This summer marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day – the invasion of Normandy and the tipping point toward the end of World War II. I guess I tend to think in movies, so this summer I’ve had scenes of Saving Private Ryan running through my head.
As you probably know, Saving Private Ryan is a story of a deeply heroic effort undertaken not for military advantage but for compassion. The Ryan family has sent four sons into battle, and three of them have been killed on D-Day. Remembering a Civil War letter from President Lincoln to a mother who’d lost all of her sons,1 Gen. George Marshall decides to rescue the last Ryan boy. The commanders send a squad to find him, as he fights his way toward Germany, and bring him home. Enduring great struggle and loss to achieve their mission, the squad finally finds Private Ryan – and finds itself fighting a German Panzer division. The squad helps stop the German tanks as well as saving Private Ryan, but the captain, John Miller (played by Tom Hanks), is mortally wounded. As he lies in the dust, struggling for his last breath, he grabs Private Ryan, pulls him close, and whispers Ryan’s mission for the rest of his life: The captain says, “Earn this.”
Can we do that? Can we earn the sacrifices made for us? As an older man, Private Ryan is haunted by the thought that maybe he didn’t earn the soldiers’ sacrifice. And as people of faith, we’ve struggled for 2,000 years to accept the mystery of salvation made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice. Can we do anything to earn that? Absolutely not – it’s the “free gift,” as we heard last week – “the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). But that free gift inspires us – or at least God intends it to inspire us – to turn from our slavery to sin and bind ourselves “to righteousness” instead, (Romans 6:19), to Jesus himself (Romans 7:4). So even though we can’t earn a holy sacrifice – not even the sacrifice of a soldier for a brother in arms – we can strive for the righteousness exemplified by the one who gives his life.
So our story is that striving for righteousness. And as we celebrate America’s independence this weekend, we remember striving for righteousness is what this country has always done, too. From the very beginning, the United States has been an aspirational nation. As we declared our independence, before we even were a nation, we proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”2 None of us in this room would deny that statement. None of the Founders, more than 200 years ago, would have denied that statement. But the nation they created certainly didn’t enflesh the reality of that statement – a nation of slavery, and broken treaties with native peoples, and second-class citizenship for women. What the Founders couldn’t fully accept wasn’t the truth of their prophetic claim; it was the definition of the subject of the sentence: “men,” or as we would say, “people.” All people are created equal. Well, who qualifies as being fully a person? If all people are created equal and enjoy equal rights, but you deny those rights to women, the logical consequence is that you aren’t seeing women as being fully people. Or African-Americans. Or Native Americans. Or gay and lesbian people. The list goes on.
Our gift as a nation has been seeing the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people; but our challenge as a nation has been extending the definition of “people” to all. We are a nation that lives slightly ahead of ourselves, writing checks to future generations that those future generations then seek to cash, as Martin Luther King Jr. said.3 In any given moment, we are never “there” yet. The finish line is always moving farther down the road. For those of us who presently enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, God challenges us always to look for new ways to “earn this” by striving to extend those blessings to all.
We are not yet fully who God wants us to become. Think about what we heard in that reading from Deuteronomy, a clear call God’s been making for more than 3,000 years: Care for the stranger who lives among you. Now, over time, the face of the stranger changes. In our nation’s history, shop windows once held “Help Wanted” signs that also read, “No Irish need apply”; and cartoons depicted Irish immigrants looking like apes. That’s horrifying – we can’t imagine it today. But we still find ourselves struggling to respond to immigrants from Latin America seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – now, suddenly, including tens of thousands of children crossing the border on their own. I don’t pretend to be an expert on immigration policy. Clearly, the number of immigrants overwhelms us. It’s probably fair to say that not everyone who comes should come. But as we sort through the details of public policy, as nations must do, we must also heed God’s call to compassion, for adults and children alike. As Deuteronomy puts it, the “God of gods and Lord of lords … loves the strangers…. You shall also love the stranger,” says the Lord, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19) It is God’s aspiration for us, a call to be more than what fear and self-interest tempt us to be.
That’s a challenge. But it’s nothing compared with the aspirational call we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Really? So, like, the people actively seeking to harm our nation, the guys with automatic weapons screaming, “Death to America!” – we’re supposed to be praying for them? We’re supposed to love them? Yes. So what does that look like? What does it say about the practice of warfare by Christian people? That’s another conversation – a long conversation. But Jesus’ aspirational call does help explain why, even when we feel immediately under attack by our nation’s enemies, we know, deep in our hearts, that we cannot torture even the people who hate us the most. That boundary makes the work of defending ourselves harder, but we know that as followers of Jesus – and as believers in the American gospel that all people are equally people – we know that we can’t allow ourselves to go down torture’s road.
“Strive to be perfect,” Jesus continues in today’s aspirational Gospel. “Strive to be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) That seems an impossibly high bar, for our nation and for ourselves. How can we strive to be what we can never be? As always with Scripture, language matters – and in this case, language both saves us from the need to be error-free and challenges us embrace an aspiration we actually can attain. The word in Greek here isn’t about perfection in the sense of making no mistakes. The word Jesus uses actually means “complete” or “whole” or “mature” – that we are to live fully into the miraculous reality that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. If that claim is true, Jesus would say – if each and every person is made in the image and likeness of God – then we must live past the limitations of each historical moment, the sinfulness that makes us see anyone as less human than we are. We must aspire to live into the wholeness made possible by the spark of divinity that burns in each of us. We must aspire, as Lincoln said, to be governed by “the better angels of our nature.”4
Standing in a cemetery in Normandy, a blessedly old man among the headstones of his friends, Private Ryan turns to his family and asks the movie’s heart-rending question: “Have I been a good man?” Have I earned this? Clearly, this face of the Greatest Generation had been striving toward that goal across the decades of his life. He surely failed at times, but his story isn’t the failure; it’s the striving for goodness that defines him.
And so it is for us, for ourselves and for our nation. Our call is to continue to look at ourselves in the mirror – seeing the faces of all humanity looking back at us – and ask, “Are we a good nation?” Do we reflect the principles we want to claim, the ideals of our nation and the statements of our faith – that all people are created equal, that all people enjoy rights no one can take away, that all people are children of God? As we set immigration policy, do we love the stranger? As we provide for the common defense, do we love our enemies? Our history assures us we will constantly miss the mark. But our story is more than that. Our story is the story of striving – striving to live out the truths we hold as self-evident, striving to pay the checks we’ve written to people yet unborn, striving to honor the promises we’ve made to ourselves and to our posterity.
1. Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Mrs. Bixby.” Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings. Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/bixby.htm. Accessed July 3, 2014.
2. “The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” Available at: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html. Accessed July 3, 2014.
3. King, Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream…” Available at: http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. Accessed July 3, 2014.
4. Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.” Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings. Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm. Accessed July 3, 2014.