Please pray with me for a moment. Gracious God, we come to you in this place, on this day in freedom and in hope. Help us to know that with the freedom you give us, we are invited to join you in healing the world. And that in the abundant hope you deliver unbidden, we are invited to know your possibilities and your peace, today and tomorrow and tomorrow. Amen.
Before Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, he took his time traveling from Springfield to Washington, and on the way he stopped in Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence some eighty-five years earlier. He hadn’t planned on giving a speech; he thought he was going merely to raise the flag and greet the people, but the crowd was anxious to hear from their new president-elect. And so the fifty year-old Lincoln, his face not yet lined by the burdens of the grievous war to come, stood and spoke, as he often did, in direct and simple terms.
He said, “I have never had a single feeling about policy for the nation that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often [wondered] what great principle or idea it was that has kept us so long together. It was not the matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but rather that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave not only freedom to people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. [Freedom and hope,] it was that which gave promise that in due time the weight of the world would be lifted from the shoulders of all…” (See: Blaser, Roy P. ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln).
I want to talk with you this morning, this Independence Day morning, about freedom and hope, and about how our understanding of ourselves as a people, our understanding of ourselves as a people at our best, can be deeply informed and animated by the promise of our God whose gifts of freedom and hope we find again and again in his love and word and Spirit…each alive in our midst.
Our words from Mathew, chosen for this morning, are the challenging ones of Jesus to love our enemies. Well known, challenging words, chosen for this day perhaps to remind us that we are a people who can both handle a challenge, and well use the liberating invitation to step away from our familiar capacity for enmity, anger, certainty, reaction, and conflict.
These words of Jesus are of course part of the much-loved Sermon on the Mount, and if there is anything clear about the blessing of this sermon it is that its intention is not merely to instruct, not to provide the disciples and us a rule book, a check-list of do’s and don’ts, heavy laden obligations.
No, his words are ones of invitation to know him truly and to live in the unburdening freedom of God’s love, to embrace all that he intends for us to be. This is how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, not through an articulation of extra burdens, but though a freeing invitation to accept the possibility of new life, to turn and accept change in Christ. These particular words are an invitation to drop our capacity for enmity and conflict, to turn away from our small ways, and align our lives with God’s largest intentions for us, intentions for broadness, fulfillment, and joy.
And we are invited to make to make this choice freely, using all the gifts of reason and skill and compassion we have been given. Have you ever noticed that at our baptism we are not assigned an instruction book or oriented to a new road map? What we are given at our baptism is freedom.
Freedom to find our way together to that rich territory of substance and beauty and connection to God. Free to explore for ourselves and with each other just how we might live lives of faith. To find that place where we may live fully, unburdened by the pain and confusion and anger that come with our maintenance of conflict in our lives, as individuals and as a people.
These words of Jesus, given to the disciples, are best seen as words of welcome and liberation, of joyful freedom to cast away the heavy loads and failed strategies of prevailing over the other. Words of invitation to accept our freedom and to live in hope.
In this invitation, freedom is the powerful noun and hope is the active verb.
Abraham Lincoln knew a lot about faith-filled hope. Although historians debate the nuances of his beliefs, my own speculation is that Lincoln would agree with the scholar who wrote recently, “Christianity is wholly and entirely confident hope, a stretching out to what is ahead, an embrace of the fresh start. Future is not just something or other to do with Christianity; it is the essential element, the keynote of all its hymns” (Moltmann, Jürgen, In the End the Beginning, 2004, Fortress Press, p. 87).
It is this power of hope for God’s grace and presence and peace-that-passes-all-understanding that emboldens us to take up the invitation to use our freedom and act for God’s vision of making the world whole and fresh and new.
As a people, we have been given many lessons in freedom and hope. As a nation, we have done so very much that is good and honorable and just. At our best, we have been courageous and bold, freed ourselves from so much prejudice, and come to know the beauty in fostering the dignity of all of God’s people, the dignity of our differences. We have slowly loosed the blinders that have kept us from truly seeing each other, and let them fall away. In hope, we can now often recognize God’s image in someone who is not in our image, whose language, experience, faith, and ideals are different from ours.
This reconciling invitation of freedom and hope takes us right around our troubled globe. This challenge calls us to love God’s creation, to confront our arrogance and ambivalence and to become true stewards of the planet. This challenge takes us into the hearts of neighborhoods of our cities where we rarely go, and to sad global villages and slums where every three seconds a child dies of poverty, and to war zones torn with appalling ferocity. I don’t know the answers to these intractable human dilemmas, but I do know that the answer starts with lessons of freedom and hope, two words that have (and will again) change our hearts and change our homes and change the world.
Many generations after Abraham Lincoln’s short speech to the crowd at Independence Hall, an African-American senator went there as well, to speak of the promise of the Declaration of Independence. In Barack Obama’s now famous speech on race in America, we find reminders of the enduring power of freedom and hope. With an almost intimate expression of faith and a personal openness rare in our candidates, he spoke to the American capacity to struggle, as he put it, “to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our times” (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-th_n_92077.html).
I recall that charged moment and the role that faith suddenly played in a hot campaign that the whole world was watching. Whatever one feels about that campaign, what sticks with us most is the truth that as a people we were confronting hard things together with words instead of fists, with history in mind rather than hatred on our tongues. We were reminded anew to embrace our freedom in hope and love one another.
I believe it is our many diverse faiths that illumine this opportunity for us as a nation. And in the illumination we can see that our life in faith and our life as a people are such each unfinished works. And this is as it should be. God is not done speaking yet. If we can open our eyes and ears and hearts to our God and to each other, we will see that our lessons in freedom and hope serve us so very well. We will see that God is continually doing new things in our midst. Even this great Cathedral should be understood as an unfinished work. What we should all expect is that the action of the Spirit will continue to ignite fires of possibility in our lives.
But the hope of this faith is not limited to the fulfillment of individual life. It insists that we are one, that our lives are deeply intertwined, with each other and with our God. We are intertwined, but we are not stuck, we are not static; for there is no stopping place on this road toward becoming who God would have us be. Despite our sorrow and confusion and deep frustration at our worst times, let us remember who we are at our best. We are a people of hope; we are drawn forward on a faith journey not yet complete.
Our life as a nation is unfinished as well. In these days of enduring war, deep economic challenge and disparity at home, and profound tragedy of our own making in the Gulf of Mexico, we struggle to know what to do, to honor our commitments, heal the wounded, honor those making such sacrifice, help the struggling, and build a future for children and children’s children. Yet we are a people who know in our hearts new life is possible.
On the Great Seal of the United States, found on the back of every dollar bill, the etching of the pyramid is unfinished. It is a work in progress. This too is as it should be. We are not done building a more perfect union, we have not mastered the “listening to the better angels of our natures,” that President Lincoln urged. Much is to be celebrated on this fourth of July, and much wonder-filled work remains for us to do.
My prayer for this day is a prayer to a God who bids us to accept freedom and hope; to a God who is not only behind us in the stories of our histories and families and our nation, to a God who is not only here in the midst of our present pain and confusion, but to a God who is out there, ahead of us, calling us forward to all that might be, to our tomorrows of peace and hope and possibility.