Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2020 || Proper 9A || Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
One of my favorite things about writing fantasy novels is the task of “world building”; that is, constructing a new world with its own geography and history and cultures and political entities. I know, I know – super nerd alert. But it’s fun for me, and one of the most fun parts is creating holidays within the contexts of fantasy cultures. In the fictional city of Thousand Spires, Cornerstone Day marks the date when the cities of Farhome and Canlas grew big enough to meet each other at the site of the laying of the cornerstone of the Cathedral of Light. League Day celebrates the founding of the Sularin League following the Three Sisters War. The Great Step…No, never mind. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Every holiday, fictional or real, springs from a culturally significant event or observance.
Yesterday was just another day for most of the world’s population. But here in the United States, it was a national holiday – Independence Day. We celebrated the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence, which severed the ties between the 13 colonies and the British crown. Much of the written Declaration comprises a list of grievances laid out against King George III because “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The War for Independence had begun over a year earlier, and now on July 4, 1776, representatives from all 13 colonies declared, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”
Observances of Independence Day began as early as the following year with 13-gun salutes in various places. In 1781, Massachusetts was the first state to make Independence Day a state holiday. (The parades and hot dogs came later.) It wasn’t until 1938 that Independence Day was made a paid federal holiday. (Hopefully, soon Juneteenth – Emancipation Day – will receive the same status.) And now every year with fireworks and cookouts and lots of red, white, and blue, we celebrate our independence.
The concept of independence is so ingrained in the American psyche and is fully supported by several American myths. The myth of rugged individualism idolizes the lone cowboy archetype who survives by his wits and his horse and his fast gun hand. The myth of the yeoman farmer was Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian society built on minimal governmental interference. And the myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (pushed by the pulp novels of Horatio Alger, among others) said that a man needed only himself to succeed and if he didn’t then he had only himself to blame. (I’m using gendered language here on purpose.) Of course, none of these myths paint a true picture of American society, but they all helped build a persuasive narrative of personal independence that still holds sway today.
While the concept of personal independence is not inherently bad, we can see all over the place the deleterious effects of clinging to personal independence above all else. There’s the NIMBY principle: “Not in my backyard,” when it comes to community projects that will better the whole but might impact your own property value. There’s the unwillingness to pay for public education (or other public services) when you don’t personally have children in school. There’s the hard-hearted American view of poverty as the moral failing of individuals (“if they just worked harder, they’d be able to get ahead), instead of the moral failing of a capitalistic economic system. Even in American Christianity we have the idea of Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. (That’s a very American thing, and it undercuts the communal aspect of Christianity as the Body of Christ.) And right now during the pandemic, we have what might be the most distilled example in U.S. history of clinging to personal independence to the detriment of society. And that’s the refusal to wear a mask even when doing so will keep other people safe.
And that’s why, in good fantasy world building tradition, I am going to create a new holiday today. So here’s the preamble to my declaration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for people to remember that we belong to one another and together we make each other stronger,* a new observance shall be tendered to the Nation for the proper understanding that our independence should not lead to callous disregard of our neighbors, nor should our pursuance of personal liberty deny the life or liberty of others. This observance shall fall on the Fifth of July and shall henceforth and forever be known as Dependence Day.
On this, the inaugural Dependence Day, listen to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” This revelation to infants is seen in their very existence, in the only way they can address the world: through utter dependence. We aren’t antelope who can run the day they’re born or snakes who slither from their eggs ready to hunt. A human baby will die if it is not cared for. We begin our lives in a state of dependence. And while differentiating from our parents is a good and healthy thing, there is no such thing as full independence. Total self-sufficiency is an illusion. We do not birth ourselves. We do not teach ourselves. We do not power the electrical grid ourselves. We do not plant, grow, pick, ship, or stock the food we buy at the grocery store. We remain dependent throughout our lives, and that’s OK, even if several American myths conspire to tell us the bootstraps story.
The Gospel lesson goes on, and Jesus says those famous comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.”
Jesus invites us to share his yoke, to be part of his team of oxen pulling the plow. The pair of oxen pull together to make the straight furrow in the soil. They are dependent on each other; they share in the work together; they walk the same direction together. And they know that if they try to pull in different directions, the field isn’t getting plowed.
On this Dependence Day, I invite you to celebrate all the ways we are dependent on one another – in our families, in our communities, in this country, and in this world. Thank your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or neighbor for the ways you depend on them. Find an item in your house you use everyday and try to trace its lineage. How many people do you think had a hand in its creation? I promise you that something as simple as your toothbrush will involve such an intricate web of dependence (really, interdependence) that you won’t be able to fathom it.
Independence is a good thing. I’m not knocking yesterday’s celebration. But independence and dependence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the great things about independence is that it gives us the freedom to choose community interest over self-interest, to choose to be part of a whole. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says this very thing: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (5:13 CEB).
I’ll finish this morning’s Declaration of Dependence with some wise words from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In his Pentecost sermon, Bishop Curry said this: “And it’s interesting, when you put the face mask on, it’s not fun to wear… It’s a small inconvenience, a little sacrifice that actually may be a symbol of what it means to love. And the possible miracle could be that if I wear [it] to protect you from me, and you wear it to protect me from you, or the virus within you, we get protected and we all win. And that is the power of love.”
So, happy Dependence Day. Amen.
Banner image is detail from the Declaration of Independence. If you look closely it includes some of the words I quoted from the last paragraph of the document.
* This is something my father says all the time.