It is more than a little bittersweet that I begin my last sermon here with you all this morning as your interim rector here at St. Mary’s. It’s been a fun ride these past 10+ months, and I look forward to watching how the story of this wonderful community will unfold in the days and months ahead. I have said previously, and I fully believe it still, that your best days lie in front of you, and I take it as a great privilege to know that I got to be a part of this moment that leads to those “best days” which are to come.
I thought long and hard about what I’d say this morning, and considered a couple of options: maybe I would teach you just one or two more church camp songs… or expound for a while on whatever Broadway musical happened to be rumbling through my head at the moment… or share with you some passage from one of my favorite authors – all of whom seem to write about life in the west. But I decided to go back a little further in time and talk about a piece of literature which was actually written by a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and (the principle writer) Thomas Jefferson.
It was 240 years ago tomorrow that the Declaration of Independence was approved in Philadelphia, PA. If you haven’t read the Declaration of Independence since your High School civics class, I would encourage you to go online and take 5 or 10 minutes to read it for yourself. One of the most striking elements of the Declaration of Independence which I had never noticed before until reading it again this week is that, while it spells out a compelling argument, with an exhaustive list of reasons, for why the fledging colonies should have the right to separate themselves from Great Britain, it ends on a very different note. The last line of the Declaration of Independence reads as follows: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” After all this talk of independence, our founding fathers recognized that, in the end, they were utterly dependent – utterly dependent upon God’s providence and protection, and utterly dependent upon one another for the success of this new venture on which they were about to embark.
This notion of “independence” – at least as it has been promulgated by so many pundits and politicians and preachers today – that it is somehow a God-given right that, as individuals or as a nation, we should be totally free from the responsibility of being connected to any one or any thing other than ourselves, simply flies in the face both of good politics and good theology.
In today’s reading from the 10th chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to pave the way ahead for his upcoming visits. Two significant parts of his charge to this group of 70 are particularly noteworthy. First, they are not to go out as “independent contractors”, but rather he sends them out two-by-two. And secondly, he sends them out totally unprepared, as it were, with no real resources at their disposal. He commands this advance crew, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” If any of these disciples felt like they could make it on their own, Jesus was quick to remind them that, in the end, if they were going to survive, they would have to do so by being dependent upon their travel companion, and dependent upon the grace and hospitality of those they were called to serve.
That certainly is an interesting turn of events, a flipping of expectations, as to what hospitality is all about, isn’t it? So often we associate hospitality as an act of us extending it to others – as though we hold the power, the resources, the assets, the wealth, the influence – and because of our position can offer to share it with those around us. But Jesus turns that notion on its head, and commands his followers – then and now – to see ourselves primarily as the recipients of the hospitality of others rather than as the mediators of that grace to those around us. It is only when we recognize our dependence upon the gifts of others that we can truly open our hearts, and open our hands, and open our lives to both offer and receive God’s blessings.
To extend the love of Christ into the world today – to be Jesus’ advance team in our own day, just as the 70 were in their day in this morning’s gospel lesson – we can only do so by engaging the world as it is, on its terms rather than our own, by offering our openness to the hopes and needs and dreams and fears and questions of those around us, rather than assuming that all we have to do is to recite some kind of formulaic pat answers to questions not yet asked. I don’t know if you’ve noticed before… but the doors through which you exit each Sunday – whether they are on the street side or the alley side heading toward the guild hall – those doors open out for a reason. I like to think that it is more than simply an architectural design or zoning regulation to place the doors that way, but also a deeply theological decision as well. The doors open to the outside, because that’s the way that we’re supposed to use them. Like those 70 evangelists before us whom Jesus sent out two by two, our job is not to bring God to the world, but to find and celebrate and proclaim that God who preceded us into that holy space. John 3:16 reminds us: “For God so loved the world.” And the invitation is to join God in that world, and the people of that world, which God has already so dearly loved, long before any of us showed up on the scene.
And that same notion holds true in our civic life as well. The idea that the United States should be independent (as in “not dependent”) on our relationships with other countries around the world is simply absurd. As the news of the past couple of weeks makes clear, the financial markets in the United States are absolutely dependent upon a stable government in the United Kingdom and the European Union… we are absolutely dependent on a safe and secure Turkey and Bangladesh and Iraq following the bombings and murders in those three countries the past few days. As we know right here in Orange County, the United States is absolutely dependent on a steady and reliable flow of workers from Mexico and Central and South America, unless we want the entertainment industry which is our leading source of employment to collapse, or produce prices in our supermarkets to skyrocket. If you invest in the stock market, or get a retirement check each month, or buy your clothes in a department store, or get on an airplane, you know that the United States is absolutely dependent on trade agreements, and security agreements, and travel agreements with countries all around the world.
Before he sent them out in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus told his followers, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. “Those apostles were called enter into their work, and even more to live their lives, with an attitude of abundance, that the harvest was plentiful. I wonder though, do we still believe that the harvest is plentiful… that there is more than enough to go around? Do we still believe that this harvest is not just ours to give, but ours to receive as well? Or do we think that there’s only so much grace to be had, that we have to fight to protect our piece of the American dream or the Christian story, fearing that there is no longer enough for everyone. That’s an important question to ask both as St. Mary’s prepares to welcome a new pastor into your midst, and as we find ourselves four months and five days from electing a new president to lead this nation.
Both the founders of our country and founder of our faith believed in infinite possibilities. Today, in a world driven by an attitude of scarcity, our charge is to remind ourselves, and to remind one another that not only is there enough but that there is enough and more. With God and one another, all things are possible. That is not just the American Dream. That is also Christian promise.
These past 10 months have been filled with so many memories which I will carry away with me and hold close to my heart in the days to come. Although it may sound strange for me to say this, some of my most memorable moments came during the nine funerals and memorial services we conducted since I arrived here last September 1 – from Shauna McFadden’s father’s service last September, to Carrie Joyce’s husband’s service last month.
One of the opening lines in the burial office goes like this: “For none of us has life in ourselves and none becomes our own master when we die.” If there is nothing else you take away from this Independence Day weekend… if there is nothing else you take away from our time together these past 10 months…take away the reminder that – while we celebrate our independence – we are even more so inevitably, inexorably, and divinely dependent… upon one another and upon God who binds us all together. That is the gift that is America. That is the gift that is a life of faith, lived in community. That is the gift – offered freely, fully, and fearlessly – to each of us, and all of us today.