Sunday 25 January 2015, 10:30 am Celebration Worship
Favorite Songs and Hymns Service
There have been some pretty important football games lately, at least important for people who live around here. And it just so happens that I’ve watched a few of them in public places. The college football championship, between the Oregon Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes, happened during the Byberg Preaching Workshop. Byberg, for those of you who don’t know, is an educational event for Lutheran clergy in Cannon Beach. The pastors there come mainly from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Since U of O was in the final, the planners of the event wisely chose to free up the schedule on Monday night, and many of us found ourselves in a local pub watching the game. Now, I would have thought that everyone there would be rooting for Oregon. It seems, however, that a significant number of ELCA clergy come from the Mid-West. Even if they weren’t necessarily Ohio State fans, they were still Big 10 fans, and so many of them were rooting for Ohio State. This was, I think you’ll agree, a truly appalling state of affairs. Here they were, in Oregon, rooting against Oregon.
Something similar happen last Sunday, when we were at Pietro’s Pizza during the AFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The loudest people in the place were the Packer fans. It’s one thing to root against the home team in the privacy of your own living room, but it’s another thing entirely to do it in public.
I’m joking a bit, of course. One of the great things about sports is that they give us a safe way to express a kind of tribalism. As a fan of a particular team, it’s okay to fanatical in your support. You don’t have to be rational or reasonable in sports. I can, for example, say that the Portland Trail Blazers are the best team in the history of basketball. Someone might argue with me about that claim. They may show some me statistics or win-loss records to try to dissuade me, but they will never prove me wrong or convince me otherwise.
At the same time, though, sporting rivalries are fairly safe. On rare occasions sports rivalries boil over into actual violence, fist fights in a bar or small-scale riots. But it’s very unlikely that a disagreement about sports would spark an actual war. It’s fun to love your own team and hate the other team and its supporters, because we know that at some level, we’re all just pay-acting. I might call into question the parentage of someone who roots for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but at the end of the day, it’s just sports, right? It doesn’t really matter. It’s safe for us to be outraged with our neighbor and know that there’s not going to be any real harm.
But, of course, we know that there are other loyalties that have more serious consequences than the division between Seahawks and Patriots. Jew and Gentile. Protestant and Catholic. Sunni and Shia. Israeli and Palestinian. Capitalist and Communist. Indian and Pakistani. First world and third world. North and South. White and Black. All of these distinctions have led to conflicts that resulted in untold numbers of deaths. And these deaths are not just about power or land or resources. They may start out that way, as a dispute over who should be in charge in some particular place, but they become about identity. Disagreement turns to hate. Opponents become enemies. Pride grows into loathing. Until we find ourselves hating the other simply for being other. We find ourselves unable to imagine that the other is anything but evil, base, and irredeemable. What had been difference or diversity becomes bigotry, oppression, and vendetta.
And it is all too easy for us to do. It starts with a sense of pride in one’s own culture. We are proud of our family, or our community, or our nation. But very quickly that pride can turn into dismissal of everyone who isn’t like us. Then that dismissal turns to hate, and that hate turns to violence.
Right here in this community we are marked by a history of bigotry. During World War II, when our government decided that Japanese Americans were not real Americans, Hood River was one of the most radically bigoted places in the country. Land and possessions were stolen from interred Japanese Americans. The American Legion even had the names of American war heroes blasted of the local war memorial because they happened to have Japanese ancestry. Asbury’s pastor, Rev. Sherman Bergoyne, stood up against this blatant racism, but very few other whites stood with him, and he was driven out of town.
We like to think things are better now, and perhaps they are. But we know that there are still people in our community and in our nation who are considered to be unAmerican because they are not white, no matter how long their family has been a part of this country. It is all too easy for us to slip into suspicion of the other.
This kind of pride leading to bigotry affects our foreign relations as well. We used to use words like heathen to describe the people of other nations, as a way of defining them as somehow less than human, not entitled to the kinds of human rights that we take for granted. More commonly now we use the word terrorist, not just for the specific individuals who commit acts of terror, but for entire cultures, entire nations, entire religions. We think of ourselves as more deserving, more noble, more loved by God than those who are not like us.
In the story from Luke today, Jesus appears as a prophet and healer for the first time in his home town of Nazareth. He predicts that the local people will not be happy with his acts of healing and liberation. They will not be happy because Jesus is not saving his power just for them. He is going to heal people from other towns, from other nations, even, just like Elijah who saved a foreign woman from dying of starvation even when his own countrymen we also in famine, or like Elisha, who cleansed a foreigner of leprosy even when there were plenty of Jews who suffered from the same disease.
God does not respect our borders. God does not care about passports or birth certificates or work permits. God loves all people. God created everyone. God is the parent or everyone. We like to think sometimes that because God loves us, God must love only us. Or that if God loves us, God must hate the people that we hate. But that is not how grace works. God’s grace and love are not things that we get to keep for ourselves. As the prophet Isaiah declares, there will come a time when God will gather all people together as God’s own family. And on that day, we will likely be surprised by who God has chosen to include.
Today we have been singing the songs that you have chosen over the last two weeks as your favorites. The most requested song is the one we are going to sing next. This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. If we stopped singing there, we would be in danger. But the song keeps going: but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
There is nothing wrong with loving our country. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our heritage. There is nothing wrong with rooting for the hometown team. There is nothing with those things, so long as we do not fool ourselves into thinking that God shares our preferences or that our culture is somehow better than other cultures. Whenever we say, for example, that America is the greatest nation on earth, there is a danger that we will fool ourselves into thinking that everything America does is right just because it is America that does it. Of course we are proud of our country. People in other countries are proud too, and well they should be. The thing to remember is that God is not American . . . or Israeli or Chinese or Peruvian or Afghani or French or Liberian or anything else. God does not have a home town. The God that we serve, the God who loves us into being is God of all the nations.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.
Lloyd Stone, sts. 1-2, Georgia Harkness, st. 3
United Methodist Hymnal 437, Evangelical Lutheran Worship 887