Preached by The Rev. Timothy Watt at St. John’s Georgetown, July 3, 2016
May I speak in the name of the God in whom we Trust, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Please be seated.
Tomorrow is Independence Day. Tomorrow we will celebrate the bold declaration of , “NO MORE!” made by our forebears in the cause of freedom. Freedom from a monarchy that failed to recognize the right of participation in our own governance. We are using the readings and collect for Independence Day today. They are interesting readings. They should give us all of us sitting here pause, 240 years after the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence.
What faith they must have had in the rightness of their cause, in the truth of their claims of injury, to engage in a revolutionary war against the greatest superpower in the world at that time. A great empire whose power sat in full display in the harbor of Boston while the congress met. Just a fraction of the greatest naval power in the world had blockaded Massachusetts and prevented the commerce that fed her. And in the face of overwhelming force and odds, our forebears banded together, did the absurd, and won independence. What a tale we have of our beginnings as a nation… David slaying Goliath.
But, I would be remiss if I failed to note that the cause for freedom did not extend to all people in this land, as our Collect today suggests. There were the slaves after all… people torn from kith and kin and brought against their will to work under the lash of their oppressors. There were Masters who presumed to own other human beings. Some of those masters even built this very church. What was faith for those slaves, I wonder? What did they hear in these readings today? What spin on the Gospel was played upon them in the words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” And what do their descendants hear today, when their young men are incarcerated and killed at levels exceeding any other racial group? How can such a people be asked to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them? It’s absurd. Such a hard lesson indeed… But the Greek here is clear… Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. He.means.every.word.
God makes the sun to shine of the evil and on the good… God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Some very bad people get ahead in this life. And others with more innate gifts start with a deck so stacked against them that despite talent or quickness of mind, they cannot attain to the heights they desire. Life happens, and some of it is not fair… And knowing this causes us to be insular, to be selfish. The lessons that we teach as a society are clear: work hard, get ahead, buy the house on the hill… you will show others that you have made it if they see you could afford to buy “X.” But we rarely stop to consider why it should even matter at all to us to have the admiration of the jealous. Our experience in this society has a cold lesson: if you don’t take care of you and yours, no one else will. Life is a zero-sum game, if you don’t seize it now, someone else will get it and the opportunity won’t come again. It’s now or never…
Everything Jesus says in our reading today flies in the faith of this cold logic of the world. The commandments to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you are nonsensical. Doing so will make us seem weak. And if we seem weak we will surely be attacked. This small part of the Sermon on the Mount comes quickly on the heals of those other hard and seemingly absurd commandments, Turn your cheek if someone strikes you, if someone sues you give them what they ask… and not only that, give them all you have. If you are forced into being a beast of burden, carry the load twice as far as commanded. This is absolutely not what we want to do, is it? No… I can tell you right now that if I am sued, you can bet I will find the best lawyer I can afford, one who will find and exploit every legal loophole she can in my favor.
So just what is Jesus up to here? The truth is, He is expressing that we are called to ultimate, utter, selflessness in the cause of others. It is only in fully living for one another that the best things can happen for each person. And our Founders knew something of the power of this, didn’t they? Banners carried by the Continental Army and Navy included two that were notable for the serpents they depicted. One banner was based on a print by Benjamin Franklin. It showed a snake sliced into pieces and urged the unity of the colonies with the slogan, “Unite or Die.” It was originally designed it as a response to the French and Indian war in 1754.
Then the words were “Join or die”. The point is clear… all the colonies were needed to beat back the enemy. An organism cannot live without integrity in all of its parts. Neither could the colonies hope to win unless they presented a united front. And so the design was resurrected for its potent symbolism as the Continental Congress met to debate independence from England. It represented the truth of the statement, again by Benjamin Franklin and perhaps apocryphal, at the signing of the Declaration: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The segmented serpent is the illustrated example of the selflessness to which all the colonies were called and to which they all came together in the cause for liberty.
And then there is the other banner, known as the Gadsden banner. Is has a coiled rattler, and is now beloved by those who worship individualism as an idol. You know the one, its message is on stickers and even license plates now: “Don’t Tread On Me.” Now it is used as an assertion that the most important thing is absolute personal liberty. But this use is anachronistic to what was intended when it was created. Then, because everyone knew of Franklin’s design, the rattlesnake had become the symbol of a united colonial front. To tread on the serpent was not to tread on any one individual or colony, but on every faithful individual in the rebel cause for independence. It represented the sum of the parts of our nascent nation, whole and indivisibly united in our revolution. Instead of an appeal for an individuals right to do as she or he pleased, it represented the united will of people in a single cause.
And so it is with the Sermon on the Mount as well. It is a banner to the greatest cause there is, the very Kingdom of God. It is not a series of suggestions for being nice. No, it is actually a blueprint for how we are to act in coordination with God to make the Kingdom here, now. Theologians like to say that the Kingdom is both here and not yet. But if all were to act in accord to Jesus’ call to selflessness, the Kingdom would most certainly be visible here. Some verbiage here is hard for us as Americans. After all, tomorrow we celebrate the declaration of our independence from a king who would not hear us. Suspicion of the terms King and Kingdom is in our national DNA… George III was a particularly bad king in our reckoning. His parliament was particularly odious in its treatment of her colonies. How can we possibly desire to again place ourselves voluntarily under the yoke of a King?
But we know that the King of our Kingdom gives us Yokes that are easy and burdens that are light. Our King is God, who was so selfless as to send God’s very Word, eternally begotten of God, as a Son among us… This son was selfless even to death, and showed us that the kingdom can be now and that all things can be made new. This Son who showed us how to have Faith: in Him, In God, and in One Another.
Faith. The Greek word for faith used by the author of Hebrews in our reading today is “Pistis”. In the tale of Pandora’s box from Greek Mythology, Pistis is a personification of faith that was released along with evil. But unlike Evil who remained on Earth, Pistis fled and returned to the summit of Olympus, of heaven. The lesson of the myth is that this is why faith is so hard to come by on the Earth. It’s an interesting myth and the author of Hebrews, who surely knew of it, rejects it. Instead, he writes of how faith moved through the history of the Hebrews. How a wandering people were called to a faraway land, seeking a new homeland. A people who even after obtaining the promised land still sought an even better country, that is, the heavenly one…
So tomorrow celebrate the country we have. Remember those others who suffered in its construction and preservation, slave and soldier alike. Celebrate that we have the freedoms we do today, but remember that such freedoms are guaranteed not by individual might, but in the participation of all. Each freedom is only true when it is available to all and when justice truly is blind, to status and race. Light fireworks but remember that the True Light is Christ. Above all, always remember that we will die if we do not unite, with God, with each other, with the least of our sisters and brothers… with all of humanity. And finally, thank God that we have such a land as this one in which to wander as we seek our true Heavenly Country: the Kingdom that is and is coming.
May God bless us all… and may God bless the United States of America!