Sermon Archives

Sunday, June 24, 2018
The 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Identity, Faith, and Civic Life

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Friends, you will forgive me for diving straight into the heart of the matter, however, there have matters of such weight this past week in our common, civic life that they require substantive attention within the context of our faith, and such attention takes a bit of time.  And let me be clear, the matter before us this morning – and what has been facing us as a nation -- is not strictly a question of political policy or position.  Convenient as it may be to say that all supporters of a more stringent enforcement of American borders are callous, un-sympathetic legalists or that all who advocate for a path to citizenship for DREAMERs and border policy that doesn’t separate parents from children are enemies of our police, military, and state, and simply want to replace American society.

Neither is true.

Those who advocate for the enforcement of our laws remind us that our society, any society for that matter, in no small part is held together by the common laws that we uphold and obey.  They remind us as well that safety in all forms – physical, legal, political, cultural, religious – is fundamental to a free state.

Similarly, those who take up the mantle for DREAMERs, remind us that the enforcement of laws should be on those who commit the crime, not their children and grandchildren.  And those who have stood up for the union of children and parents have challenged us as a people to find ways to practice our laws with compassion and care.

Part of the fray of the current political climate is that such partisan name calling and diminishment is too often where the conversation turns and quickly ends.  We seem completely unable to move beyond the diminishment of the other to engage the very substantive principles as play.

Now, there are some among us who may say such conversation is interesting, perhaps even essential, at our dinner tables, but not for the church or the pulpit.  And if I were to simply say to you that this political party or this politician is right and good, then I would agree.

It is essential, however, for us in this place to look at the fundamental tenets of our faith as they apply to our civic life.  And beyond all the rhetoric of this past week, there have been two underlying questions of such weight and significance that they demand our attention today.

Who are we? Underlying all of the questions about immigration, and our treatment of those who come to our borders from foreign land, is a question of identity.

Similarly, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions made clear, there is an equally pressing question regarding the interplay of our faith and our civil life.  For the moment, I’d like to begin here.

It is argued, as I’ve already mentioned, that faith and politics should not mix.  On the surface of things, this is essential, but from one direction.  Our nation is founded on the principal that state shall not infringe on the religious liberties of our people.  It is not true, however, that people of faith must leave there faith out of their political life – that is neither faithful nor possible.  Not possible because our faith -- in whatever form our faith takes – forms the very foundation of all the decisions (personal, relational, political) that we make.  Whatever, forms the ultimate concern of our life, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich – patriotism, capitalism, hedonism, Jesus of Nazareth – will be inextricably linked to the decisions we make, including our political choices.

As Christians, however, such a separation of faith and politics (again from the perspective of the faithful), is not reflective of the life of Christ.  While Christianity has always acknowledged the importance of civil authorities in the ordering of our common life – and therefore our civil participation in society – we have also acknowledged that there is a law beyond any civil – or religious, for that matter – authority.  We need look no further than Jesus himself.  We was arrested by religious authorities and crucified by Roman authorities because he threatened the religious and civil laws of his day.  Whether he was healing on the Sabbath or proclaiming a kingdom beyond Rome, Jesus called his disciples to engage human society with a fundamental, two-fold commandment upon their heart, a combination of mandates that superseded – and simultaneously fulfilled – any human law establised:  Love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  And the second is like unto it:  thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

As Christians, we are not called to blindly follow the civil government because they have authority and such obedience makes for a civil society.  Rather, we are called to engage civil society with these two commands on our heart – where society fulfills our call to love God and our neighbor, amen.  Where is fails to honor either, we must resist.  Such a discernment is not easy – but is a foundation of our faith.

Now, to the first of our questions:  Who are we?

As I mentioned, underlying all of the questions about immigration, and our treatment of those who come to our borders from foreign land, lies a most critical question concerning our identity.

Politically, this is answered:  “we” are Americans and “they” are foreigners.

But this is not where we begin in this house.  Here within these walls, and I pray within our personal lives as Christians, we begin somewhere else.

As Christians, I pray that we remember that our human identity transcends our national or political identify.  We are first sisters and brothers of the human family.  As the great missional collect from Morning Prayer reminds us – “O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.”  We must remember that, at the beginning of time, we were not made Americans and foreigners, republicans or democrats, blacks or whites, straight or gay, rich or poor; we were made male and female in God’s image.  We were made to be sisters and brothers of the human and divine family, to walk in love with one another.

Sisters and brothers; that is our first identity.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is the foundation of our identity as Christians.

But we don’t stop there.

Our tradition reminds us that, even more than these modern identities that make us unique gifts to one another, there stands another identity that binds us together – we all have been aliens in a foreign land.  Eve and Adam, themselves condemned for breaking God’s first command to them, are exiled from their native land.  Abraham, too, is called to set out from his home to the foreign land of the Canaanites.  Generations later, the descendants of Abraham find themselves enslaved in Egypt, itself another foreign land, only to be set free from their bondage, but not the command to remember who they are and have been – exiles in a foreign land.[1]  By the time of Jesus, the first century Jewish community had become foreigners within their own land.  And, of course, Jesus and his holy parents experienced the life of refugees and immigrants themselves, fleeing to Egypt as Matthew recounts only to return years later to their home in Nazareth.

This is our heritage, too.  And not only our religious heritage, but our human heritage as well.  Scratch but a little, and we will see that the blood we bleed ourselves is the blood of foreigners and exiles on strange soil.  We ourselves come from ancestors who either fled impoverishment or political or religious persecution, coming to this land seeking a better, freer, safer life.

Foreigners and exiles, this, too, is who we are, and our faith demands that we not forget the truth of this identity, either.

You will notice something else, I suspect, as Christians we are reminded that our core identity is not something that divides us from others, but rather unites us to all.  The fact that we are Christians, must never be used to divide us from the common humanity we share as children of God or the common experience we share is exiles and foreigners.

But we do not stop there.  In this room, we must remember as well that we take on a unique identity in faith – Christ to one another and the world.  In our baptism we take on the very image of Christ – it is our life work to become the full stature of Christ in the world.  At the heart of our Eucharistic celebration this and every Sunday is this same truth – that we are called to become the living body of Christ who fills us.

This is who we are.  Sisters and brothers, exiles and foreigners, members of the Body of Christ.

Which leads up back to our engagement with the world.  Friends, sisters and brothers, we do not simply follow the laws of the land because they are the laws of the land – if that were the case we would be proud British citizens to this day.

As Christians, we are called first to follow the two-fold command to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  These are the fundamental laws that must govern our personal, social, and even political life.  We must ask ourselves at all time – how does this practice, how does the policy – reflect the love that we have for God and our neighbor.

But this mustn’t be limited to the policies we advocate and the parties that we follow.  These two commandments must also govern the manner in which we engage – the manner in which we protest – unjust laws, and the manner in which we engage individuals across the political landscape.  Jesus spent his life not only engaging laws and a political structure that stood in conflict with the kingdom of heaven he proclaimed, but the very people who opposed him, arrested and imprisoned him, persecuted him, and even put him to death.  And through it all this two-fold command shaped his life and his relationships – even unto death, he chose to love his neighbor as himself.

This was the law that Jesus followed.  This is law that Jesus left to this disciples.  This is the law we are called to follow still today.

Friends, the diminishment we inflict on one another, is as much a sin as is the policies we, at times, enforce upon one another.

Let us not forget who we are.  Even more, may our actions reveal who are.

[1] Exodus 22:21