Independent for What?

SJF • Proper 9C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For thus says the Lord: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.”

Today is Independence Day, but you may have noticed that the Scripture readings we heard were not those appointed for the Fourth of July, but the regular readings from Proper 9 in Year C, for the Sunday closest to July 6. Part of my reason for choosing the regular Sunday readings rather than those celebrating the holiday is exactly that: celebration.

What exactly are we celebrating on the Fourth of July? Obviously we are celebrating independence — the independence of the United States — or as they were at that time the several colonies — from the British crown. It was on the Fourth of July in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. So it is abundantly clear that independence that day in Philadelphia was independence from.

My question today is what is independence for. And that is why I chose to use the readings for the regular Sunday rather than the readings appointed for Independence Day. For although that first reading from Isaiah starts out with plenty of good news to celebrate — all of that language about prosperity flowing like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and being breast-fed at the glorious bosom of Jerusalem — after all that upbeat language comes that threat of the Lord’s indignation, when the Lord will come in fire with chariots like a whirlwind to pay back his anger in fury and his rebuke in flames of fire: “for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh!” Does that sound like something to celebrate?

There is also sobering language in Jesus’s instructions to the disciples as he sends them out — empty-handed and like lambs among wolves. They are to beg for their food and wish peace to those who give it to them, but to pronounce an awful curse upon any who are inhospitable towards them, and who refuse to receive the good news they bear. And even when they return, excited and proud that they have been able to triumph even over demons, Jesus reminds them not to rejoice in their victory over spirits, but rather to give thanks that their names are written in heaven.

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And so, even as we rightly celebrate the fact that the United States freed itself from the dominion of the British 234 years ago — it is good to recall that even that declaration of liberty was followed by several years of hard warfare. It is also good and right and important for us to take stock of where we are now.

Is prosperity flowing like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream? Most of the overflowing we’ve been hearing about over the last few months is not the wealth of nations but the waste of industry, a glutting spout of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and perhaps even the Atlantic shore, depending on how the waters flow and the winds blow. And the wealth of nations seems more like the wealth of notions, as any sense of value to anything seems geared not to consumable or practical things like goods and services, but rather to the relative values of the various national currencies, and of money itself; and even credit, which is merely the ghost of money, has become a commodity and object of speculation; and that latter speculation has brought about near total collapse in a financial world based on promises instead of performance.

And as for peace, is there peace to this house and to the world — or is the world as torn by strife and battle as always: druglords and criminals in the Bronx, in Jamaica and Mexico; our own seemingly unending battle against terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, with further threats in Pakistan and Iran and North Korea — surely our world is more like that world of fire and whirlwind, rebuke and the sword coming upon all flesh, than like the vision of peaceable Jerusalem. And Jerusalem itself — and Gaza and the West Bank — is this the peace of God?

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Yet in the midst of all this we still see Jesus — the perfectly innocent man who was crucified, who suffered death for crimes he did not commit, for sins of which he was not guilty. We hear the voice of the apostle Paul raised in affirmation that he dare not boast of anything except the cross, the cross of Christ by which the world has been crucified to him and he to the world. He does not boast of his successes; he does not glory in his own accomplishments; he takes no stock of those who follow the law or of those who disregard the law — for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but only the new creation, the new life in Christ.

Jesus himself, when, as I said, the disciples returned like excited schoolboys flush with their latest victory on the pitch, reminded them not to place their joy in this passing victory, but rather to plant the banner of their joy in the firm and secure knowledge of salvation — salvation won not by them but for them — by him, when from before the foundation of the world he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. It is that cosmic independence — liberation from eternal death and for eternal life — that we are called to celebrate, with names written in heaven brighter and more lasting than any earthly fireworks.

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Today is Independence Day. But my brothers and sisters, it is not only a day to celebrate our independence from the domination of foreign powers — whether from the merely human foreign power of the British crown, or from the power of terrorists and militants ranged against us both at home and abroad, or even from the natural power of a hurt and wounded world lashing back at us for the damage inflicted upon it, or even freedom from the supernatural domination of the devil. We are, it is true, free and independent of all these things when we place our trust in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But there is more: because we are not only independent from, but independent for. God has a purpose for us — not only to be dandled like children on the knees of our mother Jerusalem; but for us to take our stand as adult men and women, disciples called to serve, and sent to serve. The harvest still is plentiful and the laborers willing to do their labor far too few. We may be sent forth — on this fourth of July — with limited resources. We may — no, we will — face rejection from some even as we offer them God’s peace and a kingdom word of good news.

But let us not lose heart, and let us not allow anyone to make trouble for us — for we too carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies. Those marks were made when we were baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, and the sign of Christ’s cross was made upon our foreheads. God help us, if we glory in anything other than that, if we rejoice in anything but the fact that we have been saved, that our names are written above, and that we have been called and commissioned to serve this wounded world. Let us make this the Forth of July — the day we march forth from this place in the power of Christ and of his Holy Spirit, to the service and the glory of God the Almighty.+