The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 4, 2010 Independence Day
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Today’s gospel, the one set in the lectionary for Independence Day, comes from one of my favorite parts of scripture—the Sermon on the Mount, that long discourse in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus lays out for his audience just what it means to be a disciple. For me, it is truly a handbook for being a Christian. Not everyone views it that way, of course. Figures as illustrious as Martin Luther have argued that the Sermon on the Mount puts discipleship out of the reach of ordinary people by setting an impossibly high standard for behavior, what with the “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.” I prefer to think of it as setting the bar high; as giving us an ideal to strive for: being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. And although we could spend our time lamenting that of course we will never be perfect, or excusing ourselves by saying that since we will never be perfect we may as well not try, it seems to me to be more profitable to strive for becoming more like the God who created us than to dwell in the ways we fall short.
There is no doubt that Jesus does set high standards for us. He begins the portion of the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s gospel is drawn by claiming that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but rather to fulfill them, and then he outlines a number of different ways that his followers are called to go beyond what the law would demand in their relationship with others. It’s easy, he concludes, to care about the folks we like, but if we are to enter into God’s kingdom, we must also care about those we DON’T like, and the ones who don’t like us. No small task, that.
Jesus is not the only one to set high standards. The founders of our country did so as well, and as we celebrate our Independence Day we do well to recall just what those standards are:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In a society in which the divine right of kings was largely unquestioned, in which there were clear social hierarchies and in which power was invested in those with means, these ideals were, like the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount, almost impossibly out of reach. And the rich irony is, even the author of these words and the endorsers of the declaration from which they came applied them selectively. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned human slaves. It took almost 100 years before black men in America were accorded the right to vote and close to another 100 years before it was safe for them to do so. And although women asked for the vote in 1848, they didn’t receive it until 1920, almost 150 years after those words were enshrined in the founding document of our country.
The founding fathers, you see, were defining “all men” as “people like me.” To be fair, they were no different from the major philosophers, theologians and scientists of the day in believing that white males were the epitome of creation, and white males were the group they defined as “all men.” The beauty of what they wrote, of the principle they established, however, is that it is expansive and inclusive enough to take in all of humanity, as we come to grasp that humanity is not limited by gender or race or orientation or any of the others human categories we use to make sense of the world. Just as we must care about those whom we don’t like, so too must we uphold the rights of those who may not be just like us.
And though we’ve made great strides, we still struggle with both standards. We seek to include all of humanity under the umbrella of liberty and justice, even as we nit-pick and argue about how to do so. And we labor as well with loving those we really don’t like—loving our enemies, loving those who don’t see the world we do, loving those whose desires for us are not always good ones.
But love them we must. Care about them we must. Because God does—God loves each and every one of us without prerequisite. God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. And our call is to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.
We won’t make it, of course, not in this lifetime, just as this great nation will not live up to its ideals of liberty for all. But that’s no reason not to try, not to strive to be the people we are called to be. As a nation that means endeavoring to be true champions of justice and beacons of equality; it means welcoming the tired, huddled masses who yearn to breathe free; it means defending the rights of the least among us.
And as followers of Jesus, children of God, it means aiming always to live into the image of God in which we were created; it means turning the other cheek when we’d rather fight back; caring for others who might not care for us in return; giving to other when we’d rather hoard for ourselves; it means loving God and our neighbor and putting that love ahead of everything else.
Easy? Not at all! But think about this: We do this for the God who created us to delight in us and who loved us enough to become incarnate among us, to live and die among us, to take on our pain and our suffering. We do this for the God who continues to love us beyond measure even we when we are utterly unlovable. We do this so that the Kingdom of God might flourish now and forever. Is that not reason enough to try?