Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Praying and Singing our Faith (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, July 27, 2014)

As we approach the end of July, we are finishing our month-long series of sermons on hymns.  Over the course of the month we have sung many familiar hymns, explored their words and music, and learned about their origins and their authors.  We have come to realize that hymns are more than mere traveling music; that they are poetry and prayer, communal expressions of worship, a gift to us from God and our gift back to God.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine worship without hymns. 

 “It shall be the duty of every Minister to see that music is used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship.”  Our church canons charge the clergy with incorporating music into our worship and The Episcopal hymnal is designed to be a resource that helps us to do exactly that.  Our hymnal is more than just a songbook, or a collection of tunes.  It is a rich liturgical resource specifically crafted to serve a multiplicity of uses, whether it is a two-person morning prayer in the middle of the desert to the Easter Sunday resurrection mass at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.  As it says in the preface, the hymnal is a response to the challenge of the Church’s mission to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to a changed and changing world.  That is quite a task. 

Since our very beginning as a church, we have striven to incorporate music into our worship.  As we began as a branch of the Church of England, our earliest music as you might expect was very Anglican in character.  Yet as an American church we have gradually incorporated other music that reflects our diversity and our character. 

Look at the cover of the hymnal and you will see that it is titled The Hymnal 1982.  This is the most recent edition of the hymnal, but there have been many others.  The previous edition was published in 1940, and before that there were editions in 1916 and 1892.  Each new edition builds upon the foundation of the volumes before it.  The charge for our current version is to prepare a body of texts which presents the Christian faith with clarity and integrity, to reflect the nature of today’s church by including the works of contemporary artists and works representing many cultures, and to strengthen ecumenical relationships through the inclusion of texts and tunes used by other Christian traditions.

These are common principles of our Church and reflect what I feel is one of our greatest strengths.  The recognition that we do not have a monopoly on piety; that we don’t have all the answers, and that maybe, just maybe, there are better ways to do things.  Our church is not exclusionist.  We welcome all as fellow travelers on the way, and hope that we can learn from each other how Jesus is calling us in this time and in this place.  To that end, our hymnal is specifically designed to incorporate music from other places, other cultures, and other faith traditions. It includes music from the Anglican tradition, but also recognizes the richness of Christian expression by incorporating works from the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions.

 The 1982 hymnal includes not only hymns from the great composers of Europe, but also some from Africa, Mexico, and China.  It also includes African American spirituals, Native American music, and American folk music.  In keeping with our Episcopal tradition of the via media, the hymnal seeks to maintain our traditions while also being open to new ways of worshiping that reflect the multi-cultural nature of our church and our world.

Take out your hymnals and turn to the table of contents.  You will see that there are two major sections, Service Music and Hymns.  I would imagine that while you are likely familiar with the Hymn section, you are probably less familiar with the service music.  This section is designed to support the different services provided in the Book of Common Prayer.  Much of our worship services can be spoken or sung, and this section is designed to provide settings to support that.  It also includes musical settings for special days like the Great Vigil of Easter. (This by the way is my favorite service of the year, even if it is the least attended.  If you have not experienced the beauty of this service, plan to attend next year.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.) 

The Holy Eucharist section from S76 to S176 is likely to be the most familiar to us, even if you don’t know it.  That is because much of the music we use for the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are taken from this section.  Most people don’t turn to the hymnal at these times, but learn the music by repetition as we often will use the same setting for an entire liturgical season.

The most familiar portion of the hymnal however is clearly the Hymn section.  Each Sunday we sing a processional hymn, a gradual hymn, an offertory and a recessional hymn, usually drawn from this section.  You may be tempted to think that there is no real rhyme or reason behind which hymn we sing on which day, but that would be incorrect.  In fact, if you look at the table of contents, you will see that the hymns are grouped to reflect the Church year and the specific character of the services.  The church does not follow the Julian calendar, but our own which means that we begin our year on the first Sunday of Advent.  The hymnal recognizes this and offers several hymns that are well suited to the Advent season.  In keeping with what we have already discussed, one of these hymns was written by Martin Luther, there are two settings of a hymn by Charles Wesley, and the familiar O Come O Come Emmanuel is an ancient setting from the 9th century.  

Following the Advent section is a rather large collection of Christmas hymns.  One of the questions I am often asked during Advent is why don’t we sing Christmas songs?  The answer is that, unlike the secular world where Christmas begins right after Halloween (or lately it seems to be creeping backward toward Labor Day), we keep the season of Advent as a separate and distinct time of waiting for the coming of the Savior.  To sing Christmas hymns in early December would be to cheapen the Advent season and rob us of this time of preparation. 

Following the Christmas hymns are those specifically set for Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension Day, and for Pentecost.  The hymnal then provides offerings for the Sacramental services of Holy Baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, burial and for ordinations.  Then we have a rather large section of general hymns.  These include hymns fitting for the Holy Trinity (Holy, Holy, Holy), the kingdom of God (Hail to the Lord’s Anointed) or the mission of the church (Lord you give the Great Commission). 

The grouping of the hymns is not cast in stone, but is intended to assist in setting the right liturgical tone.  That means that we can use hymns in a variety of ways to support our worship.  The categories are a best effort to recommend a hymn, but are not a rigid requirement.  In the 1940 version of the hymnal, there was a category titled hymns for children and it included favorites such as Once in Royal David’s City and I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.  Clearly those are used in other times and settings, and that is very appropriate.  The hymnal is meant to be a guide, a tool, a way to help us embrace Canon 24 to see that music is used as an offering to God in worship. 

I want to close by offering a few words about Bach, Handel and Purcell.  The church has set aside a day for the three of them in recognition of their contributions to the music and worship of the church.  Each had a profound impact on church music and used their talents to leave behind a rich musical legacy that glorifies God.  Handel’s Messiah is universally recognized as a masterwork.  From the Bach setting of Luther’s Might Fortress, to Purcell’s Christ is made the sure Foundation, we remember their music and celebrate the glory of God through their craft. 




Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Living of These Days (J. Barry Vaughn, July 20, 2014)

On Sunday, Feb. 8, 1931, members of the newly constructed Riverside Church of New York City, gathered for the dedication of their building and sang these words composed by their pastor:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

The church was magnificent. Although Gothic in style, it was altogether American in conception. Its tower makes it the tallest church in the United States and the 24th tallest in the world. But what made the church so very American is that it included not only space for worship and education but also a gym, a library, and room and equipment for many social outreach programs.

It is also remarkable in that it was almost entirely funded by one man – Baptist layman and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – and built to serve as a platform for a remarkable preacher – Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 In many ways the catalyst for the construction of that church (and the composition of “God of grace and God of glory”) was a sermon Fosdick preached in 1922 entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Although he was a Baptist, Fosdick was serving as the “preaching minister” at First Presbyterian Church of New York. The Presbyterians were engaged in a heated controversy between conservatives and liberals. When Fosdick set out his liberal manifesto, the conservatives in the presbytery of Philadelphia took action that resulted in Fosdick’s dismissal from First Presbyterian. Fosdick then accepted a call to Park Avenue Baptist Church on the condition that the church’s wealthiest member, John D. Rockefeller, build a much larger  church on the upper west side of Manhattan near Columbia University. And so Riverside Church was built and “God of grace and God of glory” was written.

Fosdick intended for his hymn to be sung to the tune “Regent’s Square,” a tune we associate with “Angels from the realms of glory.” 

It didn’t become associated with the tune we know and love and sing it to, the Welsh tune Cwm Rhondda, until it was paired with that tune in the 1935 Methodist hymnal, and Fosdick never liked it. When Fosdick was asked why he objected to the use of Cwm Rhondda with his hymn, he said, “My views are well known—you Methodists have always been a bunch of wise guys.” 

Fosdick may have been right. If we sing “God of grace and God of glory” to Regent’s Square, the emphasis falls firmly on the word “God”: God of grace and GOD of glory…

But when we sing it to Cwm Rhondda, the emphasis falls on “grace” and “glory”: God of GRACE and God of GLORY…

 But the important thing is the text.

I want to make several points about the text:

First, notice what Fosdick assumes about the church of Jesus Christ: He assumes that the church’s story is an unfinished story.

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

The church of Jesus Christ is a story that God is writing. You and I are the letters and words of the story. We are the materials out of which God is telling the story of the church.

We are a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints. Sometimes the church gets it right, but all too often we get it very, very wrong. Sometimes we are the guys with the white hats; sometimes we are the guys with the black hats. Sometimes we are on the side of the angels; but at other times we are on the side of … well, those other folks!

The church is God’s pilgrim people. Like Israel in the wilderness, we journey toward the promised land. Although God guides us, there is no guarantee that we will always heed God’s guidance.

We need God’s help to bring our story to a happy conclusion, to keep us on the right track, to “bring our bud to glorious flower.”

My second point has to do with the fact that Fosdick represented the high water mark of Protestant liberalism in America. One of the criticisms of Protestant liberalism is that it did not take the problem of evil with sufficient seriousness. By and large, Protestant liberals regarded evil as an illusion or at least a temporary problem that could be dealt with simply educating people. There is a lot of truth in that criticism.

 But I think that this hymn shows that Fosdick had a more robust idea of evil. He wrote, “Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us, Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.” The “hosts of evil” are real. Goodness, especially the divine goodness embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, will always encounter opposition from the “hosts of evil.”

But in the very next breath, Fosdick’s hymn goes on to say, “From the fears that long have bound us, Free our hearts to faith and praise.”

The “hosts of evil” are not just “out there,” they are also “in here.” And what gives the “hosts of evil” such power is the evil, sin, wickedness that is in our own hearts. Indeed, were it not for the fact that our own hearts are weak and sinful, we would make short work of the “hosts of evil.”

 Here’s an example: I grew up in the deep South in the age of the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign took place in 1963 when I was eight years old. The culture in which I grew was deeply racist. I’m happy to say that I don’t believe my family was deeply racist, but I don’t believe any white person of my generation who grew up in Alabama could entirely escape racist assumptions. I believe that I have largely overcome those racist assumptions, but from time to time I find myself thinking embarrassing thoughts or having stereotypical reactions to people of other races and cultures.

 What I’m saying is that whenever I am tempted to level the charge of racism against others, I need to stop and hold up a mirror to my own life. I need to recognize that what gives racism such power is that it is not someone else’s problem; it is MY problem and OUR problem. It is rooted not just in the hearts of other people but in my heart.

 Here’s another example: Fosdick’s hymn also says, “Shame our wanton selfish gladness, Rich in things and poor in soul.” Selfishness and greed are problems even more deeply rooted than racism. They are universal problems. I suspect that just about all of our behavior is at least partly motivated by unconscious calculations of self-interest.

 Even more than with racism, when we level the charges of selfishness and greed against others, we have to stop and examine our own hearts for evidence of self-interest and avarice.

 My final point is also related to Fosdick’s Protestant liberalism. One of the problems that most concerned him was the problem of war. This year we observe the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War 1. Like many of his generation, Fosdick was deeply engaged by that war. He was born in 1878 and ordained in 1903. Fosdick served First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, from 1904 to 1915, and then went to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

 During World War 1, Fosdick traveled to Europe to give comfort and support to U.S. troops. But the terrible human cost of the war appalled him, and he became a pacifist, even opposing the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War.

 In my opinion, Fosdick picked the wrong war to oppose, but I admire him for having the courage of his convictions.

 My point is that when Fosdick wrote, “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control,” he was writing about a very personal struggle.

 But the Protestant liberal tradition that Fosdick represented did not just pray for the end of war, the end of racism, the end of greed, they did something about it. They built institutions to accomplish these goals; they lent their support to movements that worked to put flesh and bones on the words of their prayers.

 At the heart of the American Protestant liberal tradition was the conviction that the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading is not just a lovely idea, nor is it God’s work alone. We have an obligation to sow the seeds of the kingdom, the seeds of justice and peace. We have an obligation to care for the kingdom, to nurture the field in which the seeds are growing.

 It is hypocrisy for us to pray, “Thy kingdom come” and do nothing to bring about the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. It is not enough for us to pray “Cure thy children’s warring madness” unless we are mean it and are willing to have our “warring madness” cured. It is not enough for us to pray “Give us wisdom, give us courage” unless we are willing to use the wisdom and courage God will give us to fight “the evils we deplore.”

It is hypocrisy to kneel and pray unless we are also willing to stand and march and even fight to build a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares and the hungry are filled with good things.

 There was much that was wrong in the Protestant liberal tradition that Fosdick represented. It was often na├»ve and overly idealistic. But they dared great things and hoped audaciously. I sometimes fear that we have lost the power to hope and dare and imagine, and I pray that we will recover those things.

 More than anything else, my hope and prayer for this church is that we will not look at our limitations but at our possibilities, that we will not look backward but look forward, that we will imagine all that with God’s help we can be and then work and pray and give to be a place where God’s kingdom begins to shine through human weakness.

 Fortunately, this church is actually doing something on behalf of the kingdom. Monday through Friday we feed thousands of people through our Epicenter on the Parkway. We provide office space, as well as volunteers, for Nevadans for the Common Good which helped pass legislation to end the traffic in human life. And at the Rector’s Forum this morning you can hear the Rev. Mike Patterson talk about what we are doing through the Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy Network.

 Finally, I would like you to notice that, like most hymns, “God of grace and God of glory” is a prayer. Every verse addresses petitions to God: “Free our hearts to faith and praise;” “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage;” and so on.

None of Fosdick’s goals, none of Protestant liberalism’s goals, none of our goals at Christ Church, can be accomplished by human strength alone. Now make no mistake: God assigns us tasks to do. It is ours to feed the hungry, house the homeless, work to end the causes of war, and so on. But there is a mysterious interaction between divine grace and human effort in which prayer is a central part. So we pray and so we work: “Thy kingdom come” and “On thy people, pour thy power.”

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Glorious things of thee are spoken (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, July 13, 2014)

Today we continue our series of sermons on hymns.  Music is an integral part of worship, as today’s reading from Isaiah tells us.  “For you shall go out in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  From earliest times, music has been central to praise. 
Yet, as Father Barry pointed out last week, we sometimes tend to treat hymns as nothing more than traveling music, or something to fill time while we process, or collect the offering or prepare the altar.  But that line of thought cheapens our experience, because hymns are far more than that.  They are poetry, they are prayer, they are far more than simple words on a page, or catchy tunes.  In fact, a hymn is far more than words and music alone.  Hymns are an excellent example of the idea that a whole is sometimes far more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes one and one can equal three.   Let’s test that.

Hymn 523 “Glorious things of thee a re spoken, Zion city of our God.  He whose word cannot be broken formed thee for his own abode”.  

A pretty poem; it rhymes, almost.  The words are actually based upon the text of Psalm 87, but rearranged a bit.  By themselves they are nice, but sometimes poetry by itself doesn’t actually speak to all people.  In know this because I am one of those people.  But when you put it together with the music, now you have something.  The music by itself may not move you, the words by themselves may not move you, but the combination of the two creates something more than either of them alone.  (sing)  Do you see how the combination of words and music make it more than just words and a tune?

But hymns are even more than just the words and the music alone or the combination of them together.  You can listen to the radio or go to a concert if that is all you want.  For hymns are not simply music; they are not simply lyrics; they are a form of corporate worship.  What do we do with hymns?  We sing them.  Together.  We join our voices with the organ or the piano or the guitar and we create something together.  It makes no difference if you sing like Pavarotti or if you sing like a broken down washing machine.  For each of us adds our own individuality to the experience.  It is a shared moment that is here and gone, and we experience it together. 

But that is still not unlike a chorus coming together to sing with an organ or even an orchestra.  So how are hymns different?  Because at its core, each hymn is a prayer to God.  They may be hymns of sorrow, pleas for help, songs of thanksgiving or prayers of joyful gratitude; but every hymn that we sing together is a shared worship experience.  The phrase has been ascribed to many people, but I think it was St Augustine who said that “He who sings, twice prays”.  The act of singing a hymn in a community of believers is a prayerful experience as we lift our voices together to God. 

By now I hope you are developing the sense that there is more to our experience of hymns than mere traveling music.

So let’s talk about the hymns themselves for a moment.  Did the tune to Glorious Things sound a bit familiar to anyone?  Pull out your hymnals and look again at 523.  Now turn to 379, God is Love.  Notice anything?  For those who don’t read music I will answer my own question.  The tune is the same.  The words are different, but the tune is the same.  If you don’t believe me, turn to 511 Holy Spirit Ever Living and you will see that this too is the same music.  If you look at the end of the hymn you will see that the authors of both the words and music are listed, and in italics is the name of the tune.  This one is called Abbot’s Leigh, and is named after the village in England where the Reverend Cyril Taylor was living when he composed the tune.  It is a lyrical melody and works in a rhythmic pattern for each set of words. 

You will notice though that the words and the music to each of these are written by different people.  Cyril Taylor wrote the music, but didn’t write any of the words.  In fact, some were written long before he was even born.  This is not unusual, as composers will often write music to poems or stories written by other people.  This particular tune was written as a hymn tune with the express purpose of applying it to many different words, and that is exactly how it has been used over the years.

So now we have Rev Taylor’s tune firmly in our heads.  But did anyone notice anything unusual about the gradual hymn when we sang Glorious Things?  Abbots Leigh is beautiful melody, but did it seem at all strange to you?  Perhaps this would be a bit more familiar.  (Austria)

Did that feel a little better for you?  Now we see that while the same music can be used to accompany different words, the same words can be set to different music.  But why did one setting feel better to you than another?  While words and music can be interchangeable, another aspect of a hymn is the affect it has on you personally.  If you came here today never having heard this hymn before, you are not sure what I am talking about.  But if you know this hymn, you likely have a preference for one tune or the other.  You have an expectation of what the hymn should sound like.  You may even associate it with an event in your life. 

Glorious Things was written by John Newton.  Newton was a very reluctant Christian.  He had a difficult life; raised by an indifferent stepmother, he was sent to boarding school, was conscripted into the Royal Navy, then become a slave trader.  He was a vulgar man who was anything but a Christian.  And then he had an experience.  His ship was in a dreadful storm; winds tossing them about; waves pounding the ship, threatening to capsize it at any moment.  And Newton, who had never cared for anyone or anything, found himself praying to God for salvation.  Salvation for himself AND for his shipmates.  The storm subsided, the winds diminished, and Newton promptly returned to his vulgar ways; all pleas and promises to God forgotten.  But not completely.  For while it didn’t happen in a flash, this experience marked the beginning of his conversion and he ultimately became a believer.  He eventually went to seminary and became a priest in the Church of England.  And he began to write. 

Deeply ashamed of his participation in slavery, he became a passionate advocate for abolition and worked with William Wilberforce to help eradicate the African slave trade.  In fact, his experience of being saved helped him to write another hymn which you may have heard.

“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”  Familiar words, but now that you know a bit more about them, perhaps you can see them from a different perspective. 

But that too is part of the equation.  As I said, hymns are based upon our personal experience of them.  We experience them based on how they make us feel, or when we first heard them, or we equate them with places and times of our lives.  Besides being one of everyone’s favorite hymns, Amazing Grace has become synonymous with funerals and services of remembrance.  While it was actually written about a conversion, it is often played on such occasions and indeed was played at my mother’s funeral.  It was more than a year before I could hear the song without tearing up.  I want my hymn back!  I want to reclaim amazing grace as more than a funeral hymn.  I want it to be a celebration of life and a recognition of how the free gift of Grace changes us in ways we could never have imagined.  Perhaps now that we know a bit more about what caused John Newton to write the words, we can begin to do just that.

Hymns are much, much more than mere traveling music.  In fact, it is hard to think about worship without Hymns, of one kind or another.  They are a tangible expression of our faith, a touchstone to the past, and a communal expression of our love for God.  Think about that as we raise our voices together in prayerful song today, and praise God for the gift of fine music.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Crowning our good... mending our flaws: The American project and "America the beautiful (J. Barry Vaughn, July 6, 2014)

In the Rector’s Forum this summer we are looking at hymns. It may seem like an odd topic. After all, the singing of hymns is of secondary importance, right? They are just the warm up act for the important business of scripture, sermon, and sacrament, aren’t they?


That’s exactly why I believe it’s important to think about hymns.


Christianity is a singing faith. The New Testament is full of hymns. In Luke’s gospel alone there are three important hymns – the Magnificat or the song that Mary sings when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist – “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”; the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the song that the angels sing when they announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds – “Glory be to God on high and on earth, peace, good will to men”; and the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant go in peace according to thy word”, the song that the aged Simeon sings when he sees the infant Jesus in the temple.


Or consider the Book of Revelation. When John is taken up spiritually into heaven he sees and hears the multitudes around God’s throne singing. They even sing a form of the Sanctus, the “Holy, holy, holy,” that we sing every Sunday at the eucharist.


It is almost impossible to have a religion without music. Encountering the divine seems to compel us to respond with music.


But hymns are boring, right? They are slow and plodding; there’s no syncopation; and they are relics of a bygone era.


Not necessarily. I think we do a good job of singing hymns at Christ Church, but there are many different ways of singing hymns.


Some hymns are practically jazzy (Here Paul Hesslink, our organist, plays the syncopated version of “A mighty fortress”).


But keep in mind that hymns are corporate music. They are meant to be sung by congregations, so the rhythm needs to be fairly simple.


I want to encourage all of you to pay more attention to the words that we sing. Our hymnbooks contain some marvelous and often moving poetry.


That is why Father Rick and I will be preaching on hymns during the month of July, and the last Sunday of the month we will celebrate three great composers who all wrote music for hymns – Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friedrich Handel, and Henry Purcell.


Today I want you to think about one of our national hymns – “America the beautiful”.


Wellesley college English professor Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words to “America the Beautiful,” after a trip to the summit of Pike’s Peak in 1893.Bates was an accomplished person. She was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister and graduated from Wellesley in 1880; studied at Oxford in 1890 to 91; and became a full professor at Wellesley in 1893.


The text refers not only to the “purple mountain majesties” she saw from the top of Pike’s Peak, but also to the “spacious skies” and “amber waves of grain” Bates had seen from the window of the train during her trip from Massachusetts to Colorado.


On the way to Colorado Bates visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which inspired her reference to “alabaster cities.”


From time to time people propose that “America the beautiful” replace “The Star-spangled banner” as our national anthem. Personally, I am in favor of that. I prefer it for several reasons.


First, “America the beautiful” is a prayer. It is addressed to God.


America, America!

God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!


Secondly, “America the beautiful” is about America itself rather than about our flag.


But what I mostly want to talk about this morning is Katharine Lee Bates’ vision of America.


With Katharine Bates, I share the view that America is an unfinished project.


The United States of America is distinctly different from most other nation states.  A nation is usually defined  as a group of people defined by a “common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” A nation also usually shares a common religion.


Think of England, China, or France. The English, Chinese, and French all share a common culture, territory, history, language, and even religion, for the most part.


Of course, America is defined by a common history, and we share a particular territory, but we certainly don’t share a common descent. And there is even a sense in which we are not defined by a common culture or even a common language.


It is often pointed out that we are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, a rainbow. We come from Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the islands of the Pacific. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. We speak English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Yoruba.


This makes the American project, the American story, complicated. We do not share loyalty to a crown or a holy book, so what does bind us all together?


America’s defining characteristic is not our common descent or common language but rather a common set of convictions set out in our foundational documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.


America is defined by our conviction 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…” We are defined by our commitment to the principles of limited government of, by and for the people as set out in the Constitution.


But the American project is an unfinished project and the American story is an unfinished story because every generation has to work out for itself what these ideas mean and how they are to be implemented.


And I believe Katharine Lee Bates understood that and expressed it in the words that she wrote in the second verse of her hymn:


America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!


In other words, the American creed is not “my country right or wrong” but as Pres. Lincoln’s friend Sen. Carl Schurz put it, “I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to believe that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”


America has never been and never will be a country without flaws. On his way from Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in Washington, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the New Jersey legislature in which he referred to America as an “almost chosen nation.” An almost chosen nation needs the grace of God and must seek the grace of God to “mend its flaws.”


The third verse of Bates’ hymn begins


O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife.

Who more than self their country loved

And mercy more than life!


I am certain that the “heroes proved in liberating strife” to whom Bates referred were the men who fought for the Union cause in the Civil War, but it is ironic that she published the final version of “America the beautiful” in 1913, only one year before the beginning of the First World War, the war in which the United States for the first time took on the role of an international defender of liberty.


It is a role that is still controversial, still a topic of lively debate in our own time. To what extent should the United States intervene in conflicts beyond its borders? It is good to debate that topic because I think the debate is part of our ongoing project of interpreting and applying the words of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”


If one country denies life and liberty to the citizens of another country, how long will it be before they deny those rights to other countries? Several years ago I heard former Secretary of State Madeline Albright say that in World War II we learned that evil anywhere in the world will eventually come to the shores of the United States. I believe she was right. The American creed compels us to make common cause with other nations who share our convictions, especially when they are threatened by those who do not share our convictions.


But the “liberating strife” does not just take place on distant battlefields, and the heroes and heroines who engage in it are not just those who take up weapons and wear the uniforms of the armed services.


It seems to me that every generation of Americans is called upon to engage in liberating strife right here at home.


There is a dynamic element in the American creed.


Jefferson was a slaveholder and never intended for his words “All men are created equal” to include African Americans, but the Civil War and civil rights movement were  “liberating strifes” that extended Jefferson’s words to include African Americans


Just weeks before the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams’ wife, Abigail, wrote her husband, “ I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.


Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott and the members of the Seneca Falls Convention waged a “liberating strife,” and finally the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote and Jefferson’s words expanded once again.


Katharine Lee Bates herself waged a kind of “liberating strife.” The great love of her life was Wellesley’s dean and economics’ professor, Katharine Coman. When Coman died in 1915, Bates wrote, “So much of me died with [her] that I'm sometimes not quite sure whether I'm alive or not.”


Here at the beginning of the 21st century the great question to be answered about Jefferson’s words is this: Do they include Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman? Do they include those who love someone of the same sex?


But the main reason that I personally prefer “America the beautiful” to “The star-spangled banner” is because it is a hymn. A hymn is a song addressed to God. I would never want us to have a national religion, but I would always want the United States to acknowledge that we seek God’s grace and need God’s guidance.


O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!