Year B Independence Day, 4 July 2021
St. James the Less Epsicopal, Ashland, VA
“A Better Country”
Collect: Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Good morning. Today I want to explicitly state that I love my country. I want to explicitly state that I am in agreement with the Founders that I strive for a more perfect Union. I have been blessed to travel much of the world, especially someone from my background, and I thank God that this is the country of my birth and that this is my home. I am especially thankful to be a Virginian. But to quote the author of Hebrews in today’s reading, I “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Therefore, I must explicitly state, we, as a nation, still have a long way to go. The story of our nation is still being written. The story of our nation can be summed up in the words chiseled into the stone on the National Archives, “What Is Past Is Prologue.” (Echoing William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, by the way.)
We are not trapped by what has come before, but neither are we allowed to let the demons that have haunted us to remain. If we are here amongst the nations of the world to actually create that More Perfect Union, then we have work to do, AND ALWAYS WILL. We will never attain perfection, but day by day, step by step, we can move closer to that first stated purpose of striving for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The uniqueness and strength of our country is that it was founded on an idea. Not by blood, family or nation or tribe of origin, and with the premise that you are enabled and empowered to the best for yourself that you can do. There are a lot of parallels to our faith, in that we began a missionary faith with an idea that all can belong and all are welcome. That is something that our foundings had in common.
If what I have said is true, if what the National Archives states is true, then how then do we write the Future by what we do now?
“Thy Kingdom come, On earth as it is in heaven,” many of us pray weekly, if not daily. What type of nation, what type of people would glorify God in their national discourse? We all have answers to that, and some of them may differ.
I strive always to create light, not heat, and as I share I hope you hear that from my heart. Chewing on that this week, the thought came to mind of John the Baptizer in prison in his final days sending a message to Jesus asking if he was truly the Messiah, or not. Jesus’ answer was seemingly cryptic, but not if you were a normal member of that culture.
Reading here from Matthew 11 (vv. 2-6):
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah here, saying to John he was the fulfillment of that. (Isaiah 35:4-6; Isaiah 61:1) And if that is what the Messiah was to be about, then how might we be followers of the Messiah, if we are not about these things as well?
What does it look like in our times for the Blind to see, the Lame to walk, the Lepers to be cleansed, the Deaf hear, and the Dead raised? What does it look like for the Poor to receive the Good News? If you are Poor what might be Good News be to you? Your next meal? A better life for your children? A peaceful night’s sleep? Another day on earth? And what does it look like for us to not be offended by Jesus, not as WE define him, but as he defines himself.
A preacher can fill a church if you proclaim that God wants you Rich, Comfortable, and Happy. So many do that. But start preaching that God wants us to care for the Least of these, that God wants us to lift up the Broken-Hearted, that God wants us to be about transforming the World so that it was more like Heaven than what we have now, then Preachers can get in trouble.
In seminary they reminded us, “Whenever there is Change there is Conflict, and Whenever there is Conflict, there is Change.” We have lived through both over this last year. We, and I am speaking of We the People here in the USA, not this local church, we were forced into Change because of a Global pandemic, and we were in Conflict over many things. We are witnessing Revolutions, and whenever one is being overthrown, one finds the Revolutionaries revolting. Both the verb revolting, and the adjective revolting.
The last year can be viewed through poles. Black Lives Matter and the protests that began in earnest last summer, and the January 6th Incident. Even in writing this, I did not know what word to use. If I called it a riot, or a revolt, or an insurrection, any of those choices would pit me against someone depending on how that was viewed. And if we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, especially those signs of the Messiah I mentioned, what would Jesus have done in our times? Who would Jesus stand with? Who would Jesus offend? (Remember the last thing he said to John, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me.”)
The Jesus portrayed too often has little to nothing in common with the Jesus that was. Would our Founders have been in support of where our country is and where we are going? I would say to supporters of either of the poles I mentioned, that I doubt that the Founders could have even comprehended our nation today. We have evolved. We have grown BECAUSE of the Ideals that they upheld and that they fought a War to make the Law of this Land. I do not think they would be in support, necessarily, of either side. They were not part of the path between then and now. But they are the beginning of the journey coming where we are, as we are part of the journey of where our nation will go.
I hope and pray that Ashland, and Hanover, and Virginia, and all the States are more and more like Heaven each and every day. I dream of that world. Now do not hear me saying that I want everyone to be like me. When God draws, God uses all the crayons in the big 64 box of Crayola. Not the one favorite, or the little 8 pack. God made the world diverse, and different, and beautiful. God made a world where penguins, platypus, and pachyderms all belong. If you think God does not celebrate all of his Creation I remind you that at the end of every day mentioned in Genesis 1, God finds all that God made Good. Why do we not do the same?
I love that I can enjoy Thai food, and Sushi. I love Italian, and Mexican. I like biscuits and gravy and okra, and I like lox and bagels and matza ball soup. I like and am fascinated by all God’s Children in all their uniqueness, and quirkiness, and contradictions.
I love how the early Church wrestled with the mission Jesus gave them, and within months and just a few years they were confronted with whether they would be a reform movement in Judaism, or a revolution of the whole world. (Jesus sent them in to the whole world, by the way, if you needed that reminder.)
Our faith needs to echo that diversity and that mission. The Diversity God created, and the Mission Christ mandated. And let us not forget the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work in this world, drawing all people to where God would have us be. And like the wind, we cannot control it. I blows where it will, as does the Spirit. She is wild and beautiful and cannot be tamed.
Friends, I am challenged by what I have just said, and I hope you are, too. I am challenged because I know that I am not the person God would have me be. Or better, I am not the person God would have me be... yet. We are not the people God would have us be, yet. God would be cheapened and cheated if we settled for being Rich, or Comfortable, or Happy. God calls us to Abundance and Freedom, and all the responsibilities that belong to both of those.
Jesus: “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” John 10:10b
St. Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1
That Abundance and that Freedom are blessings, given that we might be a blessing to others. The prices paid by our Founders, the prices paid by our national forces defending our freedoms, the prices paid by those whose names have been lost to history is great. Freedom is not Free. But it is our role to step up and take this nation to the next step, to take this nation to ideal that its founders set us toward in their time.
As we celebrate this day when the Continental Congress released the mighty Declaration of Independence, mostly penned by our fellow Virginian, one of the greatest documents in the annals of history, we are given another year to improve, grow, and learn. To do so we need to look not to our roots, but to our branches. If we focus on our roots, we begin to worship dead revolutionaries. But if we follow in the path they marked out for us, it is necessary to leave them behind to go where the could on dream of going. We remember our roots, but look to the branches of the tree they planted. Where are we going? Where are we growing. Friends, I believe that is the call of our Church, as it is the call of our Nation.
If you go to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, you see it arranged just like it was for the Continental Congress. General George Washington chaired the Convention. And during those three months he sat in what came to be known as the Rising Sun Chair. Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the Convention, said of it:
“I have often in the course of the session looked at that ‘sun’ behind the President without being able to tell if it is rising or setting: but now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” (As quoted by James Madison in the federal record.)
We look to the horizon because that is the choice we have. Time only goes one way. You will spend the rest of your life in the future. We may as well make the best of it, as well as making it the best we can be. God Bless You, and God Bless America. May we be blessed to be a blessing. Happy Birthday to all of us. Amen