Sermon preached by All Saints Rector Mike Kinman on Sunday, July 2, 2017 — the Sunday closest to July 4th — where we traditionally use the lessons appointed for Independence Day and this Collect for the Nation: Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
My sister, pastor Traci Blackmon taught me that West African proverb: “Until the Lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.”
We have stories we tell ourselves. Stories that create meaning. Stories that define virtue and vice, that rationalize and justify. Stories that help us to sleep at night and look ourselves in the mirror when we rise.
We have stories we tell ourselves. And that is a good thing. Stories are important. We are people of story. Our stories give our lives context and purpose. Our stories connect us to something beyond the present moment. Our stories bind us to the ancestors and give us glimpses of destinies still beyond the horizon.
We have stories we tell ourselves and, as Winston Churchill once said, those stories are told by the victors. They are told by the hunters, not the hunted. And the hunter is always the hero.
But there is always another story. A story told by the lion, by the hunted. A story with a different perspective. A story where often the hunter’s virtue becomes vice, where the hunter’s victory becomes oppression. But history is written by the victors, so most often those stories go untold.
We hear the story of the people of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy, and it is a beautiful story. A story of love and justice. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the book of Deuteronomy is “literally saturated with the language of love.” The root word for love appears twice each in Leviticus and Exodus … but in Deuteronomy it appears 23 times. Same with tzedek — justice. Five times total in Exodus and Leviticus … 18 times in Deuteronomy.
Only once in the Hebrew Bible, in Leviticus, are we commanded to love our neighbor, but in 37 places we are commanded to love the stranger. And we heard those words today. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. And yet this beatitude of love and justice, the book of Deuteronomy, with its longing for justice and love of the stranger, with this God who has no favorites, also says this in Chapter 7, verses 1-6:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
So much for not playing favorites! Where is the love of the stranger there? What would it be like to hear the Hittites, the Canaanites, and the Jebusites tell their story? Who are the Hittites, the Canaanites, and the Jebusites today?
The truth is our faith story is a continual paradox, a constant tension between aspirational values of love and liberation and the song of the lion … and the truth that so often our story is just one more tale told by the hunter used to justify the hunt and glorify the kill. And we struggle with it. We struggle with the aspirational love of Christ compared with the historic and contemporary behavior of Christians. We struggle with the tension in our own hearts between the Gospel we preach and the lives we lead.
We hear Jesus’ command to “Let the love you extend be full just as the love God extends is full” and yet we permit our siblings to sleep on the streets, gun ownership to be a more sacred right than health care, and education and opportunity and the very right to remain in this country to be determined by country of origin and color of skin.
I struggle with this tension in my heart and life every day. I hope we all do.
I struggle with this tension every day. But perhaps no day more deeply than the day we observe this morning.
I struggle deeply with Independence Day. And I struggle deeply with the church even acknowledging it, much less celebrating it. I struggle with the deep divide between the aspirations expressed in our founding documents and how not only today we fall short of them, not only how we have fallen short of them throughout our history, but how the very people who wrote them had no intention of fully putting them into practice.
I struggle with words that resonate with Gospel truth and beauty – words about liberation and justice, sacrifice and honor – but that were written by unrepentant torturers and murderers, rapists and thieves and have been used to rationalize and even justify genocide and slavery and reduce human value to color of skin and ownership of property.
I struggle so deeply with Independence Day because I believe in a God who calls me not to love just my country but to love as God loves … to love the whole of creation and all God’s creatures in it. Because I believe in a God who weeps over narrow exceptionalism, be it American Supremacy or White Supremacy or Christian Supremacy.
I struggle so deeply with Independence Day because in the stories we tell and the songs we sing, I hear the story of the hunter – and yes, there is good in that story. Yes, there is virtue in that story. Yes, there is hope and wonder and deep gospel truth in that story AND the lion still has a story to tell. And I believe in a God who kneels and embraces the lion as she runs, as she bleeds and as she dies, who cradles her in God’s arms as she takes her final breath, who whispers in her ear that she is beloved … and promises her story will not be forgotten. Who longs for the hunt to end.
And so maybe that is the church’s call this day. As we read the readings and pray the prayers and sing the songs of Independence Day, we commit to telling the stories and praying the prayers and singing the songs of the lion. To promise that they will never be forgotten. And to work for the day with the hunt finally is over.
Because, make no mistake, the hunt goes on.
And so on this day, as we begin our service with the aspirational words of the Declaration of Independence. This week when in Indianapolis, another unarmed black man, Aaron Bailey, was shot and killed by police, and know his story of that encounter will never be able to be told. Because, we know that, make no mistake, the hunt goes on, we also must hear these words from Frederick Douglass, who when asked to speak on Independence Day in 1852 said:
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
On this day when we hear the command of loving the stranger while Deuteronomy 7’s command to native genocide still rings in our ears, when we offer on this altar a flag with 50 stars representing the land that makes up America, we also hear these words from 19th Century Sioux Chief Spotted Tail, who said of American expansionism: “This war did not spring up on our land, this war was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father who came to take our land without a price, and who, in our land, do a great many evil things … This war has come from robbery – from the stealing of our land.”
And in a nation where today on reservation land, tribal members can own the house they live in but not the land upon which it rests, which is held in trust by the government. Because, we know that, make no mistake, the hunt goes on, we must hear these words from Robin Carneen, of the Swinomish Tribal Community, who wonders:
“What would Native American Independence Day look like?
That day would certainly be a day when development companies stop digging up the ancestors and they are returned to their proper place and when the government apologizes for the genocide of Native people.
When there is no more poverty on reservations and Indian children get the quality education they deserve.
When the lands are given back to us, and we don’t have to do fund raisers or occupations to get them back ;
When we can have equal time in our classrooms across the United States to learn and speak our languages so they are not lost forever ;
When we can change historical markers to reflect the truth and not glamorize the murders;
When we don’t have to ask permission to hunt and gather for sustenance, ceremony, or for medicinal reasons;
When our reservations are no longer used as toxic and nuclear waste dumps;
When our ceremonies are not sold by those who disrespect the pipe, the sweat lodge, the sundance and the things that help us heal ;
When we have less or no Indians in Prison and jail or political prisoners like Leonard Peltier.”
When the Second Continental Congress met 241 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence, they were telling their story. They saw themselves as the lion tired of being hunted by the British and believing they should just be allowed to live free. And they were right. They did as we all do have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is wrong to take those away. Oppression is evil that must be resisted and overthrown. It is our nation’s founders’ experience of being the lion, of being the hunted that gives us the best of what this nation is and still can become.
Only those men failed to see the ways they too were the hunters of other lions. Lions who also had stories to tell, and dreams of freedom. Lions who were suffering and dying and whose stories were dying with them. Lions who are still hunted and killed today by a nation where liberty and justice have never been for all and where the hunter’s story continues to demonize the lion and glorify the kill. Because, make no mistake, the hunt goes on.
And so, if we are to choose to observe Independence Day as a community of faith, let us truly honor the best of the ancestors – those who met in Philadelphia whose declaration we recite and those who wandered in the desert whose call to welcome the stranger we are challenged anew to heed. As the nation around us retells the story of the hunter, let us seek out, proclaim and deeply listen to the stories of the lions.
Right here, right now, let us make our own declaration. That we will in our nation, in our city and in this room, invite those whose experience of this nation, this city and even this church is one of oppression to tell their story. And that we will listen deeply to one another. That we will fight as much for another’s freedom as we do for our own. That we will strive to be a nation of hunters no more.
That, in the words of that Declaration signed 241 years ago, recognizing that governments only exist to protect those most precious of human rights, that governments exist to protect the lions, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or 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 the Safety and Happiness of all the people. That we will never stop resisting and working to overthrow the systems that provide for the thriving of some through the oppression of others. That we will never stop working to end the hunt forever.
In the words of Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows of Indianapolis:
“How about right here, right now, we commit to deciding that the real work of the church, the gospel work of the church is spend itself for the life of the world—that others may live without fear of hunger, without fear of violence, without fear of deportation, without fear of exile from education, without fear of not having a childhood.
“Let us not grow weary in dismantling the systems of oppression and culture of violence that seems—seems to flow in our veins. Humanity has built the systems, we can take it down.”
Right here, right now, let us make our own declaration.
That we will seek out, listen to, amplify and respond to the stories of the lion, the stories of those who today in this very nation and community are numbered among the hunted.
That we will let those stories guide us, directing our steps, our actions, our spending. To, as Traci Blackmon says, “make room and not just make space.”
That we will not rest until the hunt is finally over, until fear no longer motivates our actions and governs our lives, until we truly see an Independence Day when all God’s children at last live free. Amen.