4 July, Independence Day: A Handshake with God

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Faneuil Hall

A sermon on 5 Pentecost, 5 July 2020

 

Psalm 145; Deut. 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matt. 5:43-48

By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land. … Hebrews 11:9

 

In some church circles, there is the general expectation that the job of a preacher is [to] make his or her congregants feel good, to speak words that, at least for a few minutes, cause his/her hearers to forget cares and concerns of daily life.  However, if we but listen closely to the words of today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, what we hear is the presentation of one coin, as it were, where both sides are acknowledged.  The one side shows that Abraham lived, not in some stratospheric realm, but in real time, in the land [that] he had been promised, that the act of daily living was acknowledged with all its plusses and minuses.  The other side of the coin exhibits that of promise.  Abraham, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, never despaired, never gave up hope that God would guide him and, if not for him in his day, then for his descendants in the fulfillment of the promise of always something greater than himself.

Because of what we are reminded regarding Abraham and because we celebrate this weekend the independence of our nation, which was driven by the same faith of Biblical Abraham, namely to provide a place of harmony among humankind, I begin with a prayer:

O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.

If we were to hear the melody played on our historic organ, the words would become immediately familiar to you.  These are the opening lines to Hymn 591 (The Hymnal 1982), written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), a man who had lived through The Great War (World War I) and had experienced The Great Depression, all firsthand.  To be sure, they are words of lamentation.  But they are at the same time words of deep, deep faith.  Like Abraham, Chesterton did not shrink from the reality of life but nor did he despair, give up his faith in the promise of God that he and his fellow humans were called to live a different, more inclusive, God-centered life.

Not lost to Chesterton was the promise [that] the psalmist expressed in his day:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountain of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life for evermore.
(Psalm 133)

 

It may not be immediately obvious that our Independence Day has both a religious and a secular quality to it.  The secular mood is easiest to understand and to describe.  In previous years, the day offered an occasion to get together with family and friends to celebrate what, for our forebears—with all their flaws of owning slaves and economic self-interest—was an act most solemn.

Our celebrations of July 4 rarely incorporate a religious ritual, at least not in a nominally formal, religious ritual.  We break bread together, but then we do that daily.  And because there is not that formality [with which] we associate religious gatherings, the 4th of July has lost much of its sacred underpinnings.  Maybe it is just as well that it has disappeared.  And this year will be even [more] different from former observances, as we shelter-in-place and observe (or even protest against) the very things against which our forebears staked their independence.  July 4 is a holiday, not a Holy Day.

Yet, underlying July 4 is the sacred.  What those men (and women, too, for although the assembly consisted completely of men, human nature being human nature, I am equally certain that these men discussed the matter of independence with their wives)—what those men did in the late 18th century was to risk their very lives in order to establish for themselves, and for those of us who were to follow, the foundation of certain freedoms and rights. While they dealt with the reality of their own situation, they acted as if in hope of a better day.

What those men did was to engage in a ritual [that] has gone by the way.  They concluded a deal, a business deal if you will, with a handshake with an unseen partner.  They had a silent partner!  They shook hands with a Silent Partner who throughout the history of humankind has said, [“If you would be my people, accept my covenant which I handed down at Creation, namely that all people are created equal; I will guide you into all truths.  I shook hand,” said God, “in most recent history with the Hebrews.  I sent prophets to remind them of our agreement: Moses, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel.  I shook hand with them and the other peoples of the world whom I fashioned after the divine image, all of whom abandoned our contract.  And now, through my Messiah, my handshake is extended to all people on the face of the earth.”]

What made then, and makes now, the act of the signers of The Declaration of Independence solemn and sacred, was their willingness and readiness to die for their conviction, all of which recalls the saying of Christ, that no greater love has a man (person, if you will), than that he should lay down his life for his brother.  And it was for the welfare of the community that the founding fathers were willing to risk all that they had, including their lives.  They shook hands with the Divine.

I offer these reflection on this holiday weekend because, as a student of the history of nation-states, it has not escaped me that like the Biblical Israel to whom God sent prophet after prophet, and to whom Jesus came, nation-states (our own included) have attempted to fashion God after their own image.  They and we have made god lower case.  We have not allowed God to be God, but to be only our god.

There are those in every nation (again, our own included) who would define or describe God as the head of our religious direction, and our direction only.  I smile, for example, when I observe members of athletic teams pray to God for victory over their opponent.  I do not, however, smile when I see leaders of nations suppress that inner urge of individual citizens to express their wonderment of creation, or to claim that God cannot be working out the divine purpose in other peoples whose language and rituals may differ from our own.

Even among our own people who, in some form, share a belief in Jesus of Nazareth, there is dissension.  Unfortunately, that is not new.  Tribalism has impeded the enactment of the promise of the Divine.  Recall, if you will, the gospel account in which Jesus is questioned and rejected by his own immediate kinsfolk, people whom he has known and who have known him since his childhood.  In fact, some of his childhood friends and members of his family wanted to put him away for fear that he was emotionally unstable. Hometown people and family can be insular. The fear of the unknown drove their actions.  Fear caused even his kinsfolks to wan512px-Capernaum_synagogue_by_David_Shankbonet to hold onto the good old days.  They could see, and accept, only that which they knew, not that which was greater than themselves.  They knew and loved their god of lower case.

This was definitely not what Jesus had expected—especially after raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead.  Because of their lack of belief, because of their lower case god, [Jesus was left] incapable of doing much in the way of healing or anything else of significance.  As a result, he did not stay long and there is no record of his ever returning.  Instead, Jesus moved to Capernaum and made his headquarters there because there he was well received.

When Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs after his Nazareth experience, he told them in advance that they might meet the same kind of opposition.  “If that is the case,” he said, “just leave, but not before you let them know that they had their chance to hear what God wanted to say to them and they lost it.”  And the disciples/apostles experienced God who, once again, gave them the power to preach, teach, heal, and exorcise demons.  They experienced the potentials of belief that allowed the people to dream dreams, to stand in awe of a God that had contracted with a people to show to the other nations what good could come to all—if they but laid aside their petty gods, their gods of lower case, their gods that they had fashioned after their own desires and needs.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a magnificent performance of the contemporary play Gutenberg – the Musical,” which called immediately to mind the comparison of the gods of lower case and the God of Creation.  In interaction with the audience, the two co-stars, assuming roles as dictated by the script, informed us that their story was fiction, but a true fiction, which, of course, evoked laughter.  Yet behind the humor stood great truth.  The child of one of the characters, the father, died because the father fed the child jellybeans instead of medicine, and this came about because the father could not read what was printed on the jGutenbergPressar.  The father felt no need to educate himself with new-fangled ideas; rather he knew just by looking at the content which was the much-needed medicine.

Gutenberg, as you know, invented the printing press.  A monk, nominally a devout man, a man by whose profession was obliged to care for the people of God, set out to destroy Gutenberg’s invention.  And why?  Because, should the people learn to read, his power over them, over their subsequent ability to read and understand first-hand the word of God, would be removed.  They would be removed from their infancy of faith, from their ignorance, and have opened to them a wider knowledge of God’s compassion and intention for them and the world.

In today’s world, on this July 4 weekend, we, too, run into similar walls of resistance, unbelief, and overt opposition, where even in this great nation of ours we have individuals who would require a litmus test of our faith in God, in their god, and declare [that those who do not believe as they believe are unbelievers, infidels, to use an old-fashion term].  That is precisely what our founding fathers railed against and wished to eliminate.  You and I have the responsibility never to forget this simple expansive act, a belief in a being whose grace passes all understanding. The God of our handshake tells us not to be discouraged for, as the gospel read to us last Sunday assures us, we shall be amply compensated.

We are told “anyone who gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little one, because he is a disciple of mine, will certainly not go unrewarded.” (Matt. 10:42)  Jesus expounded then and teaches us to this day to be open to the stranger among us and offer aid to those in need, whatever their origins.

If we believe that, then we can go out to proclaim with conviction that Jesus is Lord, not so much in our words but in our deeds.  From the time of Ezekiel (almost 600 years before the coming of Jesus) to the present day, we have been benefiting from “God’s handshake.”  No matter what we do, God stays with us, not the nation-states, but with those in all nations whom God has created, hoping against hope that we all will reach out and grasp the hand that is already extended to us.

As I began these reflections with a prayer in the form of a hymn, so do I close:

Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything, to do it as for thee.
(The Hymnal 1982, #592)

AMEN

 

Images:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capernaum_synagogue_by_David_Shankbone.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing_press#/media/File:Printing_and_writing_materials_-_their_evolution_(1904)_(14777458662).jpg
(By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14777458662/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/printingwritingm00smit/printingwritingm00smit#page/n42/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43795736)