Sermons That Work

Shortly After the American Revolution…, Proper 9 (C) – 2007

July 08, 2007

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her,” it says in Isaiah 66:10.

Shortly after the American Revolution, the newly constituted Episcopal Church of the United States devised a special set of prayers and lessons, called “propers,” to commemorate the Fourth of July and the newly won American independence from Great Britain. The Church encouraged the use of these propers each year on the Fourth of July.

Yet within a very short time they had fallen into neglect and were eventually abandoned by the Church. Why? Well, with few exceptions – Washington and Franklin come to mind – members of the early Episcopal Church were anything but enthusiastic about the Revolution and the break with England. According to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, a modern compendium of propers and commentaries, the majority of the Church’s clergy had, in fact, been loyal to the British crown.

Staunch royalists, these clergy apparently would have sooner prayed for a tyrant king than for someone with the inelegant and business-like title of president. So rather than aggravate matters, the Church quietly shelved the new propers. It was not until the publication of the 1928 Prayer Book that a liturgy was again introduced for the Fourth of July. And the Church has ever since provided prayers and lessons for this important national celebration.

Issues of church and state have a long and complex history. In many cultures, realm and religion have been inextricably woven together into the very fabric of everyday life and thought. Such was surely the case with the people of ancient Israel, who understood themselves to be the Lord’s own chosen people. We today share their covenant conviction but have come to recognize that all nations have a part in God’s favor. We pray in the words of today’s Psalm, “Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.”

Our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah calls upon us to “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her.” Jerusalem is, of course, the city of David. It is at the very heart of Israel’s faith and worship, and it comes to represent the core of the covenant itself. Even medieval cartographers centuries later instinctively put Jerusalem at the center of their maps, making it, in a sense, the omphalos or “navel” of the known world.

It should come as no surprise then that Jesus, in our Gospel account today, is on his way to Jerusalem. He sends the disciples on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intends to visit. But these seventy are no highly paid advance men. They are to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” For it is not political barnstorming that Jesus is up to here. He has come not to take up the duties of kingly power and authority but rather to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

There is a big difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God, although politicians of all ages have too often mistaken their own cause for the Lord’s. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard. Some still wrap themselves in the mantle of religion to curry favor and win votes. Nothing new there. The footnotes of history are filled with patriotic would-be messiahs ready to save their nations from all manner of perceived ills and threats.

Throughout Christian history, nation after nation has had the hubris to identify itself with the Israel of old and presume to think itself unique or more blessed than other peoples. But this kind of exceptionalism is a dangerous thing. The Roman and Byzantine Empires, in spite of their great splendor, are no more. America is not the Promised Land either, nor are we the Chosen People. Washington, for all its brilliance, is not the holy city of Jerusalem.

These quieter days following the Fourth of July celebrations of this past week may be as good a time as any for us to reflect on the state of our nation and to pray for God’s blessing upon our land. After all, our cherished separation of Church and state has never stopped us Americans from singing boldly, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”

Paul tells us in our second reading that we should “bear one another’s burdens.” It is “the law of Christ,” he seems to imply, that we should care for one another, no matter our differences or background. This is equally an apt mandate of our civil compact as a nation. We are all in it together. The burden of one is the burden of all. “Whenever we have the opportunity,” Paul continues, we must “work for the good of all.”

Just last year, the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City installed a monument to the great Jewish-American poet, Emma Lazarus, who seems in some ways to have caught the spirit of our nation as well as anyone before or since. In her poem, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, she welcomes the immigrant to our shores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” It sounds a lot like what our Lord himself might have had in mind as he proclaimed the kingdom of God throughout the land of Israel so long ago.

Our country today is much more diverse than it was at its foundation, and in this we are more blessed than many other nations of the world. Our Church too has become a haven to peoples of many cultures and assorted political stripes and views. The Lord welcomes and accepts them all. “Come unto me,” he bids his people in the familiar comfortable words from scripture and the Rite I Eucharist, “all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

To be poor and “heavy laden” in ancient Israel was not a curse, for the entire nation had experienced exile and privation. Indeed, the anawim Yahweh, the “poor of God,” were considered to be among God’s most beloved. Perhaps to the extent that we as a nation continue to welcome among us the “huddled masses yearning to be free” can we hope to enjoy God’s favor and find rest for our own too often rootless souls.


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Chris Sikkema

Manager for Special Projects