St. Paul writes: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
This gem of a passage, tucked into Paul’s letter to the Galatians, offers helpful and encouraging words on this holiday weekend as we celebrate Independence Day and all that is good and true in our nation. Often, on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, I preach about the American Revolution and, in particular, how the Episcopal Church came to be—born or forged, as we were, in the crucible of that war. We are tied to England in our theology and rich traditions, especially the Book of Common Prayer, but we are also uniquely American. So much so, in fact, that our British cousins have difficulty understanding us. They don’t understand, for example, how it is that we elect our bishops. Bishops in England are selected by a commission, and ultimately appointed by the Queen herself, a direct chain from God, since they believe that kings and queens are divinely appointed and anointed—God’s chosen representatives on the throne. We prefer a more democratic approach. Though, each has its limitations. Democracy can be just as problematic as monarchy. The British are contending with the complexity of democracy just now in the aftermath of the European Union vote.
I’ve also sometimes talked about how decimated the Episcopalians were in New England during and after the war. Most of the Anglicans here were loyalists, so they fled to Canada or some went back to England. In Massachusetts there were only two Anglican priests left in the whole state at the conclusion of the war. Probably not too many parishioners, either. This was Puritan, Congregationalist territory and the Episcopal Church was suspect as the religion of the king. Maybe that’s why Emmanuel is such a small church while the Congregational church in town in so large. Perhaps it reflects our colonial heritage.
I’ve also talked about how, despite that bleak New England history, in the Middle and Southern states things were different and the Episcopalians often still called the shots. People you’ve probably heard of, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and even Betsy Ross were Episcopalian, at least some of the time. Albeit with eclectic understandings and approaches to religious faith.
George Washington, for example, was a vestryman, but he never received communion in his adulthood. Martha always did, though, perhaps on behalf of the whole family. Ben Franklin rewrote the Book of Common Prayer to bring it closer to his own unusual faith (See here). Betsy Ross was a refugee from Quakerism, expelled when she married an Anglican. And Thomas Jefferson, well, he rewrote the whole New Testament, taking out the miracle stories because he didn’t believe in them. When Jefferson ran for president New England Congregationalists warned that if elected, he would confiscate all Bibles and convert churches into temples of prostitution.
Like a number of people today, many of our colonial forebears preferred a more enlightened or scientific approach to the faith. You might also say that it was a somewhat more boring approach to faith—since everything one believed had to be subject to easy or scientific or verifiable explanation, with little room or justification for mystery. This was so much true that in the earliest proposed version of the Book of Common Prayer for the United States, they had wanted to omit the Nicene Creed from the Communion Service, because it was too hard for people to believe in it, and they condensed the psalms down to just a few. Ultimately, that proposed Prayer Book failed and the church officially adopted a more traditional faith, but with room for all sorts of questions and different interpretations. In the process, they embraced as much, if not more, diversity of belief as we have among us today.
Diversity of belief is not only at the heart of the Episcopal Church. It is also at the heart of American society. In fact, it is what we celebrate, really, on Independence Day. We celebrate the freedom to worship God in whatever way makes sense to us, as communities and as individuals—whether that’s with candles, chanting, and incense; with praise bands and hands uplifted in prayer; in Jewish synagogues praying and chanting in ancient Hebrew, thousands of years old; or even kneeling on carpets in a mosque. Central to who we are as Americans is the freedom, the liberty, to practice our faith and to speak to God and listen for God in the language of our hearts. Our responsibility, as Americans, and especially as Americans of faith, is to protect and preserve that freedom, that liberty, for others, and ultimately for ourselves. Yesterday we learned of the death of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. His life, his story, is the most profound and powerful reminder and witness to how important freedom of religion is for all of us, whatever our faith tradition, and how we have to defend it on behalf of each other.
Related to that idea, I think, is the belief, the value, that people don’t have to jettison their rich cultural backgrounds when they make their home here. Of course it’s important to try to live within the rules and structures of society—to follow the laws and such. But there’s nothing wrong, and probably there’s much right, with being proud of who you are, and where your family came from, and the traditions they brought with them—whether that’s pasta and tomato sauce, haggis and bagpipes, bagels and lox, or Lutefisk and St. Lucia. As you know, I largely identify with my Scandinavian heritage—Swedish and Finnish, that’s half of me. But I also have German and Irish and English heritage. Each is interesting, and each tells a story.
I had always thought that my ancestors, to a person, arrived in the United States during the waves of 19th century immigration. However, in doing research on Ancestry.com I discovered recently that my Cadwell heritage goes back to the 1600s here in New England, when the first Cadwell—Thomas—emigrated from Braintree, England and settled in Hartford, CT. In fact, he married the daughter of one of the founders of Hartford. His great grandson, John Cadwell, fought in the American Revolution for the patriots. So I could apply to be a son of the American Revolution if I wanted.
I also discovered that on my mom’s side, there was a German immigrant named George Kentner—something like my 5th great-grandfather, who came to the American colonies as an indentured servant in 1764. Eventually he earned his freedom and began life as a farmer in Pennsylvania. When the Revolution broke out, he sided with England and fought for the King. Ironically, he was captured and jailed in Hartford, CT—who knows, maybe he crossed paths with John Cadwell there. Great-grandpa George won his freedom by lying and saying that he would support the American cause. But he didn’t. He fled to Canada to regroup with the Loyalist soldiers called the Butler's Rangers. After the war, he and other German immigrants settled in a rural area of Ontario. They named their town Matilda, after a daughter of King George III. She later became the Queen of Wurttemburg in Germany. Eventually, a few generations later, after things calmed down his family filtered back down into New York and west to Minnesota and finally out to Oregon, where my grandmother was born. Thus, my family tree includes patriots and loyalists alike, as well as later arrivals from Sweden, Finland, and Ireland. I wouldn’t be who I am without that rich mix of backgrounds. And you wouldn’t be who you are without yours—loyalists, patriots, and later arrivals from Germany, Ireland, China, India, Italy, Mexico, and Armenia, to say nothing of the Native Americans who were already here and those who arrived in chains against their will.
That diverse combination of heritages and races, stories, beliefs and values is all part of the American fabric. And what a strong and durable fabric it is, too. The whole world is present here—every race, every religion, every background. We have Democrats and we have Republicans. We have socialists and libertarians, too. There are big sprawling farms in the Midwest—as in my home state of Minnesota—and there are massive cities teeming people speaking multiple languages and making a veritable smörgåsbord of ethnic foods (“smörgåsbord” —that’s a Swedish word, by the way, it literally means “sandwich table”—but now it’s part of our American English vocabulary as well). This country is so different, and I would say so much better, than anything our colonial ancestors could possibly have imagined when they declared their freedom and independence in 1776. We might add that England and Canada are a lot better, too.
Of course, it has not come to be without considerable struggle, pain, loss, and war along the way. We have not and we do not always live up to our full potential as a nation, as a people. Americans have sometimes kept other Americans in bondage—physical, emotional, and spiritual bondage. We have too often denied each other’s humanity and dignity, despite the fact that we declared our independence with words that have echoed through the centuries: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We have not and we still do not always live up to these ideals. In fact the author of these extraordinary words didn’t live up to them himself, keeping his fellow human beings in slavery.
And yet, that transcendent vision, idea, and hope, first set to parchment by Thomas Jefferson so long ago, still calls to us today. In particular, it calls us embrace what it truly means to be American—which ultimately doesn’t have much to do with flying the flag or colorful bombs bursting in air, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with such acts of patriotism. Instead, it has everything to do with how we treat one another, with how we uphold one another, and with how we welcome, respect, and honor one another—not despite our differences, but because of them. Because these differences make us who we are—as a people, as God’s holy people—in this place, at this time. What an awesome calling it is. What a weighty responsibility it is. But also, what an example we can share and leave—not only for our fellow Americans, but for all people everywhere, longing for life, longing for liberty, and longing for the ability to pursue happiness, in freedom and in hope.
Let’s hear again those words from St. Paul: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
That’s our charge, today and every day— do what is right, and work for the good of all—as Episcopalians, as Americans, and most especially and most importantly, as the people of God.
So let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD