Independence Day is not on the liturgical calendar for lots of reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is a holiday for only one country, and there is the worldwide nature of the Christian community (not that the United States is the only country to have an independence celebration or a national day of some sort. It is a fairly universal occurrence). Because of this, in our Book of Worship, there are suggestions about how to mark this occasion in the worship life of the church. The text we’ve chosen for this standalone service comes from the suggestions in the “Other Special Days” section of the Book of Worship. It is good, we believe, to acknowledge, with the rest of the various nations we call home, to stand in solidarity as citizens and give thanks.
There is another reason why “Independence Day” doesn’t appear in the Christian calendar. That reason is more delicate and often misunderstood. Independence isn’t really a Christian concept. It could be argued that independence is antithetical to the nature of the faith. At its heart, Christianity is about acknowledging that we need help. We need a savior. We need the community of faith to walk with us in this journey through life. Some have argued over the years that even as a nation we might be better served to celebrate “Interdependence Day” and recognize that the greatness of our country is found in the economic and social systems that rely on individuals and groups to work in concert with one another to achieve shared results, ones that honor everyone, not just the few.
The misunderstanding here is that some believe we are claiming, or attempting to claim, that if you are a Christian you cannot be a patriot, or you cannot be proud of the country in which you live. It is true that there are elements of our society toward which followers of Jesus Christ ought to stand in opposition. Rugged individualism is one of those elements. Let’s admit, rugged individualism makes for a great action movie, but the idea that anyone stands alone is simply antithetical to our faith and our witness.
So, how do we observe Independence Day in worship? With thanksgiving. It is always appropriate to give God thanks for the blessings we too often take for granted. It is appropriate to acknowledge the bounty that surrounds us as a nation — not with an arrogant acceptance of resources as somehow earned or deserved, but with humility that recognizes our unworthiness, except that Christ makes us worthy.
Next should follow a time of confession where we acknowledge that we have not always dealt with this abundance of resources in the most equitable manner and that our striving for more has left many in our own nation and around the world suffering from want and hunger. This is not America-bashing, but prophetic truth-telling with honesty and a desire for change. More than just desire, it is a belief that change is possible and shows willingness to be a part of the change that brings hope to the world.
Worship should include such a call to justice, even as we pray for leaders across the nation. Whether we agree politically with those elected to serve or not, we offer them prayers of support and wisdom, along with the hope that they might be better instruments of the Spirit that will lead them to build the nation that we dream it could be — the light on the hill that we aspire to be, not because we are inherently better than other nations, but because we know the source of the light that draws us all.
We sing songs of celebration and thanksgiving. We include not just songs of our own nation, such as “America the Beautiful,” but songs of the world community, such as “This is My Song.” We celebrate who we are and can be, and we acknowledge that there are others who give hope to the world as well. We should, even on this day, “outdo one another in giving honor.”
What about color, what about the Pledge of Allegiance? In most cases, there will be members of the congregation who will bring the “red, white, and blue” of the nation into the worship space. It would be better that the worship team use the colors of the liturgical season to adorn the altar. The green of ordinary time would be an appropriate backdrop for this day. As for the pledge, it would better to reserve that for more civic occasions, such as town council meetings, PTA meetings, scouting events, or even public school classrooms. But the sanctuary is a place where we pledge allegiance to God and God alone. The pledge first appeared in 1892. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister. It was changed in 1923 and then changed again in 1954, when in the face of what was felt to be a Communist threat, President Eisenhower asked Congress to add the words “under God” to the pledge (https://www.ushistory.org/documents/pledge.htm). But the history of the people of God is even older; and Jesus clearly asked us not to put any allegiance, even that of parents, above that of God. That is why it is best to leave the reciting of the pledge to more civic occasions. While an Independence Day observance has a place in the worship of the people of God, it is important to avoid reducing the faith to one of nationalistic religion. Our focus must always be on lifting up the name of Jesus as we continue to be in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.