Monday, July 4, 2016

Mother of Exiles

Isaiah 66:10-14

I want to begin my homily this morning by quoting the words of a poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the last lines of which will no doubt be familiar to most of you,

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!”

The poem was inspired by the Statue of Liberty, a national monument and symbol that we all know well. It is engraved upon a bronze plaque and mounted on the pedestal of the lower level of the statue.  It speaks of the millions of immigrants who stream to the United States, many of whom came through Ellis Island at the port of New York. Lazarus’ poem celebrates how the Statue had become a beacon of freedom and a symbol of hope to those who were coming to these shores seeking a new life.

Lady Liberty lifts a torch as she holds a tablet inscribed with the date of our nation’s independence. At her feet is a broken chain. She is an embodiment of the principles upon which this nation was founded, a kind of personification of our national ideal. Lazarus’ poem envisions her as the “Mother of Exiles” welcoming all of the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. Her words in many ways are reminiscent of our Lord’s own welcome, 

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

The personification of America as a welcoming mother also reminds us of Isaiah chapter 66 which is our Old Testament reading this morning. In it we have a similar personification of Jerusalem as a welcoming mother calling all exiles to her welcoming breasts. He writes, “nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” and “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees.”

 Isaiah proclaims that Jerusalem will be a blessing to all nations of the world. Like our own Statue of Liberty she is a beacon for the oppressed. In her arms she holds the tablet of the law and she lifts high the torch of the gospel, a light to the nations. Therefore he calls on all who love her to rejoice with her and be glad for her for the blessing God has shown to her. Interestingly, Isaiah speaks of a glory that has yet to come, because he writes during a time when the people of Israel are in exile and their nation in ruins. He writes of the restoration of the nation and of the royal city of Jerusalem the place where God dwelt with his people in the Temple. This is a promise God gives to the nation of Israel, but the divine vocation of Israel is bigger and broader than their own national interests. The ultimate fulfillment of these promises lies not only with the restoration of ethnic Israel’s own nation, but with the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the New Jerusalem which will be a dwelling place for the people of God from every tribe and nation. This is the city that Saint John saw descending from heaven and from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Her glory consists in being the wife of the Lamb, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is her spouse, her eternal consolation, and her king. Jerusalem’s calling is to represent that city, which is above, to all the nations of the world. She is only great in so much as she fulfills this calling.

On this Independence Day weekend it is right and fitting that we dwell upon this fact. As both Americans and Christians, we have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the United States and we are citizens of that Heavenly City. God has placed us here in this nation that we love and we seek her welfare and her flourishing, but in another sense we are strangers and sojourners here. Our ultimate allegiance is only to our true homeland. Like the ancient city of earthly Jerusalem, the greatness of America consists only in the extent to which she is like the Heavenly City.

We sing, “God bless America” but we must remember that God has blessed America only in order that she might be a blessing to the world. America represents more than a nation of people, she represents an ideal of liberty and hope for all people. She represents a dream that has lived in the heart of mankind for ages upon ages. She is the hope of a perfect kingdom of peace and justice. Whether the Roman Goddess Libertas, Roma the personification of Rome, Britannia of Great Britain, Germania or Germany, or Lady Liberty of America, all are types of shadows of the one Saint Paul calls, “Jerusalem above who is our mother,” the one Saint John saw great with child, clothed in the sun, crowned with stars, and the moon under her feet. She does not seek her own glory or worship, but only the glory and worship of Christ. Her demonic parody, Lady Babylon, however, sets herself up as an idol and is drunk with the blood of the saints.

Every nation is in constant danger of being possessed by this idolatrous spirit. Even Jerusalem herself, called by God to be his own bride, was often denounced by the prophets as an adulteress and a harlot. She failed to live up to her high calling and instead became the seducer and oppressor of God’s people. America too is not free from this temptation. While she is celebrated as the “Mother of Exiles” and a beacon of freedom for all people, she has too often been a force for nationalism, greed, and prejudice. She has not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured, or welcomed the stranger, but has treated them harshly and brutally. Brothers and sisters, if we love our great America, we will assist her instead to be faithful to her true vocation.

As the Church, we are called to be a colony of the Heavenly City, in the midst of our own nations. We are intended to be like holy leaven permeating and transforming the whole lump of dough. But even the Church, too often, has failed in that divine vocation. We have instead nourished the fear, jingoism, and hostility that have been so poisonous to our national ideals. This is our shame. I pray that instead the churches of this nation would be a haven for all people where they can experience the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ, where their tears would be wiped away, their wounds salved, and their sickness healed. Let God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

“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!”

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