Memorial Day: What Dream Do We Fight For?

Maybe because this is Memorial Day Weekend, the story at the heart of the Gospel created an odd association for me this week as I prepared to preach. I was thinking a great deal about what it means to be an American. Ellis and I just bought tickets to spend a few weeks in Europe this summer. We’ll be traveling in Sweden, Belgium, Britain and France. I had Europe on the brain as I read about the Centurion and the questions of worthiness it reminded me a bit of how Americans are perceived abroad.

Some of you know that I studied part of my senior year at Oxford University. One of the great experiences of Oxford, which is mimicked in the Harry Potter movies, is formal hall dinner. You get all dressed up and sit at these long tables in your college. You end up at table with people you don’t know well. I was in a small college, and one night a group of classmates got to telling stories about “Stupid Americans abroad.” After a few go-arounds, one of them awkwardly looked over at me. “Don’t worry, Mike” he said, “you’re not one of those Americans.” I didn’t know whether or not to be comforted. Americans often behave badly abroad. I’ve seen it. I’ve caught myself talking too loudly in a museum, or tripping over a local custom.

I thought about this “Americans abroad” question this week as I read about the Centurion. “He’s not that kind of Roman” the Jewish people seem to say. He built us a synagogue. He cares about the locals. “He’s not your average American.”

Travel seems to bring the worst out in us. My family used to have a bit of a running gag when we traveled. The joke centered around the GPS systems in rental cars. It originated before most of us carried our own GPS systems on our phones. Getting a GPS was a special joy of having a rental car. The real fun of GPS in a city you don’t know, for our family, came when you reached you destination. As we got close to where we were going my mom would say, “wait for it…wait for it” until we heard the GPS announce “You have arrived.” It’s too bad our iPhones don’t say that simple sentence as they navigate for us.

“You have arrived.” We loved the sense that sentence conveys.  You’ve made it. You’ve found a place of comfort and privilege.  You’re in. “You have arrived” speaks of a certain level of access in society. So it was reassuring when the small electronic voice told us that indeed, we had arrived.

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.” As it turns out, “The American Dream,” leaves many with a certain dissatisfaction. And I think it is because a lot of us have dreamed a dream that is too small. We have dreamed an individualized dream. It’s a dream that’s too small.

America is a dream, that at its best, is bigger than any of us alone. No person alone, no family alone, no community alone, no race or gender, no orientation or ability or language can be America alone. America is an ideal that invites us to expand the borders of our identity. We only realize the idea of America when we transcend the walls that separate us.

The best of the American Dream is a bit like Solomon’s surprising prayer from the First book of Kings. This passage comes just after Solomon has built the Temple. This king has completed a wonder of the world. He has built the glory of his nation. He has dedicated millions of hours of labor and countless resources to the construction of God’s temple. This temple is the pride of his nation. Which is why it is so surprising when he asks God: “when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name.” Solomon wants his temple to be known as a house of prayer for all peoples. He is dreaming big. This is a kind of dream that has faith in a God bigger than just you. Bigger than just your people.

It took that kind of faith, 240 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” describes a journey, describes a movement. Hopefully the American movement is not yet over.

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. 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. The architects of freedom claimed to own people. Some theologians have called slavery America’s “original sin.”

The definition of sin is “missing the mark.” In archery, to sin is to fall off target. In that sense our treatment of enslaved Africans was our original sin as a country. And today the legacy haunts us.

Still today our agricultural and service industries are reliant upon the labor of millions of 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 want to read you a couple of short paragraphs from a poet who wrote about the American dream. I want to share these lines, because for me they speak to the depth of the dream, why it is worth talking about.  When he was first published, this poet was working as a black busboy at the “whites only” Wardman Park hotel in Washington, DC.  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.

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.

This weekend we pause remember those who gave their lives for the dream of America. We will remember those who gave their lives in the armed services, of course. But, can we also remember other dreamers who gave their lives as well? Can we remember the marchers, the protestors, the hunger strikers? Can we remember the workers, the builders, and those who labor to feed us? Can we remember those who collapsed in the desert or drowned in the ocean trying to reach American soil? Can we make tomorrow a Memorial Day for all of those who dare us to dream about what this nation can be?

As I think about the centurion, I have a hunch what made him a different kind of Roman. I have a hunch what sets him apart. He understood he needed God. He understood that he hadn’t “arrived.” He knew he needed the power of God’s healing touch. Not just for himself, but for the one who served him. Our final hymn today is a patriotic song. We’ll march out singing “O beautiful for spacious skies.” I know that some of you might feel awkward combining patriotism and church. That’s okay. I want to tell you why I picked the hymn.

The second line really wins it for me:

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved,and mercy more than life! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

Those words were written by Katherine Lee Bates, a nineteenth century feminist. These words help us to know that this song is “not that kind of American” patriotic anthem.

The American dream is worth dreaming, because at its best, it challenges us. It asks us to continue to look for healing, to continue to include the surprising other, to continue to ask God to bring God’s reign here on earth. Tomorrow as we remember those who died for a dream, can we also remember the dream they were dreaming? Amen.

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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