Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
During the years in which I served as an assistant priest at neighboring St. David’s Church, it was automatically assumed that I would participate, along with other members of the church, in the annual neighborhood Palisades Independence Day parade. And, of course, I was delighted to do that. I’m a very patriotic person. I love our country. I can sing and do sing the national anthem with as much gusto as the next guy. But I confess that I always found it just a little bit ironic that in a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state, here was the church right in the middle of a secular celebration and parade.
Of course, this parade was probably much like any neighborhood gathering parade on Independence Day that you’ve ever been a part of or witnessed. There were kids on bikes, big kids on motorcycles, floats, marching bands, politicians shaking hands, at least one Uncle Sam on stilts, and everything in between. And as I went to the church to prepare to participate in this parade, my car which at the time was a very old Saab convertible, was wrapped up in red, white, and blue—as I was, with the exception of my clergy collar. I happily participated in that parade, but I continued to ponder what does the church have to say in a secular holiday like Independence Day?
Well, in truth, I think the church actually has quite a lot to say about our celebration of Independence Day and what it means and what its rooting and groundedness is. So I invite you to journey with me a little bit in exploring what the church has to say. If you journey back to 1776 you’ll recall that God is very much at the center of the founding of our country: the principles, the ethos upon which we rest and we hold up as ideals. Whether it’s the Pledge of Allegiance where we talk about “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all;” the fact that our currency has on it “In God we trust;” or looking at the Declaration of Independence itself: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator [God] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those are powerful words, important words deeply rooted and grounded in God the Creator.
But I would submit to you that it is easier to write those things and to speak those things than to live those things. Consider that some of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. What about this concept of all men being created equal with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? It’s easier to speak it than to live it.
If we consider Independence Day and if I were to ask you to think of one word that really characterizes what we celebrate this day, what would that word be for you? What one word lifts up for you part of what we celebrate as a nation? I suspect that many of you, if not most, might come up with the word freedom. Freedom. It’s a powerful concept. It’s an important concept. But I would submit to you that over the centuries we have appropriated it for our own best interest. Somehow we’ve individualized this notion of freedom.
In his book God and the Crisis of Freedom, Richard Bauckham makes the observation that if we go back to the biblical narrative, back to the Old Testament Scriptures and times, freedom has a very different understanding. The Israelites were freed from bondage in Egypt in order to be free to worship and serve God and God’s purposes. It was freedom from oppression in order to be free to worship and serve God. Over the centuries as Bauckham puts it, somehow it’s come to be seen in contemporary society “exclusively as the emancipation of the individual from all constraints and as unlimited freedom of choice.”
My friends, it was never intended to be a “get out of jail free card” for us to do what best serves us without consideration of others. It’s a freedom from, a freedom for. If you look at that context of freedom, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments to help set out a framework by which we would come to understand and embody this freedom, what it meant and how it looked to be in right relationship with God and right relationship with one another. Easier spoken than lived.
If we apply the Scriptures appointed for today it becomes even more complex. Drawing from that passage from Deuteronomy that you heard: again, the Israelites being freed from bondage in Egypt is noted. But what is the biblical imperative? “You shall love and care for strangers because you were strangers in Egypt.” What does that look like in our contemporary society, particularly as we lift up some of the most contentious issues and conversations in our day? How do we apply that biblical imperative, for example, to the issue of immigration policy in our country? You shall love the strangers for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Easier when spoken than lived.
Moving on to the gospel lesson: Jesus implores us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. What does that look like in our contemporary world as we consider the ongoing conflict in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and I would submit to you all over the world? We are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s not as easy as it looks and I don’t know about you, but as I have gotten older I see a lot more gray in a world that many people would say is fairly black-and-white.
Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the country—some 20,000 members—who preached the sermon at President Obama’s second inaugural prayer service—and he preached it from this very pulpit—wrote a book called Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. I offer this lens to you which has been helpful to me as I wrestle with what the Bible tells us, what God calls us to, what God aspires for us when we look at these complex issues in our time. Hamilton writes, “In every situation we ask, What course of action will best express my love for God and neighbor?” What is the best course of action that will best express my love of God and neighbor?
This weekend we do celebrate our freedom. It’s an important thing to celebrate. It’s an important thing to embrace. But I invite you to embrace more fully the deeper meaning in biblical rootedness of freedom: freedom from bondage; freedom to live together; freedom to serve one another.
“America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” Amen.