Happy Fourth of July! I think many of us have looked forward to today, and tomorrow’s federal holiday, and this long weekend for a long time. The sense of having a close-to-carefree summer holiday after so much sadness and difficulty over COVID is very welcome.
Here in Church this is a day with a double focus for us this year. It is, of course, the birthday of our nation, Independence Day, and it is also the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. As much as we are embedded in the civic community and the wider world, the Church keeps its own calendar, its own rhythm of life, and always has. Sometimes that rhythm intersects with the secular calendar, and other times it doesn’t – even though we do recognize and pray for and respond to the concerns of the world around us - God’s world. And so, I want to reflect a bit on the Church calendar.
The history of the Episcopal Church in America is very much wrapped up in the early history of our country. Once the United States became independent from the British crown, American Anglicans could no longer be part of the Church of England. So, after much prayer, discussion, discernment, and argument and wrangling, the leaders of those colonial Anglican parishes came together to become the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America in 1789. The first American Book of Common Prayer was published that same year; and the Preface to that first book is still in our current Prayer Book. You can find it on page 9.
In setting forth the Church calendar the leaders of our new Church included two national civic days as major feast days: Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day. In both cases the clergy and lay leaders saw God’s goodness and providence at work in having come through the Revolutionary War and in the establishment of this new nation. Those two days have remained major feast days in our Church calendar – right up there with the feast days of important saints like Paul, Archangel Michael, and Mary the mother of Jesus.
But the Prayer Book is also clear that in our worship and liturgical life Sunday – the Day of Resurrection, the “little Easter” every week, the Lord’s Day – is the most important celebration we have and there are only a small handful of occasions that take precedence over the Sunday readings and themes. If you want to see the details of this, they are laid out very clearly beginning on page 15 in the Prayer Book.
This may seem trivial or nit-picky; important only for people planning liturgy, but it is not. This order of precedence or importance in the Church calendar helps us Christians to keep our priorities in good order. We are to keep Jesus Christ our Lord front and center, and Jesus’ saving death and resurrection first and foremost. That comes first – even before major feast days, before civic holidays, before Independence Day. When we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we are saying that he is our highest loyalty and everything else in our lives gets in line after that priority.
That principal is at work in our service today. We opted to us the Old Testament reading and the Psalm that responds to it that are appointed for Independence Day in keeping with the church calendar instruction. The Collect, Epistle, and Gospel are the assigned readings for the Sunday – the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
Placing the reading from Deuteronomy and the passage from Mark’s Gospel alongside one another can help to keep this priority of our Christian discipleship in focus.
The first reading reminds us that God comes first and foremost, as well as highlighting God’s character: mighty and awesome, not partial, executing justice for the needy, loving the stranger. And because we worship and follow the Lord God, we are enjoined to do the same. The ancient Israelites were to remember with humility that they themselves had been strangers in Egypt and were enjoined to care for the stranger in their midst; to exercise God’s mercy.
I wonder if our early Episcopal Church forebearers chose this reading for Independence Day because they knew it was their duty and responsibility as Christian people to take these sorts of actions towards their larger society. Perhaps they also hoped that their new country would embody these same values and practices – even if they were more honored in the breach than in actual fact.
Then in the Gospel we hear Jesus preaching in his home-town synagogue, the place where he grew up, amongst people who had known him all his life. But that very familiarity prevented his neighbors from believing what they were hearing, and they dismissed him out of hand. ‘What makes him so special? Who does he think he is?’
The people of the Nazareth congregation would not allow themselves to see God at work in and through Jesus. They narrowed their minds and their vision to the point that they could not get on board with his ministry.
But Jesus was not held back by that limiting unbelief. He moved on to other communities, and sent the Twelve core disciples out in ministry, as well – partners in Jesus’ mission of calling people to turn to God in new and renewed ways, confronting evil, working to bring God’s healing and wholeness to the lives of people and communities.
This is still the ministry that Christ calls us to today. We are still asked to embody the values that Deuteronomy speaks of. We modern-day disciples are still to be conduits and agents of God’s love, and healing, and blessing to others in whatever ways the Spirit nudges us.
In order for us to do that we need to have our priorities straight: our loyalty and commitment to our Risen Lord, first and foremost. Everything after that gets ordered in line by prayer and wise discernment - our relationships, responsibilities, recreation, and civic engagement.
This is a day on which we have much to remember and celebrate and give thanks for; our country and all the best that it represents and embodies. But even more, we give thanks for our faith and salvation and life in Christ.
Let us pray.
Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the church in one;
holy Zion's help forever,
and her confidence alone.
May these words be true in our hearts and our lives. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 4, 2021