Remember me? I am one of the three canons who serve on Bishop Fisher’s Executive Team – and for the past three months I’ve been on Sabbatical. I hope there will be other occasions to share some of what I learned but for now I just want to say: I’m back, I’m rested, and I’m ready to get back to work. Break over!
One of my projects was to organize some of the sermons I’ve preached over the past twenty years or so. I came across one preached at St. Francis Church on July 4, 2010 that I want to share with you all as we celebrate Independence Day this weekend. I realize re-working old sermons is cheating a bit in terms of this diocesan communication. On the other hand, though, I’m sending this along to Karen Warren while I’m still on Sabbatical, so I am hoping you will cut me some slack this time around. Also, I think it’s still quite relevant seven years later.
Peace and good.
Eleven score and fourteen years ago…
Well, you all know what happened in Philadelphia 234 years ago without me making a big speech about it, right? But perhaps fewer of you remember that it was on this very day in 1826—on the
fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, a little piece of historical trivia I have always found pretty extraordinary.
The question that I want to put out there as we celebrate Independence Day is this:
what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in a nation that is committed to religious pluralism in these early years of the twenty-first century?
Contrary to some recent revisionism, it’s difficult to back up the claim that the Founding Fathers set out to form a
Christian nation. In his
Autobiography, Jefferson reflected on the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom with these words:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
That’s pretty clear! From eighteenth-century rural Virginia, Jefferson was able to look down the road to a multicultural society and anticipate a nation that would provide a “mantle of protection” for
all, including and especially religious minorities. Jefferson was himself a Deist whose primary allegiance was to reason. He basically believed in a Creator, but beyond that had serious misgivings about orthodox Christianity.
Adams was a New England Unitarian who anticipated John Lennon’s song “Imagine” when he wrote: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”
Regardless of their own personal religious beliefs, however, Adams and Jefferson were united in their desire to protect religion from government interference. Because of their insight, all Americans (including those who are part of religious minorities) are free to pursue life, liberty and happiness in this country. That includes the freedom to worship God or not to worship God this weekend; to pray or not to pray; to keep the Sabbath holy on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Or not to keep Sabbath at all.
This context allows us as Christians to worry less about trying to control what others believe or how they practice their religion and more about what it is that Jesus Christ calls us to be about in this time and place.
The readings appointed for July 4
remind us that as Christians our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. That in no way diminishes pride in nation; it just insists that when we speak of God and country, the order matters.
One verse from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel pretty much sums up for me the call of Christian discipleship: “
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)
Be perfect, as God is perfect. The phrase is fraught with danger because in English it may sound like a mandate to be perfectionists, which is dangerous to our souls. It helps to remember that Matthew was a Jew, writing to and for a Jewish audience who did not confuse “perfection” with Greek ideas. God is perfect, to a Jewish ear, because of those words we prayed in the psalm today, because:
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
God is perfect because, as we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy, God is not partial to a bribe, but cares about justice for the poor and especially for the most vulnerable members of society. In ancient civilizations (and to some extent still in our own day as well) “the widow and the orphan” is code-language for those who have no one to speak up for them. God takes their side in a world where power is lopsided, and God’s people are supposed to do the same. God also cares for the stranger in our midst: the outcast, the alien, the immigrant.
perfection, in other words, is really about
compassion. In fact, if you read this same verse in Luke you’ll find it is translated in that way: “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” So Matthew isn’t saying that we can’t ever make a mistake. What he is saying is that if and when we do err in judgment, it should always be on the side of mercy and compassion. He means, I think, to say that the work before us is to be cultivating hearts that are like God’s: slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for all. Like God, we are called to especially love the weak and the powerless and the vulnerable, because ultimately, we cannot say we love God whom we cannot see, if we don’t express that love for our neighbor whom we do see.
And as you all know, in the Bible “neighbor” is defined not just as the one who lives next to us and loans us a cup of sugar when we need it. Our neighbor is that Samaritan, which is to say that person from another religious tradition, who stops to help us when we get mugged in the wrong part of the city. Our neighbor is the immigrant who is picking our fruit or working in the kitchen at our favorite restaurant. Our neighbor is the person praying in Arabic over on Mountain Street to Allah. We are called to be perfect as God is perfect by being merciful as God is merciful, by treating our neighbors with respect and dignity, and not disdain.
You all know this; and surely I am just preaching to the choir today. We renew our commitment to this vision every time we renew our Baptismal Covenant. We may disagree about how to best achieve such goals politically, but Christians of all political stripes can agree with Mother Theresa that we see Christ most clearly in the faces of the poor. If then, we mean to be witnesses to the world of what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ, then we might begin by letting our Baptism shape us more than our various ideologies. We can reflect on what it means to have been claimed as Christ and made sisters and brothers to one another, and called friends by our Lord himself.
Holy Baptism brings us into a messy and diverse family. We are called to allow the same Holy Spirit that is given in Baptism to shape the people we are becoming as we practice love and mercy and compassion and generosity not only within these walls but in the larger world of which we are a part, including town meetings and in letters to the editor and in Facebook conversations and at political rallies…
Back, then, to the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon, then:
what does it mean to be a faithful Christian at this juncture in our nation’s history? I think the answer is that we live in a world hungry for mercy and compassion and it is our shared vocation to offer those gifts in an increasingly shrill society. As the old song puts it, we have an opportunity to let the world know that we are Christians by our love.
As Episcopal Christians, we can try to more faithfully live the Thanksgiving for National Life which can be found on page 838 of
Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty God, giver of all good things; we thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name.