Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
No one knows for certain the age of the human race, but everyone seems to agree that we’re old enough to know better. America will soon be 223 years old. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress finally approved a motion for independence that had been made and seconded almost a month earlier. The decision would not only bring war at home, but also have a far-reaching effect on the history of the rest of the world. Two days later, that same Congress approved the report of a committee appointed to prepare a statement justifying that decision. The statement is known as the Declaration of Independence. Historians offer several reasons why most of the signatures were affixed a month later and 15 came still later that year.
One of the reasons for the delay is that they had made some minor revisions and a new formal copy had to be prepared. I tend to think that the primary reason for the long delay is revealed at the end of the document. Like our Constitution, this paper was largely the work of Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant and absolutely committed man. His concluding line does not encourage the squeamish and half- hearted to sign. He said, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
“Feddersen’s Fables” contains the story of a fellow who was joining a service organization. With one hand over his heart and the other raised, he solemnly faced the U.S. Flag and spoke the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, with hands still poised, he turned and read the words of the members’ pledge. He promised to uphold the high principles, causes and purposes of the group without regard to personal risk or expense and with the highest integrity. After the usual uproar of hand clapping and shaking, the treasurer mentioned the $20 per year dues. The fellow responded: “What? Twenty dollars — I’m not gonna pay twenty bucks just to join a club!” Well, so much for life, fortune and sacred honor.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew full well that if the Colonies lost the war, King George would have their 55 names on his most-wanted list. Their decision started with a simple motion and a simple second, followed by a simple statement of rationale concluding with a simple pledge of allegiance. The last step was a simple signature, putting very little ink but everything else in the world on the line.
In Sunday’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus makes a simple request of a fellow sitting at his collection table in a customs house: “Follow me.” The fellow, who happens to be the author of the lesson, made a simple response — he got up and followed Him. He left an unknown quantity of money on that table, but that was the least of his risks. That simple commitment cost him all of life’s usual securities. It eventually cost him all of what we usually call life. Why did he do it? Thomas Jefferson, who had a far greater mastery of our language than I, pledged his “sacred honor.” Matthew made an irrevocable commitment to follow a holy calling.
One author suggests that most people today would not make the far-reaching and risky commitment that Matthew and his eleven friends made. When I first read that, I tended to agree, but the more I thought about it, the more I changed my mind. My observation is that Jesus would have less trouble getting volunteers to walk on water than to mop it up. People who pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor are more reliable than people who pledge 10% to God’s mission or their congregation. Strangely, people who pledge 10% are more reliable than those who pledge 2%.
Perhaps the problem is that we make too many commitments and promises. Your friend says, “Can I borrow 35¢ to make a phone call?” You may or may not say, “Oh, that’s all right; here, forget it.” But, either way, he does. Promises to kids or parents, commitments to causes or congregations, vows of marriage or oaths of office — they all run together. Some years ago a frustrated principal of a parochial school suddenly resigned. When asked why, he responded: “The parents don’t pay their bills and the kids don’t pay attention.” One aspect of this problem is that mixed loyalties bleed the strength out of our commitments. Another question is whether the grandiose, high-risk commitments are the only ones worth keeping.
In the movie, “Butterflies Are Free,” a superficial, scatter-brained girl was portrayed in the act of running away from her blind lover. She attempted to explain and justify her flight by shouting at him: “Because you’re blind, you’re crippled!” In the most profound moment of the movie, the young man replied, “No, I’m not crippled. I’m sightless, but not crippled. You are crippled because you can’t commit yourself to anyone.”
I get the impression that some people never really make a commitment because they are waiting for some sign in the heavens. They go through the rituals of religion without pledging allegiance to God. They accept His piety but not His principles. They have learned, somehow, to bow before the altar without bending to the will of God. They sit at their tax-tables waiting for a group in search of a leader and ignore the Carpenter in search of a follower. The late Bishop Pike once said that many Christians have a “sprinkling relationship” to the church: “They are sprinkled with water at baptism, sprinkled with rice at marriage, and sprinkled with earth at death.” Many people seem to have good intentions, but they wait for some sign in the sky giving them a grand calling. They are fooled by the pernicious belief that popes and pastors have a call but plumbers and potters have a job.
I am convinced that a few Christians, sticking to seemingly trivial commitments, will one day find themselves uniting nations in peace, bridging oceans and enabling whole peoples to see themselves in a new light. I am also convinced that by and large the task of Christianity is to get us to embrace our ordinary humanity with an extraordinary fidelity to God and His mission.
Someone once said that the trouble with Christians is that Nero died. You could go on to say that the trouble with Americans is that King George or Hitler died. As we approach our nation’s birthday, I hope we remember our nation’s heroes for what they accomplished rather than what they opposed. Jefferson’s eloquence is not in his opposition to the king, but his ferocious love of liberty. Lincoln’s greatness lies not in his opposition to slavery – as if it were some hot political issue — but his love of both the slaves and their owners. In the same way, the world is not changed by Jesus’ opposition to sin, but by His love for the sinner. Jesus was not content to renounce bigotry — He died for the bigot. He came to set all captives free — the publicans from their deceit and thievery and the Pharisees from their self-righteousness and legalism, Peter from his weakness and the Scribes from their pride. He came to set us all free from our vain imaginings and lack of real commitment.