Faith and the American Dream

Today Jesus sets the bar pretty high, don’t you think?  That last sentence is really the clincher: “Be perfect, you know, like God is perfect.”
Really Jesus?  You wonder how he thought the disciples would respond:  “Oh, oh, now I get it.  Be perfect, like God, that’s where we were going wrong.  Thanks Jesus.”

Now, I’m being tongue in cheek here.  I think part of the problem I have with this Gospel is a problem of translation.  You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is telos, telos.  If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos.  It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional.  To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection, knowing that in life we will not reach the goal.

This week I want to posit that to be a Christian and to be an American, is to go on a journey, to chase a dream.  In this sense, the image at the heart of the reading from Hebrews has always captured my imagination.  Abraham stands outside his tent under the stars of the desert night.  God promises him and Sarah that they will have descendants “as many as the stars of the heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand.”  Abraham has faith in this dream, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  Abraham has faith in God’s dream.  He set out from his homeland, not knowing where he was going.  He lived in tents.  The author Hebrews wants you to hear this: Abraham camped out.  His dwelling was temporary.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob: they were a people on the move, chasing a dream.

My family has a bit of a running gag when we travel.  The joke centers around the GPS systems in rental cars.  Before we set off we play around with the various options of the navigation system.  My sister take charge when it comes to the voice that will be guiding us.  There are typically a few options of genders and accents.  After a bad experience in New Orleans, my sister is convinced that the British lady gets you lost.  So we are guided by an American.  The real joy of GPS in a city you don’t know, for our family, comes when you reach you destination.  As we get close to where we are going my mom says, “wait for it….wait for it” until we hear the GPS announce “You have arrived.”  
“You have arrived.”  We love the sense that sentence conveys.  You’ve made it.  You’ve found a place of comfort and privilege.  You’re in.  “You have arrived” used to speak of a certain level of access in society.  When you receive the right invitations to the right parties you know that “you have arrived.”  So it is reassuring when the small electronic voice tells you that indeed, you have arrived.  Even if you’ve only found the local Chipotle.  I think Americans today are very concerned about “arriving.”  We want to “achieve” the American Dream, to “arrive.”  We have some loose understanding of what “arrival” will look like that involves a good job, a good partner, maybe a labrador, and 2.5 kids.  You know, white picket fences.  But then, when we have that fence, the job, the dog, the spouse, and the kids, the voice doesn’t come telling us “you have arrived.”  See, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with what we’ve come to think of as, “The American Dream,” and I think it is because a lot of us have dreamed a dream that is too small.
See, if in the letter of Hebrews Abraham and Sarah had a GPS, they would never hear “You have arrived.”  Instead we hear that they “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”  Faith, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, is the animating force which allows us to live by a dream, to journey toward a dream.  It takes faith to dream a dream so big you know you will never see it fulfilled.  It takes faith to live toward a dream you will never fully realize.  
It took faith, 236 years ago, for a group of freshly minted “Americans” in what was then an agrarian backwater of the world, to declare their independence from the British Sovereign.  The founders had a dream.  They were convinced that God did not send tyrants to rule over them.  The founders believed that all men, today we would amend their statement.  “All people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  That word “pursuit” is a word that describes Abraham well, and hopefully continues to describe our American project well.
I think the founders of our nation understood what it was to dream a great dream, to dream a dream that was bigger than themselves.  I think whatever progress our nation has made in this world, it owes in part to the depth of the founders dream.  A point of personal privilege, for me it really is kind of amazing to spend today in James Madison’s church.  In the three years that I’ve been at St. John’s, I have always been away this week.  As I prepared to preach I thought a great deal about that founding generation.  Madison, the great architect of the separation of Church and State, helped build a parish while the White House was still in ruins.  So worshiping here, Imageat St. John’s, carries for me a special sense of inheritance.  We are the inheritors of the freedoms of our founders.  Their dream is still worth celebrating.

Make no mistake, while some have experienced as the American dream, others have lived a nightmare.  While the generation of founders outlined new freedom for themselves, they denied that freedom to the enslaved African Americans who worked their plantations.  Think about that.  The architects of freedom owned people.  Still today our agricultural and service industries are reliant upon the labor of 12 million undocumented immigrants.  Each year the US government allows only 5,000 visas for this kind of work.  Because we deny so many of these laborers a legal a permit to work and live in the United States, they are paid below minimum wage and work without recourse to regulations which protect workers’ health and safety.  The dissonance between the so-called American dream and what many have experienced as the American reality is not easy to resolve.  I struggle to resolve that dissonance.  

I want to read you a couple of short paragraphs from a poet whose career began here in Washington.  I want to share these lines, because for me they speak to the depth of the dream, why it is worth talking of the American dream.  When he was first published, this poet was working as an African-american busboy at the “whites only” Wardman Park hotel.  The poet’s name was Langston Hughes.  His poem, “Let America Be America Again,” is from 1935.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!  

That is the power of a great dream, a dream bigger than the first dreamers, a dream so big that it can be picked up generations later, by the son of people whose freedom was denied by the original dreamer.

There are signs of life like this for the American dream all over our world.  The dream is no respecter of national borders.  When I was in college, I was often in theology classes with a man named Daniel.  Daniel was one of the most articulate and patient students I ever met.  Daniel was also one of the “Lost Boys,” the orphans of war in the Sudan who walked hundreds of miles across the Sudanese desert to escape war in refugee camps.  He received a visa, and he came to America with a dream that he would be educated.  Daniel is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Mathematics at the University of California.  Try and tell Daniel that the American dream is dead.

When I lived in Honduras I met two young boys with really interesting names.  To understand why their names were so fascinating, you have to understand the phonetics of the Spanish language.  You see in Spanish, each vowel only ever makes one sound.  The letter “U” always sounds like “oo.”  “A” always produces the sound “ah.”  “I” is always “ee” and so on.  In Honduras, in the rural village of Talanga, I met a boy named “Usmail.”  Spelled out his name is written “U.S. Mail.”  He was named for the letters that came with remittance checks from his father, probably and undocumented worker.  His mother named her child in thanksgiving for the source of income that provided shelter, food, and medical care for her family.  The other boy I met in the capital, Tegucigalpa.  His name was “Usaid,”  US AID.
I tell these stories because I think they represent the state of the American Dream today.  For America’s sake, the dream can never fully be realized.  If it is realized, than the dream is too small.  No one person’s success realizes the dream when others are suffering.  We work, with faith, toward the dream: faith in our Creator who both endows us with rights and charges us to safeguard the rights of others.  We know that in our lifetimes, we will never fully realize the promises of that dream, but we hope that “from a distance we can see and greet” the dream’s fulfillment.
We pause this week to celebrate the dream of America, to remind us that the American dream is not easy.   The American dream really has little to do with whitewashed picket fences.  The American dream is really not to pull into Chipotle and hear “you have arrived.”  Those dreams are too small.  Our God is the god of a journey.  The journey isn’t easy, and the idea of travelling constantly toward a dream we will never see fulfilled may seem daunting.  But take courage, for as Catherine of Siena said, we follow a savior who did not say “I am the arrival point,” but “I am the way” and “all the way to heaven is heaven itself.  To dream a great dream is to take a journey bigger than any one of us.  To chase the American dream means that until the day we die we persistently pursue happiness, and life, and liberty for all of God’s creatures.  So, this week, as we watch those fireworks, as we are filled with the awe that is the American dream, let us ask ourselves: Where is the American dream leading us today?


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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