Archives for June 2013

Interdependence Day, Independence Day – 2013

July 4, 2013

Deuteronomy 10:17-21Psalm 145; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Independent.” It’s a word with almost universally positive connotations. People fill up their resumes describing how this or that experience made them more independent. As our children grow up and take on more challenges by themselves, we articulate their growing independence as evidence of maturity. Academics and intellectuals cherish the thought that they are “independent thinkers.”

And in the context of geo-politics, almost no other word carries the aura of statehood, sovereignty and completeness more than the word “independent.” It is the holy grail of would-be nations, a way to say that one has finally arrived.

July 4th is, of course, imbued with that special aura more than any other national commemoration – even to the point of sanctity. There are many good reasons why this should be so. Humans are hardwired to be in community and to have shared bonds of identity and rituals that reinforce that identity. The commemorations we have as the United States of America throughout the year can help to make us a cohesive community, give us a shared sense of pride and purpose, and help us to strive onward toward common goals and aspirations.

However, observing anything religiously without asking ourselves on a regular basis why we’re doing it is certain to lead to all sorts of problems. Just take a look at any conversation that Jesus had with the Scribes and the Pharisees, and the message that those encounters have for us in the church today. They ought to give us a sober reality check.

So it is with Independence Day. We’ll find it a more meaningful and authentic day of commemoration if and when we take the time to unpack it first.

Independence Day, as we know, marks the point at which the United States was able to break free of the orbit and authority of England. We only need to look to Jesus to know what good authority looks like – he tells his disciples that true leaders are servants. If leaders are not prepared to submit to their own authority and to experience the daily life of the community, as a part of it, then something has gone very wrong.

The American Revolution was a result, at least in part, of the almost total chasm between the – in every sense of the word – distant rulers and their subjects. The Founding Fathers strove to ensure that this chasm was closed and that it would be more difficult to open in the future. Naturally, their work was imperfect, but it is right that Independence Day should mark those noble sentiments. That the communities already living here when the settlers arrived were mostly not afforded the benefits of those sentiments is, of course, at best an irony and at worst a national disgrace.

In the epistle reading appointed for today, Paul writing to the Hebrews, we have to be careful not to read too much into it. It does not legitimize belief that any of us – individuals or communities – have a God-given right to a particular piece of acreage on this planet. God has given this whole world into our care and we are all citizens of it, under his gentle and loving rule. We are not owners, but custodians. When God led Abraham to the Promised Land, he did so on the understanding that custody of a place involved certain obligations.

Our first reading, from Deuteronomy, makes God’s law clear for those who would set up a nation: Welcome the stranger with love, feed and clothe them and act with justice to the weakest and most marginalized in that community, expressed in that reading as “widows and orphans.”

One of the most overlooked – but most important – parts of grammar is the preposition. What preposition should we insert before the word “independence”? We would probably say that we’re celebrating independence “from.” But what if we saw it instead in terms of independence “to”? Freedom is never just “freedom from,” it’s also “freedom to.”

The Founding Fathers didn’t just want to be free from foreign rule, they also aspired to create a new way of being in community. They wanted to build somewhere that was more equitable and safeguarded against anyone getting too much power and influence. Our celebrations of Independence Day need to include sober reflection on how we have compromised those ideals.

One of the biggest questions we need to ask ourselves on this national day is, What does the word “independent” really mean? Strip away from it all the positive connotations we looked at earlier, and what are we left with? That we don’t want to be dependent on anyone or anything. Suddenly the word loses much of its shine. If we close our doors to the stranger, then it’s a short step to closing our hearts and our minds to them, too.

Jesus warns us of that kind of living in today’s gospel reading. “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” he says. It also suggests that a culture of individualism and self-reliance can, when left unchecked, turn into a mistrust of others. Being dependent on others is not always sign of weakness or of compromise; it can be a sign of strength. It is the ultimate sign that we trust another person, and it recognizes that we are, in fact, the Body of Christ, where we need everyone, with their gifts and specialisms – and idiosyncrasies – in order to be complete.

So, on this Independence Day, let’s also think of it as “Interdependence Day”; a day when we celebrate not only being free from unjust rule but also a day when we commit ourselves anew to extending liberty and justice to everyone who seeks it, without partiality.

 

— The Rev Nils Chittenden is missioner for Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina, and chaplain of the Episcopal Center at Duke University. After attending seminary at the University of Cambridge, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1995. His ministry since then has been varied, encompassing cathedrals, campuses and community organizing as well as parishes. He moved to the U.S. in 2010. He and his wife have two cats and two beehives.

Nativity of John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2013

Determining the significance of a prophet

June 24, 2013

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

People old enough to have been adults during the turbulent ’60s will remember how controversial Martin Luther King, Jr., was at the time. It was said that he and his people had no right to stir things up with all his confrontational tactics. In the South they said he didn’t understand the negro’s place, nor the way Southern society had to be structured. But in 1966 – toward the end of his career – when he led a March in Cicero, just outside of Chicago, he ran into a maelstrom of white hatred every bit as angry and violent, and he got just about nowhere. Even clergy in Northern churches were very hesitant to speak favorably of King. His “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” were meant to win them over.

In those days it would have brought on laughter and derision among most Americans to be told that King would become the greatest Christian prophet of 20th century America, and that a national holiday would be declared in his name.

Obviously, we’ve gone through a national period of reflection and re-evaluation; many minds have been changed as well as the social structure and culture of this county because of Martin Luther King.

This change of heart and culture toward King is a useful example regarding the man whose birth we observe today: John the Baptist, someone who appeared strangely out of the wilderness wearing something woven out of camel’s hair, living on a diet mostly of bugs and wild honey.

And John the Baptist must have had a big voice and a powerful message about the Kingdom, because we are told that Jerusalem and all Judea emptied out and came to hear him: large crowds getting themselves baptized with a baptism of repentance. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out, calling soldiers and tax collectors not to abuse their offices, calling the more pious people – scribes and Pharisees – a “brood of vipers,” for a false religiosity, and noisily embarrassing King Herod for marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of Herod’s half brother. John the Baptist was put in prison for that, and Herodias saw to it that John lost his head.

Jesus’ public ministry doesn’t really begin until after John’s martyrdom. And when the crowds begin to follow Jesus for his teaching and healing powers, before long Herod gets wind of it, and feels thunderstruck that maybe this guy is John brought back from the dead, a prophet that not even the king can suppress.

Reading between the lines, one can form the strong suspicion that what we have in John the Baptist is a very powerful and commanding figure, one who – like Martin Luther King – requires some time and reflection to sort out his true significance.

Indeed, he may have seemed – for a time – a rival to Jesus’ own ministry. John had followers who persisted with his ministry. We are told in the Book of Acts that Paul ran into a group of people out on a mission in Asia Minor who had been baptized into repentance, but had no knowledge of baptism by the Holy Spirit. Among them was a figure of considerable esteem who knew the Bible and could speak very persuasively of his faith. Once baptized in the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, he was a powerful advocate and apostle for Christ.

Thus we see a kind of merging or reeling in of what might have become a different offshoot of Judaism, a religion founded on John the Baptist. This reeling in occurs, for example, when some disciples of John, loosely wondering after John’s martyrdom, come up to Jesus and ask, “Are you the One, or should be wait for another?”

But before seeing how Jesus answers this point-blank question “Are you the one?” suppose we pause and reflect on the example of how it was that we managed eventually to appreciate the full stature and significance of Martin Luther King. It took some time, some reflection on his speeches, his writings, his nonviolent strategies, the real changes that came cascading forth in our society, and the hope for things yet to come, because of him.

Yes, Jesus was baptized by John, and John witnessed to Jesus’ stature as not being worthy even to tie Jesus’ shoes. But it appears that John’s magnetic force was so powerful his followers couldn’t see beyond him to his real significance.

Jesus answers the question “Are you the one?” in an operational way:

“Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.”

He then goes on to speak of that rough-hewn man in the wilderness they all went out to see: a prophet and more than a prophet, a forerunner. And Jesus quotes from Malachi using the very last sentence of our Old Testament: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.”

It is the prophetic expectation of Elijah come back to prepare the way for the Messiah.

But the final appreciation for the significance of John the Baptist comes from the portrait given us by the Gospel of Luke. Here we find John comes from a priestly family. The angel Gabriel appears to the father, Zechariah, saying that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, though advanced beyond child-bearing years, will have a son whose destiny is to play the role of the forerunner Elijah. Zechariah, being doubtful about this, is struck speechless until the child is circumcised. Then he speaks the words of the hymn we know as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, very likely a hymn of the primitive church to express their veneration of John. The hymn closely follows the Magnificat of Mary, expressing the promise that the covenant of God with his people is carried forward by John with the promise of salvation of the lowly and protection from enemies, offering forgiveness of sins, light from darkness and the guidance of holiness of righteousness.

Furthermore, we are told in Luke that Mary and Elizabeth were kinswomen, related, and rejoiced in companionship over their pregnancies.

In this way, by couching it in his birth, the gospel of Luke brings to full fruition the stature and significance of John the Baptist.

 

— The Rev. Armand Larive is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane and the author of “After Sunday: A Theology of Work” (Bloomsburt Academic, 2004).