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It is tempting, after having a few weeks of imposed exile from the pulpit, to try and cover all of the events that occurred during your absence. And for me that would be a big challenge, because a lot of stuff went down in the weeks I have been gone.
We have borne again the hard weight of another mass shooting in our country, this one made even more difficult because of the target, and the locale, and the aftermath, where we can’t figure out what really hurts us the most – the continued erosion of safe spaces, the irrational, intractable quicksand that is our national attitude on firearms, or the re-emphasized renewal of the American dedication to violence that haunts and scars us all. And, of course, in the last week, multiple acts of terrorism across the globe, which seem almost indistinguishable from a “mass shooting”, our terminology barely indicating our inability to comprehend any of it – how someone does this, why they think it will actually accomplish what they want, who they think that they are really attacking – none of it makes sense.
We have seen another round of freak weather, the western edge of our country on fire, the eastern edge flooded, a harbinger of the “new normal” that will accompany the inevitable climate change that is not only coming, but already here.
We have now witnessed a chilling vote from the British, one that indicates that the unimaginable really can happen in democratic elections, especially when people don’t participate or don’t understand the ramifications of their participation. The so-called #Brexit is a needed civics lesson reminding us that elections really do have consequences, and none of us are immune from politics, love them or hate them.
It’s hard to make much sense of anything these days. If you’re like me, you feel pulled in a dozen directions, one set of values clashing with another…a desire to remain safe conflicting with a love of liberty…a fascination with the carefully constructed tales of history mixed with an awareness of how we sanitize the past and glorify events that were just as broken as our daily news today.
In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan describe Jesus’ march into Jerusalem during Palm Sunday as an intentional piece of performance art, set against the march of the Roman armies through the main gates of Jerusalem. There were two parades that day, and Jesus was asking his disciples to choose one.
Today I stand in front of you with much the same task, for we stand at the intersection of two parades. And it is always challenging to know how to contend in this holy space with the “holiness” of a secular holiday, that carries it’s own liturgy, like a reading of the Declaration, it’s own hymns, led, unfortunately, by “God Bless the USA” on an endless loop, even it’s own color scheme and appropriate foods…what’s this holiday without a hot dog, after all?
This holiday reminds us that just as we have to grapple with the multi-faceted and complex world we live in, where our love of freedom also puts us at risk and our dedication to stopping the “bad guys” also seems to create them, we have to constantly deal with our allegiances. And it is hard. As Christians, and citizens of the United States, we have to acknowledge that the Gospel is many things, but it is not American. It is not Constitutional, nor is it inscribed in the laws of this nation…or any other for that matter. These are two different parades…the Gospel parade and the 4th of July parade, and while I won’t lay upon your hearts the challenge of choosing between the culture in which you reside and the faith tradition you have chosen, or which has chosen you, I will say that we have to struggle with the tension that those allegiances bring. Our American ideals are quite often different than the ideals Jesus teaches. We don’t have movements to create monuments to the Beatitudes on the capitol lawn, nor do we hear, “Love Thy Neighbor” echoed from the halls of power very often. So, how do we choose when our American values stand in opposition to our Christian ones?
This is why, for instance, you don’t see an American flag in this sanctuary. We need to have at least one place that reminds us that while we may be understandably and passionately proud to be an citizen of this country, we also need the prophetic reminder that this is not all we are, nor is our country the only country, nor is our personal sense of “America” the same for everyone. It is important to remember that Jesus did not call us to national pride or to pledge our allegiance to a flag. The goal of the Gospel is higher than our nationality, and the ideals Jesus teaches set us on an different orientation.
So, while we might praise a Declaration of Independence in many of our settings, here is the place where we acknowledge and lift up a declaration of interdependence. Here is where we push back against the notion that we are all individual islands, only occasionally interacting with one another. Here is where we state that our hearts and heads must be directed at those who have been cast out, looking for the refugee and the stranger and welcoming them, which is an ideal we must get from somewhere other than our nationalism which, by its very nature, places us in an “us versus them” mentality. Yes, here is where we make the bold claim that either all of us matter or none of us do.
In this sanctuary, a place set aside from the rest of our lives, we will pray for our leaders, Republican and Democrat alike. Here we raise up the value of soldiers and conscientious objectors, here we weave the stories of our nation’s sins alongside the stories of our accomplishments, so that we might remind ourselves that no one does anything alone, and that what we often call “progress” comes at the expense of others. Yes, here is where we push back against the idea that our highest ideal is the success of the individual, or the acquisition of material wealth, or the defeat of our enemies. We are, indeed, globally dependent. Not because of a trade policy or a treaty, but because we are all people, all human beings, living on the same planet God created for everyone, despite the artificial lines we have drawn on maps we made up. And when we celebrate our land, as if it were truly “ours”, we must also remember that other people celebrate their lands with just as much passion and hope, even those we call our “enemies.” So, we must be able to temper our national pride with our passionate faith…to temper them not with anger, but as you might temper an egg in a recipe, slowly mixing together hot and cold so you don’t end up with a big, scrambled mess.
I encourage you to take your bulletin home today and to look up this passage in your Bible. Read it carefully. Look at the instructions that Jesus gives his disciples. He sends them out not as individuals, but in pairs, with no protection, no cloak, no staff, nothing that they would typically expect to carry. He sends then out with peace on their hearts, telling them that peace should be the first thing out of their mouths when meeting strangers. They should lead with peace, walk in peace and when their peace is returned, this would be the single marker of people with whom they should engage. They shouldn’t look for other “believers” or people from their same tribe, but instead anyone who wishes peace back to you is your friend. And if they don’t, then you simply brush the dust off your feet as a protest and remind those people that the Kin-dom of God has come near.
On Thursday of last week, many people from all walks of the American life, gathered at the Turkish Raindrop House in Broken Arrow for a rather impromptu prayer vigil, to remember the horror in Istanbul. It was the second such gathering in as many weeks, and while it was a comfort to see one another and to affirm our common dedication to justice and peace, we decided that we cannot keep meeting over just the pain. We have to meet over the joy, in the midst of the happiness and the celebration. We have to begin to knit our lives together more fully, so that when the tragedy strikes, as we know it will again, we have something to offer other than our mutual anger and frustration, our shared sadness.
We are dreamers, to be sure. But our independence day is a day for dreamers. Dreamers, yes, of democracy and freedom. But, more importantly, dreamers of the impossible possibility of justice, of compassion for ourselves, each other and our planet…and dreamers of Shalom…of Sa’laam…of Peace. So, this 4th of July, let us hold in tension the pledge of allegiance with the weight of this table…where ALL are welcome, friend and enemy are fed, and where there is enough for everyone.
Come to the table.