The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

What More Are You Doing Than Others?

  • July 2, 2017
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for July 2, 2017 (Independence Day)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 26:1-8; Psalm 47; Matthew 5:43-48

Title:               What More Are You Doing Than Others?

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.)

These words, composed and agreed to in Philadelphia 241 years ago, have changed the world. Just try to imagine what would the world be like today without this Declaration of Independence. It’s nearly impossible for us to imagine that, isn’t it?

In addition, right now I invite you to reflect on the circumstances that gave birth to this great declaration. Consider the crucible of conflict in which the colonial leaders had to operate and which forced them to carefully think through the principles necessary to maintain freedom and peace.

Now consider this: do you think it odd that THIS particular Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount is the one appointed each year for the celebration of Independence Day?

It may seem odd and inappropriate, but consider again that crucible of conflict which gave birth to the Declaration of Independence. Consider also the conflict experienced by Francis Scott Key which gave birth to our National Anthem.

My friends, the truth is that conflict allows greatness to be born. In that sense, it may be said that we need enemies. We must have them. We need enemies in the same way that we all require challenges in order to test our mettle, to see how we respond, to allow us to grow.

Without stress, there is no growth. Without challenge, there is no learning. Without enemies, there is no spiritual perfection.

This is part of what it means for us to carry the cross with Christ our Lord. He carried the cross while practicing love for his enemies, never attacking them, never seeking revenge, but instead offering forgiveness and mercy – and providing a way out of the conflict.

The Lord Jesus never fought fire with fire, but responded to each person with love. And he invites all people to follow that same path.

Today’s Gospel gives us the perfect example of one who walks the talks. For this is EXACTLY what he did when facing his enemies in conflict.

He prayed for them. He loved them. He constructed a way out of the conflict through his own redemptive suffering.

If there were no enemies, no conflict, then there would be no cross. If there were no enemies, no conflict, then there would be no Fourth of July, no Declaration of Independence, no National Anthem.

I know that, for many people in my generation, there was little thought of national pride or patriotism before the attacks of September 11.

And I have heard many of the greatest generation speak of the effect that the attack on Pearl Harbor had on them – how it changed their feelings and their perspective on life.

Like it or not, there will always be enemies. And there will always be conflict.

As long as sin remains among in effect human beings, these things will continue. This is unfortunate, and we have no need to go looking for conflict, but it also means that we are given regular opportunities to grow as children of God.

Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…What more are you doing than others?”

What does he mean by all of this? Remember that in this Sermon on the Mount, the Lord is explaining the Torah, the revelation of God to the people at Sinai. And Jesus is going deeper than the written Law, deeper than the surface level, to the true meaning of the Torah of Moses.

It’s amazing how poorly people understand these things, even after 2000 years of these words of Jesus being spoken and read in the world.

Even today, people will talk about this person or that person as being a criminal, as a convict, as one who breaks the law, with obvious opprobrium in their voice.

But truly, none of these things matter, in the grand scheme of things, in the eyes of God. As we see all too well by the shenanigans in Congress, the written law is a human construction which has little power to change or direct human behavior.

Truly, the law makes no difference in matters of the spirit.

Imagine a person who has never been convicted of breaking the law, and yet that one is a mean, nasty, hateful, greedy, spiteful person who makes life miserable for those around them. In this case, one’s status under the law has no bearing at all on one’s eternal well-being.

By contrast, another person can be convicted as a law-breaker and yet be filled with all the fruits of the holy spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control.

The thing that counts is what’s in here! In the human heart. One of the earliest writers in the church, the great Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons who died in the year 202, wrote this when reflecting on this teaching:

“Therefore, we do not need the Law as a tutor…For no more shall the Law say ‘You shall not murder’ to the one who has removed all anger and enmity from within…neither [shall it say] ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ to the one who considers no one to be an enemy, but sees each one as a neighbor and, because of this, cannot even stretch out a hand in vengeance” (On The Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 96).

Do you see how the Gospel is so very different from the ordinary way that most people live?

The natural path is to see an enemy as one who needs to be eliminated.

The Christ-path sees the enemy as one who needs to be liberated, in the very same way that we need to be liberated.

Walking in the way of Jesus, we can see the enemy as one who is also created equal, who is likewise endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, which include Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Therefore, to love your enemy has nothing to do with emotions or feelings. It is simply to be committed to the well-being of the other, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they do. It is a commitment to their unalienable rights and a willingness to act in order to protect them.

You see, if we act only in defense of our own rights, what more are we doing than others? But to walk in the way of Jesus demands that we love our neighbors in the very same way that as we love ourselves, that we protect the rights of ALL others in the very same way that we protect our own.

One more thing that conflict enables is a profound bound of mutual support and care that is nearly impossible to create in times of ease.

This is the meaning behind the final words in the Declaration of Independence, when the Founders wrote this:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” (The Declaration of Independence.)

Can you even imagine the members of Congress making that kind of declaration today, in reference to one another? Sadly, I can not.

But still it remains that God’s goal for our lives, in all things, is encapsulated in the final words of this Gospel reading:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Be complete, be whole. Perfect is a poor translation. Be a finished product, with all of your rough edges smoothed off. And, my friends, nothing does that better than conflict and challenge.
Therefore, as we celebrate yet another Independence Day on this Fourth of July, will be commit yourself to doing more than others?

Will you take up the Lord’s challenge to become complete and whole by moving beyond the easy love of friends and family and by acting on behalf of the unalienable rights of all?

For then shall the torch of freedom continue to burn brightly and to inspire all. May it be so. Amen.

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43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366