The Fourth of July can be a wonderful time: fireworks, parades, picnics; decorations of red, white, and blue; a summer day spent with friends and family. Independence Day, the Fourth of July, is a great holiday, an opportunity for rest, refreshment, and renewal.
But the maintenance of the republic whose birth we celebrate today: that is no holiday, but an ongoing and challenging task. William Sloane Coffin, sometime chaplain at Yale and national gadfly, put it well when he said, “democracy is a form of government that demands more virtue of its citizens than any other form of government, but I do not think we can say that democracy guarantees that the virtue will be exercised.”
On this Independence Day, as we look back to the establishment of our nation, we can be thankful for the role played in those momentous events by people of diverse religious commitments, including a number of Episcopalians, among them our first president, George Washington, and our first presiding bishop, William White, who served as rector of a Philadelphia parish and as chaplain to the Continental Congress. We can be thankful that from the first, Anglican Christians rose to the task of establishing and maintaining this noble experiment in democracy that we called the United States of America.
An Episcopal voice in public affairs has continued ever since. Ours is not simply a theology for the church, bur a theology for society, a worldview intended not to locate ourselves in some peculiar position of privilege, but rather to contribute to the transformation of the social order so that this nation and this world may better reflect the merciful purposes of God. Many times we have failed in this task, yet it remains always before us, an undeniable aspect of our purpose.
Where our Church speaks with special clarity is through its Prayer Book and its worship. And so today we have heard readings that our Church assigns for Independence Day. We are thus told that such passages as these, out of all the pages of Scripture, have special significance for the life and purpose of our republic. These passages address certain perennial public questions. We do not find in these ancient texts details for today’s national, state, or local policy, but we discover something better: a vision granted by God, a vision of the sort implied in the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
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Let us look to the first of the texts we heard, which is also the oldest among them. In this passage from Deuteronomy we learn that respect and reverence for God has implications for our ethics. God is impartial and takes no bribe. God executes justice for widows and orphans. God loves and cares for strangers.
God does all these things, and expects to do them through us. Thus we need to be straight and honest in all our dealings, not taking advantage of others. We need to do the right thing for the powerless in our society, which includes helping them gain access to power. We need to welcome and care for the stranger.
Thus we have the basis for addressing some perennial ethical questions. Will I be a member of the community, concerned for the common good, or will I be a predator, interested only in my own profit? Are we to establish a virtual caste system, one which radically favors a few, or are we to show effective concern for all, especially those who are hurting? Are we to shun strangers, shut the door in their faces, or will we welcome them, recognizing that they come to bless us and to be blessed in return?
All these questions are addressed in today’s few verses from Deuteronomy, and the answers come to us with divine urgency. God wants to work through us. God expects certain things to be done. These demands apply to all situations, from the playground to the national capital. No one has been granted an exemption.
Next may we consider today’s gospel, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is improving upon the old law, separating the wheat from the chaff. He recognizes that once the ethic was this: Love your neighbor, hate your enemy. What he requires is more challenging: Love your neighbor, yes, but love your enemy as well. Demonstrate real power, not through violence, but through non-violent witness that challenges your enemy to follow your example and give up hate. Become a hero, not by destroying your opponent, but by engaging with him in the costly work of reconciliation.
Jesus calls us to this work of reconciliation, but moreover he models it, makes it possible, by accepting death on the cross to reconcile us sinners to himself.
Only by reconciliation can we hope to bear a family resemblance to God our Creator, for God constantly reaches out to all. He make the sun shine on good and bad alike, he waters the crops of the just and the unjust. Just and unjust, good and bad, these are but human assessments. All of us have fallen far short of Glory’s glory; all of us are rebels, enemies of the true king. Yet the cross and resurrection demonstrate that God reaches out to all, and reconciles us to himself. Go and do likewise, Jesus says.
Thus we have an answer to another perennial ethical question: What do we do about enemies? Is there an alternative to fight or flight? Yes, there is. The divine stamp of approval rests on reconciliation. This demand is universal. It applies to the nation as well as the playground. No one has been granted an exemption.
So here on Independence Day the Church presents us with these annoying biblical texts, a foundation for a public theology that asks a great deal from any who would take it seriously. A republic requires much virtue from its citizens, and a republic influenced by Christian public theology demands even more. There remains no room here for an attitude of self-congratulation, a stance of arrogance, an indulgence in mistaken nostalgia. Christian public theology strips away such pretenses, and leaves any republic with nothing more or less than hopeful humility.
May we turn now to today’s second reading, a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that talks about how Abraham acted on faith. His faith was not something confined to his head or his heart. Abraham’s faith was real because it was manifest in what he did.
By faith Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going, to travel to the place God had prepared for his inheritance. By faith he was willing to live as a foreigner, a transient, a tent dweller, because he looked forward to a better city, one designed and built by God himself.
The demands of Christian public theology invite us to faith, a faith like that of Abraham, one demonstrated in deeds. We are called out of comfort to the obedience of a long and extraordinary journey, where we must act with honesty, care for the powerless, welcome the stranger, and seek reconciliation with enemies.
It is a long march, and to some it may look foolish, and Lord knows, we are not there yet. We have been brought to where we are by the great and good people of our national history, those known and unknown, people who responded in faith and were not afraid to step ahead. Yet there remain many miles ahead of us, and we can’t stop walking now.
I suppose all of us have our favorites among the great national songs of America. One of mine will be sung as our closing hymn today, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” known also as “American the Beautiful.” Since childhood I have been strangely moved by some of the words:
“O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam,
undimmed by human tears!”
Imagine! A nation of cities whose walls gleam a brilliant white in God’s sunshine, and stand undimmed by all that brings sad tears to human eyes. Imagine that!
It is this dream that drove George Washington and William White, and people of many faiths, the famous and the unknown, through all the generations of our republic, and it is this vision that animates each true patriot still: a community marked by justice and compassion; a city characterized by honest dealing, concern for the marginalized, a welcome for the stranger, the reconciliation of enemies. Again and again we have proven unfaithful to this dream, but still it beckons us, and we long for it. And, you know, this dream sounds a lot like heaven.
Heaven, of course, is far greater still, yet this civic ideal is similar, and worthy of our striving and sacrifice. And it is by a kind of faith, a true faith distinguishable from false alternatives, that we pursue this patriot dream of the beautiful alabaster city which is a home and haven for all. It is by a true and laudable faith that we strive to realize the promise of a public theology that offers so much and asks so much that its hope cannot be realized by a single generation alone.
The patriot dream of that beautiful city calls us to work for the constant transformation of the social order in a way that is grounded in faith and hope and love. Remain faithful to this duty, my friends, but remember the delight that comes with it, especially one that waits past the horizon.
For those who wrestle persistently with this task of transformation, whatever their supposed failures or successes, will encounter a delicious surprise when they enter that even more beautiful city built around the throne of God and the Lamb. For heaven, in addition to its other splendors, will have for those faithful ones something of a sense of home, the home for which they strove mightily, a haven for themselves and all God’s children.
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.