On this date two years ago, Paul and I flew up to New England for the Fourth of July. I can confirm this mostly because Facebook reminded me of the year this morning. We stayed with Paul’s middle sister and her husband, and our excuse for the visit was that one of Paul’s many nephews was getting married. The real reason was to be in town to help celebrate his sister’s fiftieth anniversary on the 4th of July.
While we were there, we drove around a pretty big chunk of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, despite a random tropical storm blowing through the Boston area. Even with events cancelled and postponed because of torrential rain, that storm did very little to dampen the mood.
There’s something just a little magical about celebrating Independence Day up there, in the birthplace of American independence. Every roadway is a memorial to some patriot general or battle or march or revolutionary war something. There was more bunting than I could begin to describe, and American flags of every size and historical variety stuck out of every surface, like quills on a porcupine.
We could have attended any number of parades, but we opted to stick close to home. Later that night we watched fireworks from the neighboring township. I was thinking about that trip the other day, trying to remember exactly how many summers ago it was, and I got to thinking about my favorite 4th of July. It was back in 1976, when it seemed like the whole country had bicentennial fever.
My Girl Scout troop painted a couple of fire hydrants to look like something patriotic. We painted murals on our social studies classroom wall. I remember watching tall ships sail into Boston Harbor and those televised fireworks around the Statue of Liberty… Of course the biggest thing was this – In a city league that used the same team names every year, my softball team that summer was called the 76ers. We even wore red, white and blue uniforms.
I was 10 that year, and it seems crazy that was 40 years ago. It’s even crazier to think that in just 10 years, in 2026, we will mark the 250th year since the signing of the Declaration of Independence!
We celebrate a lot of history during this patriotic week.. We remember with pride the signers of the declaration and the revolution that followed as we fought for independence from the tyranny of England. And we remember with sadness the tremendous loss of life at Gettysburg – not even 90 years later.
For enslaved and indentured men and women, the Civil War was about gaining freedom and independence, though from a different type of oppression. Yet that terrible battle against ourselves was also about dependence- could all the states be counted upon to go forward together- as ONE independent nation made up of a group of states united under one government?
Mom and I watched the movie Lincoln last weekend, which was by turns inspiring and depressing. Considering the news of the past months, it strikes me that we still struggle to remain united. Policies around voting rights, immigration, health care, gun ownership, even access to restrooms are deeply divisive. And rhetoric at the state, local, and federal level can make election campaigns and legislative chambers feel more like verbal war zones. These debates are battles for independence too – as one group sees the other as trying to impose their beliefs, understandings or desires.
You see, Independence at its most basic is this: freedom from the control, influence, support or aid of others. An independent nation, then, can set its own laws, establish its own currency, determine alliances, and need not rely on- or answer to- other governments.
Likewise, an independent person
… is not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion or conduct
… is not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction
… is not influenced by the thought or action of others.
… is not dependent upon someone or something else for their existence, and finally,
An independent person does not need to rely on others for aid or support.
That sounds a lot like the person I have aspired to be, the person I was always encouraged to be. It’s the American ideal: A strong-minded, strong-willed person who knows what she wants and goes after it. A person who is self-sufficient.
Now, you may be thinking – that is all quite lovely, but what does all that have to do with our scriptures for the day? Let’s focus on that reading from John’s gospel…
This passage is the beginning of the story we read on Maundy Thursday. It goes on to describe how Judas leaves to set up Jesus’ arrest and when Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times. And right in between those two painful moments, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment, one that explains even more clearly what he was doing as he bent down to wash the feet of those who called him master and teacher, who would call him Lord and Savior.
Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love one another as I have loved you…
willing to humble myself, patiently guiding you, teaching and reteaching you, offering you the very best of myself with no hesitation.
Love one another as I have loved you…
putting on flesh, coming to Earth, experiencing all of your human frailties and afflictions, facing rejection and death on your behalf, and still loving you enough to call you siblings, claiming you for all time.
Love one another as I have loved you…
understanding that their lives are dependent on your loving them fully, sacrificially.Understanding that your lives are fully dependent on one another’s living in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is how people will know you are mine: My love for you will be evident in the love you display for one another, the way you serve one another.
You know, we laugh a lot at poor old Peter. He was always so impetuous, so passionate in his responses to whatever was going on around him.
When Jesus called him, he dropped the nets to follow.
When Jesus called him out onto the waves, he gave it a go.
When Jesus went to wash Peter’s feet, he wanted to take a bath.
Peter would – of course – be the one to lash out at the soldiers in the garden, to lead the others on a night-time fishing expedition, and then to leave them and swim to shore when they heard Jesus calling them in for breakfast.
And while we can get a chuckle out of John’s portrayal of this fisherman who feels so deeply and responds so fully, we can also learn from him. There is a vulnerability in Peter, a whole-heartedness to his love for Jesus, that leads him to ask for even more water, more washing up.
It is this vulnerability, this willingness to step up and take risks, that disappears in those moments of denial and doubt, but reappears when the love of his savior is reaffirmed, and again when Spirit arrives, reigniting his passion.
And when the church is birthed out of Peter’s willingness to stand and speak at the Pentecost festival, the believers live into this commandment of Jesus…
We are told that they shared everything among themselves, that they met regularly, that they ate together often and that they sold property to assure that no one went without.
They loved one another.
They let each other know what they needed, and they looked out for what their neighbors were lacking.
They were the beloved community.
They were dependent on one another.
They weren’t perfect, of course. There were conflicts and falling outs. And Lord knows, the church has only grown in its complexity and in its capacity for conflicts and falling outs in the intervening centuries.
But the fact remains as true as ever that we were made in the image of the triune God, the God in three persons, the God who knew that it was not good for humankind to try to go it alone, and thus created a partnership between our first parents.
The story of the fall isn’t about a talking snake or about Adam and Eve being foolish or even about what God did or didn’t know in advance. The story is about humanity coming to understand the nature of good and the nature of evil, and the fact that we can and do choose between them each and every day. Many many times each and every day.
The story is about our desire to be part of a world at peace, a world in which we are in a perfect loving relationship with God and with all of Creation.
The stories that follow, of Noah and Abram, of the Tower of Babel, of all the patriarchs and matriarchs, all the kings and prophets and idols and their messes… All of those stories give hope to succeeding generation, showing and telling us that we are not alone in our mess, that our God still loves us, still has hope for us, and still longs for us to choose love over power, to choose love over gain, to choose love over violence, to choose love over fear.
And isn’t that the story of Jesus?
Love made human, love who gave up power, love who trusted friends and strangers to provide lodging and meals, love who turned the other cheek and forgave those who nailed him to a cross, love that feared nothing and conquered the very thing we fear the most – death.
The story of our nation is just as messy, just as full of prideful and stiff-necked people, with a culture equally prone to idolatries and violence as the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Old Testament, and the pharisees, sadducees, scribes and Romans in the New Testament.
The desire for independence from England, to be able to determine our own future was partly based on strength, but also on fear…Fear that the ones we depended on might turn on us, or abandon us, fear of an unknown future, fear of the unknown other. Similar fears drove leaders of the confederate states to withdraw from the union. And we see it again in the British referendum to withdraw from the European Union.
Making one of many, whether combining people into families, combining neighbors into churches, combining states into nations, or countries into trade federations… is way more work than an invitation and good intentions. Being one requires us to share, to serve, to place the good of the whole ahead of our own fears. Which, if we look back at the history of the world… is not something we humans maintain well, at least not for long.
We have a fear problem.
A violence problem.
A power problem.
Individually and corporately, we are afflicted and addicted. You can see it in whatever groupings we create.
And the only cure for our addictions to war, prejudice, violence, greed and power is love: Love in the form of inter-dependence.
It is only when we are willing to serve and be served, when we are willing to honor others’ vulnerability by being vulnerable ourselves, when we are willing to stop holding so tightly to our own privilege and begin to speak out on behalf of others. It is only when we love one another as Christ loved us that we can break free of the shackles that bind us to fear.
Oh- and in case you were wondering that “one another” we are meant to be loving does still include our neighbors and our enemies, not just the people we get along with, or even just the ones normally in the rooms into which we most often walk.. Because our neighbors and enemies are all too often the ones we fear, the ones we pretend are not worthy of God’s love, and thus are not worthy of our notice or time.
I was deeply saddened to hear that Elie Wiesel died yesterday. I remember reading his memoir, Night, when I was between high school and college. His account of his and his father’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II shattered me. I was heartbroken. And I was confused.
It made no sense to me. I literally had no framework from which to understand the depth of depravity that he described. I couldn’t imagine harboring anything resembling that prejudice, hatred and evil – not in my own heart. Not in a million years
I now know that simply isn’t true.
I have allowed my fear, my selfishness, my desire to protect my property, my beliefs, my being right, my sense of superiority, even…
I have allowed each of these things, at various times, to change my perception of strangers.
I have made unfair assumptions based on dress, lumped people into categories based on skin color, pretended to know all about them and their motives, created back-stories for them. All without asking for their stories or learning anything about their lives.
I may never have sent someone to a gas chamber, but I have certainly shamed them, shunned them, chosen not to share even part of my abundance, perhaps allowing them to go hungry or become ill.
I have only recently begun to understand how my prejudices were shaped by my hometown, my education, my church, this nation that I love.
And the more I learn about what my choices, my lack of action, my silence, my desire to remain comfortable or comfortably employed has meant for those who depend on people like me… people with choices and platforms and privilege to act and to speak… to be honest, I am shattered once more.
I want to share with you a part of the speech Elie Wiesel offered upon being presented the Nobel Peace prize in 1986:
There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.
As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
Luke’s gospel account tells us that when Jesus started his public ministry, he read this passage from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The people waited for Jesus to begin teaching, to do the explicating, exegeting thing that preachers do, but stood and he said one thing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was essentially saying, “I am the one you’ve been waiting for. I am the one who will bring freedom, healing, comfort and favor to those who have been oppressed, held captive, left hungry and blind. I am the one who will meet those needs in this physical world and in the spiritual realm, as I bring the power of forgiveness to bear on the burden of your sins, all in the name of the Lord.”
That is what his ministry was all about.
That is what our call to love is all about – being the Body of Christ, built up in love, united in our baptism, made one at the Lord’s table, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the embodiment of what the world is again waiting for:Faith. Hope. Love.
Not in the form of a nation that waves flags and whose citizens are concerned about who deserves what rights and which policies should benefit whom, but really mostly worried about me and mine…
Instead we are to be building the Kingdom of God, a place of belonging and providing, serving and healing, welcoming and feeding.It is a kingdom in which we know we can’t go it alone, either, and so we depend on one another. And depend on God, to be present, to lead, to provide.
Independence Day tends to linger, doesn’t it? The flags slowly come down and the last of the fireworks explode in our neighborhoods over the next couple of nights.
My prayer is that our inter-dependence would linger far longer. That we who live in this Independent Union of states might become even more dependent on God and on one another, living as fervently into Jesus’ commandments as we pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Because a nation living in dependence would be worth celebrating with some serious fireworks!