iv] Matthew 24:35.