July 4, Independence Day, seems an odd choice for a calendar devoted to churchy celebrations and commemorations. It is a day we normally associate with picnics, parades, fireworks, days at the beach, baseball games, mosquitoes, and warm if not hot sunny days. We know it commemorated something, namely the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. In school were taught to recite parts if not all of the Declaration of Independence to give us some idea of what the value of such a document was. Granted it was written in a time very different than what we live in today, but it still has relevance to our lives. It is, and should be, a living document that grows and allows new use of the words and is not just a yellowing piece of paper or parchment we can see in the museum, static in meaning and relevance.
The Declaration of Independence put in writing what our leaders felt were legitimate complaints about a government far away on the other side of the ocean that benefited mostly individuals in Britain at the expense of the colonists. It was a brave document, and it lit the match that began a war that lasted until 1781, 5+ years of death, hardship, struggle, and often despair. In the end we became an independent nation although we maintained ties with our mother country, ties both of governmental style, justice, religion and diplomacy. But the infant nation we now call the United States had to learn to work as a unit to the benefit of all and to resolve their own problems with no recourse to an authority other than God.
Undoubtedly the letter of James was read in churches at the time, and I wonder what they would have made of the passage we read today. Be patient? Do not grumble against one another? Oy vey. In some ways we have been patient — too patient. Things are going well for some of us while others of us deal with a very different reality. The ideal of human equality was a wonderful statement, but it applied only to white males of a certain status and standing. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, plus other minority groups that flocked to our shores for the promise that was offered, were left standing in the cold. Those in power thought it was a great system, while the powerless were just that — powerless to do much to change it. We have made some strides over the past several centuries, but not nearly enough. We are still fighting the system that has been in place for almost as long as humanity is existed. Be patient? How long must people be patient for there to be equality, justice, and an ability, no, a right to be all that they can be?
Of course, James was referring to an promise that he and others felt was imminent. It is easier to be patient when you know the in the goal is in sight or the expectations will be fulfilled in the near future. Yes, farmers know that you cannot rush a crop from seed to harvest. It takes the time that it takes, and once the seed is planted there is nothing much to do other than wait patiently. It makes sense when you’re talking about farmers and crops, but when you’re talking about human beings and the conditions in which they live and work, it’s all too dependent on whether we were the ones who set the conditions or the ones who have to live under those conditions.
Jesus called and taught men, as was normal for that time and place, but women learned from him as well as did Jews, Gentiles, oppressors and oppressed. His message was primarily aimed at the Jews, but as we have seen it can be universally applied, or nearly so. Jesus didn’t write a Declaration of Independence from Rome but rather he spoke of an allegiance to a greater kingdom, and invisible kingdom that could be made visible.
We have made strides, albeit small ones, in the general direction but we still have a long way to go. Too many have been too patient too long. Power and privilege have to be redefined to benefit all people and not just a few or a select group. All people must have some sense of power in their life. We see daily the result of unrelieved powerlessness, namely the exertion of false power expressed by violence, mayhem, and lawlessness.
We wait for the Lord, yet we seem to expect God to pop down and become like a mother with a bunch of squabbling children. God is expected to sort everything out, which is the reasoning a lot of us use for doing nothing to help along this kingdom of God on earth. We cluck our tongues at images of bodies lying in streets or children wounded simply because someone else wanted to appear powerful. It’s one thing to wait for the Lord, but quite another to expect Jesus to congratulate us on the strides we’ve made, no matter how inadequate or how far we still have to go.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence did more than put their words on a piece of paper. They pledged themselves, their leadership, and often their own fortunes and reputations, to bring about freedom that had been denied them as well as others. They didn’t wait patiently; they knew they were in for a struggle, but they believed they were doing the right thing for themselves and for those who lived in this country.
God is waiting, but God is waiting for us to do what needs to be done. Waiting patiently is becoming no longer an option. The signs are everywhere. Those with power and privilege must give up their egos, inflated statuses, and secure lifestyles in order to better serve the powerless without privilege who live in among us. We don’t have time to be patient. Whether it’s violence, hunger, financial burden, or any other kind of oppression, we can’t just sit and cluck our tongues about how bad everything seems to be. God is waiting. We can’t afford to.
The fireworks, baseball games, picnics and all can wait. Those still awaiting freedom and equality can’t.
A 6th century icon of en:Jesus at St. Katherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. The image depicts Jesus Christ with two different looks on His face: One is of a loving man, and the other is a fearful judge. Public Domain