Pentecost 5 July 5, 2009

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Deuteronomy 10:17-21

Matthew 5:43-48

“that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will. . . “

Collect for the Nation, Book of Common Prayer, p. 258

The Constitution of the United States of America was adopted by a Constitutional Convention which met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 17, 1787. Two years later, on October 16, 1789, the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church met, also in Philadelphia, ratified a constitution for the Church, and adopted its first Book of Common Prayer. These two events are not unrelated: both the nation and the Episcopal Church emerged from the War of Independence from Great Britain sharing a common vision of what independence would mean for our people.

We celebrate the Fourth of July as our national holiday, commemorating as it does the signing of a Declaration of Independence on that date in 1776, one which turned the rebellion which had broken out in Massachusetts into a struggle for freedom. I am sure the struggle has felt much the same for the Iranians who recently took to the streets in the face of a rigged election in their country. From the beginning of our nation, the 4th has been celebrated with parades and fireworks, such as the ones in New York and Boston you might have watched last night on television.

The readings and prayers we are using today are those appointed in the prayer book. The first is from Deuteronomy, one of the early writings of ancient Israel. It reminds us that the mighty God has “given us this good land for our heritage” and will judge us according to the standards of justice which our political institutions apply, in particular to the needy and the “stranger.” The Gospel reading from Matthew raises the standard even higher: for the nation as for us as individuals, there must be no limit to the effort to reconcile differences among peoples and nations and serving the less fortunate at home and abroad.

We have tried to do set an example of that at Holy Cross. At Christmas there are mittens and presents for the children of people in prison; weekly, there is a collection of food for the hungry; and for the past couple of years, Holy Cross has taken on support for the so-called Millennium Development Goals, a worldwide initiative of governments, religious bodies, and non-profit organizations aimed at fighting global hunger and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, supplying resources to provide clean water and conserve the earth, putting children in school, and working for the rights of women. Out of our modest resources we have devoted a percentage of the budget to fund a micro-enterprise which makes loans to women to help raise their standard of living in the West African country of Cameroon, and to support a library and school at a township outside Capetown, South Africa – both projects started by New Hampshire Episcopalians. We have prayed out loud for those causes, for young people serving in the military, and for parishioners who are unemployed.

But along has come the global economic crisis. It touches our family budgets, the finances at Holy Cross, devastates the lives of countless millions in this country and around the globe. A statistic. In 2007, around the world 854 million people were counted as hungry, living at below $1.25 a day. By September this year, the number will climb above 1 billion for the first time. All the earlier progress being made in the global crisis – and there was progress – is being erased by the global economic collapse. You all have neighbors who have lost their houses as well as their jobs, or who cannot afford necessary health procedures because they lack health insurance.

Let me put a personal face on this crisis. A friend went with her family to spend the Memorial Day weekend in New York City. On Sunday, attended the Church of the Holy Apostles on the west side, close to the hotel where they were staying. Holy Apostles has a notable soup kitchen, and my friend signed up to assist at a somewhat-expanded midday meal which was to be served on Memorial Day. Her task was to stand at the end of an assembly line and place a maraschino cherry on top of each dessert sundae, one approximately every six seconds. That day no less than 1519 people were fed. But consider the present rate at which the world’s people are slipping into hunger: 90 million will be added this year. If we were to do a countdown, that’s 10,273 people in the hour we are in church this morning, 171 every minute we are here, 9+ minutes in the Holy Apostles example.

Last September, my son John lost his job as a computer technician at an insurance company in Connecticut. There were roughly seven million people officially counted as unemployed in November 2007, a month before the depression began. Now there are about 14 million. If you add to these unemployed individuals those who are working part time but would like to work full time, and those who want jobs but have become discouraged and stopped looking, you get an underutilization rate that is truly alarming. Nearly 30 million working-age individuals were underutilized in May 2009, the largest number in our nation’s history.

On Wednesday of this week, several thousand members of the Episcopal Church will descend on Anaheim, California, for the General Convention. As I said, the Convention of 1789 gave us the Episcopal Church as we know it. These events happen every three years. I have attended seventeen of them in one leadership capacity or another; since 1979 as a member of the House of Bishops. This time I plan to stay home. There are times and places for everything in life. But I will follow and pray for our brothers and sisters in their deliberations at the Convention, because they cannot responsibly dodge the issue of my sermon.

I want to talk about it briefly because the agenda before it speaks volume to the predicaments and challenges confronting Christians around the globe – especially American Christians – in the early years of the 21st century. The public media in the recent past have been interested in church affairs only when there are disagreements over our common life – sometimes noisy ones. The fact is that our positive achievements are not considered “news” at all. The Episcopal Church has had its share of conflict in recent years, notably about the ordination of women, the language of worship, and issues of human sexuality. Much of the comment misses the point that at the Conventions in 2003 and 2006, the most pressing agenda faced by the church was about global hunger, disease, the quality of life, and our response to these human crises. The Episcopal Church is only one of 39 provinces of Anglican Christians, and the largest numbers of our fellow believers live in the southern hemisphere, notably in Africa. And there – while there may be distress over cultural differences about same-sex relations –the issue on the ground is the suffering brought on by the economic and social crisis..

. “How are the poor to be helped?” asked my friend, the late William Sloan Coffin once asked.1 “By charity or by justice, by voluntary contribution or by legislation?” In the Book of Acts, he pointed out, was the example of St. Paul’s appeal to his congregations to support the Jerusalem Church, which was impoverished. . “It was all voluntary,” Coffin wrote. “But those were small communities, charismatic, filled with the Holy Spirit, visited regularly by one apostle or another; their people were poor and far removed from the corrupting seats of power [in the Roman Empire and the powerful structures of economic life]. Should we hold them up as models for churches? Yes by all means. Should we hold them up as a model for society at large? Alas, no. Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable.” There is no escaping the fact that government at all levels must struggle to chart ways out of the morass in which the world finds itself.. The voice of Christians and other people of faith is important to that discussion, to hold before the nation and the world the truth that all people are of equal worth through the gift of God who has commissioned us to be ministers of reconciliation. And that witness is strongest when it grows out of personal and sacrificial giving of self and substance. Being reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace because everyone’s needs are met — is there anything that feels closer to heaven?

If that is where our hearts are, we need today to lift our voices to give thanks for both our country and our church. Say it out loud: “I am proud to be an American, and I am proud to be part of this Church!” America is a remarkable gift to the world – a gift when we as a people are true to the promises implicit in the Declaration of Independence, whenever we stand up for justice, freedom, and peace-making. Some of you are old enough to remember during the Vietnam War the endless bumper stickers, “America, love it or leave it!”2 The trouble was that they meant something else entirely: “My country right or wrong. You’d better believe as we do or we’ll drive you out.” Love of country and love of church belong together, because both believe that we grow as we work together to seek reconciliation. “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors”; said Jesus in the Gospel reading. “only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who causes to sun to rise on the good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the innocent and the wicked.”

So sing in praise to God during this service for our freedom and the possibilities it holds for justice and peace.

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1Credo, Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004, p. 55.

2 Bill Coffin makes the point in a quote in the book quoted above. The same position is argued by the scholar Pauline Maier and quoted by James Carroll in an editorial “The value tradition of revolution” in The Boston Globe, June 29, 2009 “The vitality of the Declaration of Independence rests upon the readiness of the people and their leaders to discuss its implications. And to make the crooked ways straight.”

 

 

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