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Sunday, July 07, 2019

Your names are written in heaven

Pentecost IV - July 7, 2019 - Proper 9 C

In this Sunday's gospel according to Luke, we see Jesus sending the apostles out two by two. 

That image reminds me of the old story about the two Jehovah's witnesses who showed up at a doorstep on a cold, rainy evening. The homeowner opens the door and felt terrible for them shivering outside in the rain. So he invited the Jehovah's witnesses in and offered them a seat in the parlor. 

After a very long silence, he asked, "so what happens now?" 

One of them replied, "I don't know, we've never gotten this far!"

As we continue to celebrate July 4th, one cannot look back on the history of this country without noticing that the historic threads of this nation are intertwined with the history of our church, the Episcopal Church. It’s as if you cannot look back on history and not see the history of the two.

I believe this is at least one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson was so adamant about the separation of church and state. (By the way, that principle appears nowhere in our Constitution. It was a principle of Jefferson with which he was adamant because of his experiences, of course.)

While he was intensely interested in theology, religious studies, and morality, he was most comfortable with Deism, rational religion, and eventually, Unitarianism – but not Christianity.

Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
Jefferson wrote that the purpose of human morality is to guide people in their treatment of others:  
“by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.”
Jefferson’s failure to live by those words on the crucial matter of enslavement is something that history — if not his maker — must judge him for. But his vision of personal rights and intellectual liberty remain central to this country’s founding principles.

Religious beliefs, he wrote, “are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine.” 

He argued that humans have no way to know which type of religion is “exactly the right.” In heaven, he said, there are no denominations — “not a quaker or a baptist, a presbyterian or an episcopalian, a catholic or a protestant.” (Well, as the old joke goes, if an Episcopalian can’t tell a dessert fork from a salad fork they are NOT allowed in heaven!)

Historians are clear that Jefferson was the primary author of The Declaration of Independence. Ira Stoll, author and academic, writes that the following words, are the "Theology of the Fourth of July":
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’
It was – and still is – a radical idea: Certain. Unalienable. Rights. It is especially radical to insert that idea into a Declaration of Independence, which is not simply an announcement or declaration; rather it is also the foundational idea in the creation of a newly emerging government.

The idea that every human being – all men and women – have certain unalienable rights that Came. From. Their. Creator. – God – has enormous power.  

It was a direct assault on the belief that kings and queens are ordained by God with sovereign power to rule over all men and women. 

And that, friends, is a belief that continues today, among the royalty and some subjects.

Do you see it? Do you hear it? ". . . . .
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’

This is the very radical idea around which the founders of this country built a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 

The government we call Democracy was created 243 years ago. In many ways, we are still part of a great experiment. We are still testing, still refining, still evolving. The words of the preamble to the Constitution are: “in order to form a more perfect union.”

Our government was never intended to be perfect. Our founders were wise enough to know that nothing in this life, nothing created with human hands, is ever perfect. Only that which comes from God is perfect.

Scripture is clear in the message that we are perfected in the refiner’s fire. And, that refiner’s fire has come in the form of a Civil War, which ripped the fabric of this country from North to South. Many people say that we are still fighting the issues of that war: slavery (now in the form of racism and White Supremacy), state’s rights (tariffs), and yes, the status of women.

It’s important, I think, for us to take at least a little time this weekend, if you have not already since Thursday, the fourth of July, to try to recall your own story along with the history of this nation and this church.

I cannot fully celebrate this national holiday without stopping to give thanks to my grandmother, who came here – not two by two as Jesus advised – but all by herself, a 13 year old girl, with only a bag with a change of clothes and a ‘guitarra’ across her back from a small village north and west of Portugal.

The Pulpit at Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
I’ve told this story many times but I’ll share it with you now, the first time I’ve been privileged to step into this pulpit.

She was the youngest of seven and the only girl. Her mother died suddenly and, after she wiped the tears from her eyes, looked up and saw her future: six brothers and her father. 

And, just at that very moment, a word came to her and that word was, “No!”

Immediately after that, an idea arose in her heart, making its way to her head and she could suddenly see another possibility for her future, to which she said, “Yes.”

Even though she was genuinely grieving for her mother, she – as she would tell us with a wink and a twinkle in her eye – laid it on pretty thick. She became proficient in the fine art of wailing. She spent a great deal of time in the yard, feeding the chickens – and wailing. Washing the clothes in the tub – and wailing. Hanging them up to dry – and wailing. Fixing meals and . . . .

A neighbor suggested that perhaps a summer in American, helping her aunts who were working as domestics for the wealthy ladies on Beacon Hill, Boston, would do her some good. Just for the summer. She would return in the fall refreshed and ready to take her mother’s place. It should not, perhaps, come as a surprise, that her father was delighted to find the money to fund her trip.

Except, she never returned home to Portugal. She was married at age 15 to a man who was a sailor in the Portuguese navy and eventually, they applied for and became US citizens. 

Here’s the remarkable part of her story: She may have come to this country alone but she did not leave lonely. She had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, fifteen of whom made it to adulthood and nine of whom were still alive at the time of her death at the ripe old age of 86.

I tell you that story to say this: Everyone in America – except for those we call ‘Native Americans’ – comes from good immigrant stock. We all have our stories to tell and all of our stories are entwined with the stories of those who arrived here on the Mayflower and those who settled in what was known as ‘the colonies’ and those who came here in slave ships or were indentured servants or prisoners from other countries.

The first 'native-born' governor of DE (not an immigrant)
We are a nation that is constantly being perfected’ because we believe the radical notion that we as human beings are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.  

And, those rights? Do you remember what they are? Yes, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Do you know that we are the only nation in the world whose foundational principles of government include ‘the pursuit of happiness’? It’s true. 

When I think about that, I wonder if, when our founders were writing that, they didn’t have the story from today’s scripture somewhere in the back of their minds. 

Jesus sends out the seventy, two by two, and gives them some strict marching orders.

They go out and return sometime later ‘with joy’, scripture tells us because they experienced more success than they could have ever asked for or imagined.

And, Jesus says to them a most remarkable thing. He says, “. . . do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

Our names are written in heaven. Just let that sink in for a minute.

Your name. My name. Our names. Are written in heaven.

At the end of the day, at the end of the celebration of our independence, no matter the origin of our ancestry, no matter the land from which our parents came, no matter the place in this country we call ‘home’, it is important to remember and never forget that our true citizenship is in heaven. 

That’s where are names are permanently inscribed. That is where we lived before we were born and where we will return after we die.

In many ways, our life here on Planet Earth, in this corner of the cosmos, on the continent of North America, in the land we call the United States of America, in the first state of Delaware, is not much different from those two missionaries in the story I told at the beginning of this sermon. 

The Sanctuary and pulpit (altar faces east)
In a more perfect union, in the 243 year old experiment known as democracy, sometimes, we surprise ourselves that we have made it this far and we’re not really sure what comes next.

When I despair of the almost constant bickering and drama that has become the daily bread of our anxiety, I remind myself of these words: “in order to form a more perfect union.”  

 I take at least a modicum of comfort in knowing that God is not finished with us quite yet.   

To borrow from the words of that great hymn by Katharine Lee Bates, the amber waves of grain of which we sing are being mowed in order to grow again. Our purple mountains are being made more majestic after emerging through the struggle of these days. The gleam on our ‘alabaster cities’ is being more highly polished by human tears.

May the words of her great song inspire us as our story continues to unfold: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

And, let the church say, “Amen”.

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