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A Sermon for the Fourth of July, the Sometime Feast

Welcome, and Happy Fourth! You may not have realized, but the Fourth of July is a feast day in the Episcopal church. It wasn’t always thus. Just after the War of Independence when the country was celebrating our newfound freedom from England, the leaders of our church got together in Philadelphia and, in the spirit of the country’s victory, made July 4 a Feast of the Episcopal Church.

Only there was a slight problem with that, as one of our first bishops William White pointed out. The vast majority of our clergy had sided with the British during the war. How silly would we now look, with those same clergy celebrating the American victory? He may have been thinking about the rector of the very church he was probably standing in when he said this, Christ Church Philadelphia. Between Sundays, the Americans declared victory, leaving that church and its rector to make a decision, fast. Would they honor and pray for the king, or their new country in the Prayers of the People that coming Sunday? To the suspense of everyone in the congregation, when the moment came … they just left out the prayers. Though eventually, perhaps grudgingly, they began praying for the new leadership.

o again, just two years after making this day a feast in our church, we nixed it, and it took about 150 years —1929—before it was brought back.It’s good that it came about this way. No church should completely embrace this day, but neither should we reject it. We’ve had almost 250 years to feel both ways. To consider the dangers of celebrating our nation in church, and the benefits. The dangers, I trust, are obvious to any self-reflective Episcopalian. It’s never a good idea to align God too closely with an institution of our making. We can make God look very bad, very fast, when we do that. And thinking God is on our side tends to make us abusive, exclusive, awful people.

I’ve seen churches–I grew up in one of them–that celebrate the Fourth of July like it was more important than Easter Sunday. I sat through too many bad patriotic medleys sung by men’s quartets right there in our sacred sanctuary. Though you knew they were only celebrating a small sliver of our country, the white evangelicals with a certain social and political platform… which of course also happened to be God’s.

John Danforth the Republican Senator from Missouri wrote a wonderful op ed piece back in 2005 about the role faith plays in politics for what he calls “Moderate Christians,” a term I think probably characterizes us in this room. I thought what he had to say here about the dangers (or at least shortcomings) of combining faith and politics worth sharing.

People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God’s kingdom, one that includes efforts to “put God back” into the public square and to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from the perceived threat of homosexuality.

Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers.

But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators…For us, living the Love Commandment may be at odds with efforts to encapsulate Christianity in a political agenda.

So those are the dangers, and shortcomings. But then there are the benefits: celebrating a dream that, though it will never be fully realized, was far from being realized even as it began almost 250 years ago, is informed by the aspirations of ours and of all the great religions: equality and dignity of persons, protection of an individual’s relationship with his or her maker, respect for difference and even the belief that we’re at our greatest when we are diverse.Reality is messy, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming. And we do that today as we celebrate this great day in our country. God bless America.