Sunday, July 03, 2011

"Dependence Day"

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 3, 2011

Year A: Proper 9 – The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45: 11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

"Dependence Day"

For many people across the country this weekend is a time for barbecues and fireworks, and a very appropriate time to give thanks for the liberty we enjoy as Americans.

As Christians, maybe Independence Day is also an opportunity to reflect on America’s civil religion and how well or not so well it matches up with Christianity.

There are lots of different definitions of America’s civil religion, but here are some of its key features:

There’s the idea of American exceptionalism – the idea that America is fundamentally different from all other countries – the idea that God has given the United States a unique role to play in the history of the world.

There’s the idea that in our country if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll get a fair shot at success – and by success we mean a comfortable middle class life.

And at the core of America’s civil religion are the twin ideas of individualism and self-reliance.

We don’t call our big holiday Independence Day for nothing! This is a generalization, but in America there tends to be a heavy emphasis on the rights and interests of the individual and a bit less concern for the common good. Deeply rooted in our sense of nationhood is the idea that the greatest good will be produced when we are all free to pursue our own self-interest.

What about God? How does God fit into America’s civil religion?

Maybe the answer to that question can be summed up by quoting America’s favorite Bible verse, “God helps those who help themselves.”

We’ve all heard it. Many of us have said it. Some of us believe it. There’s just one problem: “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible. In fact, when you stop and think about it, that familiar phrase contradicts one of the great themes of Scripture: We are made to depend on God.

We hear what happens when we think we’re in control and when we try to help ourselves in today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. He writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Paul’s recognition of his and our helplessness reminds me of the first steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

As I’m sure some of you know, the twelve steps begin with an admission of our own powerlessness, a recognition that only a higher power can help us, and a willingness to turn over our wills and our lives to that higher power.

It’s never “independence day” at an AA meeting. Instead, it’s always dependence day – but instead of depending on alcohol or some other substance, at recovery meetings people are encouraged and challenged to recognize their life-giving dependence on God and their liberating dependence on one another.

And what’s true at a recovery meeting should be even truer for us.

I’m glad to live in a politically independent America – but on a deeper, spiritual, level we are not made for independence. And when we try to be independent – independent of God and independent of one another – we end up exhausted, making a huge mess of our lives, a mess of the lives of those around us and a mess of our country and planet.

But, for many of us, it’s not easy to admit our dependence on God and our dependence on one another. For many of us it’s not easy to trust God or to trust other people.

I’ve been reading a book about loneliness and in it the author suggests that lonely people to some extent prefer their aloneness over taking the risks involved with forming deep and complicated relationships with others. Yet, lonely people don’t enjoy their loneliness – don’t relish their independence. It’s not what we were made for.

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us an example of the costs and rewards of dependence.

Last week you’ll remember we heard the story of the almost-sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac. Now a little later on the authors of Genesis tell the story of Abraham sending his servant back to his kinfolk in Haran to find Isaac a suitable wife. It’s a story sometimes called the wooing of Rebekah.

The servant makes a solemn oath to Abraham that he will carry out his mission. There’s more than a little magical thinking in the servant’s approach to finding Isaac a wife, but there is also deep dependence on God to help him find the best wife for his master’s son.

After meeting her at a well and after a very brief discernment, the servant decides that Rebekah – described as “fair to look at” and also kind and generous– is the one for Isaac. The part of the story we heard today picks up with the servant meeting with Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be in charge of the family.

We glimpse a little of the negotiations that were involved – and in many parts of the world still are involved - in arranging a marriage. We might find these kinds of negotiations distasteful, but they do reflect the reality that in a marriage it’s more than two people who are united – two families are forming a bond of mutual dependence – a real but often an uneasy process.

Thinking about these premarital negotiations I was reminded of a wedding I officiated at a few months ago. In some ways it was a very modern and somewhat complicated situation. The groom had been married before and has a young son. To make things easier, the couple could have just gotten married at city hall in a simple ceremony that would have taken a few minutes. But, instead they created a prayerful service reflecting their dependence on God, on one another and on their families and friends.

The most powerful expression of this mutual dependence took place when the bride and the groom along with the ex-wife and their son stepped forward and in front of everyone poured different colored sand into a glass jar – symbolizing mutual dependence and the new unity between and among their families.

This little ceremony was a powerful reminder that marriage is not just about two individuals – it’s about the mutual dependence of families and the mutual dependence of the whole community.

We didn’t hear it in today’s excerpt, but, naturally enough, Rebekah’s family wanted to hold on to her for a little while longer. But, here’s an amazing thing – they ask Rebekah to decide for herself. They ask her, “Will you go with this man?” And she answers, “I will.”

Rebekah boldly chooses to depend on God and to also depend on the servant and to depend on a man she has never even met.

It’s a great story of dependence.

The questions for us today are:

Will we fool ourselves into thinking that we can be independent of God and independent of one another?

Will we make the big mistake of thinking that somehow through our own efforts we can help ourselves?

Will we misunderstand the whole story of God and humanity and somehow think that God helps those who help themselves?

I’m sure we all answer yes to those questions, at least sometimes.

But, trying to go it alone, depending only on ourselves, is exhausting and ultimately self-destructive. So, in today’s gospel Jesus offers us rest. Jesus offers a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

Jesus offers us the chance to be part of the Body of Christ – where we depend on God and depend on one another.

Accepting Jesus’ offer doesn’t mean we’ll have an easy time of it. No, there will still be plenty of challenges and failures and suffering.

But accepting Jesus’ offer of rest and an easy yoke and a light burden does mean we can live the kind of joyful lives that we were always meant to live – the kind of lives that God still hopes we will live – lives dependent on the God who loves us more than we can imagine – and lives dependent on one another.

So, I hope everyone has a safe and happy Independence Day!

But I also hope that we Christians remember that for us every day is “dependence day.”

Thanks be to God!