Reflections July 3, 2022
Tomorrow, we celebrate the birthday of our nation. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. We know that this land had been occupied by many different Native American tribes long before any of the early European settlers appeared on its shores. Many of those who came across the sea in the earliest years came seeking freedom of religion, the freedom to worship as they chose, and they created a form of self-government as well. People have come to these shores over the centuries for many reasons; often, they came in search of a dream and they came and still come fleeing war, starvation, poverty, and oppression. And we know that millions of African men and women were brought against their will. So, we have always been a nation that represents the beliefs, the cultures, the religions, the traditions, and the languages of many different peoples. This morning, we gather in this small church on the coast of Maine to share our prayers of gratitude, our prayers of hope, and our prayers of love for this land that we dearly love. Let us pray, O Holy One, we thank you for the blessings of this land, for those who have worked throughout the years to uphold the highest values of our Democracy. In these often difficult and fractured times, grant us the courage to continue to work to ensure that those who live long after us will benefit from the highest ideals of what our nation is and can be. Amen.
Looking back at history in the time before the American Revolution, the colonists had held annual celebrations of the king’s birthday, which traditionally included the ringing of bells, bonfires, processions and speechmaking. However, following the adoption of this Declaration of Independence, during the summer of 1776, some of the colonists celebrated the birth of independence by holding mock funerals for King George III as a way of symbolizing the end of the monarchy’s hold on America and the triumph of liberty.
Early celebrations included concerts, bonfires, parades and the firing of cannons and muskets usually accompanied the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence, beginning immediately after its adoption. Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777, while Congress was still occupied with the ongoing war. Apparently, George Washington issued double rations of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778, and in 1781, several months before the key American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.
Our Constitution was ratified in 1787 and begins with these words,
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure 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.
Over the years, many immigrants have set forth from nations throughout the world and come to these shores seeking to be a part of helping create this ‘more perfect’ union. It has not always been easy and we find ourselves even today realizing how fragile our democracy can be.
It was in 1883, when a woman named Emma Lazarus wrote these words as a tribute to the Statue of Liberty which had been a gift to our nation from France in 1886…
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” + Emma Lazarus
When she wrote the poem, immigrants were entering the United States in great numbers, including Italians, French, Greeks, and Russian-Jewish refugees, among others. And her work, “The New Colossus” is itself a multicultural amalgam: this an Italian sonnet written by a Jewish-American woman, celebrating a statue forged in France, contrasting it with one in ancient Greece. This new colossus, Lazarus insists, is “not like” the Greek Colossus, domineering and male, which in the third century BCE stood at the harbor of the island of Rhodes, like some conquering warrior and guardian. No, this statue holds a beacon in her hand, signaling nothing less than “world-wide welcome.” Her name is “Mother of Exiles.” She is unarmed, a light in one hand and a votive tablet in the other. Such tablets were common in ancient Greece for inscribing prayers, or in any case aspirations — and on this particular tablet is the date the United States formally broke from English rule: July 4, 1776. It’s as if she says, We aspire to be free — now come, all you who yearn for freedom. (Saltproject.org)
As one writer explained, “She is the personification of freedom, the Roman goddess Libertas. But compare her with Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, in which Libertas carries a battle flag and gun. No, this version of Libertas is an image of peace and hospitality. In the decades since the poem’s writing, including recent days, American “nativists” (so-called!) have sought to recast her as a guard keeping people out. But Lazarus’ poem stands as a rebuke to this idea. This isn’t the old colossus, but rather a new one: far from keeping people out, Lady Liberty is welcoming us in.”
I wonder how many of our own ancestors caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty as they sailed into New York. I know my own grandmother came through Ellis Island when she immigrated from Lithuanian over 100 years ago when only a teenager. So many families have stories of those who first came to these shores, whether it was many centuries ago or more recently, all seeking to experience greater opportunity, a better life, and freedom.
In the Bible too are stories of those who were forced to flee their land. We know that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for over two hundred and fifty years until Moses was empowered to lead his people to freedom. And as a baby, Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt, to flee the horrors of the killing of the innocents by King Herod. Sadly, many people over time have been forced to leave their families and their homeland to find a new life and often simply to survive. Our hearts grieve for those who, even this past week, die along the journey.
The Puritan leader John Winthrop delivered a Sermon in 1630 as he and his fellow colonists set sail from England to America in pursuit of religious liberty. He wrote, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” And the artist who created the Statue of Liberty wrote of this beautiful symbol: “it is a lamppost, warning against dangers; the light that illuminates the long path ahead is you, the youth, who are holding its torch; it is you who are to illuminate the future and its obscurities.” —Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, July 30, 1898
This day, we pray for the many blessings of liberty that we have received as residents of these United States of America and we ask for the courage and the strength to continue to ensure the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.