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God Bless America
Preached at MCC Columbia July 3, 2005 (PM service)
I love America. Make no mistake about it. I am
grateful for the happy accident that led me to be born into this country.
Our varied landscape, our varied people, our varied experiences and our
shared love of the freedoms and responsibilities we enjoy as citizens
of this country warms my heart. When I say the phrase, "God bless America,"
I mean it. It is an earnest prayer. I want God to shower blessings on
our nation. I want those blessings to be so evident that no one can deny
that God has blessed this nation.
The next sentence I say after "God bless America" is "God bless Iraq."
Then I say, "God bless Afghanistan." "God bless Iran." "God bless France."
"God bless Germany." "God bless Africa." "God bless England." "God bless
Ireland." "God bless Russia." I go on because I want God to bless this
entire world, not just one little piece of it - which just happens to
be the one little piece I'm standing inside. Our reading from Psalms affirms
that God does not bless just one little piece of this world, but all the
world, because God is in and throughout everything and everyone in this
world. There is nowhere we can go that God's spirit is not present, whether
we're in heaven, or in Sheol, or in the air, or in the sea. Whether we're
in Columbia, South Carolina or Bogota, Colombia, God is present. God's
blessings can be seen around the world, not just here in America.
We Americans often forget that. We become myopic - a little self-centered
- thinking that God is solely with us. We tend to believe that our way
is the best way - that the world revolves around us. There's a joke that
goes: What do you call someone who can speak three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Bilingual. What
do you call someone who can speak one language? American.
In our minds, America is the best and everyone else should conform.
We're not much interested in how they do things in Europe or Canada or
anywhere else that doesn't fall within our borders. If it happens outside
of our borders we're not much bothered by it. I remember an old Jeff Foxworthy
routine where he talked about how international news doesn't hold much
interest for Americans. We hear about a bus crash in South America, for
instance, and he said we're not struck by the tragedy, instead we're wondering,
"How'd they get 300 people on that bus in the first place? Were they sitting
in laps, or what?"
But, it's true. Often things happening around the world hold little
interest for us. Just tell us who won American Idol so we can turn the
TV off and go to bed. That's not to say that we Americans are callous
or uncaring about the world. Certainly, on some level, we do care what
goes on in the world. But, like all human beings, we get caught up in
our day to day worries. It's hard to look outside of ourselves sometimes
- but that's exactly what God calls us to do, whether we're American,
Iraqi, European, Asian or African.
Our ideas of blessings are not God's ideas of blessings. Look at what
Jesus says first in Luke's rendition of the beatitudes. "Blessed are you
poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Here in America, we think of blessings
as things, especially things that make us happy - money, a good job, a
good relationship, a good house, a good car - all the material things
that make life good. But, here's Jesus talking about how the poor are
the blessed ones. Who else is blessed? Those who are hungry, those who
weep, those who are hated and excluded. We certainly don't consider hunger,
sadness, hatred and exclusion to be blessings - those sound like curses.
It sounded like curses to the early Christians as well. Those who wrote
the book of Matthew softened them up a bit - writing that the poor "in
spirit" are blessed - not the real, physical poor. But, Luke keeps Jesus'
words blunt and hard to hear. The poor are the blessed, not the wealthy.
The hungry are blessed, not the well-fed. The sad are the blessed, not
the happy. The hated are blessed, not the loved. The excluded are blessed,
not the included.
What does this word, "blessed" mean, anyway? The Greek word used roughly
means, "Oh, how fortunate." But, still we're stumped. How can we even
begin to think that the poor, the hungry, the sad, the hated and the excluded
are fortunate? In choosing to call the poor fortunate Jesus is not romanticizing
poverty, or calling us to live in poverty to be blessed. Instead, liberation
theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes:
"God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily
better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they
are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God's
This shows just how scandalous this teaching is from Christ. Those who
are blessed are the very people who are living contrary to God's will.
And why are they living contrary to God's will? Because society has put
them there - by creating an inhuman situation for them, by casting them
aside, by forgetting them or trampling over them to get to the wealth
and the material goodies we think are true blessings. The greed of a few
has put so many outside of God's will for how humanity is supposed to
live. This is why God blesses them - because humanity has treated them
When we look at it in this new light, it occurs to me that the religious
right is actually right about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender
people. We are living contrary to God's will, but not because we are horrible
sinners who have chosen to be there. No, we're living contrary God's will
because society has forgotten what it means to bless others. We've been
put here because we've been excluded from the equality that God seeks
for all God's children. That exclusion, by people who claim the title
of Christian, means that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people
are force to live in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God's will.
Blessing people means bring them back into God's will - and God's will
is equality and distributive justice that brings each person back into
the fold. We bless others when we widen the circle of God's love, mercy
and grace. We bless when we include everyone in God's will regardless
of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, religion,
national origin, or any other category we seek to put people into for
the sole purpose of exclusion. When I say "God bless America" this is
the blessing I seek for all of us - blessings of life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness for everyone, no matter their place in our society.
But, when we understand blessing as something we do to bring in the
outcast and the marginalized, we have to come to the conclusion that despite
that repeated prayer for blessing, America, in its current state, is not
blessed at all. Instead, we have forgotten how to bless one another. The
religious right constantly compares America to Sodom and I think they're
right, but not because gays and lesbians are gaining acceptance in society.
Instead, they are right because America is acting just like Sodom according
to Ezekiel 16:49-50:
"… this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters
had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the
poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before
me; therefore I removed them, when I saw it."
Does that sound familiar? It sounds like America to me. We have pride
in our country: "America, love it or leave it." We have an abundance of
food - you can't walk a block without finding a restaurant ready to serve
you. We have prosperous ease in this nation with our homes and cars and
vacation time. But, what are we not doing? We're not aiding the poor and
needy. The income gap is growing between rich and poor and our government
continues to pass budgets that neglect the poor and cut funding for programs
that help the poor, the elderly, children and others in need. Instead,
we exalt the rich, we aspire to material wealth and comfort and we forget
the poor and needy. We push them into that inhuman situation that is contrary
to God's will that humanity live in mutual, inclusive community.
But, to live in that kind of community requires stepping outside of
our own selfishness - looking outside of our own home, our own sexual
orientation, our own tribe, our own nation. It requires us to stop thinking
that God is for us and against someone else. It requires us to stop thinking
in terms of the saved and the damned and instead to see everyone as a
loved and valued child of the living and still speaking God. It requires
us to include everyone, including those we would rather not include.
We are truly blessed when we are out in the world, giving out of our
abundance to others who have little - bringing them back into God's will
for all of our lives - a life of inclusion, abundance and grace. We are
truly blessed when we put aside our thoughts of personal gain, or our
thoughts of revenge or triumph over some "evil" that we have identified
as the source of our present suffering.
As theologian Karl Barth said: "Let him take it who can, that one must
lose one's life in order to find it, that one must cease being something
for oneself, that one must become a communal person, a comrade, in order
to be a person at all."
Until we know and acknowledge that we are all connected in this world,
then we will continue to create what Barth calls "No-Gods," or idols,
of nation, family, military, and capitalism and set them up as evidence
of our "blessings" from God. In reality, our freedom is not found in the
social order, but in the acknowledgement that God is not on our side,
or on anyone's side. Instead, God is the source of all -- the ground of
all being -- that flows without regard to race, color, creed, sexual orientation,
nationality, wealth, poverty, piety or morality. God blesses us -- be
we nation or individual -- when we realize we are not living simply for
ourselves or for our nation, but for God and each other.
Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor
of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for
GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's
in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University
in Atlanta, Ga. She currently serves as assistant pastor at MCC
Columbia. She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal
Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism
and public relations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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