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.
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:
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!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!