The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Independence Day: by faith, by faith, by faith
© 2017 Frank B Crumbaugh III
The words given to any event or moment are important. Jefferson chose carefully as he crafted our Declaration of Independence. He wrote an Enlightenment-soaked essay expressing troublesome particulars of human life in 18th century British North America. Its occasion of course was the formal public enunciation of a previously undeclared truth: many of Britain’s North American possessions were in open, armed rebellion against the Crown, they had been for some time, and there were reasons why. British colonial administration had become unbearable for many of His Majesty’s subjects in North America. Our cultural ethos was developing; it was no longer wholly British, and it required time and space in which to mature. Jefferson chose words expressing all of this with a memorable, elegant clarity.
When ordering liturgy, as in declaring rebellion, words matter and are chosen carefully. The words- the lessons, Gospel and the psalm, the proper preface and the collect- all are designed to express the day and the focus of our worship. Knowing the day in the calendar, there are times when we immediately are drawn into the celebration by the words chosen, and there are other times when we wonder how the lessons we’re using were meant to frame and guide our worship on the day.
At first glance, today’s epistle is one of those confusing if not utterly baffling cases. Today’s lesson from Hebrews better supports the Thanksgiving Day liturgy than the liturgy for Independence Day. There is a decidedly Pilgrim rather than Revolutionary voice here:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
-Hebrews 11:8-16, NRSV
Hebrews 11 shows us an old man and his household getting to their feet, walking at God’s bidding toward something/someplace new and different. Pilgrims indeed.
So how might this epistle focus and inform our worship on this national day? How are we to keep clear this day, and this lesson on it?
The key is the lovely repetition of “by faith.” Migration from one place to another is indeed more Pilgrim than Revolutionary, yet what binds both the Pilgrim and the Revolutionary is Faith. It takes one expression of Faith to hear God and follow Him on a journey, and another expression of Faith to ask what’s next and respond...but it is all the same Faith because it is the same God. Hebrews with comforting rhythm repeats “by faith” to illustrate Abraham hearing the call to migrate, hearing the call the dwell as a migrant, hearing the call to prosper and grow...and he hears these things and responds to them “by faith.”
“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
We celebrate Independence Day remembering the courage to hope, and having hoped, the courage to act; we cannot overstate the courage of the Revolutionary leadership. They got committed, and they acted. We keep the day reverencing their worthy example, having the hope to be as brave in our own time and context. Our sentimentality, however, can easily obscure their understanding of how things were arrayed. While they had confidence in each other, they had faith in God. Jefferson’s opening invokes “Nature’s God,” and his closing words make clear the strength in which the Congress understood themselves to act: “...for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Translated: “Faith in God provides committed confidence in each other, not the other way ‘round.” However speculative, Deistic, or agnostic we think Jefferson & Co. were, he wrote Truth when he invoked divine Providence. Thank you, Mr. Jefferson.
…by faith, by faith, by faith is the refrain of our forebears, and that’s why today’s lesson from Hebrews is absolutely spot-on perfect as we keep Independence Day.
And it is a Pilgrim sermon preached in 1630, just as well as if not better than a Revolutionary manifesto published in 1776, that reminds us of the inescapable obligations of Independence Day:
“Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Thank you, Governor Winthrop.
A city upon a hill. When Hebrews says “...a homeland...a better country, that is, a heavenly one...,” it describes the land promised to Abraham. It describes our hopes for the nation whose birth we celebrate. A city upon a hill. This hope, and the obligations deriving from the realization of this hope, drove Winthrop to admonish us 146 years before Jefferson’s breathtaking Declaration when he preached:
“...we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Please God, let us always give evidence of a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” so that we may never “be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Happy Independence Day. Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 2 July 2017 kept with episcopal permission as Independence Day