A Sermon preached on July 3rd, Pentecost VII at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 66: 10 – 14, Galatians 6: 7 – 16, Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20
“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” When I first read this sentence from this morning’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (6:1), I thought for a moment that it sounded like a commentary on what is going on in GB right now, after the Brexit vote. There was a lot of deceiving, and there is now a lot of reaping of what was sown – including outright racist attacks on EU migrants. If people still knew their Bible, perhaps the Brexit supporters would not be so surprised that so far everything the experts predicted has come true. Then Nigel Farage, the head of the so-called UKIP declared June 23 to be UK Independence Day, which I found a little ironic as most Independence Day celebrations around the world celebrate that country’s declaration of independence from the United Kingdom. The very first instance was of course the event we are commemorating today, and our American members will be celebrating tomorrow: July 4, US Independence Day. That set me thinking, what does God have to say about nations and independence and sovereignty?
Clearly, the US founding fathers thought that God had something to say. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence contains that beautiful, well-known phrase: "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 know that according to the modern secular myth, human rights are independent of religion, or even the result of a struggle with religion, but that is just not true as the preamble to the declaration reminds us. For Christians human rights are God-given rights. We are all equal because we are all equally made in God’s image. We value life and all lives because they are a gift from our Creator, who wants us to live these lives abundantly. God wants us to be happy – in union with God – but gives us freedom and free will to choose when, whether and how we do that.
A nation’s purpose is to guarantee these rights and to create an environment in which they can flourish. The new, young American nation unfortunately initially restricted this guarantee to a minority of its population. The self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, was only applied to European, white men. But still, the principle was established and became both a template for many other nations, as well as the basis for all the struggles for justice by those groups that had been excluded: African Americans, women, Native Americans, LGBT people etc.
The Old Testament is the story of how God chose a nation, Israel, to be a light to all the world, to be a shining example of faithfulness, peace, justice, and righteousness. This is the image that John Winthrop, the puritan and pilgrim father, refers to in his famous sermon before landing in what became New England: “Now the only way to … to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God …. We shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Unfortunately, the Old Testament is also the story of how Israel did not live up this ideal. When Christians read Isaiah’s (42:1, 6) great promise “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. … I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” we think of Jesus Christ and of how Simeon applies this calling to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” to a person, Jesus, not to a nation. (Luke 2:32)
In today’s final selection from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, partially written in Paul’s own hand because it was so important, Paul preaches against the illusion of self-reliance and against national and ethnic identifiers. “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Paul is telling the Galatians that the people who have tried to persuade them to become part of Israel, to accept the law, to be circumcised as a sign of belonging to that nation, that they are wrong. The sign behind which we gather as Christians, is the cross. We are called to boast not of “Great Britain” or a great America, but of the cross. And when we “boast” of the cross, we are proclaiming our dependence on God, on God’s grace and God’s favor. Paul even coins the term of the “Israel of God,” to describe a new community made up of people of faith whose primary allegiance is to God and God’s Son and who are called to work nor for their own good, but for the good of all.
According to Luke, Jesus sends out the 70 others, or in some translations 72, to proclaim the kingdom of God, and not an earthly kingdom. The number 70 or 72 is already an indication that their mission transcends national boundaries as 70 or 72, again depending on the source, is the number of the nations of the world in the table of nations found in Genesis (10:2-31). When Jesus tells them to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals he wants them to model dependence, to trust not in their own strength or possessions, but in God, and to be reliant on the hospitality of those they visit. Their message is peace, their gift healing, the promise – or for some the warning – they bring with them is that the kingdom of God is near: not a newly triumphant kingdom of Israel, but a new society built on God’s values.
Nations come and nations go, nations are not holy, nations are not to be worshipped – that is also idolatry. We need structures and organizations to organize our common life, to guarantee our basic human rights, and to create and preserve environments in which we can grow and flourish. The United States of America, whose founding 240 years ago, we celebrate this weekend was a conscious attempt to create a new state, open to people from every nation, embodying these principles, and based on an allegiance not to a monarch or a particular ethnicity. As a human endeavor, it is not perfect, but has nevertheless been a model for the whole world, so I will happily go on record as saying it was a good idea, and Happy Independence Day America.
However, our readings this morning remind us that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, that we depend on one another, and that we are called to cooperation beyond our human nations and divisions, for the good of all. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams writes: "The Christian imperative is to hold up the model of a truly interdependent world in which the welfare of each is inseparable from the welfare of all, nationally and globally; the model of the Body of Christ." Tomorrow is Independence Day, but every day is interdependence day … so Happy Interdependence Day everyone.