Sermons That Work

The Fact That We Have…, Independence Day – 2006

July 04, 2006

Note: Collect 17 “For the Nation” (BCP p. 258) may be used instead of the Collect for Independence Day (BCP p. 242).

The fact that we have the option of two Collects for Independence Day hints at the possible ambiguities associated with a national holiday. Such ambiguities also reside within our Gospel. This section of the Sermon on the Mount makes the claim that Jewish tradition directs love of neighbor and hatred of enemies. While the former is well attested throughout the Old Testament, Judaism nowhere prescribes hating one’s enemies.

Although just who constitutes a neighbor has been subject to much debate, Jesus throughout the Gospels, New Testament writers like the one in Hebrews, and Paul in his mission to the gentiles, appear 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.

Surely, as what is increasingly referred to as “the global village” continues to shrink, forces like globalization extend our neighborhood to even the furthest and most remote corners of this fragile earth. Images stream into our homes via satellite and The Internet of catastrophes, triumphs, and discoveries wherever they are to be seen.

This day’s scripture reminds us that we are all of us sojourners on God’s earth and it is ever more important as we pause to reflect on our nation’s origins, history, and contributions to God’s ever-growing neighborhood.

“Love the sojourner, therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (RSV)

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 somewhere else.

For people of Biblical faith, Abraham and Sarah are the perfect prototypes of sojourners, journeying from home to a homeland, which is ultimately who we all 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 a 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 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.

As Hebrews lays it out, persons and communities 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, “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 takes care of 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 start. A land that, as it found its identity, became a beacon of freedom and liberty for people the world over.

Yet, there are two edges in the sayings of Jesus that greet us on this anniversary day of our independence: the liberation of our forbearers 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. This does not appear to have been a faithful living 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. The Book of Common Prayer recommends that we pray either to “have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace,” 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.”

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 we have 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.

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 truer vision of God’s purpose, the courage to leave the realm of the familiar and 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. Amen.

A poem by Edward Sanders from the anthology Poems for America:

O America! how I thirst for you to shine
& swirl in peace
on your tiny globe
out on the arm of a Spiral Galaxy
we call the Milky Way
swathed in a sheath of glowing gas
100,000 light years across!

I am singing you America
I am singing your wilderness
your smoggy cities, your art
& your wild creativity!
I am singing your crazy inventors
I sing the Hula Hoop& the Harley Hog & the oil of Hopper

& I am singing your schisms & controversies
O Nation, Vast & Seething
Day& Night & Dream!

War and secrecy
make writing America
a twistsome ting
and how many thousands of times
have I shook my head with the
ghastly sudden knowledge
of this and that
but how many thousands more
have I smiled at the millions
who have made my nation a marvel.

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Christopher Sikkema


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