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When I think of church, I usually think of blessings, and I hope you do too. But the ancient sages would tell you there is another side to this:
And curses can be instructive.
There is an old Chinese curse that Robert Kennedy was fond of quoting. The Chinese curse is this: “May you live in interesting times.”
“May you live in interesting times.”
We certainly live in interesting times, and we certainly can, if we chose, see it as a curse. On this Independence Day, our nation is at war in the Middle East and Central Asia; our economy is in its deepest slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Our environment is under assault in the air, and on the land, and in the sea. We have witnessed the calamity of the worst oil spill in history, driven by our addiction to cheap energy, and the calamity continues at this moment.
Our government sometimes seems adrift and out-of-touch, or paralyzed by partisan gridlock and media-driven extremism.
We live in interesting times.
We live in a time of great change, and that change impacts everything we do, every place we go, touching everyone we meet.
Children grow up and graduate, or don’t. Some of you face health issues, or a job change, or retirement.
Some of you are facing the loss of a loved one. The only thing inevitable in life is change.
Ours is not the first generation to live in interesting times or face relentless change.
Robert Kennedy, in 1966, in a speech in Capetown, South Africa, talked about the challenges of interesting times:
“They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
Kennedy, who came to South Africa to lift up those, who at great personal risk to themselves, opposed apartheid, went on to say there is a quality above all other qualities needed during interesting times: Moral courage.
Kennedy said moral courage is in shorter supply than “bravery in battle or great intelligence.”
Moral courage is the strength of character that motivates someone to stand up and be counted precisely when it hardest to stand up.
Moral courage is that quality that says the conventional wisdom is not always right, that the action of one person can make a difference, especially when no one else thinks it possible, and especially when it matters the most, especially in interesting times.
And Robert Kennedy said this:
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
On this Independence Day, it is moral courage that I especially want to celebrate.
Those who founded this nation lived in interesting times. They were told they could not win against the greatest superpower on earth, Great Britain. They did not always have moral courage, they faltered when it came to slavery.
But they had enough moral courage to prevail against Britain, and enough moral courage to shape a nation that is still young, still unfinished, still very much in need of moral courage.
You may not know this, but Independence Day is an official feast day of the Episcopal Church. Our church was founded in the tumult of the American War for independence.
And what better place to celebrate this feast day than here, at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, across the street from the great University founded by the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and shaped by other founders of this nation especially James Madison.
Jefferson was 32 years old when he penned the Declaration, and today we celebrate not just our independence but also the moral courage of Jefferson and those he stood with on that 4th of July long ago.
We live in interesting times. We live in a time when moral courage is needed as never before.
Here is the thing about moral courage:
Sometimes moral courage comes in a huge moment for the entire world to see, as with George Washington at Valley Forge or Martin Luther King at the Selma bridge.
And sometimes – maybe most of the time – moral courage comes in the accumulation of small moments, in our daily life and work, and in places that don’t make headlines, and with people who are not celebrities.
Those moments have come right here in this church, like when Ted Evans, the rector of St. Paul’s, had the moral courage to stand up in the 1950s and declare that this parish – St. Paul’s Memorial Church – would not cooperate with a scheme to use churches in Charlottesville to educate only white children.
He paid a price in the community and with his bishop but Ted Evans stood his ground.
And some of you here today had the moral courage to stand with him, and to you we owe a debt of gratitude.
Those moments of moral courage continue here in this place today, and you are changing the world one rippled at a time. It all adds up.
Some of you are doing research on global warming or unlocking the mysteries of retroviruses. Some of you care for the sick, or teach our young people, or work in a day care center, or a soup kitchen or food pantry, or in our community garden as a volunteer, or you volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, or IMPACT or PACEM or The Haven.
Some of you work in your home or in a job to support your family. Some of you own a business that provides services and jobs in our community. Every one counts, everyone can have moral courage in every walk of life.
A way to measure our moral courage can be found in our biblical lessons today, the lessons that are assigned by the Episcopal Church specifically for Independence Day.
The lessons speak to having the moral courage to care for the poorest among us, the widows and orphans and immigrants. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” the Deuteronomist proclaims.
The psalmist tells us that greatness comes through compassion and kindness, not anger and violence.
And Jesus puts it squarely on the line: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Strength comes not with force of arms but in the forgiveness of enemies, in protecting the vulnerable and in compassion for immigrants.
If I may add a personal note: My father fought in World War II, in the South Pacific, and he saw terrible things. He believed this country worth defending and he put his life on the line for that. Yet he taught me from a very young age that true patriotism is not about military might, but is about participating as a citizen, voting, paying taxes, getting involved in the community, making a difference.
Each time we live this way, each time we stand with the least among us, with the oppressed and forgotten, we bring the Kingdom of God a few steps closer, and we come a little closer to becoming fully the human being God would have us be.
It takes moral courage to live this way, and yet this I also know:
Within you is the fiber of moral courage because God put it there when you were born.
Moral courage ultimately comes as a gift of faith, in our hope for a better world unseen, a world we are partners in creating.
So on this Independence Day, may each of us have the strength and moral courage to be the hands and feet of Christ, and may these interesting times be not a curse but a blessing to us, and to those who come after us. AMEN
Photo of James Armstrong, who carried the flag across the Edmund Pettes Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, reenacting "Bloody Sunday" in 2005. Mr. Armstrong died in 2009. Photo in the Birmingham News.