…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 respect the dignity of every human being.

This past Sunday was the Day of Pentecost. Although it does not get near the same attention as Christmas or Easter, the “Feast of the Pentecost” is also nonetheless a “principal feast” which is Whiskeypalian-speak for “big freakin’ deal.”

Always the eighth Sunday after Easter and the fiftieth day of the Easter season (hence, the term “pente”), Pentecost Sunday is that time when the church pays homage to the Holy Spirit, the third and most mysterious part of our very mysterious triune God.

The liturgy of Pentecost calls upon worshipers to “renew their baptismal covenant,” a series of eight questions all designed to walk believers through, in essence, what it means to be a Christian. The first three probe our doctrinal beliefs about the three entities of the Holy Trinity…Father, Son, Holy Spirit…Creator, Redeemer Sustainer. These questions are basically the restating of traditional creedal dogma — profound and deep…and (for me at least) utterly eye-glazing.

THE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK? A sheriff in Michigan, after confronting protesters of George Floyd’s murder and police brutality, removed his helmet, put down his baton and asked, “What do you want?” They replied, “Join us!” And so he did. “I want to make this a parade, not a protest,” he said.

The next five questions, though, are anything but mind-numbing. The word “believe” is gone. These questions are all about commitment and action. They cover a wide array of habitual worship and fellowship, personal accountability, faithful witness and loving service. I have heard these five questions through the years countless times in countless ceremonies, but it was on THIS particular Pentecost Sunday of 2020 that the last question grabbed me by the proverbial collar, tossing a big ole boulder into my otherwise quiet and comfortable pond of Sunday morning solace:

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

Is there is ANY question more relevant for a Christian today in June 2020?  I am writing this at a time when God’s world is burdened not only by the global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also in the last 10 days a different type of pandemic.  It is a global illness no less compelling, now brought front and center, laid bare in the aftermath of the horrific killing of yet another black man at the hands of a white police officer.

I am not sure I will ever be smart enough to know just what it was about this particular needless waste of precious life, but the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has unquestionably struck a common nerve worldwide.  Maybe it was because of everyone on edge cooped up in quarantine.  Maybe it was because, during this pressure-cooker of isolation, we had seen images of Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor being gunned down just weeks before.  Maybe it was because, more than anything, the image of a nonchalant white officer, hands in pockets and knee on neck, draining life out of a handcuffed black man on the pavement provided the sickening but perfect metaphor for too much racism rampant in too many places.

Whatever it was, we are now seeing daily and nightly massive protests in big cities and small towns in every state of our nation.  Americans are not alone in our outrage, as people of all stripes and types have assembled all over the world.  A match has been thrown on kindling that has been building and drying for decades, even centuries.  The fire of “enough is enough” has been lit and now seems ablaze beyond extinguishing.  A Spirit is moving, and in the best of hearts with the best of callings, it seems during this Pentecost indeed Holy.

And all of it, all of the discord and strife and pent-up frustration, seems rooted in what this fifth and final directive of our faithful covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Because, it seems to me, it is precisely the lack of respect, the lack of acknowledging even the existence much less the dignity of EVERY human being that has led us to this point.  And it is that same lack of respect that is the biggest hindrance to our ability to heal.

So how shall I manifest this respect? How shall I “strive for justice and peace among all people”? Like most folks (or at least I think I am not totally alone when I think this), I’m not exactly sure. I will engage lovingly with those who are different from and differ with me, write checks and give as I can, volunteer as I can, and (as the limitations of my MS might allow) maybe even march.

The only certainty is that I will falter and stumble, literally perhaps, and figuratively for sure. I’ll backtrack, make mistakes or — worst of all — let other less important pursuits take over. But I do believe my path forward to helping to make a broken world at least a little more whole requires the commitment to “strive” for it, just as that final question of our “Baptismal Covenant” asks.

The only answer I can only utter, with resolve and all the certainty and uncertainty contained in it, is the five-word response to each one of the last five covenant questions:

I will, with God’s help.