Lectionary Reflections for the Fourth of July (A)
Readings for Independence Day (U.S.), Year A, July 4, 2005
Psalm 145 or 145:1-9
Jesus sets some high benchmarks for the church in the Gospel reading for the Fourth of July:
"Jesus said, `You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy."' But 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 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 tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Be perfect? Clearly the church has a long way to go.
On the Fourth of July, we also celebrate the high benchmarks the founders set for the nation they were dreaming into being, the idea "that all men are created equal" being perhaps the most demanding of all.
We had a long way to go on that one the minute it was put on paper.
The man who wrote that phrase, and many who signed onto the document in which it is stated, owned human beings as slaves.
After the Revolution, only white male landowners could vote. Nearly a hundred years later, the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 gave black men the right to vote. It would take another century and the civil rights movement of the 1960s for black men and women to be able to safely exercise that right.
Women first demanded the vote at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 expanded that right to women of all races.
Now our nation is engaged in another struggle toward the ideal of equality for all -- equal civil rights for lesbians and gays.
This is mirrored by the struggle in the church, as lesbians, gays, transgendered and bisexuals step up to claim their places in the life of the church as baptized sons and daughters of God.
This is a pattern Jesus would recognize. At the urging of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus enlarged the circle of his ministry. And he kept enlarging it, reaching out to those on the margins time and again.
The church constantly falls short of the ideals offered us in the Gospel. It is -- we are -- a work in progress. But this process is inexorably driven by the fact that, as Walter Brueggemann said, the arc of the Gospel is always bent toward radical inclusion.
The United States of America also is a work in progress.
Our nation is a great experiment in democracy. And here, over time, the arc of history is bent toward justice, just as Martin Luther King said.
But this movement toward the founders' ideal is in grave peril today as our national leadership distorts American values in an unjustified war, treats prisoners of war in ways that violate the Geneva Conventions, and passes budgets and tax policies that enrich the rich while penalizing the most vulnerable among us.
Many parts of the church, including our own Episcopal Church, are beset by those who, in the name of "orthodoxy" or "tradition," will do just about anything to keep intact their vision of a patriarchal white-male-dominated church defined not by who is included, but by who is kept out.
It is easy to be discouraged by all this.
That's why the Fourth of July is a good time to raise our eyes to those impossible benchmarks set by Jesus for the church and by the founders for our nation.
Meditate on them. Let them firm your resolve, because the work is not easy.
"But 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. . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. "
Yes, right now the gap between the reality and the ideal seems so huge as to be insurmountable. But it is in that gap that the Holy Spirit resides.
Let us gather up our courage, pledging our lives and our sacred honor, and get to work.