Sermon for Independence Day
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48
Last night, a handful of us gathered with parishioners from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church to Pray on Prospect. Like last year’s Pray on Troost event, it was a chance for faithful people from different traditions to gather along an East Side artery and pray for an end to the violence that afflicts our city. The event concluded the “21 Days of Peace” sponsored by the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City.
If you couldn’t make it to pray on the street last night, you’ll have another chance in two weeks. On Saturday morning, July 17, St. Andrew’s members will join in the Walk for Unity sponsored by Unite KC. We’ll gather at Troost and Truman Road, and we’ll walk down Troost to the Royals’ Urban Youth Academy near 18th and Vine. This Walk for Unity is a great opportunity to pray with our feet, as well as our hearts and minds, for the healing that flows from confronting the truth of our racial history.
Now, the people organizing these two events come from somewhat different perspectives. Both groups seek reconciliation in our divided city, but I imagine they wouldn’t agree on everything. One group might be described as more progressive, the other as somewhat more conservative. I think that’s OK and that we can authentically stand in prayer with both efforts. One doesn’t need to agree with everything someone else believes in order to pray together for God’s healing. I think we can come alongside a wide range of friends and colleagues trying to make a difference. That’s where our big-tent approach would lead us anyway, to gather on common ground rather than dividing into different camps.
Most of the St. Andrew’s people praying on Prospect last night were part of our recent exercise in civil discourse – our class “What’s the Role of the Church In…?” It was a wonderful experience, masterfully guided by our junior warden, Ann Rainey. The goal was to help us work against our wiring for polite silence by practicing the holy skills of listening and sharing our hearts. The class members did that, and more.
Here’s a result we might not have expected: Several participants left the class wanting to engage more deeply, more personally, with the issues we were discussing, things like violence, and racism, and LGBTQ+ inclusion, and immigration. They wanted to find ways to pass the peace – not just praying in church for racial justice and reconciliation but hitting the streets in prayer; not just naming the people who die in gun violence each week but gathering on an East Side artery to pray for people at risk of violence.
I think there’s an interesting connection between praying on Prospect last night and gathering here this morning to celebrate the Fourth of July. In a sense, they’re both about how our faith speaks to our secular life.
Independence Day is an official feast day of the Episcopal Church, like a saint’s day. It has its own special prayer and readings appointed for it. Maybe that seems strange, given how important many Americans hold the separation of church and state to be. So, if Independence Day is a feast on the Church calendar, what is it the Church is saying to the state?
The first reading appointed for today was from Deuteronomy. The Israelites are encamped on the Jordan River, about to enter the Promised Land; and through Moses, God is laying down the law for the people’s new life there. Of all the points of the Law of Moses the Church might raise up for us to hear on Independence Day, it’s this: “The Lord … executes justice for the orphan and the widow and … loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19)
What’s that saying to us about our national life? Well, I think it’s a pesky prophetic call, one that our nation has lived out well in our best work and, at the same time, one from which we’re constantly tempted to stray. It’s the call to remember and lift up the people whom the well-established could it find easy to forget. In fact, God says, don’t just remember them. Prioritize them. Make a highway in the desert and make the rough places a plain for those who aren’t yet living into the fullness of who God created them to be. When, as a nation, we find ourselves tempted to rest on our past success, tempted to be satisfied with who’s at the table now, God says look around and ask who’s missing and what it would take to set another place. Whether our family histories are rooted in England or Ecuador, in the Great Plains of America or the west coast of Africa, both our faith and our American experience tell us: Don’t write off anybody, and ensure everybody has an equal chance to thrive. Prioritizing policy this way not only honors God; it just makes sense because the benefits flow both ways: To the extent the nation blesses all who come to the table, so the nation is blessed by what they bring to the banquet.
I think this is one of the strengths of our odd historical identity, both as a nation and as the Episcopal Church. We gather those we haven’t even explicitly invited, those whose contributions we wouldn’t have seen coming; and we provide equal opportunity for all to flourish. And … when we recognize that we’ve fallen short of that goal, we do the hard work of growing to see yet another facet of the truth that all means all – liberty, justice, equality of opportunity for all. That isn’t easy, but it’s part of what it takes to help realize God’s dream for this nation and for the world.
But – expanding our view of how “all means all” brings us a challenge, too. Some of the folks who come to the table bring differences that push our buttons. Progressives push conservatives’ buttons, and conservatives push progressives’ buttons. People bring different traditions. They bring different histories and different readings of the history we share. They may look different and sound different and act different. And sometimes, those differences seem so great that we see those folks as the other. And especially when the other asks for change, we see it as threatening. They become “them” – no longer just different but enemies. I’ve heard it myself, and my hunch is that you have, too – even in our own halls.
So, given all that, what does the Church choose for today’s Gospel reading? What does the Church pull out of Jesus’ life and teaching to say to the state on its birthday? It’s this: Love those you don’t like. In Matthew’s Gospel – with Jesus in the role of the new Moses, updating God’s Law in the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus recognizes that the coming of God’s kingdom doesn’t instantly make everyone friends. He knows our differences will threaten to divide us, and he calls us to make a different choice: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:44-47)
The brokenness of the world and the brokenness of our hearts will drive us apart. Left to our own devices, we’ll listen to the points of view we already embrace and grow ever more rigidly righteous in our own eyes. So, as our nation celebrates Independence Day, the Church says, choose a different path. It’s already there, in our DNA. Government of the people, by the people, for the people only works when those people hear God’s call to honor the full humanity of the other and love them enough to serve the common good alongside them. Whether it’s in the House and Senate chambers or here in the church, we have to choose to cross the aisle if we seek to pass the peace.
Sometimes, God blesses us to see the kingdom
in small in-breakings among us, and I think our civil-discourse class was one
of them. We began a bit stiffly, with people
ginning up the courage to speak their passions while also fearing that being vulnerable
would get them hurt. But open ears and
open hearts prevailed. No one went on
the attack, and no one took difference personally. Instead, they chose the harder path, the “both/and”
of who we are at our best in this big tent: speaking our own passion, hearing
the passion of others, and acting for God’s purposes, passing the peace where
And so, in our next opportunity to pray with our feet, the Walk for Unity in a couple of weeks, I’m nearly certain there will be faithful St. Andrew’s folks walking together down Troost praying for God to heal the divisions in our city, even though those same faithful folks will have watched vastly different news channels earlier that morning. Together, we’ll raise up the people it would be easy for us to forget, and we’ll chose love over difference as children of the God who loves all.
There you have it. Thus says the Church to the state: Pass the peace.