Pentecost 4, Proper 8
July 2, 2017, Independence Sunday
Church of the Good Shepherd
Silver City, NM
Rev. Paul Moore
LINK TO PDF VERSION
Only two civic holidays are to be found in our lectionary, Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day. These holidays are included because they reflect more than just national life. They point beyond the nation in two directions. In the ideals which lie at the core of our national society aspects of God may be seen, something true in other ways of other nations. Since all human institutions are crippled in one way or another by sin, the Gospel challenges our national society in important ways. When we celebrate these holidays in the Church they point upward to the nature of God, and outward to our national life.
Today we are using the lessons and prayers for Independence Day, since this is the Sunday closest to July 4. In the Old Testament lesson we see the two directions, upward and downward, reflected in terms of ancient Israel. First of all, we must remember that all Scripture has a context. Nothing was written just to write something cool about God. It is written in response to something. If all were honky dory there would be nothing to write. It answers a question, addresses an issue, or changes our direction. When you see something written like this you know that the opposite was going on. God says to the Israelites,
Be good to one another, just as I am good to you. Be kind to strangers for you were strangers and I was kind to you. Be kind to foreigners, for you were foreigners and I was kind to you. I did not do this for you because of how good you are (obviously you’re NOT being good,) but because this is who I am.
Clearly they were NOT being good to those around them. They were NOT taking care of the foreigner and the stranger. They had forgotten their roots, and with it their moral compass. The “upward” part had been lost so the “outward” part had gone astray.
In the Epistle today the argument of the author points toward the communion of saints. The point of the whole book of Hebrews is to encourage a persecuted Church to endure. This portion says that the saints of the Old Testament, looked forward to something. They understood that the earthly reality they knew was not the full picture. Though they could not see the whole picture, yet yearned for the full integration of the upward and the outward. The author, in the first verse of the next chapter, calls that faith. We see through the lens of Christ, to be sure, yet in another sense even Christ does not reveal the whole totality of the picture. We, too, look forward to what we do not yet see, the full integration of upward and outward in our living.
In the Gospel Lesson Jesus focuses on it again. This part of the Sermon on the Mount tells us to treat others, not as they treat us, but as God treats us. Our behavior is not determined by others, but by the character of God. God sends rain on the just and the unjust, so we are to be good to those who are like us and those who are not like us,
those who treat us well and those who treat us badly. The upward informs the outward.
What does it mean to be a Christian and a citizen at the same time? Where does citizenship stop and faith begin? We must go back to the roots of both faith and citizenship. Christianity has held since the very beginning that the two are not the same thing. There have been times and places where good citizenship conflicted with good Christianity, especially in the first centuries of the Church. The loyalty of committed Christians has always been to the faith first, then to the State. That is not our experience now, thanks be to God, but this is our roots.
Christianity claims that good human behavior is not determined by the law but by the character of God as we understand and experience God. Godly laws allow us to live this way. Ungodly laws require un-godlike action. The upward determines the outward. Christian living will judge the law. Where the law is godly we should uphold it. Where the law is ungodly we should seek to change it through the channels available to us.
Of course, the devil is in the details. Christians differ as to their perspective on the law. For instance, I believe that our immigration law is ungodly. It forgets our roots. It forgets that all of us, ultimately, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, are descendants of immigrants. It forces us to be bad neighbors, to treat the needy and the foreigner as outcasts, and to favor some above others for reasons not of moral import. Therefore I am engaged in immigration justice work. Others might believe that our immigration law protects a godly system. They might oppose my action. So be it. In all of our deliberations as a community of faith, let us always go back to our roots. Let us look to the tradition and the story for insight into our best efforts, and then, let us disagree in godly love and find as much common ground as possible.
Let us also find common ground with those of other religious traditions. There are ideals that are woven into the fabric of our society. We do not always live up to them as we ought, and they are not unique to us, but they are moral beacons that orient the American people. Those values can be shared by people of many traditions, and even those of none.
Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence names a triad of great values:
Life: We usually talk about Life in terms of equality. Everyone deserves equal treatment before the law, everyone deserves equal opportunity in the economy according to their capacity, and no one has a greater share of influence based solely on their family history. These are all deeply American.
Liberty: We usually talk about liberty with the word, “Freedom.” Freedom of self-determination, to choose where one lives and what one does for a living, freedom to express oneself, and to worship according to one’s conscience, freedom to assemble and participate in government as befits our position: These are all deeply American.
The pursuit of happiness: We believe we have the right to choose our friends and life partners however we choose as long as it doesn’t impinge on others. We have the right to fulfilling work that earns a decent wage. We want all people to have the opportunity for creative expression and recreation. These are all deeply American.
All of them are also Christian values.
Life: In God’s eyes all are equal and deserve treatment as creatures, children of God. No one has a corner on God’s love. All get it, whether we think they deserve it or not. We should do everything we can to make sure everyone is treated with the respect and consideration due a child of God. The value on life is deeply Christian.
Liberty: Loving relationships are only truly loving if they are freely chosen. Freedom goes both ways in a relationship. We hold the freedom to be who we are in a relationship, and we hold the freedom of others to be who they are in a relationship. Each person should be free to find the particular expression of their inner being that serves the world for good, and is particularly theirs. Freedom is deeply Christian.
The pursuit of happiness: God’s highest calling for us is also our own best and deepest desire. Frederick Buechner says, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s, (1993) “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We all have an inherent and deeply godly desire to know fulfillment. The pursuit of happiness is deeply Christian.
A Christian can in all good conscience uphold these values. A Christian has the duty to fight for them, and to call society and government to address the gap between the ideal and the real, what we want and what we actually do. So do Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, Jews, and a host of others, and “nones” in their own way.
We are in good company world-wide. According to the Pew Research Center American Christians represent only 11.3% of the Christians worldwide. In most countries Christians are faithful believers and good citizens, finding common ground with those around them, the same as us.
I chose citizenship in this country when I was 18. I had rights to citizenship in Ecuador and the U.S. I have never regretted my choice. The opportunity to live a godly life exists here. I can do godly things in the world as an American Citizen, and I intend to. There are aspects of our government that I do not agree with but that doesn’t make me go live elsewhere. I threw in my lot here. This is my political community, and I am committed to it.
Whether one chooses citizenship or not, citizenship in heaven is the higher calling, the moral anchor that orients the Christian citizen of the United States. Being a Christian and being a citizen of the United States is not the same, they exist on different planes. One is the upward, the other is the outward. Therefore they cannot be in essential conflict, any more than bread can be in conflict with the peanut butter that goes on it.
Therefore on this day we talk about citizenship and faith, and we pray for our country, and we sing songs that express prayers for our country, and the ideals it stands for. God bless the United States. God bless the United States of Mexico. God bless every nation on this earth, and God grant us the grace to be godly in the world community.