Harrowing Of Hell
July 8, 2012

Independence Day

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Sunday is when church and state collide.  While we typically separate feelings of nationalism and faith, this is one Sunday that these two aspects of our community, our citizenship and our faith-affiliation, come together.

So, why talk about the nation at church?  Why observe Independence Day in the pulpit?

The opening collect prays that all people of the earth are made for God’s glory with the intention of serving God in freedom and in peace.  We are, all of us, God’s creation, placed on this earth with the opportunity to serve God.  In some cultures and nations, this service towards God is easier or more problematic than in other places.  Whether we live in a country governed by ideals of freedom and enterprise or restrictions and policies, we have the capacity to serve God. However, our method of going about serving God may differ dramatically.

We then, asked God to give to the people of our country, a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with God’s gracious will.  Because we do live in a nation where change is possible, where the ideals of freedom are professed, we ought to rise up in response to our calling as Christians and pursue justice.

I find it fascinating that the gospel text chosen for our Independence Day as a nation comes from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  It is the portion focusing on love of our enemies and the necessity of emulating Jesus in our actions.

I once heard the Sermon on the Mount described as a “manifesto of the reckless love of God.”  How fitting.

This sermon or speech outlines God’s charge for us in the world.  It guides us in discerning what actually is God’s gracious will and points us in the right direction towards living in accordance with that will.

However, the final line of the gospel reading gives me pause.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  No one is perfect.  As humans, we are inherently flawed and broken and that is okay.   An overarching theme of the Bible is our imperfection.

Humans, each and every one of us, make mistakes.  We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness.  We are capable of evil.  We may seek and desire God-centered lives, but we are sinners.

The Greek word in question here is “teleioi,” often translated as “perfect,” but can also mean to “grow up,” “reach maturity,” or “become complete.”

The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.”

The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.”

And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.

Independence Day and the gospel message to love one’s enemies bring to mind Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of non-violence and love.  Dr. King began with Jesus’ command to love the enemy and moved to an understanding that in the kingdom of God – what he called the “beloved community” – God is “changing the face of the enemy.”  In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “In that beloved community, where all are brought together in a way that changes all, true freedom is found.”

Dr. King discovered an entire way of life in Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies.” He said, a person “who loves is a participant in the being of God.”  And when we are all – each and every one of us – loving participants in the being of God, THEN, the kingdom of God is at hand.

During the Civil Rights Movement, when people felt they had a clear “enemy,” King preached living in love as the only moral way to deal with oppression.  He vowed that when oppressed people discover the redemptive power of love, rooted in the cross, we could bring about the Kingdom.  He advocated non-violence as the primary tenet because non-violence changes the face of the first enemy, the enemy within.

And isn’t that the question – who is the enemy?  Is the enemy really exterior or does it lie within the confines of our own soul?   Is the enemy violence, anger, or fear?  Is the enemy the person who differs from us – in belief, appearance, or conviction?

Action removes evil forces, not people so it is imperative that we work to see our enemies as opponents who have the capacity to become our friends.

As we have seen in our own city in recent months, the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness while the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the kingdom of God.

When we actively work towards fulfilling the gospel and living out Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the end is redemption and reconciliation.

Someone asked me the other day, “What is your vision for America?” “What is your dream for the United States?”  At the time, I didn’t have an answer.  But now, I think I do.  My vision for America is redemption and reconciliation.   My dream is turning our enemies into opponents with whom we can have a rational conversation even when we vehemently and fundamentally disagree.  My hope is that in an election year and a time of political strife and division, we can manifest in our words and actions the reckless love of God.