+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted Sept. 17, 1778)
This weekend, our nation pauses to commemorate the declaration of our independence from the British crown. It is a day for celebration, a day to give thanks for the opportunity to live and work and grow and play and seek our fortunes as citizens of these United States. It is common on this day for us to wax poetic about the greatness of our nation, to declare loudly for all to hear that we are proud to be Americans, to deck the halls with red, white, and blue and rejoice in the ideals upon which this Union was founded: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
So why, on the occasion of celebrating our independence, would I think it necessary to read from the preamble to the Constitution, which wasn’t adopted until twelve years after the Declaration? Well, in truth, I think the words I read above, the words that introduce and explain the reason for adopting our system of government, provide a necessary corrective for our expressions of patriotism and love of nation. The framers of the Constitution recognized that our founding was simply a first step, and that the continued formation of our nation would require diligence and hard work. In adopting the Constitution, they endeavored only to make our Union “more perfect,” not “perfect” once for all. There are scholarly disputes about the extent to which the framers were informed by Christian faith, but all of them – orthodox Christian or not – seemed to enter into their work with a profound realism about human nature, about our fallibility and short-sightedness and recklessness. That realism is shared by the psalmist, and it is perhaps the enduring image that we can take away from Psalm 146 this morning.
This psalm is, as the theme for today indicates, a psalm of praise, a song that invites us to declare the wonder and majesty of God. We’ve talked before about the importance of praising God, about the necessity of looking beyond ourselves to the one who created us and sustains us. Notice how quickly the psalm turns from praising God to issuing this stark warning about human beings and human institutions:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
(Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV)
The people of Israel had heard the warnings of their prophets; they knew all too well the failings of human authority. The psalmist is not content to allow his people to reflect on God’s power and presence without being absolutely certain that Israel understood the surpassing greatness and justice and righteousness of God. That God, of course, is a God who does not exercise authority and power merely for God’s own glory. No, the God revealed in Scripture, the God we have come to know more fully through Jesus Christ, is a God whose power is exercised precisely for the good of the other, for the good of the marginalized, for the good of the vulnerable and despised. In the psalmist’s day, that included people on a familiar and oft-repeated list: the oppressed, the hungry, and the captive; the blind and the lame; the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. In our own day, we might come up with our own list of people who find themselves on the outside looking in: the poor, the hungry, and the ex-convict; those suffering from mental illnesses, or addictions, or diseases like HIV/AIDS; the immigrant or the racial “minority”. The witness of the psalms – indeed, of all the Scriptures – is that our God is concerned with the plight of those who are deprived of their dignity and worth by human authorities and human institutions. As Christians, we too are called to be concerned with the ways in which our society – formally and informally – signals to these groups that they are less important, that their lives don’t matter as much as ours, that they somehow do not share in the image of God that all of us bear by virtue of our having been created by God. As Americans, we do well to remember the words of our founders, who understood that human government is always a work in progress, and that to be a government of, by, and for the people is to understand that, at best, we will forever be striving for a “more perfect Union”.
As we enter the 240th year of our Independence as a nation, our Christian faith and the legacy of our founders suggest that we must do more than celebrate. We must also recommit ourselves to the ideals upon which our faith and our nation are supposed to be built. In his moving eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who was killed along with eight fellow church members in a racially-motivated massacre last month, the president reflected on the grace that has been poured out upon our nation – in language very similar to that found in our closing hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”. He talked of the great gift of grace that has not failed us despite our history of not living up to our highest ideals. He shared his belief that we are now living in a moment in which we have been graced again with the opportunity for renewed understanding, for renewed commitment to our governing principles, for renewed attention to the problems of poverty and hunger and prejudice that continue to plague us as a people. I share that optimism and that belief, but I base it, not in the power of human authority or institutions, but in the power of God, who reigns forever, to transform us by grace, to strengthen what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and to call us once again to affirm that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable right of all people.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us lift our voices to praise our good and gracious God. Let us pray that God would, in the words of our closing hymn, “shed his grace on [us],” “refine our gold,” and “mend [our] every flaw,” both as God’s people and as citizens of these United States. Let us pray that God would continue to mold our hearts and minds into the image of Christ, so that we might be the kind of people God has called us to be through the Gospel. Finally, let us pray that we might marry our love of country with a fervent love of liberty and justice for all, and that we might be willing to do the work that is necessary to make that statement a reality for all of our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans. Amen and amen.