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Thoughts on Independence Day

Texts: hymns 143, 148, 289 – you may see footnotes now or later

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In our first hymn today we thanked God for His love given us that “in this free land our lot was cast” and therefore we prayed “Be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay / Thy word our law, thy paths our chosen way.” I trust that most of us here this morning are doing this, as individuals – but are we as a nation making God’s word our national and local law and guiding our practices? Are we as a people, as a society, following His paths and walking in His ways?

In our second hymn we rejoiced that “Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God / Came with those exiles o’er the waves” True… but, as the prophets of old so often warned the overly-complacent people of Israel, if we disregard the fourth of these, “faith in God,” then of the first three

  1. "freedom will degenerate into license to do one's own thing rather than God's;
  2. "laws" will be rewritten to indulge certain favored groups {you fill in the blanks} and discriminate against those who are out of favor {again, you fill in the blanks}; and,
  3. "truth" will be viewed as whatever opinions are fashionable amongst any currently powerful elite who can create and use laws to enforce their opinions.

Independence Day is an appropriate time to reflect upon the responsibilities of independence as we Americans have always viewed them, because from our earliest settlers we here have always had a special vision of ourselves and of our destiny – a vision and understanding of ourselves which is in part religious. From Jamestown to the Pilgrims to the Puritans – from the Quakers in Pennsylvania to the Roman Catholics in Maryland to the freedom-of-religion founders of Rhode Island – from the Scots Highlanders fleeing English genocides after 1715 and 1745 to the waves of immigrants from Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe during the 1800’s until 1920 -- old and new Americans have understood our history as having a religious meaning and significance.

In times past we have seen ourselves as being “A People” in the classical and Biblical sense of the word, and we have usually hoped to be (and sometimes proclaimed ourselves to be) “a godly people,” whatever our faith or denomination. From the Mayflower Compact in 1620 to our Declaration of Independence in 1776 to our recent 1953 insertion of “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, our American understanding of ourselves as strangers in a new land has been taken from the Old Testament concept of a once-heterogeneous people now united in a covenant with God, adapted and understood in the New Testament with Christians as “the new Israel:” we have viewed the United States as a Promised Land just as the Hebrew people viewed Israel, except that we crossed the Atlantic rather than the Jordan to reach it. In boastful moments we have even called ourselves ‘God’s Chosen People,’ guided and protected by God because of a covenant relationship with Him – therefore we’d better ask ourselves whether we’re living up to our side of this covenant.

Because a covenant has two sides: God did not simply take the people of Israel under His protection by making a series of promises that committed Him to care for them while they were free to do as they pleased. On the contrary, God’s covenant with them (like any covenant) involved promises and commitments by both parties: the people’s side of the Sinai Covenant is represented by the Ten Commandments… which set the ground rules for their conduct, not His. {Go home and read all of Deuteronomy chapter 8 and of 28, they will scare you to alertness.}

In the same way the prayer “For our Country” on Prayer Book page 36 sums up both sides of our covenant in one sentence: “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; we humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will.”

Mindful of thy favour:” do we take the many blessings we enjoy for granted, as entitlements, as possessions of right? or do we humbly thank God for them every day in our lives and every Sunday in His Church?

“Glad to do thy will:” I often wonder whether we as a nation ever think about what God wants us to do, much less do it, much less do it gladly?

Do we view the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ own teaching as essential to our relations with God and to our own personal and national well-being and happiness? Or do we see them as old-fashioned notions that might interfere with our personal pleasure and national feelings of worldly modern with-it sophistication?

Sure, we Americans have historically thought of ourselves as having a special relationship with God – and, surely, God “our help in ages past” has kept His side of that covenant – but are we keeping our side? Think about that, because if one party breaks a covenant then the other party is no longer bound by it. Before I sold Anita’s farm I made a covenant with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation that the land would remain open space, no subdivision of it nor new houses on it, and that covenant runs with the land – if its subsequent inhabitants violate it, they will make themselves liable to whatever penalties the V.O.F. can apply.

Just so, from Genesis to Maccabees the Bible demonstrates that when the covenant people of Israel disregard God’s commandments – when they choose to do their own thing rather than His – then God withdraws His blessing and protection and leaves them to their own devices – which, because they’re sinners, inevitably bring their prideful conceits crashing down upon their heads.

You’ve heard me say that “the wrath of God” is not any vindictive action on His part: the wrath of God is when man rewrites the Lord’s Prayer to say “My will be done” and God – loving, grieving God, sadly, reluctantly – says “OK.” When we break any covenant we can’t expect to continue to enjoy its benefits.

So, this Independence Day -- and every day after – remember the responsibilities of thinking that we’re “one nation under God.” If we as individuals, and especially we as a nation, are in fact “mindful of God’s favour and glad to do His will,” then we need fear nothing… but if we mistake liberty with license – if we confuse freedom with unaccountable irresponsibility – if we go about doing our own thing rather than doing His thing – then, as we just prayer in The Litany so appropriate to national reflection, Lord. Have mercy upon us… but it’s never too late to say, pray, sing, cry out, “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come…”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.


Footnote: I first preached this sermon at Grace Church Casanova and St. Stephen’s Catlett during the Independence Day weekend of A.D.1974 – President Nixon had not yet resigned, we still reeled from the OPEC oil crisis – and preached it here in 1981, 1990, 2003 and again now in 2014, seeing no need to change it because, unlike the opinions of some who claim to speak for Him, the Word and the words of God have not and will not change…

To document my view that American society is increasingly coarser, grosser, more hedonistic and less godly, I offer this report from page 1 of the Washington Post’s Style section two days before the above was preached. Companies do not invest in products unless they feel sure that they will make money from popular acceptance and demand, so three different TV networks expect millions and millions of Americans to watch these shows -- Quod erat demonstrandum…

Naked truth
is a ‘mixed
blessing

You know how it goes with reality TV. Once an idea starts working, everyone else wants a piece of the action – that’s why we have so many shows about storage lockers.