As we approach the celebration of Independence Day 2021, I turn for wisdom to a sermon more than three decades old.
Why a sermon for a secular holiday? As The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray noted when she left the practice of law in the early 1970s to become an Episcopal priest, most of the questions around inequality that we face as a nation are at their core moral issues that require reconciliation among all people. It is in community where we should affirm “the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”
A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that I have endured, enjoyed, nodded off during, squirmed through, and been deeply moved and challenged by more than 4,500 homilies in my life.* In all those sermons from a number of exceptional priests, pastors, and mentors**, I never heard a more consistent preacher week-in-and-week-out than The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade. After moving to Washington, I was fortunate to hear Frank at St. Albans Episcopal Church from 1998 until he retired as rector in 2005. As former U.S. Senator and ordained Episcopal priest John Danforth writes in the Foreword to Rites of Our Passage: Reflections Through a Christian Year — the 2002 collection of Frank’s writings — “All his sermons are, at least, very good, and many of them are astonishingly good.” Former Senator Danforth isn’t right about everything, but he is certainly right about this.
Frank likes to say, “I believe in many things but I do not believe in coincidences.” It was no coincidence that I was given the opportunity to learn from someone so wise. In returning to re-read the entire collection, I learned anew that Frank’s timeless and clear-headed observations — about the dangers that occur when isolated minds create dead hearts, about the need to give forgiveness a chance in a world riven by violence, and how hope and joy require the action of belief if we want to live as if something good were true — are building blocks for personal growth. In today’s troubled world, Frank’s thoughts from July 1987 about the need for a new American agenda speak to our challenges.
The purpose of wealth
For most of us, wealth is relative. Wealthy people are those who have more than we do. Frank suggests we think instead of wealth in absolute terms. “It is simply what we have no matter what other people have, and what we do have is ours so that this world can be a better place.” Wealth is there so all of life can be better. Americans could begin to think about wealth in a new way.
Power and community
“Giving up individual power to serve a greater and common good” should also be a part of our new July 4th agenda. That happened in Philadelphia in the Constitutional Convention when several states gave up individual power to serve a common good, the community. As we move to a majority-minority nation, “how we share the power that we have” in order to “share life” with others will be our question.
The goal of justice
And Frank — as an equal-opportunity offender of the status quo — notes that justice, for many of us, is “the idea of letting everyone be equal at the starting lines of life, letting everyone be equal before the law.” However, Biblical justice in Frank’s telling shows “a heavy favoritism to the poor, the hurt, and the lost,” and suggests that we should want everybody together not at the starting line, but at the finish line.
In considering this new agenda, we may need to see “life as a pilgrimage rather than a race.”
Frank believes that “the basic task of a Christian is to make other people’s lives better.” That’s a very different vision than one we hear from money-hoarding mega church televangelists, prosperity gospel hucksters, patriarchal bullies, or fire-and-brimstone moralists. If we think about our wealth in different ways, share our power and influence with people very different from us, and begin to think of justice “as more than where people start in life and more of how we and they live life,” each of us — no matter our faith beliefs — will go a long way towards making people’s lives better.
And that is a real American dream.
More to come…
*Growing up Baptist, we went to church on Sunday morning and evening, for Wednesday evening prayer service, plus at least one week-long “revival” each year. I joined the Episcopal church at age 22 to get a life!