On this very day in 1982, I stood in the pulpit of a 900 year-old Anglican Church in the English village of Whaplode, near Lincoln, near the North Sea. In an exciting pulpit exchange, I was there to preach for the four Sundays in July while my British counterpart, the Vicar of that lovely and ancient parish, was to preach during the same time period in my parish in Westchester County, New York.
We had traded housing and cars as well as pulpits. Sunny and I lived in a beautiful vicarage in a meadow near the woods that lay between the house and the church building. I heard later that the Vicar of Whaplode had taken my Datsun 210 for a spin and had put it back in the garage and had never taken it out again. Seems that driving on the wrong side of the road and steering from the wrong side of the car were more than he wanted to deal with. Across the ocean, I was having identical problems. To add to my difficulties, the roads over there were in many places narrower and decidedly more curvy than our New York streets and highways. But I did not have the luxury of putting the car away and turning to other matters. We were there to see the country. We were only obligated to be in the village on Sundays. Otherwise we were free to travel all week long. But there was a nationwide rail strike. And Sunny, my bride of two years, was saying, "You are not going to let those little problems keep us from seeing England, are you?" And so I suffered the tortures of knowing I was going to die at any time, any turn, any lorry. I was backwards and upside down and only God got us through it.
But perhaps at least as great a challenge was preaching on the 4th of July. Here I was in the mother country, for whom July 4th is surely no holiday. And yet as an American I felt it should be mentioned, and I guessed that they would think it odd if I didnt. So I did. Sunny might be able to tell you what I said; I cant remember a bit of it. But it went fine and I neither shamed my citizenship nor offended the Congregation.
I thought of that as I thought of my homily for today. And I felt once again that it was important to include the celebration of our countrys independence in our worship. When I was a younger preacher, I felt that a sermon on patriotic days had to be either-or: either country or God. But as the years have gone by, I have realized that most everything in life is both, and. And so it is with Church and state.
You know the familiar passage from Marks Gospel," Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and unto God that which is Gods."
The quote comes from a confrontation that Jesus was having with the local people in great power over other peoples lives, people who wanted to get Jesus out of the way so that they could keep their hold on power. So they put to him what they thought was for Jesus a lose/lose question. They pointed out that the coin he was holding had been issued by the civil government, and that it had on it image of the emperor, Caesar. They had asked him whether he would advise the people to pay taxes to the Roman government. They knew that if he said yes, he was telling the population to support an repressive occupation force, and whats more an anti-Temple, secular power. And they knew that if he said no, Jesus would be arrested for sedition.
And, as scripture says, Jesus amazed them, because his answer put the ball squarely back in their court. They would have to decide what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God!
"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and render unto God that which is Gods": You see it is not one or the other; we have loyalties and responsibilities to both country and God. Those responsibilities co-exist and sometimes overlap.
This morning we will baptize Asha Evangeline Ponniah and Gabriel Raphael Ponniah. When Asha and Gabriel were born in Baltimore Maryland one year ago today, they were issued birth certificates and automatically became citizens of the United States, with all the privileges and responsibilities that that entails. When they are baptized (in a few minutes), they will receive baptism certificates and automatically become members of the Body of Christ on earth, with all the privileges and responsibilities that that entails.
In the years ahead, Asha and Gabriel will be instructed as to how to be loyal citizens of our democratic republic, BUT with values and priorities that come from God. An ancient Christian, Eusubius, said, "To a Christian, every fatherland is a foreign land and every foreign land is a fatherland."
You see, we love our country but the cross is higher than the flag. Hopefully neither these babies nor we will ever have to choose between these two loyalties. And as long as we do not, our task and mission as patriotic Americans is simply and profoundly, to be faithful to our baptismal vows. These twins are being baptized to be leaven in the national loaf, to be conscience, compass and compassion in our society...we are baptized to be advocates of justice, mercy and love as the way the world ought to be.
We Christians have no corner on the market of such values, but we are charged with infusing them as best we can into the fabric of the society in which we live, the United States of America, whose 223rd birthday we observe and celebrate today.
To apply our baptismal vows to our citizenship requires that we go beyond symbolic gestures and acts when confronting complex societal problems --such gestures as prohibiting flag-burning as a way to make us loyal and passionate about our country, or such acts as posting the Ten Commandments in public places as a way to make us moral.
The destruction of a symbol does us no harm. The public display of rules for living, by itself, does us no good. What is needed is application of baptismal vows to our very souls so that each and every person of faith, whether it be the faith of baptism, the faith of Bar Mitzvah or the initiatory rites of Hinduism, that every person of faith be part of turning back the tide of secularization in our increasingly individualistic society.
If we take seriously, for example, the baptismal vow that we will persevere in resisting evil, and that whenever we fall into sin we will repent and return to the Lord, we will be part of turning our country from secularism to humility and to the love of God. If we take seriously our vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, we will be part of turning our country from extreme individualism to a society of individuals who know we are part of community.
A democratic republic such as ours can remain strong only as long as it rests on a balance of individualism and community; that is, where each person is responsible for self, but also knows that he or she is part of the fabric of humanity around them. If the balance between individualism and community is lost, society can be in trouble. Today individualism has by far the upper hand and it has hurt us. We must care for one another or we may all be lost one of these days.
In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus says, "Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." This country was founded on reaching out to those who need help. Witness the words on the Statue of Liberty; see if they do not sound like those words of Jesus: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuge of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
We have such a proud history of reaching out to others. Not always perfectly or consistently, but we as a nation have, hopefully, more to feel good about than to regret. Just in the past fifty years, think of some of the war victims we have welcomed, many of whom have prospered: Koreans, Viet Namese, and just recently, Kosovars. For the good of our soul as a nation under God, we must back off some from the growth of individualism that worries always about our individual rights, our individual security, and our individual prosperity at the expense of shutting our minds and hearts to the injustices and victimization and the poverty of those around us.
In the Gospel Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
In our epistle, Paul talks about being a slave to sin or a slave to God. Each and every one of us serves someone or something. Either sin or righteousness. Either God or ourselves. At different times in our lives we may serve different gods whiskey, sex, success, our own ego...you name it.
Whomever or whatever we serve, we come under their yoke. Jesus calls us to take his yoke upon us. That sounds rough. It sounds like we are to be weighted down and yoked in. But the fact is, we have so many choices and temptations in this life, that if we wish to be on Gods side, if we wish to be a force for good and goodness, for compassion, love and mercy, we will find freedom to grow and to be, under the yoke of Jesus.
And so on this morning of the 4th of July, we pledge our allegiance to and take on the yoke of the highest power in our lives, that we might in fact be better citizens for our country. We will in a minute renew our baptismal vows, as Asha and Gabriel are baptized. That baptism is the means by which we become yoked: The twins go under the yoke as they come up from the waters, and as we did that years ago when we were baptized. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "For freedom Christ has set us free.Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
Reading: Romans 7:21-8:6
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.(NRSV)
to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy