The glorious liberty to which you call all your children…

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Today (July 20) in the Episcopal Church calendar, we remember and honor and reflect upon the lives of four remarable women whom we VERY MUCH need to remembered right now.

Four remarkable women we rightly remember and honor, especially for these times, for much-needed “vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice…”

Especially this year and especially during these very troubling times of late, with so many feeling rightly supressed under the thumb of minority rule, the stories of ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, AMELIA BLOOMER, SOJOURNER TRUTH, and HARRIET TUBMAN shine as a lighthouse of hope and a testament to the power of prayer and persistence.

Each of these women, each in their own way, faced oppression and injustice and took whatever steps they could, whenever they could and however the could to liberate and uplift others, changing American history in the process.

The appointed collect on this “Feast Day for Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet” is truly a prayer for our time:

O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

…may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace

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The writers of the Book of Common Prayer in their wisdom set aside a specific set of readings for this most secular of holidays, the fire-cracking, rocket-glaring, star-spangled Fourth of July! The appointed Gospel lesson for Independence Day comes from Matthew, and includes the essential admonition from Jesus to “love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-48)

On this 246th birthday of our nation, we Americans — especially those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers — have never been more in need of paying heed to this command so central to Jesus’ teachings and ministry. All four Gospels make inescapably clear that for Jesus this notion of loving enemies was not a quaint suggestion, but indeed a COMMAND — and there was nothing quaint about it. I confess that I often find that little fact horribly inconvenient, and to make matters worse, I’ve come to find that this command to love our enemies is far from impossible because it has very little to do with feelings beyond my control, and a lot to do with how we — how I — choose to act and respond and DO to others with whom I vehemently disagree.

That is especially hard, but especially good, for me to hear on THIS Independence Day.

Usually by mid-morning on Independence Day, I have wiped away more than a few tears of amazement and joy from my annual rereading and rehearing of Jefferson’s immortal words from 246 years ago that, quite literally, changed the world forever. The Declaration of Independence is, for me, the single most important political document ever composed — and the best damn “legal brief” I’ve ever read!

But I must confess that on this July 4, in the Year of our Lord 2022, my heart is much more laden with sad despair for this nation I love than bursting with hopeful joy.

This year, it has been hard for me to stir up great pride for an America that, far from being “one nation under God” is acting like a divided nation under a vocal minority making up rules on behalf of God.

It is quite true that America has always been a “republic” and not a true democracy. It is equally true, however, that our founders envisioned a republic as a need to protect against “the tyranny of the majority” not to establish an authoritarian “tyranny of the minority.”

For the short-term, if not the foreseeable long-term, the outlook for America looks even more fraught with despotic peril, not less. In short, it seems America has become much less American, especially in the last few weeks.

Make no mistake, America is today very much under MINORITY RULE. Consider that just forty U.S. Senators, representing barely more than one-third of all Americans, can — and often do — stop almost any legislation from becoming law, no matter how popular or needed it is. Five of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were nominated by a Presidents that failed to win the popular vote, and the last three given lifetime appointments by a razor-thin majority of Senators representing far less than a majority of Americans.

And so, I’m brought back to our appointed Gospel for this Independence Day, and the Jesus way of moving forward, i.e. the command (there’s that damn pesky word again) to “love your enemies, pray for those that persecute you.”

And so, yes, I will be praying A LOT for those whom I find disagreeable. And I will pray for grace to listen and learn from them. I want — I need — to find out why these fellow citizens and fellow Christians seem to want an America where it is far easier for a troubled teenager to obtain a high-volume assault weapon than it is for a competent adult woman to obtain reproductive health care. Persons of good will can certainly disagree on proper policy, but we should all agree to look honestly at what these current policies in fact are, and the consequences they cause.

Fortunately, the Collect appointed in our Prayer Book for this Independence Day indeed asks for that grace I so desperately need right now. It’s a good place to start:

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. <<

God bless America. We need those blessings now more than ever.

…and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.

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The Book of Common Prayer includes a specific collect for the celebration of Independence Day in the United States:

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, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Interestingly, today’s collect for “Proper 9” in Pentecost, even though not specifically written for the Fourth of July, works just as well,…especially for America in 2021:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In his song “Coming to America,” Neil Diamond has a line about immigrants and how they “are traveling light today…in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm.”

May it be so with us as well, both as proud patriots and struggling followers of Jesus, that we being “united to one another in pure affection” might indeed “travel light” in the midst of all our current storms.

Will you proclaim the Good News?

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 (For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations.  Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons  (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.”  It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put out the call for some “Crazy Christians” to address the needs of today’s world. Does that mean we might have to be “tacky” too?

I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue.  The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia.  The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street.  “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air.  “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.” 

That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true.  Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”?  It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows.  Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not.  Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.

Why so shy?

The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess,  I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.

I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.”  I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.

And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign.  These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.”  They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture.  The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants.  The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.

If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.

The problem is…

There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness.  That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty.  Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others).  Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.

Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus.  His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical.  And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us.  We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by.  To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show  love for our most hateful enemies.  In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves. 

Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers.  So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky.  Episcopalians need to get over it.  To be more precise, I need to get over it.

Getting over it.

Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs.   Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”

Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim  (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where.  And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist.  What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love.  And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.

Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.”  He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude:  “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”

Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect?  If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.