July 5, 2020
A Better Country, That Is, a Heavenly One – July 5, 2020
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Sermon for Independence Day, transferred
Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48
Fr. Jeff likes to note how he often assigns himself to preach when we have really tough readings, and that’s true. Just for the record, I want to note that not only did I get the sacrifice of Isaac last week, but I’m also now preaching about Independence Day, and therefore American history, at a moment when people across the country are demanding that statues of national figures be taken down. In fact, right here in Kansas City, we hear calls to remove the statues of President Andrew Jackson from the county courthouses,1 and the K.C. Parks and Recreation Commissioners last week voted to remove the name of J.C. Nichols from his fountain and street on the Plaza.2 I think all that should earn me some points on the tough-assignment scoreboard back in the office.
So – let’s start with our first reading for the Feast of Independence Day, from the Letter to the Hebrews. “By faith, by faith, by faith,” it says, part of a longer section of Hebrews that traces the faithfulness of Israel’s heroes: Abel, Noah, and Abraham, whose journey of faith we’ve been tracing for a few weeks now; and then later on to Moses, Gideon, Sampson, David, Samuel; as well as those who brought down “the walls of Jericho after [surrounding them] for seven days” (11:30). More on that in a minute.
The writer of Hebrews looks to these heroes of Israelite history not just because of what they did but, even more, because of what they sought. The letter says, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They were “seeking a homeland … a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (11:13-16)
So, here we are this Independence Day weekend, celebrating our history, and our heroes, and our hope. As I said, this year it comes amid conflict over taking down monuments to men once lauded but now despised by some for their policies and beliefs about people they saw as less than human. That’s the critique of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson did a lot to democratize our politics, but he also helped destroy Native people’s civilizations … and, by the way, held African people in slavery, as did so many of our leaders.
So … removing statues, or renaming streets and fountains – that’s probably not what you tuned in for this morning as we celebrate the United States and pray for guidance to “use our liberty in accordance with [God’s] gracious will” (BCP 258). I’d be happy to go have a beer with you and hear what you think, as well as sharing what I think, about the specifics of honoring Andrew Jackson, or J.C. Nichols, or Robert E. Lee. But maybe the Church’s celebration of our country could be an opportunity to step back and see this controversy in a different light.
Among the heroes mentioned, at least indirectly, in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews are those who brought down the walls of Jericho after surrounding that city for seven days. You may remember the story from Sunday School or from the old spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” It’s from the Book of Joshua, which tells of the conquest of the Promised Land by the people of Israel.
Here’s a quick recap: Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and then into the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where they wandered for a couple of generations. God let Moses see the land of Canaan, the land God had promised to the Israelites; but Moses died just before they crossed the Jordan River. With Moses’ death, his assistant, Joshua, takes command – literally. This band of wilderness wanderers has now become an army. As God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt, so God stops the flow of the Jordan River to let them move into the Promised Land on dry ground. And God directs them to conquer that land, giving very specific instructions how and where to fight and testing their faithfulness along the way. The Israelite army is sometimes faithful to God’s directions, like when they surround Jericho and bring down its walls with just a trumpet blast. But they sometimes ignore God’s directions, which eventually keeps the Israelites from taking all of Canaan as promised (Judges 2:1-5). That’s the version of the Book of Joshua many of us have heard before.
And … if you step back from this story of a people striving to be faithful to God’s promises, you also have a story of a nation seeking to wipe out indigenous people and take their land. And this is even more problematic than it sounds because, according to the Book of Joshua, they’re doing that because God tells them to. “Proceed to cross the Jordan…,” God says. “Every place that the sole of your feet will tread upon, I have given to you. … No one shall be able to stand against you….” (1:2-3,5) And Scripture doesn’t spare the gruesome details. At Jericho, the story says, “they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” and “burned down the city and everything in it” (6:21,24). That’s not exactly the picture of loving your neighbor we usually like to hold up. Even if the land was promised to the Israelites – Lord, was there really no way to put them there other than killing the people who were there first?
This is not just a question of Biblical interpretation, though that’s significant enough. The story of the Israelites doing God’s will by invading another country – that story was used as a paradigm for Manifest Destiny here, as our nation took over the lands of the Native peoples. Preachers and politicians alike pointed to the Book of Joshua specifically to justify why it was OK to take the land of the people who were there first and kill them in the process.3
It probably won’t surprise you that the Book of Joshua is not my favorite in the Biblical canon. I read those stories of conquest, and think about how they’ve been used in American history, and remember a mission trip to the Rosebud Sioux reservation we took here a few years ago, and think about the devastation of Native life – and I don’t really much want to read the Book of Joshua. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t in the Bible at all.
So, should I start a movement to drop Joshua from the Biblical canon? (It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. Martin Luther wanted to remove four books from the core of the Bible and turn them into an appendix.4) Dropping the Book of Joshua might feel satisfying. It might even be healing for the faithful people we met living on the Rosebud, and millions like them.
But then, I think about what we’d lose without the Book of Joshua. It’s a cautionary tale that, even when we’re doing what we believe is God’s will, we can’t just do it any way we want. Part of faithfulness is self-limitation, following God’s ways even when it’s inconvenient – and you find that in Joshua, as God limits the invading army’s right to pillage, for example. Joshua is also a tale of courage, of trusting God even when the numbers are against you or when you’ve wandered in the wilderness and your trust is pretty well spent. We need to hear those divine words when our backs are against the wall – as God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (1:9). And, the Book of Joshua is a tale of commitment to God, with Joshua challenging the people to step up: He says, serve the Lord “in sincerity and faithfulness…. [C]hoose this day whom you shall serve, whether the gods your ancestors served … or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (24:14-15). That’s inspiring stuff. So, if I don’t like the conquest of the Canaanites, and if I could take the Book of Joshua out of the Bible, what might I lose in the process?
Well, instead, we could deal with the Book of Joshua in all its messiness. We could let ourselves be inspired by this study in faithfulness and make ourselves ask hard questions of a text that’s justified the taking of lands and extermination of peoples. We could embrace the complexity of this story, and the complexity of our national story, and the complexity of our own stories – the need to look our own sinfulness in the eye and give thanks that God sees more to us than that.
Dealing with complexity … that doesn’t seem to be among our greatest strengths as a nation right now. Too often, we want answers that boil down to slogans on signs or ballcaps, and we’d really prefer to hear from people who already carry the same sign or wear the same ballcap as we do.
But I hear a different call from Jesus in today’s second reading – a call to harder and better work. He tells us, “[L]ove your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Now, loving our enemies might take many shapes, but I think listening to our enemies might be the essential start to whatever would come next. You cannot love a person whose heart and mind you will not hear. Now, that’s hard work. But it’s also the work I think our nation needs most right now.
And, it’s work that will lead us one step closer to the seemingly impossible call Jesus gives us at the end of today’s Gospel reading. If we only love those who love us – if we only listen to the points of view that reinforce our existing narrative and pillory those who think differently – “what reward do you have?” Jesus asks. “Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Instead, he says, “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Well, perfection may not sound like a goal we can achieve, but we can’t hide behind the apparent impossibility of that call. Jesus isn’t telling us we can’t make any mistakes. That word in Greek we translate as “perfect” is about something more complex – it’s about becoming whole, becoming complete, becoming mature.5 It’s about a journey toward the mystery and complexity of God – a God, our stories say, who says and does things we just don’t get: testing the most faithful person ever, giving a land to one people but at devastating cost to another, asking us to give up all our possessions and rely on God alone. That’s not a faithfulness of sound bites. It’s a faithfulness of deep and prayerful engagement with points of view we only begin to understand. It’s a faithfulness that leads us toward what we all want this Independence Day, whatever sign we carry or ballcap we wear – the faithfulness that strives for us to be “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
- Schwers, Kaitlyn. “Frank White calls for removal of Andrew Jackson statues in front of county courthouses.” Kansas City Star. Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article243809567.html. Accessed July 3, 2020.
- Adler, Eric. “Kansas City parks board strikes J.C. Nichols’ name from Plaza fountain and street.” Kansas City Star. Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article243882737.html. Accessed July 3, 2020.
- For more information, see Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Joshua-3-D-Commentary-Biblical-Conquest/dp/160608819X.
- Barton, John. A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book. New York: Viking, 2019. 395.
- HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 1868 (note).