Independence Day Sunday
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48
“Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11: 16
Last summer, as I was coming to the end of my sabbatical and was back from England, I walked a trail loop near Salisbury, CT that intersected the Appalachian Trail for about a mile. The loop has “blazes” (painted marks) on trees to note where it begins, where it continues, and the Appalachian Trail does the same. I ended up taking the wrong blaze following the Appalachian Trail and went 2 miles before I realized I had messed up and had to turn back. Anyone who has ever done something so, well, foolish, would understand what it means to take a wrong path, trail, or road. The terrain back to the right trail, to make matters worse, was steep in places, slippery in others (I fell when coming too quickly down a moss-laden, slippery rock), and I was assaulted the entire time by a swarm of gnats that rivaled the cloud of dust that accompanies Charlie Brown’s friend, Pigpen. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, strangely, and wonderfully, has something to say about taking the wrong path and how the Godly path has been torn through the painful thickets and brambles of this world by Jesus, the true “trailblazer.” Jesus has gone through any rough patch we could imagine and would be our guiding light as we try to find His highway that leads not only to a better future for us, as individuals and as a people, in the main, but takes us to the God who made us.
The book of Hebrews has always been a bit of an enigma to me. I have very rarely preached on it in the past and it remains a source of challenge for me, as a reader of the good news of Jesus. Hebrews frequently refers to Jesus as what has been best translated as “pioneer.” And when I was in seminary, studying Hebrews, I remember that referring to Jesus as a trailblazer, a pioneer, was something I latched onto. Jesus goes, as He promises His disciples in Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, ahead of us, to prepare a place for us, in the heavenly places: that trail from which there is no return and no end. Yet, Jesus came into this world to blaze a path for us here, too, a trail for us to follow in this life. And Jesus’ blazes, his signposts for us to follow, are not like bread crumbs that are scooped up by any old bird or squirrel who happens by and disappear, never to be used again. Christ’s blazing signs for us along the pathway of life are muscular, enduring, and final; Jesus has endured the worst humans can do and be and has left us a legacy of love, hope, and endurance to help us along the path in life. Jesus does not only save us for all time by the power of His sacrifice, He shows us the way to build the kingdom in the here and now.
I recently read an interesting book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough called Pioneers. We take “pioneer” to mean folks who travel to places that no one has been, intrepid people who blaze a trail to new climes and geographies that others might follow. Pioneers tells the story of a group made up of mostly Massachusetts Revolutionary War veterans who formed a company and gained permission from the fledging US Congress to settle land in the Ohio Territory. The land that they had selected was at the convergence of the clear Muskingum River with the churning, mighty Ohio River. Only one or two members of the first group of pioneers had even seen the land, and they made their way across Pennsylvania and the Allegheny Mountains, setting off for a territory teeming with cougar, bear, deer, beaver, fertile, fertile soil, and stands of trees as far as even God’s eye could see. And they settled the territory and prospered, after many hardships, in what would quickly become the state of Ohio.
But, you see, there were already people in the Ohio Territory, when these pioneers arrived; people called Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Ottawa, and Seneca, just to name a few. And the indigenous folk who had been in Ohio for at least a millennium, were at first peaceful and welcoming with the new, white pioneers, but became alarmed as they saw steamboat after steamboat, bringing scores of white settlers even beyond the Muskingum and down the River, and settling north of the river, too. And they rose up against the pioneers, who had blazed a trail to Ohio that already fed, clothed, and provided life for these darker skinned children of God who had a great sense, too, of the Creator who made them. We know how the story ends – on reservations, broken promises, and prosperity for one group – the white pioneers who became settlers – while the other group saw their way of life rapidly come to an end.
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Collect for Independence Day reflects the reality that the founders of this great and truly wonderful nation made compromises to begin the road to freedom, on Independence Day, during a great American Revolution; and as our new, fledgling republic began. One compromise was that promised liberties were withheld from enslaved black people which would, ultimately, lead to a another great conflict, the American Civil War, which ended in the freeing of slaves, celebrated on Juneteenth (June 19, 1865 was the day slaves were freed, officially and finally, I believe). Yet, black folks in the United States have struggled to live into the reality of the liberties promised in our collect, reflected in the Declaration of our Independence from England and its king, and truly harkened to in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Now, I am no historian, like the venerable David McCullough, and I am no politician, that is for certain, and thanks be to God. And it is easy for us to say that the current movement to attain to a higher standard of equality for all of God’s children is a political one. Well, I care not one whit for politics and have had little but disappointment in what our latter-day leaders have done in terms of bringing us all together, as one people, under God. So, I would say that unity and freedom are a Christian imperative. I would guess, with some confidence, that we are called to do the very best we can, by the first and last, true pioneer, the One who entered death, and the first and last to win for us all - black, white, brown - the freedom of His sacrifice, which is eternal life and, for us, if we were to live into His promise, and follow the blazes of His great, unending love, a better, more peaceful life and world.
Walking the way of Jesus, even with the clear signposts of His teaching, His witness, His nearly unbearable love, is still challenging for me, for any of us. And it is difficult, again, in spite of the blazes Christ has left us, to figure out how to be and what to do in this world. Thanks be to God that we have each other, this community, God’s Holy Scripture, and a yearning to know God more clearly. What would God have us do, when it comes to seeing each other through His eyes? What would God have us be, in a world that seems to highlight conflict, illness, anger, partisanship, backstabbing, addiction, and pain? Well, thankfully, through God’s goodness, we know love, I hope, too, through family, and community, and scripture, again. But if we are to form a more perfect UNION, and a land of lasting freedom, true liberty for all of God’s beloved, we must be willing to discern the will of God. I don’t have any great answers, but I do know that as far back as Torah, in Deuteronomy, God reminds His people to treat the stranger, the other in their midst, with kindness and love – “for you were once a stranger in Egypt.” WE have all been strangers, outsiders at one time or another; I know I have.
Jesus proclaims in Matthew today that we are to love each other, even those that we would call enemy. Jesus gives us no second option, no “of course, you don’t really have to” escape plan. Jesus Christ, the great pioneer - He who went into the valley of Death that we might have life abundant, here and in the life to come - tells us that we are to have no enemies; we are to embrace one another in the fashion of His love, one that has no end. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus tells us: to “love one another as I have loved you…by that love “people will know that you are my disciples.” Love is not easy; love makes us vulnerable, exposed. The gift of love, however, gives us the closeness to God that nothing else can. The pioneer Jesus shows us the way to love; we are left to decide, in the end, will we love each other, all of each other, as Christ first loved us. Unless we do, freedom and liberty will always remain a wonderful, yet unfulfilled dream.