I have lived in a “parsonage” of sorts for my whole life, living in one way or another the life of a professional religious person. I spent my childhood literally in two parsonages, the son of a Lutheran Church in America (from 1988 on, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastor. I attended an ELCA-affiliated college (though I did not find Muhlenberg to be particularly “Lutheran”). I attended an ELCA seminary right out of college, despite not wanting at that point to be a pastor. (More on that saga someday, I promise.) From seminary, I went straight into full-time church work. I was a Director of Christian Education/Pastoral Assistant for five years, and then went straight from there into finishing my training to finally become a pastor, which I have now been for nine years. The church has been in my blood since I was born. I love the church. I love the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I love the congregations that have nourished me, and which I have served. I love the synods I have been part of, and the youth programs of those synods that have contributed to who I am. The church is my home, my family, my culture, and in a way, my nation. The church is, in a way, my nation. That’s a weird thing to say, and the weirdest thing is…I didn’t intend to write it. But I suppose there’s some truth to it, and I think it may inform what I really want to talk about today.
I want to talk about the problematic relationship between the church and American culture, and more specifically, the problematic relationship between worship and cultural holidays. Today is the day before Memorial Day, and so it’s on my mind. Every time Memorial Day, July 4, or Veterans Day approach, I shudder as I meet with the Minister of Music to plan the service, because I know that there are people in the congregation who want to sing patriotic songs as hymns. I hesitate as I prepare my sermons, because I worry that people might be upset if I don’t preach about the greatness of America. I tremble as I begin announcements in worship, because I don’t know how far I have to go in recognizing the holiday to keep people from being upset. (Do I ask all veterans to stand? Do I wish people a “happy” Memorial Day, or a “blessed” one? Do I offer a special prayer for America, or for military personnel?) I feel as though I’m being watched, judged, that I have to give a certain amount of attention to these holidays, or face being labeled “unpatriotic” or “un-American.” I feel like I’m a politician, who has to make sure to find a way to make everyone happy. And to some extent, I do that. I always try to refer to the holiday in my sermon. Sometimes I will grudgingly allow “America the Beautiful” to be the final hymn. But it always seems like a balancing act.
Because there’s the other part of me that knows that patriotism expressed in the context of weekly worship comes treacherously close to blasphemy and idolatry. I know that the purpose of weekly worship is not to make people “feel good.” The purpose of worship is not to be the place where good citizens come to begin their week. The purpose of worship is not for the people to hear the preacher expound on a topic of interest.
The purpose of weekly worship is to proclaim Christ crucified and risen.
Plain and simple. The purpose of worship is to proclaim Christ crucified and risen. And everything in worship is to point in that direction. Scripture readings point to this. Sermons point to this. Hymns point to this. Prayers point to this. The sacraments point to this. And I am so hesitant to allow anything to turn us away from this. And honestly, songs whose main purpose is to sing the praises of a country, even if they mention God, are not Christian hymns. And honestly, there is no place for such songs within the context of weekly worship. They just muddy the water. They confuse the purpose of worship.
Don’t get me wrong. Christians can certainly be patriotic! And the church can certainly offer patriotic programs or services at a time other than regular weekly worship. There is nothing wrong at all with hosting a Memorial Day service of remembrance, or a “hymn sing” of patriotic songs on the afternoon of the Sunday nearest July 4. But these ought never replace the worship of Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord. And these patriotic programs ought never be intertwined with that worship either. There is enough America-worship out in our culture. The church does not need to add to it by confusing the worship of God with the celebration of our nation’s history.
Now, here’s where the first paragraph of this post comes into play. I recognize that I have a deep cultural, family, almost ethnic, almost patriotic, connection to the ELCA, and that this connection is not something that is shared by many people, even many who are faithful, active church members. And that’s not because I’m a better Lutheran, or a better Christian, or because of anything at all except my own personal background, my own upbringing. Like being an Eagles fan because you were raised in Philadelphia. My blood flows Reformation red because of an accident of my history. My veins don’t flow with red, white, and blue. Again, don’t get me wrong. I am glad to be an American. I like America a lot. I am very proud of the ideals that our founders based the country’s constitution on, and I do want America to become the nation they envisioned. But I don’t have a patriotic connection to it the way I do to the church.
But I recognize that many people do. Many people do have blood that flows red, white, and blue, and that’s great. And many of those people also happen to be faithful Christians, active church members, and that’s great. And I think I can understand why for them, this whole problem I have with patriotism intertwining with worship seems at best like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, and at worst like I’m being unpatriotic and ungrateful. To them, there is nothing wrong with singing “America the Beautiful” in worship, because it’s just a song that brings them joy…it doesn’t mean that they worship America. I’m just guessing.
And maybe I am wrong. I don’t think I am in this case, but maybe I am. I guess what I’ve learned through writing this post is that we all carry so much baggage, so much stuff in our history that informs who we are and how we view one another. We all have our core that we identify as, and mine is as an ELCA Lutheran (who just happens to be American). Others identify themselves as Americans (who just happen to be ELCA Lutherans). Every year around the major patriotic holidays, I find myself struggling with this distinction, and maybe that’s the way it should be. The church has always had a complicated relationship with empire, with culture, with nation. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
God bless America. God bless the church. God bless us all.
P.S. I thought I’d also be talking here about my problems with Mother’s Day in the church. And Valentine’s Day. That’ll have to wait for another day. Lucky you!