How did you celebrate the 4th of July long weekend? I played a few rounds of golf with visiting brothers, took the great nieces and nephews to the amusement park, and enjoyed a grand holiday picnic with family and friends.
I also went to the Chautauqua Institution on Sunday to hear Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and the first woman so elected.
I always get a bit nervous at Sunday church services around the 4th of July. I’ve been at too many liturgies where this country and the war we happened to be fighting at the time become central to the service. It becomes idolatry to me, bowing before the flag as if it were on equal par with God, sometimes even taking precedence.
But this service was a sacred one for me.
Bishop Jefferts Schori gave an excellent patriotic sermon built around the reading Deuteronomy 10:17-21. She pointed out that the role of government was twofold: to defend those who were the most defenseless and to limit the abilities of the powerful to exploit the weak. If we need a model of how good government functions, she suggested we look to Deuteronomy and God’s call to us: to accept no bribes, to make sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, to welcome strangers and feed and clothe them.
She told us that 1 billion people are currently hungry in the world, an increase of 10% in the last two years, most of the women and girls. She noted that the United States has the highest income disparity in the world with the top 1% receiving 21% of the national income. She gave enough examples to make it clear that our national priorities are not in keeping with Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus and God’s intent for all God’s people.
But her ending was the kicker. Rather than berate and blame government she reminded us that government is the servant of the governed. And her closing line to the 5,000 gathered was: what will the governed do about the widowed, orphaned and stranger? Right! It’s up to us to set mandates that government must serve, not the other way around. We must pressure government to appropriate funds and programs for the widowed and hungry. It’s up to us to remove those who would balance the budget on the backs of the poor. We should be insisting that government enact laws that turn illegal strangers into legal neighbors. And it’s up to us, too, to actually feed and shelter the hungry and care for the strangers in our midst.
Yes, that was a good 4th of July sermon rekindling in the congregation a vision of a noble country.
But what got to me the most were the prayers of Joan Brown Campbell, Director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua and presider at the Sunday worship service. The Rev. Dr. Campbell, former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, and Director of the US Office of the World Council of Churches, is a treasure.
I’d go to Chautauqua on Sunday in the summer just to hear Campbell pray. There is no pious jargon or sentimentality in her words. She is pure pastoral presence, voicing the longings, sufferings and hopes in all human hearts.
Honest to God, I cry when she prays aloud. Sunday was no exception. She got me weeping when she offered a prayer for all those who serve our country: the writers, the musicians, the soldiers, the philosophers, the pacifists, the poets, the mothers and fathers, the conscientious objectors, the scientists, etc.
What? The soldiers, pacifists and conscientious objectors? I usually hear prayers for those who serve our country limited to those who bear arms. How beautiful for someone to recognize that pacifists and conscientious objectors also serve our country by raising an alternative to war and violence. And I heard it at a 4th of July church service. Amen.