One of my great joys in life has been summer reading. While in school, I had my schoolbooks. I was sorely challenged to read all I was assigned. (I can confess now I did not always meet that challenge.) There was no time for books I chose, at least not until summer. On summer vacations I picked what I wanted to read. In a time before cable television and the internet, summer reading for fun consumed much of my free time.
There was and is nothing finer than a book you can’t put down. You keep going to the end of the chapter, swearing you will stop there and go to bed or go to work, only to find you cannot; you must read on. Nowadays I know you can get that feeling from binge watching a series on a streaming service like Netflix, but it feels more wholesome to get it from a book.
This morning I want to share with you three of pieces I have read this summer. Truthfully, two were read to me: one in my presence by four lawyers on the Potter County Courthouse lawn and one an audio book. I did read the third myself.
At noon on Friday, July 1st, four members of the Panhandle Criminal Defense Lawyers Association gathered on the courthouse lawn. Although many were invited, those witnessing them were few, only about eight of us. Each taking turns, the four lawyers read the Declaration of Independence out loud.
I suspect many citizens have never read nor heard the declaration in its entirety. We are familiar with the preamble: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” and in the next paragraph, “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.” Some know bits of the conclusion, such as “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States,” that conclusion being the part of the document in which the signers formally declared independence.
The lengthy middle of the document is far less known. It consists of twenty-seven grievances justifying the breaking away from the rule of king and parliament. Like a lawyer presenting a case to a judge, the Declaration of Independence methodically describes one suffering after another inflicted on the governed. Those grievances include the imposition of taxes without consent, the suspension of legislatures, and the removal of charters, abolishment of the most valuable laws, and the fundamental alternation of the forms of the colonies’ governments. They also include the British government making war on those colonies.
Today these grievances can serve as more than a history lesson. They stand witness for how a government can lose its legitimacy with its people. More basically, they show on a national level how not to live in community with one another. For present and future citizens of this nation, these grievances and the declaration as a whole should serve as a litmus test of what is essential for these United States to continue to exist.
My second book was my audiobook “The Earth is Weeping” by Peter Cozzens. It is a thorough and even-handed history of the conflicts between the citizens of the United States and the Native Americans in the West. I almost did not want to listen to this book because I knew how the stories would end, even if I did not know many of the details leading up to the end of each story. The insatiable appetite of white Americans for land and resources would win, defeating those indigenous peoples who tried to fight it, as well as those who tried to cooperate. As a resident of the Staked Plains, I have directly benefited from that insatiable appetite.
There are heroes and villains on both sides. As is human nature, some are heroes sometimes and villains at other times. As I heard these histories, I saw the tragedies that arose as different peoples could not live in community with one another, native Americans with non-natives and native Americans with other native Americans. Even when Indians and non-natives tried, forces beyond their control, whether native American forces or white American forces, sabotaged those efforts. The results were thefts and savage murders committed by both sides and the exile of native Americans from more and more land.
One painful story is that of the White Mountain Apache scouts who served under U.S. Army officers. Their service was unblemished. They were critical in enabling the Army to subdue non-compliant Apaches such as Geronimo. After they achieved that task, the scouts’ reward was to be disarmed and deported to Florida for twenty-six years as prisoners of war, the same fate as the outlaw Apaches they tracked down and caught. High command had categorized all Apaches in the New Mexico and Arizona territories as incorrigible hostiles, protests from lower ranking officers notwithstanding.
Like the Declaration of Independence, this history of the West stands witness to what we must avoid if we are to survive as a nation, as a community. It is a history of how people can help or hurt one another, how differences of language, cultures, religion, and even diet can challenge living with one another. The stories show the cost of lies spoken and promises broken, a cost usually paid by others.
Differences of language, cultures, religion, and diet still confront us. How do we treat people who are different from us? We can look back at the history and speculate about how it all could have been done better, but how should we approach these kinds of issues now?
My third summer reading book gave me some insight. The book was a gift from Deacon Dede Ballou called “Chasing Francis” by Ian Morgan Cron. Here finally I found help on how to do things the right way. I won’t give away the plot of this book other than to say that plot presents a deep study of how St. Francis practiced Christianity and how he lived with the brothers in his order, the people in the world around him, and nature as he encountered it. One sentence from the book stuck with me: “Francis focused on making his communities signs of the kingdom, the new Jerusalem.” Franciscans invited people to experience life in their communities, to experience God the way the Franciscans experienced God. How his communities lived told more about their faith than their words did. More than just preach the Gospel, they would live it: giving deeply to the poor, promoting peace when there was strife, speaking out against injustice, and restoring dignity to all people. At a time when many saw hypocrisy in a church that cared more for its wealth and its place among the kingdoms of the world, people gravitated to the Franciscans because the Franciscans lived their message.
In Galatians, St. Paul provides his own instructions on how the church community should live. In this new creation—“[A] new creation is everything!” Paul declares—the church is an extended family. Each member is to care for the other, even to the point of correcting one another when one has gone astray. Importantly, correction is to be gentle. All of us fail and will fail again. When we see that failure, Paul urges us to repair the community, to return the community to peace. He deems the correction of your neighbor to be part of loving your neighbor as yourself. Correction must be done gently, however. Paul warns, “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.” We are not to commit the same sin nor are we to pretend in our correction that we would never sin, that we are somehow holier than thou.
In all, Paul would have us bear one another’s burdens. We can and do hurt one another. We can and do make each other’s lives harder. We can and do ignore the needs of others and go our own ways. Christ calls us to share our neighbor’s emotional suffering and to share our physical resources. For as you heard last Sunday from earlier in Paul’s letter,
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Paul’s community, each must continue to examine his or her own self. Sow to the spirit, “for you reap whatever you sow.” Work for the good of all. Do not grow weary in doing what is right, “for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” For Paul, the only worthy boast is that of the cross of our Lord.
Looking at these three writings and the portion of the letter to the Galatians, we find lessons on how not to live and how to live in community. It is up to each of us to intentionally decide how we want to live with our neighbors, whether those neighbors are fellow parishioners, co-workers, friends, family members, or members of other organizations. We can be satisfied just calling out the grievances our neighbors inflict on us. We can blunder through relationships without a plan of what we want other than to benefit ourselves. We can be content with our relationships so long as we don’t have to make sacrifices necessary to respect the dignity of the other.
May each of us go farther, much farther. May we imagine how, as the Book of Common Prayer’s General Thanksgiving asks, “with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.” I hope in each of our communities—home, church, work, play—we can borrow from St. Francis and model the Gospel with our lives, first as individuals and then as the community itself. May we attract others to our faith because of our example.
May we take responsibility for each other and for ourselves, as St. Paul urged the Galatians to do. As members of an extended family, can we be gentle with one another? Can we look out for the emotional and physical needs of that extended family, understanding that all in this world are members of that family? What would the harvest look like if we did that?
Yesterday I had a glimpse of such a community. I picked up my daughter Holly from our diocese’s Camp Quarterman. It was Holly’s eleventh and final camp as a camper. She has graduated high school and can return in the future only as a counselor. We attended the Eucharist service that was the final event of the camp. In front of the parents, the campers and counselors led the singing, often swaying together, arms over each neighbor’s shoulders. The love and joy they had for each other bound them tightly as a community, a community that would have brought joy to Paul or Francis. It brought joy and hope to me.