Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
My birthday has been on the 4th of July since the day I was born. All over the country, in every town in which I ever found myself on July 4th, there were fireworks for my birthday. My mother tells me that she and my father watched fireworks out the window of the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin on July 4, 1954. Isn’t that amazing? Even the city of Madison celebrated my birth! Or, so I was told. It was a happy myth, promulgated by well-meaning parents.
Life is full of such happy myths, told and retold and told again to make us feel good, help us sleep at night. I’ve told a few myself. “On the day you were born, a princess wearing a silver sari gave her voice to the frogs in the pond and at night, they sang her to sleep.” “On the day you were born, the prince of Kerala lit every single lamp along the ocean’s shore and guided us to you so we could make you ours.” On the night he was born, a chorus of angels appeared in the sky and frightened the poor shepherds half to death. On the night he was born, one star rose in the east and shined brighter than all the rest.
But myths about the births of children are not alone in our collective story. Oh my no. On the day our nation was born, freedom from tyranny found its voice and never has it been silenced in the American heart. On July 4, 1776, the day of our nation’s birth, our nation was created and laid claim for what was rightfully ours – this land, its rivers, mountains, and prairies, from sea to shining sea, the skies above, the rich oil and minerals beneath. The day our nation was born was the beginning of freedom for all its citizens – all its citizens who mattered.
When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Myths are so powerful, to children, to communities, to nations. But when myths go unexamined and unchallenged, especially myths that undergird conquest, exploitation. xenophobia, and greed, they are dangerous. Isn’t that what happened between Jesus and his hometown congregation in Nazareth? Jesus questioned the myths of exclusivity and the sanctified status of Israel. Uh oh – not good.
It was the Sabbath so Jesus went to synagogue where he read from Isaiah, chapter 61. Ahhh - listen to that boy read. When he sat and began to interpret the words, they were expectant, excited even. And he began to preach. “You’ll want to see me do the things you’ve heard I did in Capernaum, no doubt. And you’ll say to me that I should apply these lessons to myself if I’m going to apply them to you. You know me. You will find it difficult to hear from me the words I am about to say. No prophet is accepted at home.
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, the time when heaven was closed to us, when we were in exile. Do you remember? There was a famine in the land and our people were starving. But God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, not to one of our widows but to an enemy widow. There were lepers, too, all over Israel, suffering from God’s silence, Jews who were covered with leprosy but God sent Elisha not to cure a Jewish leper, one of our own. God sent Elisha to cure Naaman, an enemy, a general in the army that defeated us. You see, the year of the Lord’s favor does not necessarily apply to you...”
Wait, wait, that doesn’t sound right. Is he saying God actually sent our prophets to our enemies to help them? Well that little… if I weren’t in worship I’d give that precocious son of Mary a piece of my mind. Who does he think he is, telling us that God sent aid to the enemy! The people of Nazareth were expecting to hear Jesus’ celebrate the myth that held them together. Instead, he popped it like a fragile bubble.
I sometimes think our nation depends upon myths like addicts depend upon their next fix. How else could we possibly justify the irrational realities of a national debt of $13 billion, or the 156,236 National Guard troops engaged in current combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the substantial rise in suicide attempts and successes since the beginning of this most recent recession. If we were not lulled by the myth of the self-made millionaire would we be carrying, collectively, $2.5 trillion of personal debt, which works itself out to be $8,100 of personal debt for each woman, man, and child in the U.S.? And the myth of the American family – don’t we love that one. According to information released by the U.S. Census Bureau in November, 2009, there are approximately 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children, approximately 26% of the children under 21 in the U.S. today. In 2008, 19% of the children in the U.S. and just under 10% of people over the age of 65 lived in poverty. Since 2008, those percentages have risen substantially. According to the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Center for Health Statistics, in a single year, 2002, 3,012 children and teens were killed by gunfire. That is one child every three hours or eight children every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control, just two years ago, 5,285 children were wounded or killed by a gun in this country, as compared to 153 in Canada, 57 in Germany, 19 in Great Britain, and no child in Japan.
I don’t need to go on, do I? My goal is not to overwhelm you or to make you see how bad things are in our country. I hardly need to do that since most of you stay current with the daily news. Rather, my intention is to ask you, as Jesus asked his congregation in Nazareth, to look critically at the myths that we hold sacred. Look critically at them and separate them from what we know to be God’s will.
Some time today, I’ll blow out 56 candles from atop a cake, but not until I’ve made a wish. If we think of birthday wishes as another version of prayers, then let us all make a birthday wish some time today for our nation. Let us wish, let us pray for the well-being of our nation. It isn’t my wish to make this a Christian nation. I just want it to be a moral one. That is my birthday wish. Amen.