Monday, July 26, 2010

The Lord's Prayer

This week, I can't exactly post my sermon...

Instead of a traditional sermon, I led an interactive Bible Study on the Lord's Prayer. Luke was our text, but the Lord's Prayer most people use is based on Matthew's version.

Here's a side by side look at Matthew and Luke. Common words are in black, differences are in red:

Most Biblical scholars believe that, in addition to having the Gospel of Mark in hand, the writers of Matthew and Luke share an additional source (Q). "The Lord's Prayer" likely comes from this source.

Combining the material, eliminating "added" text, and making educated decisions as to which version to use (from The Jesus Seminar's The Five Gospels), we can point towards an earlier version of the prayer:

Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

"This" instead of "each" because, as a whole, Jesus seems to focus on what is needed for the day, trusting that God would provide for future days.

"Debts", in addition to surviving in the second half of the Luke phrase, seems to reflect Jesus' interest in the reconciling of the poor. Expanding this to trespasses makes a lot of sense for the church, but debts is likely more original.

Our interaction produced a great number of observations about the text. You sort of had to be there to get it all.

Fortunately, James Wallace (in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 289) offers a really insightful and concise look at the prayer:

We approach God as "Father," one who we relate to intimately.

"Hallowed be your name" and "Your kingdom Come" call on God to be God. They implore God to truly take charge of life, our lives, to bring justice and peace to our world, something only God can bring about.

The remaining petitions concern three basic needs: food, forgiveness, and fidelity. These petitions name what is essential for the life of our individual bodies, the life of our communal body---be it society, the church, or the world---and the life of our ongoing relationship with God. These are the gifts of the kingdom, which will not be refused, because they flow from our being united with the very being of God, who sustains, forgives, and is faithful to us.

It was also noted by someone in the congregation (at both services) that the ability to be forgiven seems to hinge on our ability to forgive.

It was a great way to spend our sermon time this past Sunday morning!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Elite Universities and "White, Rural America"

This is an interesting conversation that started on Facebook. What's your opinion?

Kurt C. Wiesner A thought provoking op-ed that was somewhat unexpected. What do you think?
To understand the country’s polarization, take a look at the admissions process at elite private colleges.
Bob Chapman
Bob Chapman
Universities can only admit those who apply. Is there any evidence that the rural, white Americans lamented in this article apply to these universities in numbers sufficient so that more FFA presidents or ROTC cadets will be admitted? This is not examined in this article.

Cullen McCarty
Cullen McCarty
I beg your pardon but you need to read the article again for context. Rural, white Americans would have more barriers to climb in the admissions process than their counterparts who are of a different skin color. The columnist makes this very clear and uses evidence from the research to conclude that true diversity is based on the character of the person and not their skin color. Have we forgotten MLK? Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address?

Bob Chapman
Bob Chapman
I read the article. He made a claim. He did not support it. Correlation is not causation.

Is there evidence that rural, white Americans _apply_ in sufficient percentages to be admitted in larger percentages to these schools?

As a former teacher in several rural high schools, the closest I remember to encouragement from faculty to students to apply an elite school was a military service academy. The goals were typically a good state school or a regional private school. How universal is this?

Kurt C. <span class=
Kurt C. Wiesner
I think you're trying to throw out the author's point on a technicality here Bob...I agree with Cullen there. I think that there is truth in the author's claim that those with the decision making power in universities may have more barriers towards rural white Americans who offer little to the paper picture of diversity, and who often need more financial help to pay for the ridiculous price of higher education.

I think your point about encouragement from faculty (as well as the assumptions as to "expectations") is a great point.

I actually reach a different conclusion than you do Cullen. Universities and work places should consider all aspects of diversity. Race is one such aspect, but so is "rural upbringing". (In other-words, "true diversity" INCLUDES character, as well as race.)

I believe the author is calling for an expansion of diversity (not a doing away with affirmative action). After all: money, the quality of prep schooling, and family power are still the dominant forces in higher education...aspects all still stacked towards a group of people who are mostly white. He rightly suggests that the way to expand a pluralistic society is to bring more people of different backgrounds in genuine contact with each other, so everyone grows.

The irony of all of this, is that the "rural, white Americans" who don't get accepted (whether it's a university or a job) end up blaming minorities and immigrants instead of the people who are making the decisions that ultimately hoard resources and power (and who are mostly still white men).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Strange blogger quirk...

Get this: the font of the "Martha & Mary" post is messed up on the main page...until I add this post. By doing so, it appears normally.

If I could explain it, I would...

Taking Sides with Martha & Mary

(A sermon preached on Luke 10:38-42 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 7/18/2010)

When if comes to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha, one cannot help taking sides: it’s just compelling to do so.

After all, even Jesus takes a side.

Most of us have a tendency to gravitate towards either Mary or Martha. We see Martha as the “doer.” To various people, Martha represents service...good works...and the one who does the work to make the evening possible. Mary is the “receiver.” To some, Mary represents and learning.

The fact that Jesus sides with Mary over Martha does not keep some of us from sympathizing, or even siding with Martha’s way.

Chances are, one of these, doer or receiver, sounds more inviting to you, or perhaps just more like you.

I am not going to advocate one side, Martha the “doer” or Mary the “receiver”, over the other. Instead, I wish to address some of the particulars that are associated with this story.

Biblical scholars have placed this story in direct connection with the story that precedes it: The Good Samaritan. Most suggest that Mary & Martha’s placement is intended to lift up the importance of prayerful contemplation and faith, as the perfect complement to the service and action shown by the Samaritan being a good neighbor.

One can equally argue that it’s critical we remember the Good Samaritan’s service when Jesus, in the Mary and Martha passage, sides with Mary. “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Remembering the Good Samaritan’s service keeps us from assuming that Jesus’ siding with Mary means advocating contemplative life over service. Jesus claims, over and over again, that he comes as one who serves. In addition to being devoted to prayer, he is equally passionate about the active healing of people: sometimes with words, but sometimes with action.

Furthermore, there is the great story in the Gospel of Luke about the dinner party thrown by a Pharisee, where a woman comes in with an alabaster jar of ointment. The Pharisee gets angry, and demeans the woman. Jesus’ argues: “‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:36-50)

In an apparent contrast to this morning’s story, he lifts up the woman’s service and hospitality over the Pharisee who was “just listening” to him.

Cynthia Jarvis suggests that in the world of the 1st century Christian, there were likely two primary ways of living out discipleship. Some lived it out in the details of the common life: preparing the meals, counting money, caring for the homebound, and organizing outreach to the poor. Others are disciples in service to the word: study and prayer, worship and preaching, evangelism and teaching. (Feasting On the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p.262)

Upon reflection, life at All Saints’ isn’t so far off 1st century discipleship. One can see the seeds of Christian discipleship today in these lists. Each of us tends to gravitate to one of these descriptions as our favored way of living out our faith.

I think it is safe to say that Jesus would be pleased with either way of primary discipleship, although he likely would ask us to stretch ourselves into the other list to be more rounded. At the very least, we can conclude that both roles of the 1st century Christian would be seen as valid and needed.

Because of this, it is necessary to reassess Jesus’ siding with Mary over Martha. If Jesus is not lifting up one way of life over another, what is he really addressing in this story?

Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. She does what hospitality dictates: she prepares a meal. Mary, Martha’s sister, sits down at Jesus’ feet (the traditional sign of student to teacher) and listens to him.

We are told “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.”

Now, anyone who has a sibling, or an older child, or perhaps a spouse, likely knows this scenario oh to well.

What likely happened is that Martha assumed that Mary was going to help her with the preparations: perhaps fixing the drinks, getting out the appetizers, setting the table and the like. Instead, she just sits there, listening to Jesus.

Martha gets frustrated. Perhaps she is angry that Mary isn’t helping. Perhaps it’s that she would prefer to be sitting where Mary is, listening to Jesus.

Anyway, she starts banging pans around the kitchen. She starts muttering under her breath, and she makes little and not so little hints towards her sister; all the time, getting more frustrated.

Finally, she boils over: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’

Now, I imagine that Jesus is a pretty perceptive, for a guy. He must have figured out what was going on here...the banging pots were pretty excessive, after all.

Jesus, however, also sees what is necessary:‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Now, as I’ve said, I don’t think Jesus is making a statement about contemplation versus service.

I also think that Jesus appreciates a good meal, and knows all of the hard work that goes into making one.

However, there are some additional things to consider...

You have a great teacher and prophet in the house: what does the situation call for? What action honors the person that Martha refers to as "Lord”? Is it service, in this case? Not necessarily…. Here, it is first listening and interacting. After all, Jesus’ model throughout the Gospel is first teaching and engaging people. Often, there was a common meal that followed: consisting of whatever someone has to offer, which Jesus then blesses, giving thanks to God. Sure, there were exceptions, but the primary response to Jesus is clearly engagement with him.

I remember a time where a new rector came to a church where I was serving. He invited the staff and the vestry to a dinner party at the house. He took the drink orders, brought out the appetizers, prepared the meal, got up from the table to get additional things, cleared the table and cleaned up...and spent almost the entire night in the kitchen. We all left that evening filled with good food and impressed by the mechanics of the evening, but none of us knew the new rector any better (or at least, we didn’t think that we did...).

Even in saying all of this, I don’t think that Jesus’ reaction to Martha is based on her choosing service that evening.

In the final analysis, Jesus siding with Mary has nothing to do with choosing “study” over “service”, or any other of our comparisons. It has to do with focus.

Mary, in her listening to Jesus, is completely focused on her guest.

Martha’s intent is likely to give the gift of a good meal and a relaxing evening to Jesus: a worthy gift to focus on. She gets thrown off, however, when Mary sits down with Jesus, instead of helping her. At that point, Martha had a bunch of choices. She could have decided to follow suit, and sit with Jesus as well. (They could have ordered pizza or something...) Martha could have also chosen to give a gift to her sister Mary, by graciously preparing things herself, allowing Mary the time to learn from Jesus. Or, it would have been fine to ask Mary to help her with a few things: a direct request instead of dancing around what she wanted.

However, Martha isn’t focused this way. She instead is focused on Mary’s lack of help, of her personal plight, on worrying over getting things right, and on making sure that Jesus notices that she is doing all of this work, and that Mary is doing “nothing.”

She was resenting the evening that should have been a blessing.

Joel Green writes, “The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’ talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him.” (from Cynthia Jarvis in FOW, p. 266)

Humility is a necessary component for hospitality to remain focused on the interaction between people, and not on the self. After this awkward moment between Martha, Jesus, and Mary, I am hopeful that Martha came to understand what Jesus was saying to her, and that all was well with the rest of their evening.

As Cynthia Jarvis concludes: “No doubt that when dinner was finally served that night at Martha and Mary’s home, the guest was revealed, in the breaking of the bread, to be their hospitable, humble, hidden host.” (FOW, p. 266)


Friday, July 16, 2010

Orange Mass Priest Suspended

Did this priest cross a line? Certainly he the Catholic church. I wonder what would have happened if he was an Episcopalian?

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- A Catholic priest who made headlines around the world by holding an orange mass to pray for the Dutch team before its World Cup final against Spain has been suspended by his bishop, a parish official said on Friday.

Bishop Jozef Punt of Haarlem said in a statement issued late Thursday that Rev. Paul Vlaar's packed service in the village of Obdam north of Amsterdam "did not do justice to the sacred nature of the Eucharist."

Vlaar wore an orange robe and decorated the church with orange flags. During the service he acted as a goalkeeper when a parishioner kicked a football down the aisle.

The bishop said the service "caused outrage" in the Netherlands and overseas. He ordered Vlaar to enter "a period of reflection" and suspended him from his duties.

Vlaar was not available for comment on Friday, but Obdam Parish vice chairman Win Bijman said his congregation was "shocked and disappointed" by the popular priest's suspension.

"People do not understand it. Everybody supports Pastor Paul and we don't see what was so bad that he should be temporarily suspended," Bijman said in a telephone interview.

"Maybe we allowed ourselves to be swept along a little too much in the Orange euphoria," he added, referring to the Dutch football team. "But it is part of Pastor Paul's personality that he manages to harness that kind of enthusiasm to get people into church. The church here is full and in other places churches are empty."

The full article is found on soccernet.espn

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Good Samaritan Curveball

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 7/11/2010)

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be the best known of all of Jesus’ parables. Perhaps one reason why people remember it is that it seems to translate well to any time.

Who’s my neighbor? Everyone. Everyone’s my neighbor. Love everyone as yourself; love everyone as your neighbor.

I think this is a natural way to hear this parable in our society. The goal is to love people…to treat others with dignity, to care for those we like and dislike, to care for those we agree with and those we disagree with, to care for those who are rich and those who are poor, and to care for those who look like us, and to care for those who don’t.

This idea has merit…it is simple to understand while hard to do all the time…and yet if we try treating each other better, odds are we’ll learn more about each other, we’ll find that our lives are more enriched, and we’ll feel better about ourselves and about things in general.

All and all, it’s a good thing.

It might even had been the answer the lawyer was expecting when he asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Or, in other words, “Who am I responsible for?”

Let’s look closely at the story, and try to imagine how people them might have heard this. On first instinct, people might have been surprised that the Priest or the Levite did not stop to care for the beaten man. However, there’s both a practical and a storytelling element as to why they did not. The Priest and Levite, presumably on their way to temple, would have made themselves unclean by helping the battered man. What is their primary responsibility? To care for the temple of God. No one else was allowed to do this particular job. Even though one can argue that the more important thing to do was care for the beaten man, it is easily argued that this was not the primary responsibility of the Priest or the Levite.

And here’s the storytelling device. The responsibility of the beaten man belongs to the one passing by who is not expected to help. It’s not the Priest or Levite, whom society would like to handle these sort of things, but the random passerby who upon seeing the situation takes it upon themselves to tend to the beaten man.

Ultimately, this telling of the story would expand not only the concept of “who is my neighbor,” but would also make clear that neighborly action does not belong to those who specifically “work for God.”

Yeah, I think it’s exactly what the lawyer was expecting. Come to think of it, I bet this story was a common one around Jesus’ time…with the common moral being that it’s not just about Priests and Levites caring for neighbors, but about everyone caring for each other.

There’s on problem: in Jesus’ telling of the story, it didn’t quite go down like this. Hearing this parable with modern ears, we miss the monkey wrench…the major glitch…the curve ball! Jesus did something completely unexpected…but it’s hard for us to relate to it today.

My belief is that, when other Jewish storytellers told this story back in Jesus’ time, or before, it was the everyday type a person who stopped to help: a farmer…a baker…perhaps a servant…or even a youth.

But in his story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s not just anyone who stops for the injured man, but a Samaritan!!!

I’m not sure you and I can’t really understand how shocking and horribly offensive this must have been for those listening to Jesus. The level of hate there for Samaritans was intense, and multilayered.

It is my sincere hope that there is no one in your life that you hate with that much passion. That there’s no one that has been so dismissed from your life. And yet, if I understand the parable correctly, that was the amount of hate that was present in the context of Jesus’ story.

The Samaritan walking the road to Jericho had reason to move through quickly. He was in enemy territory, and his experiences overall of Jews simply could not have been good.

Seeing the sight of this beaten person moves the Samaritan. Perhaps is the Samaritan’s gut that wrenches at the sight of the violence. Perhaps it is seeing someone so helpless and in need that moves the Samaritan to act. Perhaps it is a sudden realization that he can right here and now make a difference. Who knows?

But for one moment, the Samaritan no longer sees the hated Jew, but a human being. He sees his neighbor in need, and he realizes his ability to do something about it.

And, in addition, the beaten man accepts his help. The proper response to the Samaritan’s willingness to help should have been “Get away from me!”…expressed in more colorful language. But that’s not what happens. Perhaps he was unconscious and unable to speak, but for one reason or another help is allowed and received. We don’t know if in the end he was grateful for or full of resentment towards the Samaritan who helped him. That’s up to us to decide.

However, it’s clear who Jesus thinks our neighbor is.

Not everyone accepted this as good news. I imagine that it’s with clenched teeth, not impressed approval, that the Lawyer admits that the one who was a neighbor to the beaten man was “The one who showed him mercy.” In my mind, the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the hated name, “Samaritan”, due to being so angry and shocked.

In the context of its first century audience, this story is as radical as they come!

If we are to live fully into the idea of loving God and our neighbor with everything that we are, then we have to include the most difficult and unlovable people we have encountered in our lives. That includes, for example, those in authority who have made poor choices…it includes those who make us really uncomfortable…it even includes those who we’ve spent moments or more hating.

We don’t have to accept their behavior, and we certainly don’t have to agree with them, but we cannot dismiss our neighborly responsibility towards them.

That’s really difficult, and yet, it’s life-giving good news.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Can't Resist one final thought....

Thought I was done, but here is one, fascinating, final look at LeBron courtesy of Michael Rosenberg on

GREENWICH, Conn., July 8, 1990 -- Michael Jordan announced on national television he's leaving Chicago to join the Detroit Pistons. Jordan said it was tough to bolt Chicago, where he was the most popular athlete in many years, because he thinks he has a better chance to win a championship if he plays with Pistons star Isiah Thomas. Jordan said by playing together, he and Thomas "won't have the pressure of going out and scoring 30 every night."

That would have sounded absurd, right? Well, it is no more absurd than what LeBron James is doing. Jordan was 27 years old in 1990, slightly older than James is now. He had never been to the NBA Finals. He had been beaten up by the Celtics and Pistons for years. He doubted his supporting cast was good enough.

But he never doubted himself.

And it became very clear Thursday night that LeBron James does doubt himself....

James does not have the heart of a champion. He does not have the competitive fire of Jordan, the bull-headed determination of Kobe Bryant, the quiet self-confidence of Tim Duncan, the willful defiance of Isiah or the winning-is-everything hunger of Magic Johnson.

He is an extremely gifted player who wants the easy way out.

And how do we know this?

James said so himself.

Oh, not in so many words. But once ESPN was done ESPN-izing its LeBron coverage -- filling it with babbling experts, needless hype and Jim Gray submitting his top six entries in the Stupidest Question Ever contest -- the self-proclaimed King said everything you need to know about him.

1. "You have to do what's best for you, and what's going to make you happy."

This is what's going to make him happy? Sharing a stage with two other stars? Really?

I guess that's all LeBron is: A complementary player with superstar talent. We should have figured this out before: He got that giant CHOSEN 1 tattoo on his back and calls himself King James because he is desperate for reassurance.

There is no greater challenge in sports getting drafted by a godawful team, planting your flag in a city and working like crazy until you have turned that team into a champion.

LeBron James didn't want the challenge. He wanted to play with his buddies.

2. "We don't have the pressure of going out and scoring 30 every night or shooting a high percentage."

Whoa. Hold on there. Scoring 30 a night is too much pressure for one of the five most talented players ever?

Find me another all-time NBA great who would utter those words. Jordan would rather do an adidas commercial than say that. Bryant must have laughed as he heard the so-called "King" say that. Larry Bird? The next time he complains about pressure will be the first. Magic was the greatest team player of the last 40 years, but he was also so competitive that he wanted to play Jordan one-on-one in a promotional event -- and this was when Magic had won titles and Jordan had not, so Magic had more to lose.

(Moving ahead for space, but read the whole thing sometime....)

5. "This is the greatest challenge for me."

LeBron James just jumped into an elevator and wants us to think he can fly. Sorry, but we know better. We know that he did something Michael, Magic, Bird and Bill Russell never would have done. We know he ditched Cleveland for an All-Star team.

But you know what? In Miami, anything short of a title will be a failure. Nobody outside of Miami will root for this team, and nobody in Miami roots for anybody. They're too busy enjoying the weather.

I thought he would stay in Cleveland, because I thought all he cared about was adoration. I was wrong about Cleveland, but he is wrong about adoration. He thinks he'll get it by winning a title. He has insulated himself from the world, surrounded himself with yes men. He has no idea how much backlash he is about to get.

That's one of the great ironies of this -- James is trying to flee pressure, but he will just face more of it. He is trying to maximize his "brand," but he just damaged it.

The first time I watched LeBron James live, I thought he could be the greatest player ever. The sad truth for us, for him, and for the NBA is that he never really believed it himself.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Final thoughts on LeBron...

LeBron James did not owe it to the Cavaliers, or the city of Cleveland, to stay there. Basketball, like all professional sports, is a business. Loyalty is a word that gets thrown around in sports: and both owners and players have shown everything from great no loyalty.

If LeBron thought he should be somewhere else, so be it.

It's the way he did this that bothers me.

An hour long special to announce your divorce from Cleveland? On national television...without having the decency to tell the jilted city first? (This was the point of my earlier post, "He has to be staying, right?")

The owner of the Cavs, Dan Gilbert, said James never returned a single phone message or text since the end of the season and that the Cavs were not informed of James' decision until he went on the air. Gilbert said Rich Paul, one of James' business partners, called the Cavs moments before the announcement.

Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer wrote: "LeBron James should feel a sense of shame and pain for putting together a self-serving ESPN special to inform the world that he no longer intends to play for the Cavaliers. To sharpen the insult, he titled his switch to the Miami Heat as "The Decision."

That’s essentially what Bill Simmons wrote the morning before the announcement: "Losing LeBron on a contrived one-hour show would be worse than Byner's fumble, Jose Mesa, the Game 5 meltdown against Boston, The Drive, The Shot and everything else. At least those stomach-punch moments weren't preordained, unless you believe God hates Cleveland (entirely possible, by the way). This stomach-punch moment? Calculated. By a local kid they loved, defended and revered.

It would be unforgivable. Repeat: unforgivable. I don't have a dog in this race -- as a Celtics fan, I wanted to see him go anywhere but Chicago -- but LeBron doing this show after what happened in the 2010 playoffs actually turned me against him. No small feat. I was one of his biggest defenders...not anymore."

Brian Windhorst wrote: "James' method of breaking up with the Cavs was much more high profile and calculated, if more emotionless, than expected. Cavs fans immediately picked up on the fact James did not offer a "thank you" but instead hoped for understanding when he returns to his hometown, which may not be until he comes back as a member of the Heat."

LeBron handled this so poorly, that he has gone from beloved to hated. The lasting image is of his not caring about being embarrassed on his home Cleveland floor. That, and "The Decision."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

New NBA Favorite

For the first time since Jordan's last championship with the Bulls, I really do care about the NBA.

My favorite team is now whoever is playing the Miami Heat.

(I still won't watch any games...)

He has to be staying, right?

You don't schedule an hour long prime-time special to publicly humiliate your home town, right?

This is just the ultimate, incredibly egotistical way to create your world legacy: the NBA mega-star who, instead of running off to a star-loaded team , steps up to finish what he started and will your team towards a championship. Win or lose, you are know as the courageous star (and best individual player) who ruggedly refused to abandon his current team (and the fanbase that worships and adores you and is 40 minutes for your birthplace) simply to take an easiest road towards a title.

LeBron has to stay in Cleveland, right?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Church on SUNDAY July 4th

(A Sermon preached on Sunday, July 4th, at All Saints' Littleton, NH)

Today is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. The readings reflect this. It cannot escape our notice, however, that this is also Sunday, July 4th: Independence Day.

When July 4th falls on a Sunday, clergy are often faced with difficult and uncomfortable decisions. July 4th is not a universal Christian holiday. Of course, there is nothing in the Bible about it, and for 1700 years the church existed without it. And yet it manifests in churches in many ways: from ribbons on altar flowers of red white and blue, to particular national prayers and music. Sometimes it really goes to extreme: like using the flag to cover the bread and the wine.

Independence Day is, actually, recognized by the Episcopal Church. Directions are found in our supplemental book Lesser Feast and Fasts, which contains liturgical materials for moments in our sacred history. These are to be celebrated by the Church when you do services on the particular day: IF the day is not a Sunday or a Principle Feast Day, which is Easter Day, All Saints’ Day, Ascension Day, Christmas Day, The Day of Pentecost, The Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday.

Independence Day falls into the next category: “Holy Days”, which consists of Feasts of our Lord, Major Feasts, and Fasts. Independence Day is considered a Major Feast: along with All feasts of Apostles, Saint Mary the Virgin, All feasts of Evangelists, Saint Michael and All Angels, Saint Stephen, Saint James of Jerusalem, The Holy Innocents, Saint Joseph, Thanksgiving Day, and Saint Mary Magdalene. They are to be celebrated when they do not fall on a Sunday. When they do occur on a Sunday, the procedure is to transfer the day to the first convenient open day within the week.

Good luck with transferring July 4th to a different day. (Then again, maybe that’s why Littleton had it’s fireworks on July 2nd. Who knows?)

It is interesting to note that even this “Major Feast” status of Independence Day is not without historical controversy. Lesser Feasts and Fasts says:

Proper Psalms, Lessons, and Prayers were first appointed for this national observance in the Proposed Prayer Book of 1786. They were deleted, however, by the General Convention of 1789, primarily as a result of the intervention of Bishop William White. Though himself a supporter of the American Revolution, he felt that the required observance was inappropriate, since the majority of the Church’s clergy had, in fact, been loyal to the British crown.

The Convention which had called for the observance of the day throughout “this Church, on the fourth of July, for ever,” White said, “The members of the convention seem to have thought themselves so established in their station of ecclesiastical legislators, that they might expect of the many clergy who had been averse to the American revolution the adoption of this service; although, by the use of it, they must make an implied acknowledgment of their error, in an address to Almighty God.... subjecting themselves to ridicule and censure.”

It was not until the revision of 1928 that provision was again made for the liturgical observance of the day.

You might be asking yourself: “What’s the big deal today?” Well, there are a number of challenging things about celebrating Independence Day, and other displays of National significance in church.

Consider the Collect for Independence Day:

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… (Book of Common Prayer, p. 242)

The Honorable Byron Rushing, Massachusetts State Representative and long time Deputy to General Convention, reminds Episcopalians in the United States that many of us do not consider the words--"the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us"-- to be accurate. He suggests that we look around our congregations and reflect if all the ancestors of the "us" got their liberty then.

Certainly not women. Certainly not African Americans.

Frederick Douglass clearly made this point in a famous speech at Rochester, New York, serving as the Independence Day speaker in 1852. He first, beautifully, reflects that Fourth of July is "...the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom, as what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God." In powerful language Douglass describes how the nation was born. He then says:

"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony....Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”

It’s not just that the promise of July 4th hasn’t been lived out for everyone.

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, writes:

Have you ever been asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag at the time of the call to worship in church? I have and, believe me, I hope it is a “once in a lifetime” experience! We also recited the “pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag” – did you even know there was such a thing? What made the experience even more uncomfortable was that I was sitting in the pew that Sunday morning with a leader of the Evangelical Church in Germany who I was hosting at a national church gathering (the Protestant, mainline congregation was not, fortunately for me, UCC!). Christians from Germany are, understandably, profoundly uneasy with any mixture of religion and patriotism, having seen what can happen when cross, blood, and soil become demonically intertwined. Today most Germans visiting US churches are shocked simply by the presence of an American flag in the sanctuary. As my guest stared at me in stunned disbelief, I prayed that the floor would open and swallow me up.”

National symbols in churches, be it flags or the celebration of National holidays, are so complex. We need to be aware that the message may be mixed, and the vision incomplete. That, however, does not mean that the answer is avoidance.

Rev. Thomas continues:

There was a time in my life when I would have gladly stripped every sanctuary of an American flag and purged the liturgy of any reference to nation. We are citizens of heaven, says Paul, and it is from there that we expect a Savior. True enough. But in fact we are also citizens of this nation. And while there is much to judge, there is also much cause for gratitude. Racism and xenophobia are real in this land, but we can celebrate that opportunity is expanding for many. Our politicians are not pure, but their corruption pales when seen in the light of what many nations endure from their leaders. Most do in fact seek to serve the public good and when they don’t, they can and do end up in court. Our safety nets for the poor are imperfect, but they are there in ways that simply isn’t the case in many parts of the world. When I drive our interstates I watch for the next rest stop, not a roadside bomb. And when I engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House a couple of years ago to protest the war in Iraq, I was out of jail in time to make my flight (home) that evening.

That probably wouldn’t be the case in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, or many other places in the world. To sit aloof from and in relentless judgment over our nation’s achievements and betrayals, accomplishments and injustices may feel “prophetic.” But in fact it is hardly Biblical....

For the Christian, patriotism is not a flag in the lapel or the politician’s ritual incantation, “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” It is, rather, recognition of our deep complicity, for good and for ill, in our nation’s moral grandeur and tragic failure, a complicity that demands thanksgiving and repentance, gratitude and judgment. Somehow our liturgies on days of national significance need to acknowledge this.

The Episcopal Church, in addition to be descended from the Church of England, has a uniquely American character. Our history, structure, and flexibility are due largely in thanks to the principles found in the Declaration of Independence, and the freedom created by the separation of church and state. The irony of July 4th is that we celebrate both being uniquely American and, at the same time, free of state control of religion, and its equally destructive reversal where one particular religious belief controls the government.

So, this morning, we have music that celebrates our country, and yet at the same time, plainly states that there is work to be done.

James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the African American national anthem, does not shy from “the stony road, the bitter and chastening rod felt in the days when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet this hymn ends in and almost startling commitment rather than the presumed estrangement: “Shadowed beneath your hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.” (Rev. Thomas)

“This is My Song,” from the Methodist hymnal, beautifully states our love and hope for our nation, while acknowledging that God is the God of all nations, not exclusively ours.

Katharine Lee Bates’ soaring hymn, “America, the Beautiful,” names the tension as well. The lyrics recognize good that still needs to be crowned with “brotherhood,” gold yet to be refined, and flaws yet to be mended. (Rev. Thomas)

The joy and promise for American Christians on SUNDAY, JULY 4th, is not that God will specifically bless our land over others, but that God is working here in a wonderful way: that we are to remember what was accomplished back on Independence Day, and that we are to be inspired to continue the work started by those who have come before, learning from both their successes and mistakes, striving for justice, freedom, and peace for all.

That story continues today, in not a superior, but a uniquely American way.

Consider, if you will, one final story...

Thomas Luck, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse, recently performed a graveside service for the friend of a parishioner. He writes (in Episcopal Cafe) that the parishioner, a woman, has received the Congressional Gold Medal for logging 1,000 hours flying military aircraft in World War II.

“The people who gathered with her were an amazing group of people! Among them was an elderly couple that particularly caught my attention. One of the women in the couple had a small tattoo on her cheek and bright lime green fingernail polish. The other woman in the couple was wearing ladies sandals, pink socks, a red dress and had long, flowing, fire engine red hair. But as I came closer to the burial plot I realized that the person in the red dress with the long red hair had the face and voice of an elderly man. From my limited knowledge I think that this person is transgendered, someone who is a woman in a man's body. Yet, here they were, a loving couple, and obviously friends of our highly decorated parishioner.

Later we went to the apartment of the parishioner for some refreshment and conversation. Sipping wine and eating cake I heard a number of amazing stories. And then someone asked the person wearing the red dress to tell her tale of the time she almost died in combat in her previous life. Then, with utter seriousness, she talked about fighting the Chinese in face to face combat in a frozen river in Korea. This person was critically wounded and lying helplessly in the river, partially under the ice. She realized that the Chinese were going around and bayoneting to death everyone who was wounded. So she kept her eyes wide open, staring off into space pretending to be dead. It worked, and she was the only person in her platoon to survive. When she was found by medics she could only blink her eyes.

As I was listening to this story I wished that I had a video camera, for the impact of seeing this lady in her dress and long red hair telling this tale of courage and patriotism was extremely profound. I was left speechless. The living room in this apartment was full of patriotism from people whose own lives have often been full of disregard or ridicule....

On July 4th we celebrate the independence of the United States of America, an independence that was hard fought in the Revolutionary War, and which has continued to be hard fought to our own day. Many of those who have helped preserve our independence over the years have themselves not always been granted the full rights that their citizenship entitles them to receive; from the African Americans who fought for the North, to the Navajo who helped provide the secret code that helped win WWII, to the women who flew military aircraft in that war but did not receive veteran benefits until the 1970's, to people such as this lady, to those who live under "don't ask don't tell" today.

America is not only for these people too, it is especially for these people. The United States is the last best hope on earth for the dispossessed, the different, and those who are loathed simply for being who they are. It is why your ancestors and mine came here. And as an Episcopalian who loves the Anglican Communion, I am proud that the Episcopal Church may be the last best hope in Catholic Christianity for the dispossessed, the different and those who are loathed simply for being who they are.”

May your July 4th be a blessed one…