The City with Foundations

The City with Foundations
A sermon preached at Trinity Church, Milton, Connecticut,
on Independence Day July 4, 2010
by Christopher L. Webber

“He looked forward to the city that has foundations.” Hebrews 11: 10

Celebrating the Fourth of July in church is either exactly the right thing to do or exactly the wrong thing to do but you have a tradition here of celebrating this day in a special way and it compels us to ask what exactly we think about separation of church and state. Some people think the separation of church and state means that the state should have nothing to do with the church and the church should have nothing to do with the state. But, you know, Congregationalists and Episcopalians especially have a certain history in this area.

The Congregational Church was the established church in Connecticut until long after the Revolution and the Bill of Rights – until 1834, to be exact. The Episcopal Church – or the Church of England as it then was – was established in Virginia until the Revolution and is established still in England. We represent today the two churches that were once established in this country – one even after the Revolution and the other one still today in England.

So neither of us is in a strong position to talk about separation of church and state and I think that’s good, because, whatever the Bill of Rights may say, nothing in God’s world can ever be completely separated from anything else. All borders are human constructions and God is not very respectful of human boundaries and borders and walls. It may well be then that it’s our histrory that has given Congregationalists and Episcopalians a history of violating that artificial boundary. We represent two churches that have not been reluctant to point to moral issues in the world around us and to suggest that a secular government, unconstrained by theological notions of justice and mercy, nevertheless needs to be called to account. We are not obligated to obey a government that acts in a way contrary to God’s will as we understand it and we are obligated to use our votes and whatever power of persuasion we have to turn the government toward God’s will as we understand it whenever we can. The fact that our churches are no longer established is, in fact, an advantage in some respects because it frees us to be critical.

Now, there are lots of Christians who come from totally different traditions and churches that were never established and were often persecuted, Christians who came to this country to escape oppressive government who still tend to see the government as the enemy even if they elected it themselves and yet they also want to bend the government to their will if they can. Oddly, it is often those who say they want less government control who, nevertheless, want more government control over things they care about such as abortion and prayer in schools.

We get very confused when we try to be logical about it. I like to point out that, whatever the Constitution may say, clergy are required to act as officers of the state whenever they are asked to preside at a wedding. I can’t solemnize a wedding without government permission. There was a time when Congregationalists never held weddings in churches because they saw it as a secular function and yet a Congregational minister today, just like an Episcopal priest, is an officer of the state at a wedding.

So the lines are not clear and never have been and what’s important to remember in all this is that we are not simply Americans who happen to be Christians and live with the guidelines established by the Constitution and Bill of Rights but Christians who happen to be Americans and live with the guidelines established by passages like those in today’s readings which are not just some I happened to pick but those provided in the Book of Common Prayer which means it’s not just my opinion that they’re appropriate.

I call your attention to two phrases, one from each reading: “He looked forward to the city that has foundations” and “Love your enemies.” Both of these take us far beyond merely being good citizens. They call us to sit in judgment on our government and to judge it and ourselves by a higher standard – an impossible standard, in fact: “be perfect.” Jesus told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount as we heard in today’s gospel reading: “Be perfect.”

We are, indeed, called to a higher standard – and yet not separate. God does not respect human walls. There have always been Christians who felt they could only obey Christ’s command by separating themselves entirely from civil government: people like the Menonites, the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, and others who refuse to take part in their country’s wars. They bear a powerful and valuable witness to all of us that Washington is not the final authority for Christians. The Civil Rights Revolution took place only because Christians and others challenged the laws and customs of the country and insisted we should not be satisfied with laws and customs that built walls between people because of the color of their skin. And the country changed as a result. That’s what happens when Christians submit themselves to a higher authority without being separate but working within to transform. The goal is not to establish the church but to transform the civil society, not by imposing specifically Christian standards but by appealing to the law that St. Paul said is “written in human hearts.”

St Paul pointed out to the Romans that there is a law that is plain to everyone. We all know – everyone knows deep down – that discrimination is wrong, that torture is wrong, that injustice is wrong, that hunger and homelessness are wrong, yes, and that war is wrong. We may and will disagree as to whether it is possible in the real world to put an end to these wrongs here and now but we know we should as soon as we can and it needs no established church to move toward these goals. We need only a community of Christians unwilling to settle for good enough when we could do better, a community of Christians seeking for ways and means to move closer to the vision, closer to “the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.”

I like to point out that the Congregationalists were not here first – there were Anglicans in Virginia a dozen years earlier and the first American thanksgiving was a Eucharist in Virginia. I happened to be in Virginia last year for Thanksgiving and I heard a sermon insisting on that point, but the Congregationalists, the preacher admitted, have had better PR and I have to admit that their vision was vital to shaping this country. The Anglicans would have been perfectly happy with the King and established church but the Puritans had a vision. John Winthrop put it into words in 1630 as he and his followers journeyed across the Atlantic to settle in Massachusetts. Winthrop took some key words from the same Sermon on the Mount which we heard part of this morning. He spoke about how the new colony and this country would be a “city on a hill:”

“For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. . . till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.”

There is a threat here as well as a promise, a potential for disaster as much as for blessing. You sometimes hear the phrase “American exceptionalism;” it’s the notion that this nation is different, that we hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope. A google search tells me that:

“Some interpret the term to indicate a moral superiority of Americans, while others use it to refer to the American concept as itself an exceptional ideal, which may or may not always be upheld by the actual people and government of the nation. Dissenters claim ‘American exceptionalism’ is little more than crude propaganda, that in essence is a justification for a America-centered view of the world that is inherently chauvinistic and jingoistic in nature.”

Well, yes, it can be both – it is both – as John Winthrop clearly saw. We can be a light to the nations and we can be a “story and byword through the world” “To avoyde this shipwracke” as Winthrop put it is an exceptional challenge, and therefore, to quote Winthrop again:

“wee must be knitt together, in this worke, . . . Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together. . . as members of the same body.”

That’s the yardstick by which we as Christians are called to measure our country’s policies and politicians. Do you ever hear them, in the commercials now running on television, asking us to “abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities” and work together in “patience and liberality”? If not, why not?

Winthrop, I think, could not have imagined the wealth of the blessing this country has been given, but enormous privilege surely carries with it enormous responsibility. This city on a hill is not the city with foundations but it has been – at its best – and ought to continue to be guided by that heavenly vision so that we can on a day like this appropriately gather in our churches to give thanks for what we have been given and rededicate ourselves to the journey that still lies ahead.

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