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 will.”
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 so inhumanely. 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.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.