Sunday, July 04, 2010

American Scripture

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 4, 2010

Year C, Proper 9: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
(Galatians 6:1-16)
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

American Scripture

Of course, today we’re celebrating the birth of our country – a birth that was announced by a remarkably powerful and inspiring document, the Declaration of Independence. But, on the same day that we celebrate our independence from one kingdom, we just heard Luke’s story of Jesus sending out the seventy to proclaim the Good News that “the kingdom of God has come near.” And, although we might not want to hear it, the implication is that Jesus is calling us to be disciples, sending us out to proclaim that same good news: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

So, we’ve got two seemingly contrary things going on today. Today we are celebrating our independence. At the same time, we are called to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Let’s start with independence. In my previous life as a high school history teacher, I loved teaching about Colonial America and the War for Independence. Those early years of our nation’s history tell a remarkable story of people leaving home, hoping for a better life with land of their own and the freedom to worship God in their own way.

Those early years of our nation’s history also tell a tragic story - marred by the near-annihilation of the Native Americans and the importation of African slaves – the twin original sins of American history.

Today, of course, we focus on a decision by leaders of the thirteen thinly-populated English colonies stretching from New Hampshire to Georgia. In the heat of a Philadelphia summer, those brave leaders made the formal decision to declare independence from the mightiest country in the world, knowing that in the probable event of failure, they would be executed for treason.

In the midst of that hot summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson led the team that crafted the Declaration of Independence – what at least one scholar calls “American Scripture”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

Jefferson and many of his colleagues were only nominally Christian. Instead they subscribed to deism – the idea that God, like a clock-maker, created the universe, set it in motion, and now has nothing more to do with it. In private, Jefferson spent a good bit of time pouring over the New Testament, cutting out anything that seemed implausible or supernatural, reducing Jesus to simply a noble teacher of ethics. So, in the declaration, America’s founding document, there are only glancing references to God, using the generic terms “nature’s God” or “Creator”.

Nevertheless, with this powerful piece of American scripture, Jefferson declared and summarized what America values the most. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have shaped us as a people who strongly value our personal freedom to live our lives how we want to live them – with as little interference from the government, or anybody else, as possible. We sure hate paying taxes and try to pay as little as we can legally get away with. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a tirade against George III. We’ve been highly suspicious of authority ever since. No kings for us.

Like everything created by human beings, the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, of this American scripture, is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we are fortunate to live in a country providing us with great freedom and potential. I was very moved reading the obituary of Robert Byrd – born into deep poverty in one of our poorest states, infected by the worst prejudices of his time and place, and yet able to rise above and beyond all of that, serving in the Senate for more than half a century, and now mourned by both Democrats and Republicans. Whatever we might think of his politics, he made great use of his life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, we can misuse our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. We happily enjoy our barbeques and fireworks not giving a thought to our best and bravest fighting wars in faraway lands and carrying the heavy burden of protecting us. Our focus on individual wealth often leads us to neglect the common good. Our roads and bridges are crumbling and the quality of our schools is wildly uneven. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider and so many are falling out of the middle class. Our mistrust of authority can be so great that leaders are unable to make difficult decisions or to accomplish necessary tasks.

So, yes, today we celebrate our independence, recognizing, though, that we both use and misuse our blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Which brings us to the kingdom of God. In today’s gospel we pick up right where we left off last week in the Gospel of Luke. In what Lauren called in her sermon “the cost of discipleship” Jesus calls for total commitment from his followers. Jesus says to one follower with family responsibilities, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” To another hesitating follower Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of god.”

Surprisingly, according to Luke, at least seventy people were willing to pay the high cost of discipleship and were sent out by Jesus to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. The number seventy echoes the story of Moses appointing the seventy elders to continue his work. Traditionally Jews believed there were seventy nations in the world – so that might be another reason for this specific number. Anyway, the first readers and hearers of the gospel would have picked up on this important symbolic number.

Jesus warns the seventy they have a dangerous and difficult mission. Jesus says he is sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” It’s a dangerous world out there, so they shouldn’t greet anyone on the road. They’ll have no equipment – no purse, no bag, no sandals – only their faith, their trust in God. Sometimes people will welcome them warmly and sometimes not so much.

In any event they are to proclaim, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

And here’s where we run into trouble. What exactly does that mean, “the kingdom of God has come near”?

The expression is all over the gospels, though Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven” probably to avoid using God’s name. It’s a central part of Jesus’ message, yet for a long time the church and scholars have puzzled over what the kingdom of God is. Or, more to the point, they’ve puzzled over when the kingdom of God is.

Some say that Jesus and the Gospel writers were thinking of the end of time, the Second Coming of Jesus, when all of creation will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

Others say, no, Jesus and the gospel writers saw the kingdom of God as something that was happening now – something that was beginning with Jesus’ own life and ministry and was to continue with the seventy and all the other followers of Jesus right down through time to us today.

I think the answer is probably both – the kingdom of God is already happening and not yet here. As the seventy were instructed to say, “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” And our job is to build the kingdom of God right here, right now – to be a sign that the kingdom of God has drawn near.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives us a clear vision of what the kingdom of God looks like – it’s the world turned upside down. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

“…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Challenging – we’ll have to sacrifice a lot in that upside-down world - but that’s what the kingdom of God looks like. That’s the kingdom of God that’s already happening but not yet here. That’s the kingdom of God that the seventy and you and I and all Christians are sent out by Jesus to proclaim and to build.

That’s the kingdom of God we see when we prepare a really good meal for the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen. That’s the kingdom of God we touch when we reach out to a person in sorrow or pain. That’s the kingdom of God we feel when, like Robert Byrd, we overcome our prejudices. That’s the kingdom of God that we hear when together we sing God’s praises. That’s the kingdom of God we taste each time we gather together at the Lord’s Table and become one with Christ and one another.

And, you know, I believe that old deist Thomas Jefferson with his cut-up Bible has given us Americans a special opportunity to build the kingdom of God. At the birth of our country, during that hot Philadelphia summer, in our “American Scripture,” Jefferson and the others rightly declared that our Creator had given all of us rights that could never be taken from us – including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But, Jefferson and the others didn’t show us how to use these rights, these gifts from God. Unfortunately all too often we can and often do misuse these rights, these gifts for our own selfish purposes. The sad truth is that when we misuse these rights in effect we forfeit them – when we focus only on ourselves we end up not having much of a life, we end up imprisoned by our fear of losing our money and possessions, and we end up not happy at all.

But, Jesus shows us the way – Jesus shows us how to use these rights, these gifts. We are called to give away our lives in loving service, using our liberty to build the kingdom of God right here and now. And it’s when we do that - when we choose to help build the kingdom of God - then we discover true happiness.

Happy Independence Day!