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Sunday, July 28, 2019

Here I am

St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

When I was working full time as a Hospice chaplain, I must have prayed the Lord’s Prayer at least six or seven times a day. Every day.

No matter if I’m working that day or not, I say it every morning when I say Morning Prayer and every night when I say the ‘little office’ of Compline.

I confess that I am not always ‘fully present’ to the prayer when I say it. Sometimes, I repeat the words by rote, the way I say The Pledge of Allegiance or The Confession of sin or The Nicene Creed on Sunday.

Some folks like to say that The Lord’s Prayer is the most ancient of prayers, but there are scholars much smarter than you and I who say that, if prayer is a direct response to a call from God, then the first prayer in Scripture can be found a lot sooner than when Jesus prayed.

They note that, in the 22nd Chapter of the Book of Genesis, an angel of the Lord called out to Abraham and said, “Abraham!” And, Abraham said, “Here I am!”

In the 3rd Chapter of the Book of Exodus, God called to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses said, “Here I am!”

That was also the response of Samuel and Saul , Jacob and Isaiah. “Here I am.”

Those three words, some scholars say, are the most ancient words of prayer. Here I am.

In Hebrew the word is 'Hineni' which some scholars say can also be translated as "At your service."

Hineni is being fully present to God, ready to serve God, even though you know you have sinned.

It is very telling that when God called out to Adam after he had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, Adam did NOT respond "Hineni," "Here I am." Instead he hid himself and made some weak pathetic excuse for hiding.

Those three words, some scholars say, are the first words of prayer as a direct response to a call from  God:   Here I am. 

It is being fully present to God, even though you know you have sinned. Even though you don't know what you will be asked. Even though you don't know how you will respond. Even when you don't know what comes next.

It’s a powerful thought, one I’ll come back to in a bit.

I do love the exchange between God and Abraham from Genesis which we listened in on this morning. God wants to know what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah (as if God can’t already see what’s going on) so God sends a few men to check it out. 

Meanwhile, Abraham enters into a plea bargain prayer with God.

Abraham knows that the cities are in big trouble so he begins to ask, well, if there are 50 righteous men left in the city, will you forgive the whole place for 50 good men? And God says, sure, if there are 50 righteous men, I’ll spare the whole place.

People of ancient cultures are known and admired for their bartering, so we should not be surprised that Abraham says, “Well, what if five of those fifty are lacking?” And God says, “Okay, I won’t destroy the whole city for forty-five righteous men.”

Abraham decides to push his luck – okay, how about 40? 30? 20? How about 10?

In my imagination, I see God smiling at Abraham with great love and affection. I hear God thinking to Godself, “This dear man doesn’t understand that if there’s just one person worth saving, I’ll save the whole entire world for the hope I can see in one righteous person.”

Now, be honest – if not with me, than with yourself – haven’t you prayed a prayer like Abraham? I know I have. “Oh, please, God,” I pray, “If I promise to do ‘x’ will you please do ‘y’? Okay, how about if I do ‘w and x’? Will you do ‘y’?  Okay, okay. How about ‘v and w and x’? THEN, will you do ‘y’, and maybe you could squeeze in a ‘z’?”

I hear some of you chuckling because you have prayed that same prayer, haven’t you?

I’ve certainly heard that sort of plea bargain prayer from my Hospice patients. Sometimes, I hear that prayer from my Hospice families on behalf of the Hospice patient. “If God lest him or her live until after my daughter has her baby, I promise to name the baby after him.” Or, “I promise to do something I know I should have done a long time ago but I’ll do it now.”

I think God must smile the same loving smile on us as God did when Abraham prayed like that.

But, the Lord’s Prayer is different. Very different.

I've said The Lord's Prayer holding the ancient hand of a person who, just minutes before, couldn't put four words together to make a coherent thought and yet, there s/he is, reciting every word. Eyes closed. Head bowed reverently. Really. Praying. And, I’m astonished.

I've said The Lord's Prayer at the bedside of a dying person, surrounded by family and friends of all ages who gulp out the words between sobs and dabs of tears. And, I’m humbled.

I've said The Lord's Prayer with people – young and old – who have told me that have no faith, or have lost their faith, or confess that they haven't been to church in years and don't know what they believe anymore. And yet, there they are, praying earnestly, with their whole heart and soul and mind, believing every word they are saying. And, I am inspired.

Now, don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me but you have probably heard that some scholars say that Jesus never really said this prayer. I remember looking at a Jesus Seminar version of The Lord's Prayer, with the words that Jesus almost certainly said or did highlighted in red; and in pink, words that he "probably" said.

The words in red were: "Our Father......". Everything else? Hmmm.. maybe, maybe not. Does that matter, really? Do the words of a few scholars really make any difference to your faith? 

I don't have to cross my fingers behind my back when saying this prayer. Some of my Jewish friends
tell me that The Lord's Prayer is all the evidence they need to know that Jesus was a good Rabbi. It's a solid Jewish prayer, they tell me, reflecting all of the values that Jews cherish.

Indeed, you don’t have to be Christian or Jewish or any particular faith to pray  the words of this prayer.

To me, this prayer contains everything I need to know. It has everything I need to get me through the day – to get me through the worst parts of any day or week or month of the year.

I don't know that my prayer - this prayer - is always answered. 

I only know that the answer to the problem of poverty and hunger and injustice and forgiveness come in being cognizant and aware of the existence of these wages of sin by being mindful enough of them to pray about them. 

And, in trying to live out the words of this prayer, so that they’re not just words to be said by rote but with feeling and intention.

Author Ann Lamott says that you only need to know two prayers. The first is to be said every morning. 

That prayer is: “Please, please, please.” 

The second is to be said every evening before you go to bed. 

That prayer is “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

She maintains that all God every wants to hear is for us to ask for what we need and to be grateful for what we’ve got. I don’t know about you, but I think she may well be right.

I want to come back to that ancient  prayer, "Here I am" because I think it’s important to pray that prayer before we pray The Lord’s Prayer – or, before we say any prayer, formulated or one that arises spontaneously from our heart in response to God.

Before you pray, take a moment to stop and center yourself. Pay attention to your body, and allow yourself to feel a sense of gratitude for being alive. 

Notice the way your breath flows in and out of your nose and mouth and allow yourself to be thankful for each breath. Feel yourself sitting in your seat or standing wherever you are and consider your estate the same as Abraham who said to God, “Who am I but dust and ashes?”

And then, before you say another word, say, “Here I am.”  

You know what? Let’s try that right now. Let's pray the way Abraham and Moses, Samuel and Saul, Jacob and Isaiah prayed before we pray the way Jesus reportedly taught his disciples to pray.  

Bring your whole self to this prayer. It doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are. It doesn't matter where yo've been or haven't been; what you've done or haven't done. 

Bring your whole self, just as you are, withut one plea

First, get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes. 

Now, inhale and say to yourself, “Here”

Now exhale and say to yourself, “I am.” 

Do that again. 

Inhale: "Here." Exhale: "I am.” 

Now that we are all more fully present to God, I ask you to open your hearts and pray with me, church – if you like, hold the hand of the person next to you – and say with me some of the words Jesus taught his disciples saying,
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
One final thought: I think this prayer, whether or not Jesus explicitly taught it to his disciples as a prayer, may not have been so much our prayer to God, but God’s prayer for us.

To which I respond saying, “Here I am.” 


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Martha, Martha

A Sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church,
Milford, DE
Pentecost IV - Proper 11 C

Apparently, this is the summer of The Gospel Greatest Hits.

Last week we heard the well-known and of't preached story of The Good Samaritan. 

This week the story of Mary and Martha - those two wild and crazy girls from Bethany - is on tap. 

I don’t know two other women – sisters – who, in the history of scripture stories about women, have been more seriously stereotyped.

Some sermons – even some of my own in the past – at least try to avoid the whole stereotype thing by encouraging us to find “balance” in our lives. 

When we haven’t been told that to sit at the feet of Jesus is much to be preferred than the busyness of Martha, we’ve all – male and female – been admonished to find ‘balance’ in our lives – between the busyness of work and the demands of family life with the need to nourish and care for our souls.

Which, of course, is good advice. If only if it were that simple, right?

My dear and good friend, Lindsay Hardin Freeman has written a couple of books* about women in scripture. I love the way she portrays Martha.  She writes that Martha has the likely characteristics of being “practical, hardworking, outspoken, domestic, hospitable, faithful, loving and . . . (my particular favorite) . . . 'tenacious’”

She sounds like lots of women I know and love – many in my circle of family and friends.

Lindsay asks that we put ourselves in Martha’s place, and imagine
You are making dinner for Jesus and his friends, which is over a dozen people. You were the one who invited them but it’s a much larger group than you thought.

You can tell they haven’t had a good meal in weeks. They’re ravenous. Andrew and Bartholomew are already nodding off in the corner. Let’s see…. food for fifteen. Fish would be good… we’ll have to get that, and lots of water at the well. Maybe some pickled herring and pretzels. Wine? Someone will have to run and get it. Jesus turned water into wine once, but his mother isn’t here to make him do it now. Figs. Figs would be good after dinner.

Soon the floor becomes more crowded, for in first-century Palestine, it is normal to stretch out on one’s side to eat. You need help. Where is Mary?

Ah, of course: at Jesus’ feet. You tilt your head, showing Mary that you need her. Nothing. You gesture with you hand. No response. So you ask for someone to be the bad cop. “Jesus, tell Mary to help me, would you?”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies, “Your distractions overpower you. One thing for dinner is enough; one stew pot is plenty. Mary has chosen the better part.”
Found on the Internet. Can I just say, "UGH!"?
Not moi, of course but some biblical scholar have described this scene as the first recorded incident of ‘mansplaining’ (Although, I wish I had thought of that.)

Okay, you can groan. In Jesus’ day, that was just the way it was. He didn’t know about ‘multitasking’ or I’m sure he might have re- framed what he said to Martha. 

Because, although it was ancient Palestine, I suspect Martha, being 'tenacious' might just  have clocked him with a water jar.

I grew up in a houseful of Martha’s. Those women knew how to multitask. One of my favorite memories from my childhood is that of the women in my family. At one point or another, they all took the same stance which they learned, of course, from their mother, my grandmother.

That stance would be standing in front of the stove, at least three pots going on at once – one in the front in a full boil, the back two on simmer, which she would give an occasional stir.  

She would have had a baby on her hip, a child sitting on the floor at her feet with a step stool as a desk of sorts while she drew on the blank back of an old calendar (which my grandmother and every woman in my family saved for just such a purpose). 

She would also be pulling a third child out from under the table, most likely a kid who had snatched a cookie or something from the pantry or who had had a ‘hit and run’ with another child and was hiding under the table.

Oh, and she did all of that while either reading or reciting a bible verse – the bible propped up on the shelf above the stove – or, perhaps, singing a hymn, and, in the process, teaching us about Jesus and his unconditional love for us. 

She did this not only by telling us and singing for us the stories of Jesus, but by the lives of faith she lived. 

You could miss that last important bit of the story by focusing only on the busyness of the work required of women who are mothers and homemakers and, well, multitaskers. They understood that it was all part of the whole. That caring for children, and cooking for their families and any work that they did outside of the home and studying scripture is ALL the work of ministry.

It’s all about caring for the people of God as a way to serve God.  

The women in my family taught me that a holy life is one that is integrated – the bitter with the sweet, the hard work with the fun, the drudgery with the laughter, the ridiculous with the sublime

Here’s the thing that gets lost in the story of Martha and Mary and the squabbling we imagine and stereotyping to which we fall prey. 

Jesus was doing a very radical thing. 

Not only was he allowing a woman – Mary – to sit at his feet and learn about God along with a roomful of men, he was, in his own way, gently teasing way, inviting Martha to do the same.

I want us to stop and appreciate that for one minute. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age just how outrageous and scandalous that was for him to have done, but it was.
My friend Lindsay notes that 
..... tradition has it that Martha went on to become a missionary, traveling as far as modern-day France, intent on spreading the word about Jesus and protecting his people. Often pictured with a dragon at her feet and an asperges (a container used to splash holy water), she is credited with saving the people of Aix (en Provence) from a dragon hiding on the banks of the Rhone River.

Ah, Martha, Martha. For Jesus, she would do whatever needed to be done: make meals, sweep the floor, shelter the disciples, proclaim Jesus as Lord – even kill dragons.
Many of us do the same sort of multitasking. And, yes, it is important to find a balance in our lives. 

Even more important, however, is to learn what the women in my life knew and taught me: integration

It is possible to do more than two things at once. Don’t let life’s distractions overpower you. 

The trick is this: to understand it as all being connected to each other and to God.

One of my favorite memories of my grandmother was that she would hold up her hand and say, “I have four fingers and a thumb. Each one is different from the other, yet they all belong to the same hand. And, the hand is poorer if one is hurt or injured or lost. Just like a family. Oh, we can adapt and adjust, but we can be so much better if we work together.”

So, here’s a question - or more: How different would your work be if you understood it as part of your ministry? 

Or, if, perhaps you considered that the work you do IS your ministry – that it  is what you do in the world in order to serve God? 

Whatever it is, in whatever profession or industry, if you are doing it because you are using the gifts and skills with which God has graced you and your find satisfaction in it, you are doing the work of ministry.

Perhaps you aren’t in a traditional ‘helping’ industry, but if you think about it, there is something that you do that helps improve the lives of people. 

If you are a manager, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day when you help inspire an employee – professionally and personally.

Perhaps you are called upon - in some big or even seemingly insignificant way - to make an ethical decision or a moral choice. Surely, you are bringing your Christian ethic into the workplace. 

If you are “just” an employee, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day, when you do something small, something seemingly insignificant, which makes a difference either in the life of a fellow employee or even your boss.

If you "just volunteer," you obviously don't do it for the pay. You do it for the satisfaction. 

If you think about the parts of your job that give you the most satisfaction, you will find there some of the gifts and skills which God has given you. You’ll find there your sense of vocation.

I know I know. That’s not what you’ve been told. You’ve probably understood that work has to be hard.

But, what if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you? Does not the Psalmist say, "Delight yourself also in the Lord: and you will receive the desires of your heart?" (Psalm 37:4)

What if your heart’s desire – that which gives you the deepest satisfaction – is, in fact, your vocation, your calling?

Perhaps you are a parent – a grandparent – an aunt or uncle or cousin. I happen to believe with all my heart that family life is a vocation. It’s a calling to a life of sacrificial yet deeply satisfying love. 

It is in the Petri dish of family that we come to know and love ourselves by knowing and loving others – or, sometimes, not. 

Family life is the ultimate balancing act – which is why so many of us fall and get bumps and bruises – and yet somehow, we find what it takes to get back up and multitask and integrate our way back into some semblance of normalcy.

We are all, each in our own way, male and female, both Mary and Martha. Sometimes we need to balance. Sometimes we need to multitask. 

Sometimes, we allow the distractions in life to overpower us.

But the women in my life taught me that we are at our best when we integrate all the different and varied parts of our life into an understanding of ourselves as children of God, one part of the family of God, each doing a part of the work that will make us, and our world, whole. 

And, when we are whole, we are more of the person God created us to be; we are holy.

I have come to believe that the ‘better portion’ scripture talks about is made even better with a little bit of both the Mary and the Martha who lives in us all.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Me and Mr. Bobby McGee

A Sermon preached for Pentecost V
Proper 10 C - July 13, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

As I started to write this sermon, I thought a good title might be “Oh, no! Not another sermon on The Good Samaritan”. 

I’m sure, over the years, you’ve heard this story many times and heard even more sermons on it. I know I have. And, they all follow the predictable path of the classic genre of the “story of three”.

Whether you are like the first hearers of the story or you have heard the story a hundred times, everyone listening knows that the first two characters would get it wrong, and the third would get it right. 

We can boo and hiss at the Priest and the Levite who passed by the poor man, left for dead on the side of the road, and cheer for the Samaritan, the unlikely hero, the half-breed, unholy, despised outsider who stops to rescue the man, administering to his wounds with the medicine of his day – wine for antiseptic and olive oil for soothing comfort.

And then, the Samaritan went even beyond that. He brought the poor half-dead man to the local community center – the inn – and paid the innkeeper to tend to him and promised to return and pay whatever other expenses were incurred in his care.

Yay! Hooray! It’s a great story with a great theme and important message. But, I’m betting that maybe – just maybe – we’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan so many times that we’ve missed some of the subtleties and nuances. We haven’t checked for the backstory.

Let’s start with the Priest and the Levite. 

So, why do you suppose they did they not tend to the man left half-dead on the side of the road? Well, one answer may be that they were, in fact, heartless and cold. But, if we consider their positions a bit more closely, we discover something less sinister, and actually, a bit more pragmatic.

At that time, priests were considered mediators between God and humankind and officiated at the Temple rituals. Some duties of the priests were mostly to take care of the Temple and to raise sheep and lambs for the daily sacrifice. 

Priests had to be without physical blemish or defect and wore distinctive clothing whenever they were in attendance at the altar or entered the Holy Place. Their clothing had to be clean and pure before they could approach God.

A Levite was a member of the ancient tribe of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah, and the grandfather of Aaron and Moses. The task of the Levite became to accompany the Divine Presence and serve in the Temple. His role as teacher and spiritual example was to lead and, thereby, accompany others back to their spiritual purpose.

It would be easy to dismiss both of these two characters as more concerned with things temporal than things eternal. We might consider them proxies for our modern experiences with some clergy who seem aloof and apart and think they are better than the hoi polloi, the people.

That may be so. But, it is also true that, at that time, in that day, the strict rituals of the Temple would have prohibited them from going near or touching a dead body. That task would have been assigned to the women who would have had to bathe the dead body and prepare it for anointing by the Priest who was, most likely, a Levite.

No excuse, of course, but that’s not the point of the story, is it?

Jesus would have known the demands and requirements of the day. The lawyer to whom he was telling the story might also have been sympathetic to the cause of the Priest and the Levite. And, he would most likely have been shocked that the hero of the story was the Samaritan.

But, that’s not the point.

The point is to answer the question asked by the lawyer who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Today, we might ask the question, “How do I get to heaven?” 

Since the man was a lawyer, Jesus asked him what the law says. And, of course, the lawyer gets it right,  

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Good job, says Jesus. 

But, the lawyer wanted to justify himself and asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And, Jesus told him the story which we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

So, let me pause here and bring back a contemporary cultural memory. 

Way back in the 80s, you may have heard about a man named Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers. To me, he is one representation of the Samaritan in the story. 

Now, the Samaritan was despised by ancient Jews. They lived up in Samaria, which was north of Jerusalem, where there was lots of trade and commerce and so, intermarriage. 

And, with intermarriage came what was considered racial impurity. The Samaritans were considered the ‘mongrels’ but since they rarely came to Jerusalem for High Holy Days, there were also considered apostates and outsiders.

Okay, so no, Mr. Rogers wasn’t a Samaritan in that way. He was, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister. But, his ministry was with children and that wasn’t considered a fast-track position.  I mean, he didn’t want to be pastor of a premier congregation or had any ambition to rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of the church.  

 Must be something wrong with that guy, right?

Not only did he want to work with children, he had an idea about how to do television programing for children that didn’t involve cartoons or clowns and loud music and didn’t treat children like little, stupid adults. He wanted a television program that respected children fed their intelligence and fired their imagination and taught kindness and respect by being intelligent and imaginative and kind and respectful to them. 

Clearly, there was something wrong with him.

There’s a great story about Mr. Rogers that, I think, is a modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The first year of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the public broadcasting affiliate in Pittsburgh granted Fred Rogers a shoestring budget. 

The set crew was made up of camera and sound and set directors who had been fired from other programs, mostly because they were a motley crew of alcoholics and drug addicts who had a spotty attendance record and were considered unreliable.

Mr. Rogers never once talked to them about their addictions or their behaviors or their work record. He always treated them with kindness and respect and was genuinely interested in them, engaging them in conversations about their families and their interests, asking them about their hopes and their dreams, and quietly encouraged them to pursue them.

At the celebration of the first anniversary of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which was a sudden, unexpected success, there was another, hidden success on that set. 

Every single last one of that crew was clean and sober and in 12-Step Recovery Programs.  They came to work in clean jeans and ironed shirts and wore a tie. They took pride in their work and it showed. 

Mr. Rogers never asked, “Who is my neighbor?” 

He asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Every time he got on TV. He sang it, in fact. 

In fact, he sang, "Won't you please, won't you please? Please won't you be my neighbor?" 

He assumed everyone was a neighbor. He wasn’t asking ‘will” you be my neighbor. He was asking ‘won’t’ you be my neighbor.  Won't you please be my neighbor?

He was saying, “We already are neighbors, no matter where you’ve been or where you live now or who you are or what you look like or who you think you are or. Let’s be in relationship with each other.”

Mr. Rogers knew and lived what Jesus taught. It’s not about the rules or laws or expectations people place on your life. It’s about going beyond the word of the law to the spirit of the law. It’s about exceeding expectations and moving straight on to aspirations. It’s about going beyond human kindness and generosity and being lavish and wasteful in kindness and generosity.

Why? Because we already have the greatest gift. We have life eternal. We are promised a place in heaven. As we learned in last week’s Gospel, our names are written in the heavens.

So, what have we got to lose? What’s the line from that Janis Joplin hit?: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” You and me and Mr. Bobby McGee are free to take the risks to move beyond the letter of the law and into the spirit of the ones who wrote the law.

We are free to move right past what is expected of us and move right into being more of who God aspires for us to be, as individual people, as people who say we are Christians, and as a nation which claims that we - every man, woman and child, no matter where we live or move or have our being - we ALL are “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights”. 

And, those unalienable rights which every human being is born with would be “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are free to take the risk of showing kindness and mercy, especially to those our culture and our times tell us don’t matter. 

And, as Christians, we are free to be lavish and wasteful in expressing mercy and kindness and generosity. 

Our names are already written in heaven.

So, here's your assignment for this week: Take another look around your neighborhood. Around this church. Around the world.

Maybe like this story of the Good Samaritan, you've made some assumptions. Maybe things are not as predictable as you once thought.

Maybe there's more to the story than you know.

Instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor?” what if you asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” 

What if you and me and Mr. Bobby McGee were like the Good Samaritan and Jesus and had nothing left to lose because we already know that, no matter what others may think of us, we know how the story ends and we know we have life eternal and that our names are written in the heavens?  

What if we took that risk today - especially today - when it has been announced that the government will be rounding up some of our neighbors who haven't met a quota or filed the right paper or properly worked the system when the system is broken and stacked against them and all they want is to share in a piece of the dream, not for themselves but for their children and grandchildren?

What if you took the risk of moving past polite hello's from across the street and actually tried being in relationship with your neighbor? 

What if you took the risk of doing the unexpected? What if you took the risk of being kind and generous, even though our culture and our world says to follow the rules and hold on tight and not let go of what is familiar and what is safe?

How might that change the world you live in?

How might YOU be changed?

Let’s look a little more closely at the Good Samaritan.

And, as Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise. “


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”.