In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Don’t you just love it when the Fourth of July, Independence Day, falls on a Thursday? When it falls on a Wednesday we are expected to go back to work on Thursday and Friday, but on a Thursday most employers just give up and give everyone Friday off as well. A four-day weekend for the Fourth! What could be more appropriate!
Independence Day, of course, is the National Day of the United States of America, and on it we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “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. -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Independence Day, then, is a celebration of the rejection of undependable government for a government that will hopefully be more dependable in guarding the nature and rights of men. (And, yes, most if not all of the signers of the Declaration really did mean to restrict independence to people of the male sex). Since the beginning this celebration has been enacted in forms such as waving flags, singing patriotic songs, marching in parades, shooting off fireworks, having picnics, attending concerts, giving speeches, and conducting ceremonies. Perhaps there is no more quintessential celebration of Independence Day than the Fourth of July barbeque, a somewhat tardy version of which we are hosting here at Marsh Chapel following the service today. (No, no! I said following the service. Now, get back in the pews so I can finish the sermon!).
There are a number of ironies associated with Independence Day. For example, those flags we wave with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field are the same red, white, and blue as the Union Jack, the flag representing Great Britain, that is, the country from which we were declaring independence in the first place. Also, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith while a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church on July 4th of that year.
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!
Of course, we sing it to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom. Apparently we’re no better at coming up with original tunes for our patriotic songs than we are at coming up with original color schemes for our flag. And for some reason we celebrate the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed, when in fact it seems it was probably actually signed on August 2nd, and it was on July 2nd that the Second Continental Congress voted a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June. On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” Amazingly, we do precisely all of those things, on the Fourth of July, two days after the event Adams meant to commemorate. Oh well.
Independence is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that over the past couple of weeks my meditations and considerations have turned much more to the alternate side of the coin: dependence. You see, on June 20th, at 5:53pm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston, my daughter, Lilly Alma Whitney, was born, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces, and 20.5 inches long. In the past couple of weeks she has more than regained her birth-weight, and she takes seeming delight in keeping my wife Holly and I from getting any sleep. She is a bundle of joy, and I am learning an entirely new dimension of love. It is a great joy, today, to welcome Lilly’s grandparents to the service, and particularly her grandmothers reading the lesson and the gospel. Lilly and her mother are here too, Lilly making her church debut, likely as not sleeping through the sermon, as I am sure are many of her pew-mates.
Lilly, being a newborn infant, is entirely dependent. She cannot eat without help attaching to her mother’s breast. She cannot sleep without being rocked while rubbing her back. When she poops, daddy has to clean her up and change her diaper. Like all newborns, Lilly’s head is approximately 30-40% of her bodyweight, meaning that her neck is not strong enough to support it properly. When we pick her up and hold her, we have to be very careful not to let her head flop forward or backward or left or right, any of which could at least prove detrimental to her ongoing development. Lilly has a completely undeveloped immune system, so those of you who would like to greet her following the service will first have to participate in the ritual of hand-washing, employing the vat of hand sanitizer I brought with me this morning. (Her mother is an infectious disease physician, after all). Lilly cannot walk, or even crawl or turn herself over, so we have acquired all manner of devices to help carry her, from car seat to stroller to sling to Mobi. Dean Hill was disappointed that we did not name her Roberta, but he perked up a bit when I pointed out that we bought a stroller named Bob.
We do of course anticipate that Lilly, over time, will achieve her own independence, but doing so is a process of us as her parents accompanying her on the journey of life and faith, not only to be independent physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. This movement from dependence to independence is the process of maturation. It happens over time. Undergraduates who will start in September at Boston University are emerging out of the process of being accompanied by parents, but still aspire on toward greater levels of independence and maturity. College students learn to set their own alarm clocks, manage their own bank accounts, and find their own food. A year or so later, when they move from the dorm to an apartment, they may even learn to cook that food for themselves.
It is not the case, however, that this movement from greater dependence to greater independence is ever entirely linear or ever reaches an absolute at either extreme of the spectrum. Many young people, as their personal independence grows, discover that it can be helpful to have a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of life. Some find such a collaborator with relative ease, while for others it can take quite some time to find someone who is appropriately dependable. And so, every year we host myriad weddings here at Marsh Chapel, particularly in these summer months, in which people commit to one another in a life of mutual dependence, of interdependence. Just last week the United States Supreme Court struck down key components of the Defense of Marriage Act and let stand a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in California, marking further steps toward marriage equality in these United States. What a heartwarming juxtaposition to have such celebration of the right of so many at last to enter into relationships of mutual dependence only one week before our national celebration of independence.
The same balance between independence and dependence holds at the socio-political level as well. It was not the case that the founding fathers sought to overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain in order to establish an absolute anarchy. They explicitly said in the Declaration of Independence that once the old, oppressive government was overthrown, then it was incumbent upon the people to institute a new government. So it was that the leaders of the day turned their intellectual focus to designing a new democratic government that they believed would be more dependable in enabling its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. This is precisely what our brothers and sisters in Egypt are struggling toward as we speak. Nevertheless, even upon the achievement of the founding fathers’ best efforts, there were some cruel restrictions on who could be considered independent in this new country. If you did not own land, you were not independent. If you were a woman, you were not independent. If you were a slave, you were certainly not independent. Yet, socially and economically, the white landowners who had supposedly achieved independence were in fact quite dependent on all of these classes of people. So it was that A.G. Duncan wrote alternative abolitionist verses to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” only a dozen years after the original verses were penned:
My country, ’tis of thee,
Stronghold of slavery,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Where men man’s rights deride,
From every mountainside
Thy deeds shall ring!
Interesting, is it not, that at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted not this verse but the original to inspire the nation to end segregation? In the end, however, it makes sense. The original verse is a hymn to independence while the alternate is a reminder that every new achievement of independence is yet also an arising of new levels and manners of dependence.
Here, then, the theological turn. It was the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who claimed, in his monumental tome Glaubenslehre, The Christian Faith, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence. Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence. Strange to think, is it not, that the great liberal American pulpits that have for so long emphasized the freedom offered for a life lived in the light of the Gospel, can all trace a lineage back to the liberal lion Schliermacher and his principle that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence? Or perhaps not so strange that in a country that puts such high value on independence we would cast our final dependence onto one who is ultimate, infinite, and so utterly dependable. For Schleiermacher, Christian freedom arises out of the matrix of absolute dependence on God. This is the final outworking of Martin Luther’s insistence that experience of God for Christians is unmediated by human institutions. We can depend directly on God, in prayer and in song and in breath, and so are free and independent from any worldly power and institution. Or at least we would be, if we were living in the kingdom of God.
Alas, when we come back down from the mountaintop of absolute dependence, we find that we are still living in this fallen, broken world. Our lessons today have something to teach us about living in a fallen, broken world. In the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, Paul is coming at the problem from the side of independence: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” In eternity we are absolutely dependent on God, but in the present life we are responsible for ourselves, for sowing what we will in our own work. Nevertheless, Paul indicates that we can begin to feel what it will be like to depend on God absolutely in eternity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” We participate in the feeling of absolute dependence, as though seeing it through a glass dimly, as we experience interdependence, or mutual dependence, in our lives.
If Paul was approaching absolute dependence from the side of independence, Jesus, in our Gospel reading, approaches it decidedly from the side of dependence. Over the course of the Lucan narrative, the disciples have become increasingly, persistently, and stubbornly dependent on Jesus. Just prior to the reading we heard, many are offering to join Jesus if they can just run and take care of one more thing before they do. But Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the passion and the cross, so he sends them out, cutting them off from their many dependencies: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is announced not so much in words but by entering into relationships of interdependence, of mutual dependence, in each place the disciples go: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.” From the side of dependence, as well, it is through interdependence in this life that we receive a foretaste of the absolute dependence on God that is a hallmark of the kingdom.
It is little wonder that so many in our world have adopted a preference for independence over dependence, making relationships that are truly interdependent that much harder to achieve. After all, submitting to some level of dependence requires that there be a certain level of dependability in the one to whom we submit. Alas, our human experience is that people are never quite as dependable as we would hope, and institutions seem utterly incapable of a reliable degree of reliability, made up of less than dependable people as they are. Deplorably, there seems to be no less dependable institution in our time than the church. How do we know this? The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that at this point 20% of adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated, and that number jumps to one third if considering only those under 30 years of age. These are the so-called “nones:” not members of religious orders, but rather those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.” It is notable that the “nones” are not so much questioning the dependability of God, as those who identify as atheist have only ticked up slightly. Rather, they have declared independence from institutions that purport to provide the opportunity for cultivating relationships of interdependence but fail to do so. A significantly higher percentage of the unaffiliated than the public in general believe that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics. At the same time, a significantly lower percentage of the unaffiliated than the general public believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, play an important role in helping the poor and needy, and protect and strengthen morality. Many churches are trying desperately to deny that they are as undependable as the “nones” claim, but the response of denial misses the point entirely. Dependability can never be demonstrated in words, but only in actions, and the actions of too many churches belie their words. The “nones” own experience is of the lack of dependability in the church, and insisting that the church is otherwise than their experience smacks of hubris and hypocrisy. Whether it is financial mismanagement, exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, or tolerance of sexual abuse by clergy, who can blame the “nones” for disaffiliating, or demurring from ever affiliating in the first place? In all honesty, there but for the grace of God go I, and I am convinced that at least some who do go, go with God.
In these summer weeks we are hearing from the voices that inhabit several of the most significant pulpits of northern Methodism. I am not one of them. I am not a Methodist, although I grew up one, and I only ever occasionally inhabit this pulpit, in the chapel of an historically Methodist university. My role in this preaching series, then, is not to speak to Methodists or for Methodists, but rather as a finger pointing at the moon, providing some orientation as to what you might listen for in the weeks ahead. The question that must be posed to Methodists, at least as much as to those who remain affiliated with any other religious institution, is this: How will you go about demonstrating your dependability such that you may faithfully provide a foretaste of absolute dependence on God, that is, of God’s kingdom? How will you declare interdependence? Amen.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go change a diaper.
~Br. Lawrence A Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life