A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

on the occasion of marking Independence Day [7 July 2020]

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48

Whose Service is Perfect Freedom

 

We gather quite obviously the day after the 4th of July, and I have selected as the propers for this day the scriptures our Episcopal tradition designates for marking our American Independence Day.  Given all that has transpired in the last four months in our country and what appears to be in store in the near term, it seemed not only prudent but faithful to use our worship experience as a context for praying for our nation.

However, my decision to do this is not a casual one or a convenient one.  The separation of “Church and State” has always been an important constitutional issue, for our nation’s founders knew that there is no greater tyranny or danger than when rightful worship is given to the state.  As such and as an American priest, I have always trodden with great caution, when the symbols of the cross and resurrection are in close proximity to the symbols of our national life.  Put more directly, I love my country, but it is not my religion.

How to discern the boundaries and the priorities between following Jesus and being a responsible citizen of this nation entails in my mind a vigorous and continual sense of stewardship.  This is to say that to me holding our nation in the prayers is a matter of mature and faithful ministry, which is to say that since “all things come of Thee, O Lord,” the life of our nation is a matter of taking care of this country as an expression of the principles and requirements of the God-life.

I am not remotely speaking of having anything like a theocracy, where mere mortals feel empowered to legislate and enforce the will of God.  (History both ancient and near-at-hand reveals those attempts eventually demand that the state receive worship that is uniquely God’s own prerogative.). Yet, the biblical tradition has a great deal to say about how human community and the politics of that community’s organization might be conceived and expressed.  It is in this last context that I believe we citizens of this country must offer prayers for our nation, ever-mindful that we are first people of God and, therefore, carriers of Christ’s life.

A quick, historical aside: It was not until the Book of Common Prayer, 1928 that prayers and readings for “Independence Day” were included in our American worship.  This was so because many clergy at the time of the Revolution were loyalists.  (American, Anglican, colonial clergy were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.)  It took a surprising amount of time for National Prayers to be included in the American prayer book, not until the twentieth century.

So it is now that the present prayer book designates the “4th of July” as a “major feast”, an occasion for prayerful celebration.  What might we, as God’s people and followers of Jesus, offer on this occasion?  One of the responses I make is to ponder the concept of “freedom”.  What does it mean?  What does it entail?  What does “freedom” demand?  The answers one gives depends on the central issue of “religion” itself, that is, what we place at the center of our lives. And in terms of holding God and the God-life at the center, “freedom” takes on a surprising and paradoxical tone.

When I was a classroom teacher in a school whose rules required its students to clean up after themselves and to honor the life of the community (radical expectations to be sure), I would ask these high schoolers what freedom meant to them.  I wanted to know what their understanding of freedom was.  As many times as I asked this question, I can’t remember an exception to the common response.  Freedom, my young charges opined in chorus fashion, was “doing what you wanted, when you wanted to do it”.  The more thoughtful of the group would add the caveat, “as long as you don’t hurt anyone”.

There were and are a few important assumptions in these responses that in fact do not hold water: Most notably that “freedom” is a matter of individual concern and that as long as a person is unaware of any hurt produced by individual actions, then we are free to go for it!

The Covid-19 plague has cracked open many aspects of our common life and our sense of “freedom” that need (at the very least) re-examination, if not outright changing: Serious things such as who gets what kind of medical care; who gets to stay home and work and get paid; even who gets the time and opportunity to vote.  But in terms of “freedom”, the implicit question of who wears a mask has become a badge of personal, individual politics, an expression of “freedom”, of doing what I want, when I want: a defiant expression of “You’re not the boss of me!”

 

In direct distinction to this sense of individual freedom comes the phrase that some of us have stumbled upon in Morning Prayer.  In the “Collect for Peace” (found on page 57 in the Rite I offering and page 99 in the Rite II version), we find this curious expression: “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom…”  Ironic if not contradictory, how can it be that we are most free in service?  What is the notion of “freedom” in such a perspective?  Moreover, is it our notion of freedom?

Admittedly dating myself, as I thought about “freedom” as a function of being in some service, I thought of the 1979 Bob Dylan song: “Gotta Serve Somebody”.  If I had prepared better for this sermon, I might have enlisted Steve Bailey to play a rendition of this song that still moves me with its rhythms and lyrics.  But since I can’t afford Steve’s agent’s fees, I will have to settle for reciting some of Dylan’s lyrics as a way of making the point about true “freedom”.

   You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

   But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

“O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom…”

Tellingly, the gospel for marking “Independence Day” has Jesus specifically speaking about how his followers are to behave, how we are to treat one another, using our freedom to serve.  If you hear a familiar tune in the background in these gospel words, you’re right.  Jesus’ sheet music (if you will) comes from the essential words of the biblical witness, the content of which is what you and I call the “Summary of the Law.”  Of the 613 rules that define and guide the Hebrew covenantal life with the Creator of heaven and earth and with God’s people, the combined words of Deuteronomy [6:5] and Leviticus [19:18b] boil down to these unalloyed essentials: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. [BCP., Catechism, page 851].

Or in another words, if we desire to be free, this is, to be what we are created to be, keep at the center the One in whose image and likeness we have been made.  Keep the Creator at the center.

How we employ the “Summary of the Law” in the way we view our personal or national life, how we keep God at the center with all that we are is as challenging and demanding as it is important.  And in this regard, we are all “essential workers”.  In a culture that has trained us to think and act as independent entities, perhaps another notion of a full life needs to be considered: such as “in whose service is perfect freedom”.

The stewardship of our country is a ministry, and this ministry requires prayer and proclamation and actions that demonstrate such rooted life.  It requires prayer as expression of caring love of a country that has in its principles an offer of dignified freedom that can promote life.  Yet, the promise of freedom in this land is not available to everyone; and this is where the service aspect of freedom enters in.  In this regard, the service that is required to have freedom is called “justice”.  And “justice” is about “reuniting” that which has been broken or denied.

In his book of essays, entitled, Truth and Hope,  Walter Brueggemann (one of the most helpful biblical scholars of our time) recognizes the essential place of the Law’s Summary of loving God with all that we are and loving neighbor as ourselves, but then turns this biblical admonition around to reveal a deeper richness.  He says that praying for neighbor is how we love neighbor and doing justice is how we love God.

If the goal of our prayer is to “live more nearly as we pray” and if loving God is a matter of being agents of “reunion”, then our resulting service (to neighbor and to God both in prayer lived and in reunion offered) – our service will make us all free.  And this is the work of a ministry – a ministry that stewards the life of this nation because we are people of God, and this ministry is a matter of first things first.

   You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes
on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop,

    you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress,

            may be somebody’s heir

   But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

 O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom… 

 Assist us, Holy One, in this nation to honor the gift of freedom you have granted and grant us the will and the strength to make this liberating gift more complete.  Amen.