July 7, 2019
Who’s on the Boat? – July 7, 2019
Who’s on the Boat?
Sermon for Independence Day, transferred
July 7, 2019
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48
Today, we’re celebrating the feast of Independence Day, transferred from July 4. That probably sounds strange, “the feast of Independence Day,” unless we’re talking about lots of hamburgers and frankfurters sizzling on the grill. But Independence Day is one of only two secular holidays that have made it onto the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar (the other is Thanksgiving Day). So, it’s good to think about why July 4 might be there: What is it about our nation’s birthday that makes it count as a feast day in Jesus Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?
Well, I believe there is much that is good, even godly, in the dream and vision of the American nation. In fact, there’s so much that’s good – despite all the ways our country feels broken right now – there’s so much that’s good that thousands of people still come seeking it, hoping to share in the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In theological terms, I might even say those thousands of people still come here because the dream and vision of America is a nation that helps people grow into the full measure of who we’re created to be – each of us made in the image and likeness of the God who is Love.
That’s all well and good. What’s hard, of course, is putting that vision into practice, especially in a culture where the separation of church and state is one of our founding tenants. Now, that “wall of separation” has served us well; but I think we’re tempted to extend it too far, applying it not just to our government but to our own lives. We’re tempted to think that our faith, and our Church, should have plenty to say about our individual behavior but little or nothing to say about our collective behavior.
To be more specific: I hear people say all the time that they don’t want preaching to be political. I get that. Many of you know more about government, economics, social issues, and international relations than I do. Plus, like many of you, on the Sabbath day I also enjoy thinking about something other than our less-than-perfect Union. So, I get it that you don’t want me telling you what to say in your letters to your representatives any more than I want you telling me what to say in mine.
And, that being said: How we live our lives is not just a private endeavor. We are bound together in community – as Americans, as Midwesterners, as Kansas Citians, as the St. Andrew’s family. And, more deeply, we are bound together through our primary identity – as beloved children of the one God who is Love.
So, as we celebrate the Church’s feast of America’s Independence Day, what might both our nation’s history and our commitment to Jesus Christ tell us about how to go about this hard work of living not just individually but in community?
As I said maybe a couple of months ago when I stood up here and talked about abortion, I believe we have a key that helps us turn the lock of ethical living, as individuals and as a nation; and we find it in our Baptismal Covenant. There, in the last two promises, we say that we’ll seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and that we’ll strive for justice and peace. Specifically, I believe the key that turns the lock to ethical living comes at the end of that final baptismal promise, when we pledge to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).
To flesh this out, I want to share with you a journey I was blessed to take on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Ann and I went to New York to see Dan and Kathryn, both of whom now live there. Plus, you know, it’s New York, so we did some sightseeing, too.
One of our stops was the Museum of Jewish Heritage, overlooking New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. We were there to see a special exhibit on the experience of Jews and other persecuted groups at Auschwitz during World War II. The exhibit told the story of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany – posters and films telling lies that turned neighbors into subhumans; the bankrupt science of eugenics, which sought to “prove” concocted differences among people based on race; the destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. Maps, charts, and graphs told of millions of people taken away in cattle cars to work as slaves or to be killed immediately in the camps.
But the exhibition also personalized the Holocaust, telling the stories of victims and letting survivors speak for themselves. And at the end, in the last room, was a montage of home movies, moments from the lives of German and Polish Jews before the war, people just doing what we all do on a beautiful summer day – playing with their kids, or going swimming, or picnicking in the park. It was a powerful way to remember that every one of these murdered millions was a child of God, nothing more and nothing less; and that the Holocaust is what happens when people let the inherent dignity of others slip away.
The other powerful visit Ann and I made was to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. The museum includes two buildings on Orchard Street that housed immigrants from all over the world from the 1840s through the 1980s – saloon owners, shop keepers, factory workers, garment workers, clothing retailers, airline pilots, a cross-section of working life. The spaces told the stories of specific families living and working in those buildings across the decades, how they built new lives in a new land.
What really sticks with me is the story of Kalman and Rivka Epstein – two Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.1 Either one of them could have been in the home movies I’d seen the day before. Rivka was held at Bergen-Belsen, and Kalman was held at Auschwitz. After the liberation, they met at a refugee camp in occupied Germany, where they got married. They made their way to America in 1947, at a time when the United States was expanding refugee immigration so more people could come from devasted Europe.2 Kalman worked in the garment industry and eventually owned his uncle’s dress shop.
The Epsteins came to the Lower East Side because of the rich Jewish community there, but they also built relationships with neighbors from many countries – especially because Kalman and Rivka owned the first TV in their building.
They also had two daughters, Bella and Bluma. In the daughters’ room was a record player and a 45 that Bella had played over and over – a doo-wop number by Paul Anka, whose photo hung over the record player. Bella wanted badly to be a “real” American, and listening to Paul Anka made her feel that way. She probably didn’t know Paul Anka was Canadian; nor did she know that he was the child of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. To the teenager Bella, Paul Anka’s haircut and his music were what America looked and sounded like.
Of course, as Ann and I were on our trip to New York, we all started to see news reports about immigrant children at the Southern border and the conditions in which they’re being housed. Now, we can talk about immigration policy all day, and I’m happy to go have coffee with anybody who’d like to look at those hard questions through a theological lens. But I imagine I’m safe in figuring that all of us think kids caught up in systems they can’t control or understand should have diapers and toothbrushes and basic medical care, no matter where they come from. Right? I really don’t see us disputing that, regardless of how open we believe America’s golden doors should be.
We believe people deserve the dignity of basic cleanliness and care for the same reasons that the story of the Epstein family in New York is so compelling. First, as Americans, we believe our nation is a place of aspiration and hope for people in countries where aspiration and hope are reserved for the elite. And second, as followers of Jesus, we believe that all people are children of God; thatall people are made in God’s image and likeness; that all people are worthy of love and justice; and that each one of us, in our own way, is called to promote the dignity of others – especially when their dignity is threatened.
Acting for the dignity of others can look many ways. First, our most powerful act is to pray. Beyond that, maybe it’s choosing to hire people who have a story like Kalman and Rivka Epstein. Maybe it’s mentoring a child at one of our partner schools. Maybe it’s giving toward the work of organizations, including Episcopal ministries, that are caring for people seeking asylum and resettlement.3 Maybe it’s working with people preparing for American citizenship, helping them learn what they need to know. Maybe it’s writing your congressional representative, advocating for dignity as God’s starting point for all public policy, regardless of how the legislative sausage ends up.
This is the nation we imagine as we celebrate the Fourth of July. As the writer of Hebrews says about eternal life, so we believe about our nation’s life: We always “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). And getting there requires us to act, however that looks for you. As Jesus calls us this morning, strive “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
On the front of the bulletin is a photo I wanted to share with you. This is what you see as you exit the Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The view is of New York Harbor, and the little figure on the right is the Statue of Liberty. Passing through the frame is a boat filled with passengers, which seems fitting for a harbor that holds the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I’m sure it’s a sightseeing boat, filled with people like you and me, taking in our nation’s history on a beautiful afternoon. But I think it’s worth asking: What if this were a different kind of boat? What if the people on it came from places very different from ours? Would their dignity matter any less?
I believe this is why we celebrate Independence Day as a feast of the Church and not simply a chance to feast on tasty grilled delights from the German cities of Hamburg and Frankfurt. Despite the separation of church and state, we celebrate our nation’s birthday in the church because it helps us remember who we are. For, as Americans, we are at our best when we remember that out of many, we are one; and that as one, we are called to help many grow into the fullness of whom they’re created to be – each a beloved child, made in the image and likeness of God.
- For more of their story, see the museum’s website, https://www.tenement.org/explore/103-orchard-street/.
- Beginning with an executive order by President Truman in December 1945 and continuing with the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the U.S. government fostered the immigration of more than 400,000 “displaced persons” into the United States through 1952. Of these, about 16 percent (about 64,000 people) were recorded as being Jewish. See Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. 103-112.
- Episcopal examples at the Southern border include Team Brownsville – Humanitarian Assistance for Asylum Seekers (https://www.teambrownsville.org/); the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande (https://www.dioceserg.org/Ministries/asylum-seekers); and the Diocese of Texas’ partnership with Catholic Charities’ Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen (https://bit.ly/2YecUND).