O Say Can you See?
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Independence Day, July 4, 2021
“O ETERNAL God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
WE WISH OUR NATION today a happy birthday, 245 years old. The signing of the Declaration of Independence marked a line in time where a new nation was forged from the American colonies of England, launching a Revolutionary War and creating a vision, a promise, a great experiment in self-rule. All old nations were founded on power, but this new and better country would be founded on self-evident truth. All nations on earth were created around single ethnic identities, just like most religions and cultures, but this new land, much more like Christianity, would be for all people of the world, every color, every tribe, every land of origin, a beacon of hope rising from a safe harbor crying “Give me your tired, your poor…”
These United States of America were never exclusively a Christian nation, but the men who signed that document, risking their lives, homes, families, and their sacred honor, did it because they were Christ’s own. Jesus never founded a faith using force to make its minions to follow obediently, but in love and freedom He made a path back to God. National religions had marred the face of the ancient Church in Europe and Latin America. This land was to be different. And while much today is made of the racial disparity our African descendants faced through slavery in the southern states, that was not originally of our making, but a dreadful remnant of old oppression that held us back almost a century from realizing our nation’s creed, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Only 29 years after the end of our War for Independence was won, we again were in armed combat with England. In the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars of Europe pitted England and her allies against the French Emperor. To enlarge the Royal Navy, the British commandeered American ships and conscripted US sailors into service in the British Navy by the tens of thousands. England also armed and encouraged Canada and the plains Indian tribes to push back against American western expansion. Just 13 years earlier, Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana purchase, a vast territory, opening nearly the entire continent to development, settlement and homesteading. England opposed this. Finally, with France as our only ally, the U.S. declared war against England and fought a nearly 3-year war to defeat them, again.
In the fray, British troops burned down Washington D.C., including the White House our Capitol building. Needing to take Baltimore for its ground war, the British sent troop ships up the Bay, but were thwarted by a surprisingly large American presence. The last chance for victory lay in defeating Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore. The British ships fired 1500 cannonballs into the fort that night, all night, September 14, 1814. Should the fort’s 1,000 men depart or be killed, the outcome of the war would have changed.
On the deck of the flagship of His Majesty’s fleet, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, stood unable to return to shore. The British, who had allowed him to board for purposes of negotiating release of a prisoner, held him captive. Now caught in the firefight, he could only watch the shoreline, fading into night, with hope that the huge flag raised in defiance over the fort might remain standing tall. The onslaught was merciless. Key prayed through night hours for his countrymen to stand strong. And in the morning’s light, he looked and was greeted by the huge flag, its 13 stripes, red and white, ripped and soaked with driving rain, each 2 feet wide, and the enormous field of blue with fifteen 2-ft. tall white stars. It was still standing. The battle was won, and the Brits turned south for New Orleans. The war would end 5 months later.
Key wrote the words we now enjoy as our national anthem soon after his experience on that ship. Its words raise our spirits when we hear it or try to sing it, in what we agree is a very difficult tune.
“O say can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bomb bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there, O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Two middle stanzas grace the original poem. We never sing them unfortunately. But we sometimes do sing the last verse:
“O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand Between their loved home and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace may the heaven rescued land Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto - "In God is our trust," And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The War of 1812 killed only a few thousand on each side. Meanwhile, the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo changed international dynamics. The issues we fought for were won over here even while England was defeating Napoleon. The war did give us a stirring anthem and the memory of one foreign adventure on our soil. Power vs Truth. Are we still aligned by this credal difference? Ethnicity vs. Universality. How are we doing with our high words and original definition?
No world is perfect. Recent scientific research of the heavens has just concluded that, while space holds a great many planets encircling other stars, of the thousands newly discovered, not one of them has the capability to sustain life as we know it. Only this one. Arguments that our earth is only one of many addresses where life might emerge have just died. One more proud argument against a divine origin of life died with them. Star Trek’s ‘Class M planets’ and Star Wars’ fanciful aliens will have to remain fictional. There is something to the notion that we are uniquely gifted, chosen, designed, created with inalienable rights and a destiny. The dream of our nation’s founders was to make a land where all humanity might live in peace and prosper together, universally trained in the ideals of Jesus Christ and Christian brotherhood, granting to every human fellow the right to follow God in the best way he or she knows. And share this pleasant land with its First People in peace.
Politics. Our founders held politicians in deep suspicion, to say the least. Greed, avarice, domination, duplicity, subterfuge and pride dressed up like gentlemen walk before cameras in empty chambers, make speeches for media and constituents and cut the floor from under us all, or that’s what the framers believed of an unbridled government. They set up three distinct branches that would have to work together, balance forces, and comply with founding documents, or be done with. The wisdom of such people as James Madison, George Washington (who refused to become our king), Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others: their faces shine through portraits with eyes of genius, and minds set on addressing the weakness that is in man.
So, I won’t do politics here. While there must be government, the framers believed that the Church had its very important part in fashioning good citizens. We teach the values that must be upheld, and the wisdom of the just, so wise choices may be made when we elect our representatives.
The IRS just denied tax exemption for a group that teaches biblical truths for the purpose of praying for our leaders. The reason given was specifically that the Bible favors one party over the other. Just saying…
A fascinating choice has been made in our American Prayer Book for the lessons the Independence Day Epistle and Gospel. Moses teaches that God loves the stranger, and so should we, for as the Hebrews were strangers in Egypt, we have been given a good and promised land now. So, we should live godly lives and love strangers. And Jesus instructs us not only to love our neighbor, but even our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to the hateful, pray for our oppressors. So may we be children of the Father who shines on all people, sends rain like blessings for every soul. If we can be a land where love and honor and blessing and prayerful generosity thrive, and maintain that through the dark times as we do in better days, we are on the path to perfection, even toward that better country made without hands where we will be perfect at long last, with our Perfect God.
The Judeo-Christian code was overshadowed by unrestrained rulers in Old Europe and the rest of the globe. One bright moment shone out to fashion a new nation, under God, in His pattern of equality, liberty, life and freedom to seek better ways. One bright moment appeared as men and women of better character than we ever normally see staked their lives, honor and destiny to win, or to die trying, and create the land of the free and home of the brave. Their aim was high. We could not reach it fully, we fell short again and again, but kept climbing toward it, lost many lives in the effort, and in precarious balance between high ideals and human compromise, forged ways and means to attain at least its likeness. It is ever under fire. But we find it in each other, in the eyes of a stranger, in a child’s laughter, in the hope of an immigrant, or the smile of an elder in retirement.
America is not found in the District of Columbia or in Sacramento’s government buildings. It is found in glistening cities, on the endless prairies, high in snow-capped alpine mountains, at its furthest crashing shores, down long stretches of highway, in parks and school-grounds, from the depths of the Salton Sea to the heights of Denali, and both sides of the great divide, north of the Arctic Circle and west to the Hawaiian Isles. We are America. We still are humankind’s last best hope for a better world, a world that lives here and now, but looks upward together toward that better country.