|Dependence Day - Sermon at United Ministry of Aurora, NY July 3, 2016|
This is the Fourth of July weekend, and tomorrow the Birthday of our country. We call the birth certificate the Declaration of Independence. But, you know, that was not the title of the document. It begins: IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. But, it is not termed a declaration of independence. The text declares a dissolving of political bands and declares the causes which impel this separation. Going on, our birth certificate declares it self-evident that each of us is endowed by our Creator with certain rights, and that governments exist to secure these rights which have been granted by the Creator. It concludes with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, that we ought to be Free and Independent States absolved of allegiance to the British Crown. Dependence is transferred from the British Crown to The Creator. A reasonable reading is that our founders intended to throw off dependence on an oppressive earthly kingdom and replace it with dependence on the Creator.
Where did the title come from? John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer and the official printer to the Continental Congress, produced the first printed versions that very night, and the document was referred to as "The Dunlap Broadside." Not that catchy. Sometime later, when the document was being stored, some unknown archivist wrote on the back of the rolled up scroll, upside down at the bottom, this label: "Original Declaration of Independence dated July 4 1776." The librarian's label stuck.
We are in love with the word and idea of Independence. It's possible we've developed a fetish of independence. You can get the sense we want to be dependent on no one and no thing, free to do as each of us feels is right in our own eyes, sometimes even without regard for the community or the society as a whole. Scripture is full of warnings of the consequences of overly independent action. The entire Book of Judges is a cataloging of catastrophes that befell the people of God. Every time they were occupied and oppressed by their neighbors, in his mercy, God raised up a judge from among the people to lead them. We remember Samson, Jephthah, Deborah, Gideon. But, every time God delivered them using a judge, in less than two generations, again and again we read: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. Then came the next catastrophe. So much for excessive independence.
In our first reading this morning, Isaiah speaks for the Lord: Exult and rejoice with Jerusalem all you who were mourning over her. Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort. Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing torrent. As nursling you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort. When you see this, your heart shall rejoice and your bodies flourish like the grass; the Lord's power shall be known to his servants.
This vision Isaiah describes is we will be as babies carried in our mother's arms. Like nurslings, we drink the milk of Jerusalem's comfort. God will spread prosperity like a river, and the wealth of nations will overflow us. So, what and where is this Jerusalem whose bosom we nurse at and rejoice in? The Jerusalem Isaiah asks us to exult in in today's reading is not a physical place. Jerusalem is the spiritual Jerusalem, not the squalid little city on a couple of hills where monks and priests come to blows over who gets to control which section of this or that holy place. It's not the physical Jerusalem, the political capital city of states which do not recognize each other's existence, and where one tries to annihilate the other. Jerusalem is the spiritual city glimpsed at the end of the New Testament, that city glowing as with precious jewels, the city which descends from above. The city of Shalom, This spiritual Jerusalem is where we are invited to live in our ordinary time. This city, the Kingdom of God, is here. Now. It is at hand.
And Paul tells the Galatians, May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Well, this mourning over Jerusalem and the crucifixion of the old Paul certainly doesn't sound like a Declaration of Independence. And this is the point scripture makes to us. As followers of Jesus, we don't wave flags of victory or sing battle hymns of the Crusades. As adult Christians we are crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us. The comfort we receive, the joy we experience as Christians is independent of the circumstances we are in. Our comfort, our joy comes from above, and this peace, this comfort from above is what we are dependent on.
Our Gospel lesson brings the lesson home. Jesus sends out thirty-six pairs of disciples to the little towns of the land of Israel. He sends them like paupers, dependent on others. Behold, he says, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and don't socialize along the way. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God is at hand. At hand means this is not something in the far future, something to be waited for patiently, only experienced after death. Immanent means it is arriving. It's not far off. Likely to occur at any moment. The Realm, or Kingdom of God is right up close. Just reach for it!
Well, the thirty-six pairs of raggedy, poor disciples return leaping for joy. Still broke. Probably unshaven, rumpled, threadbare. They are out of their skins with happiness. They inform Jesus; Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.
Jesus tells them, Yes, yes I know. I saw Satan fall like lightening from the sky. Jesus explains that he has given each of them power over evil without being harmed by evil. But, no big deal. Don't rejoice because of what you are able to get done, it's me in you doing this. What you should rejoice at is your names are written in heaven.
Even the disciples rejoiced for the wrong reasons. Their power, their success, their ability to bring down and cast out demons, their ability to heal, they did it! Wrong on two counts. First, they didn't do it. The power of God did it. The second error, don't rejoice in what you appear to have accomplished. Rejoice because as a faithful follower, your name is written in Heaven.
This is the adult lesson being fed to us poor raggedy disciples living in our own ordinary time: The comfort and prosperity of Jerusalem is not dependent on job security, not tenure, not a pension or popularity, not academic or athletic success, not a successful IPO, not even the health of our bodies or freedom from need. We want these things not because of what they are, but because we believe lasting happiness will come from getting these things. Jesus and Paul teach something else. The Peace of God comes from being crucified to this world and crucifying the world to you. But, as Paul says, the old man doesn't want to go quietly. The old man, ME, wants what it wants, and wants to be in charge. The independent "I" wants to be boss. When we consciously choose to let the old ME be the boss, we are rejecting our dependence on the Kingship, the authority and sovereignty of God. This is a declaration of independence from our Sovereign Lord. This is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit - the one unforgivable sin.
Here's why rejecting our dependence on the sovereignty of God is unforgivable. Rejecting God and His authority brings you to the place where you cannot repent of the sins we inevitably commit. And if you can't repent, you don't repent, and if you don't repent, your unspoken wish is granted. The unforgiven sin stays with you. God has something beyond all this in mind we can't even begin to grasp. But, the ones who've been knowingly doing what is right in their own eyes, being unrepentantly evil, they get to keep their bundle of stuff. We all get to keep what we have at the end. Yes, you can take it with you and you do take it with you.
A new play opened in Washington DC a few weeks ago - not the entertaining election theater we catch on the news. A real play. The new play is Martin Luther on Trial, by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean. The Devil is the prosecutor, St. Peter the judge and Martin Luther's wife, Katarina defends him. On the witness stand we hear from Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Francis. The timing? Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's provocative nailing of his 95 theses against indulgences to the church door. The reviewers expect this play to enter the canon, along with Beckett et al., and I suspect most of us will catch it one day.
The Devil accuses Martin Luther of committing the one unpardonable sin, and therefore Luther belongs to him, the Devil. Scripture teaches us this unforgivable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. The Devil, of course, is the father of lies and master of illusion. He starts with a truth, then distorts it until he turns truth into a clever lie. The Devil accuses Martin Luther of dissing God and the Holy Spirit when he burned the Papal Bull by which Leo X excommunicated Luther.
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not arguing with God. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job argued with God, but even while arguing and wrestling, they acknowledged the authority and sovereignty of God. The blasphemer of the Spirit rejects the authority of God. The blasphemer goes it alone. Independent of God. His religion is a religion of "one." He believes in Me. That makes it very difficult to be repentant. And, if we are unrepentant during this ordinary time, we are choosing to hold on to the grudge, to keep the sin for eternity. Beware, your unspoken wish will be granted.
Instead of rejecting God's sovereignty in tough times, Scripture teaches us to rejoice in all things and to find God in all things. All things, every day. Romans teaches that for those who love God all things, all circumstances work for the good. Who knows what God is working in the circumstances of life. Who are we to judge specifics. Yes, things happen. Things happen that God does not want to happen. This started in the garden. God gives us room to screw up. But, whatever terrible circumstances we create for ourselves and for others, or the troubles that others create for us, God is able to work that for the good.
We depend on God. To depend literally means to "hang from." If we know what is good for us we rely on our dependence on God. Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."
Depending on God brings to mind a little child reaching up and holding on firmly to the hand of a loving parent. The sidewalk might be cracked or crumbling, and we might stumble. But if we are in a state of dependence, literally, hanging from the loving hand of God, we will not fall. Dependence can be a wonderful state.