The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Galatians 6:7-16Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

About 230 years ago, a group of men were meeting in trying circumstances. A war was on. Armies were marching and doing battle. They believed in certain truths that ultimately would form one of human history’s greatest nations.

They were willing to sacrifice their very lives for making these truths a reality in a new experiment called democracy.

But what if they hadn’t been?

What if Ben Franklin would have said, “I give up. This stuff is too hard. I’m going to fly a kite.”

What if George Washington would have telephoned from the battlefield and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I am out gunned, out manned, and out trained. I am going back to Mt Vernon and farm. Get a new general!”

What if James Madison had said, “This will never work. We can’t do it. I don’t have time for all this Declaration of Independence work. I’m calling Dolly and telling her ‘Let’s start that snack cake business you’ve been wanting to start!’”

What if Thomas Jefferson had said, “I am getting writer’s cramp! I know you all have good ideas but isn’t there anyone else in the room who can write?!

But none of those men gave up on their country or their work of seeing its independence come to fruition.

Shortly after the American Revolution, the newly constituted Episcopal Church of the United States, led by many of those same men, 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 this great day of freedom.

But within a very short time they had fallen into neglect and were eventually abandoned by the Church. Why? Well, it seems most clergy and some members of the early Episcopal Church were less than enthusiastic about the Revolution and the break with England. In fact, the majority of the Church’s clergy had been loyal to the British crown during the Revolution and many had returned to England upon the war’s conclusion.

And for those that remained – some staunch royalists at least for a time and others just “English by blood” – these clergy apparently would have sooner prayed for even 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 (and apparently forgot about them). 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. As the Psalmist prays, “Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.” (Psalm 66)

In our Gospel account today, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem via various towns and villages where he planned to stop along the way. So he sends the disciples on ahead of him in pairs to these places he intended to go. 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 types and times 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 gain 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 and warned of “evils.”

Throughout Christian history, nation after nation, through pride and arrogance, has identified itself with the Israel of old and presumed 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, the New Israel. Washington, for all its “brilliance,” is not the holy city of Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill. (If we ever believed that, we know better now.)

This Fourth of July weekend celebration and the next few days 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 says, 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. That we are ALL created equal, one with another. We are ALL in it together. The burden of one is the burden of all. “Whenever we have the opportunity,” Paul says, we must “work for the good of all.”

A few years ago, 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.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like what our Lord himself might have said and 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 to me,” he bids his people, “all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The Lord welcomes, and we should do the same in his Name and in the name of America, where freedom and liberty and justice are gifts and rights bestowed on every one. Freedom and liberty and justice for all. That is the promise of God’s love. It is the hope of the gospel. It is the foundation and soul of this great land.

“My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;”
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

God has bestowed great blessings on America and her people. May we also bless our God, our country and our world by extending those blessings to our brothers and sisters in need.

To be poor and “burdened” 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,” we all can hope to experience God’s peace and enjoy God’s favor and find rest for our own too often wearied souls.

Even as we celebrate this Independence Day, may we come to recognize the importance and blessing of our dependence on God and each other.

Let freedom ring. May God bless us all. And may God bless America, and the world,
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.