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Independence Day Sermon:

Happy Birthday America!
Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145; Romans 7:21-8:6; Matthew 11:25-30
by Rev. Susan Russell

Independence Day -- July the Fourth. This is the one holiday the three-day-weekend people haven’t tried to move to a Monday -- because the date itself is such a powerful icon: the anniversary of our nation’s birth with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on a sultry Philadelphia summer day:

“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.”

Powerful words. “No going back” words. Words that both launched a nation and charted its course. Words we memorize in grade school and spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to. Words that frame the very essence of what it is to be an American. Words worth celebrating on the anniversary of their signing. The anniversary of our freedom.

But that’s not the only anniversary being celebrated today! Freedom comes in many varieties, and as we join the rest of the country in celebrating the birth of the nation, it’s a birthday of sorts for the Episcopal Church in general and for this Episcopalian in specific. First the church’s story -- then mine.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence was deemed by most to be also the signing the Death Warrant for the Anglican Church -- the Church of England -- in “the colonies.” After the War for Independence was won, many Anglicans fled to Canada or went into hiding. Now that we weren’t English anymore, how there could be a “Church of England”? Talk about declining attendance -- if ever the church was doomed by division, this was it.

Yet, there were those of Anglican heritage and American vision who saw in the inclusivity of the tradition they inherited a theological ethos that transcended national boundaries. And as the Founders of the Nation gathered in Independence Hall to frame the Constitution for a new country, many of those same visionaries gathered at Christ Church down the block to frame a new prayer book for a new church. The Preface of that first American Book of Common Prayer is found on page 9 of our current Prayer Book, and while I encourage you to read it in its entirety, I’d like to quote its opening words:

“It is a most invaluable part of that “blessed liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” that in his worship different forms and usages may without offense be allowed, provided that the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, “according to the various exigency of times and occasions.” Powerful words. Words that both launched a church and charted its course: from its very inception, a church dedicated to inclusivity and open to change. Words that frame the very essence of what it is to be an Anglican in America. Words that would provide a model for the creation of many other national “brands” of Anglicanism as the colonial system broke down and new nations, conceived in liberty, were born. This Preface -- written in 1789 -- is the “Declaration of Independence” of the American Episcopal Church -- and it reminds us this morning that while we are in communion with other Anglicans around the world ... and we rejoice in the bonds that we share ... we are a Church Independent: relying on “that blessed liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” A Church Independent and a Church Alive and Well. In Sunday’s LA Times, an Associated Press report notes that between 1974 and 1997, average church attendance in Episcopal Churches increased 31% and the number of confirmed adults increased by 12% . And for the dollars-and-cents folks, “since 1991 the liquid assets of Episcopal churches have grown from $1 billion to $2.8 billion.”

Remember this the next time someone tells you that this church we love is dying or doomed. Remember the history we share -- the tradition we inherit -- and pray that God will continue to give us the courage to live into our future with the same grace and power God has gifted us with in the past. And remember -- everytime we celebrate the Birth of our Nation -- we celebrate also the Rebirth of our Church: the “BORN AGAIN” Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

In a way, Independence Day is “BORN AGAIN” day for me, as well. It was the Fourth of July in the National Cathedral in Washington DC and I had been a deacon for about a month. I was attending a conference on music and liturgy, and we were at the cathedral for the Independence Day Eucharist. It was at that service -- surrounded by soaring gothic arches, classical church organ music and majestic stained glass windows -- that I was, for lack of a better vocabulary “born again.” Maybe not by Pentecostal standards -- I’d been baptized in the Episcopal Church at 6 months old, confirmed and then ordained in what had been ... up until then ... a gradually evolving spiritual journey marked most significantly by its lack of drama.

In an amazing moment of spiritual connection, I came as close as I ever want to come to the burning bush/angels on the bedpost/seraphim with a burning coal experiences recounted in our sacred scriptures. Surrounded by light, beauty and music, I literally heard God call my name -- and finally understood the “be not afraid” part that had somehow -- up until then -- eluded me. I finally understood that I was -- like the psalmist wrote -- “fearfully and wonderfully made” ... and that the God who made me made me precisely the way I am with precisely the gifts I have in order to be precisely the priest I’ve been called to be. I’ll never hear the words “the truth will set you free” and not think of that experience!

And I’d love to tell you that from then on it was smooth sailing -- never a pothole in the journey -- no wrong turns and not a detour in sight: born again, once and for all! Wouldn’t that be nice! Well, that isn’t how it worked for me -- but there’s some comfort in finding out that it didn’t work that way for Paul, either. Paul, the poster-child for dramatic, blinded-by-the-light, born again experiences had his share of ups and downs in the spiritual journey department. Listen to again to a portion of Paul’s Lament to the Romans: read this time from “The Message” -- a paraphrase of the New Testament in contemporary English:

“What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. For I know the law, but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.”

Have I ever “been there - done that - got the t-shirt”! Though it would be impossible to overstate the freedom that revelation in the cathedral gave me -- still gives me -- like Paul I find that far too often, though I delight in good, I end up doing far less than the good I’d hoped for. I’m free to make the right choice -- and too often, make the wrong one. It seems that in the very freedom God has given us -- as a nation, as a church and as individuals -- is also the challenge to use that freedom responsibly. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to do that on our own. It calls me to remember an old “Up With People” song from the 70’s called “Freedom Isn’t Free” -- something worth remembering. Freedom -- whether secular or spiritual -- comes with a price tag.

As a nation, the freedom we enjoy was bought for us by those who went before: our founding fathers and mothers who had the courage and vision to imagine a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” They made the down payment -- in blood sweat and tears -- and subsequent generations have made “balloon payments” ever since: claiming and reclaiming that vision of a nation with liberty and justice for all. Working to include black men in the proposition that all are created equal during the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement: and the challenge continues. Expanding the vision to include women in the proposition that all are created equal -- from the Suffragettes to the ERA: and the challenge continues. None of us are free unless all of us are: the birthing of a nation begun in 1776 continues today.

Likewise our spiritual freedom -- our salvation -- was bought for us by the generations who have gone before. Abraham and Sarah and their faithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh; the Hebrew people who received God’s law through Moses and were called again and again into faithfulness by the prophets; and Jesus -- our Lord and Savior -- who paid the ultimate price of his life upon the cross that we might live. Jesus paid the once-and-for-all price that WE are called to both claim and re-claim as we proclaim the Good News of God in Christ Jesus in our generation. It’s the price we’re asked to pay for our freedom; and yet HOW we pay it has everything to do with how “free” we are. There is amazing freedom in calling others to Christ not because we have to in order to “earn” our salvation, but because we can do nothing less in response to the amazing gift of God’s love.

As we celebrate freedom this Independence Day, both as Americans and as Christians, Paul’s experience offers parallels to our own -- as a church and as a culture. For as much as we desire to do good, we far too often fall short of the mark: and wonder what went wrong.

As a church, again and again our ability to proclaim the Gospel is hampered by internal squabbles -- quarrels about power that masquerade as debates over doctrine; fights with each other that so consume our energy we have nothing lift to give to the work of calling others to Christ. We may intend good -- at least consciously -- and yet far too often hurt and pain is the result.

As a country, over and over our efforts to ensure the freedom of one people seems to lead to the oppression of another. What’s happening in Kosovo is but the latest example: thousands of innocent Serbs suffer as we join with NATO forces to end the tragedy of ethnic cleansing -- there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer in Yugoslavia ... or Bosnia ... or Rwanda, Turkey or Ireland. It seems that no matter how hard we work to “do good”, some evil fallout is the result. And here at home, as hard as we try to make the Pledge of Allegiance come true, we have yet to truly insure liberty and justice for all. Where do we turn for answers?

Let’s turn again to Paul’s words as contained in The Message:

“I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”

Where do we turn for answers? The same place Paul did. For Jesus Christ can and does. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” he says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me -- for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” -- words of promise that there is nothing we have to bear by ourselves: nothing too heavy for Jesus to bear with us. An invitation of profound reassurance -- whether in the poetic language of the traditional translation or in the accessible words of the paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me -- watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live lightly and freely.”

“Come to me.” Jesus’ words in verse 28 remind me of the words on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuge of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." The difference...freedom is not found in a place, but in a Person -- the One who guides us, strengthens us, feeds us, sustains us. In a moment, we will gather around this altar to be fed -- to celebrate of the freedom we’ve been given in Christ and to nourish us to go out and do the work we’ve been given to do: “born again” to be Christ’s Body in the world. Happy Birthday, everybody!