July 4, 2009 – Independence Day
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The fact that we have the option of two Collects for Independence Day hints at the possible ambiguities associated with this national holiday. Ambiguities that attempt to hold us somewhere between declaring our Independence on one hand, and on the other, thanking God, as the Prayer Book says, “for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”
Such ambiguities also reside within our gospel reading. This section of the Sermon on the Mount seems to suggest that Jewish tradition directs love of neighbor and hatred of enemies. While the former is well attested to throughout the Old Testament, Judaism nowhere prescribes hating one’s enemies.
And although just who constitutes a neighbor has been subject to much debate, Jesus throughout the gospels, and New Testament writers like the one in Hebrews, and Paul’s mission to the gentiles, appears to extend the boundaries of the neighborhood to all those who have been created in God’s image. Indeed, as early as the Noah narrative deep in the origins of Genesis, our God is portrayed as the One God who provides for the entire human family, letting the sun shine and the rain fall for both evil people and good.
As surely as virtual distances between countries in the global village continue to shrink, forces like globalization extend the neighborhood to even the furthest and most remote corners of this fragile earth, our island home. Images are streamed to us via satellite and the Internet of catastrophes, triumphs, and discoveries wherever they are to be seen.
This day’s scriptural theme reminds us that we are all of us sojourners on God’s earth, and this is ever more important as we pause to reflect on our nation’s origins, history, and contributions to God’s ever-growing neighborhood.
The book of Exodus tells us to “love the sojourner, therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
A sojourner is one who lives or stays in a place for a time. The Bible understands this to be the most fundamental characteristic of what it means to be human: we are all here just for a time. We are all of us on our way to yet somewhere else. We are all sojourners.
For people of Biblical faith, Abraham and Sarah are the perfect prototype couple signifying a life of sojourn, a journey from home to a homeland, which is ultimately the common denominator of who we are: people on our way. They stepped away from the friendly confines of the familiar and into the new world of God’s dream for them. In the cosmic sense, we come from God and return to God, with this brief sojourn on earth as a kind of midpoint in what we often refer to as eternal life.
Jesus calls us to be perfect, which in Greek means something like “whole,” “undivided,” or “complete.” In one sense, the perfection Jesus calls for is a call to treat other people in the same way God treats people – all people – in the divine realm. Jesus calls us to live in a new world of God’s eternal reign, and Jesus in all that he says and does proclaims this new world to be already operative.
Again, as Hebrews lays it out, persons and communities of persons achieve identity, in part, by imitating exemplars. Abraham and Sarah are such exemplars, setting out from home to they know not where, allowing God to lead and direct them to a new world, a new home, a new life where even a craggy old man, “and him as good as dead,” and a woman, “even when she was past the age,” could become the parents of a nation of God’s people more numerous than the stars of the heavens and grains of sand on the seashore.
As history would have it, this nation of Abraham and Sarah became the quintessential sojourning community, now distributed throughout all the earth. And by adoption, we gentiles were added to that nation through the mystery of the cross and resurrection, a mystery that means to remind us that we too are sojourners called to care for others as God so graciously and generously cares for us.
It takes little reflection on these core stories of our faith to find the stirrings that brought and continues to bring sojourners to this land we call America. A land founded, in part, by religious and entrepreneurial refugees from an old world seeking a new world. A land that, as it found its identity, became a beacon of freedom and liberty for people the world over.
But the liberation of our forefathers came at a price for those already living in the neighborhood, and for those we brought by brute force to work the land that gleams from sea to shining sea. The land has itself been brutalized and gleams a little less each year we are here. It does not appear that we have been completely faithful to live out of whatever it might mean to become perfect as God is perfect.
So it is we gather to reflect and pray on this, our Independence Day. We pray either to “have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace,” as it says in one of the Collects for today, or to have “a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will,” as it says in the alternate Collect.
That is, we gather to renew our commitment to become a people like Abraham and Sarah, a people like Israel, a people like Jesus, who remember who we are and whose we are: we are God’s sojourner people. And like our lifetime here, we have now only a brief time for this sojourn and this reflection. We have only a brief time to become perfect as God is perfect in caring for others – all others who sojourn with us – and for the earth as God’s creation.
If we take this time to reflect on how we as a nation might use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will, we will come to know the kind of faithfulness and hope that gave Abraham and Sarah – and all those who came and still come to the shores of North America seeking a more true vision of God’s purpose – the courage to leave the realm of the familiar as we continue to step out and into the New World God has already begun in Christ. With Christ, in Christ, and to Christ be all honor and glory, now and forever.