This is the sermon given by the Rev. Dr. Jill Walters, chaplain at All Saints’ School, at the Service of Lessons and Hymns for Independence Day, July 5, 2020.
July 5, 2020, 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Matthew 5:43-48 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today we continue the celebration of yesterday, the day on which America declared its freedom from the oppression of the English empire. Our service today gives voice to this celebration through our readings, collects, and prayers.
Two hundred forty-four years ago, our founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[i]
These are the ideals to which they aspired.
And I would dare say that as Americans, we continue to place a high premium on freedom. Over the course of our history, we have made sacrifices and fought wars for the cause of freedom.
We sing songs and we rally around the cry for freedom. It’s in our DNA—a desire for freedom that is so strong that we would even risk our very lives for it.
The founders believed that freedom was at the core of our being, that it was a right given by God.
We hear this plea for freedom in our readings and in our Scripture today.
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is part of the beloved “Sermon on the Mount.” Great crowds are following Jesus. They’re eager, hungry to hear Jesus’ words.
Jesus goes up the mountain. And his disciples come after him. Then he begins to talk to them.
Now, in our modern context, we tend to gloss over these powerful words of the Gospel of Matthew. We hear them as “nice” and “tranquil” and “that’s all part of the lovey dovey stuff” Jesus says.
But the disciples hear something different. They know Jesus and they trust him…so they’re listening.
They long for life…just like we do today. They long for liberty…for freedom…just like we do today. They long for the ability to pursue happiness…just like we do today…just like we have since before the beginning of this country.
White settlers came to this land to escape the English Empire. Our founders declared independence to escape oppression and tyranny.
And let’s remember that this wasn’t a beginning without its own transgressions. There were already people living in this land. People who didn’t receive that same promise of freedom and hope from the very settlers who escaped English persecution.
The desire for freedom is an important part of our nation’s founding. But it’s an aspirational one.
Our readings today remind us that this struggle didn’t end with the establishment of the United States. It has never ended.
In 1776, Abigail Adams argued that the freedom of “the ladies” be included in the pursuits of the founders.
In 1845, Chief Seattle pleads for the kind and just treatment of his people, after having witnessed the cruel genocide of the Native Americans that began with the settlers and still continues in many forms today.
In 1961, President Kennedy called for a “new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”
On Good Friday in April, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for leading peaceful protests in the city of Birmingham during what is referred to as the Birmingham Campaign. He spent eight days in jail.
During the course of this campaign, several white religious leaders had written to criticize King and the timing of this campaign.
These white leaders included two Methodist Bishops, a Roman Catholic Bishop, a Presbyterian Pastor, a Rabbi, and two Episcopal Bishops.
While he’s sitting in jail, he responds to these leaders. First he writes on the edges of a newpaper, then scraps of paper someone sneaks to him, then on paper that his attorneys get for him.
Dr. King composes one of the most eloquent and powerful messages of the Civil Rights Movement. It is referred to as “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” and we heard just a portion of it today.[ii]
In this 21-page letter, Dr. King quotes this same Gospel reading from Matthew. He calls Jesus “an extremist for love.” King asks: “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
Jesus’ response to the disciples in the ancient world is love. It’s always love. And it’s not just love when it’s easy or convenient or the people and things you like or agree with. It’s love, period.
And that is a radical statement. It was a radical statement to the disciples who were hoping someone would swoop in and save them from Roman oppression and tyranny.
It was a radical statement in the 50s and 60s when Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement of his generation. And it’s still a radical statement today.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If you’re a Democrat, pray for your Republican brothers and sisters. If you’re a Republican, pray for your Democratic brothers and sisters.
If you’re a conservative, pray for your liberal brothers and sisters. If you’re a liberal, pray for your conservative brothers and sisters.
And this isn’t just any old prayer. It’s not the prayer of “I sure wish they’d see things my way.” Or “I just hope they get what’s coming to them.”
This is a radical prayer of love…the love of God, the one who tenderly and purposefully created each and every person on the face of this planet. This is a prayer of love for those you don’t agree with…with those for whom you feel anger and…yes, even hatred.
This is a radical prayer of love for those people on Social Media that you want to lash out against. This is a radical prayer of love for those people on the news whom you think have lost their minds.
Because the reverse is true…isn’t it? I hope and pray that people are praying radical prayers of love for me. I need them. You need them. We all need them.
Earlier in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
This is what Jesus knows. This mutuality is the radical part that Jesus was preaching to his followers then. He continues to preach it to us today.
God created each and every one of us in a web of relationship. We are inextricably tied to one another. We need each other. We depend upon each other for everything we do in this life.
Our Black and Brown and Native brothers and sisters need those of us who are white to speak up and to work to change these systems, that is true. That is our responsibility.
And…and…the truth is that those of us who are white need our black brothers and sisters. We need our black and brown and native brothers and sisters. We need them.
We need them for our own healing. Our very salvation depends upon them. Without them we cannot be restored to wholeness.
Those of us who are white carry around an injury to our own souls that we don’t even recognize. To minimize the suffering and pain of our brothers and sisters is to do damage to our own humanity.
It tears at the very fabric of the souls of each of us who allow these injustices to continue. Jesus is clear about this in every gospel.
But how…and where, as Christians in the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, do we star
Emilie Townes is the Dean of the Divinity School a Vanderbilt University. She is “a distinguished scholar and leader in theological education” who focuses on Christian ethics and womanist theology.[iii]
Dr. Townes gives us wonderful direction as to how to move forward in this call from Jesus to love radically.
She says: “If we can hold on to proclaiming truth when it gets buried in political and religious cat fights and mud-wrestling contests, I think we will be able to bring together justice and peace-keeping, but only if we take seriously the challenges living into what it means to believe each person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect because we are responsibility for each other and ourselves….”
We may get tired and need a break, but we must always come back because we do not get out of this life alone and we are responsible for what goes on in our names.”
She continues: “Ultimately, I believe that somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult answer to the challenge of ‘what will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of what we have brought to this time and place? Is:
…live your life and faith with a deep love and respect for others and yourself….I’m talking about what we call in Christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts.”[iv]
It’s what Dr. Townes calls this “everydayness” that we live out Christ’s radical prayer of love in the big and the small things.
We live out this prayer when we “listen closely” to what people say and don’t say so that we can hear what they are truly trying to tell us.
We live out this prayer when we take time each day to re-center ourselves on Christ’s call to us. This prayer gives us strength and courage to not give into despair and hopelessness.
We live out this prayer when we are fully present with others as we walk together through this life.
We live out this prayer when we keeping pressing on in the midst of pain and suffering, whether others can see it or not.
We live out this prayer when we find precious moments of laughter and joy.
We live out this prayer when we let down our defenses to open up our hearts and minds to the possibilities of God’s kingdom.
We live out this prayer when e consider that we may not be 100% right. Others’ voices have something valuable to teach us.
We live out this prayer when we admit that we have allowed God’s beloved people to be hurt. We admit it whether it was directly our fault. Or whether we were simply present and didn’t stand up for what we know is right.
Dr. Townes concludes with this hope:
“It is in this everydayness that ‘we the people’ are formed and we, the people of faith, must live and must witness to a justice wrapped in a love that will not let us go and a peace that is simply too onery to give up on us.”[v]
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God may we all live out a radical prayer of love that seeks freedom for each and every one of us. Amen.
——————[i] “Declaration of Independence,” Second paragraph, July 4, 1776. [ii] Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1389#:~:text=Martin%20Luther%20King’s%20%22Letter,around%20actions%20and%20spoken%20words. [iii] Emilie M. Townes, Dean of the Divinity School
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, https://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/emiliem-townes** [iv] Townes, Emilie. (July 9, 2006). “Everydayness,” given at the “Voices of Sophia Breakfast, July 9, 2006, Presbyterian Women triennium in Louisville, KY. https://voicesofsophia.wordpress.com/2006/07/09/everydayness-by-emilie-townes/ I would also encourage you to read Dr. Townes’ work, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, Palgrave Macmillan; 2006th Edition (February 23, 2007). [v] Ibid.