Ben Franklin, Tracy Chapman, Pete Seger, and Jesus walk into a church…
Come unto me all that are heavy laden…
This holiday weekend, with parades and food, friends and family, we celebrate our Independence, honor the ideal that all persons are created equal. During this holiday we also celebrate a revolution, our revolt from the previous systems of government to experiment in self-rule. In keeping with that celebration, I thought I would bring to your attention some of the words of one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. And while he is not usually named as one of the great thinkers of his generation, his words did have a profound effect on the direction of 20th century Christianity.
Here are a couple of selected quotes that first appeared in Poor Richard’s Almanac, and later gathered together in the volume, The Way to Wealth:
God helps them that help themselves.
Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Never leave that till to-morrow, which you can do to-day.
Remember that time money.
Remember that credit is money.
This is just a short selection – some of you probably recognize some of these sayings; you might have heard them as kids or told them to your children. You might have even thought that they might be found in the Scriptures somewhere, perhaps in some hidden corner of the Proverbs or in one of the books of the Apocrypha that you haven’t read yet. But they are not in the Bible. These sayings, and others like them, were popular during the founding of our country. They wormed their way in the psyche of our nation and became the basis for our particular form of capitalism.
This point of view, that fuses together time, money, credit and God, flourished in the American system that insisted on a separation of church and government. Not that religion wasn’t important, isn’t valued, but that your taxes shouldn’t go to pay for a federally endorsed version of Christianity, one that was elevated above all the many forms of Christianity that exist. Christianity, then, is left free to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
So in the early days of our colonies there was this space where the church universal, what we would name today as the Catholic Church, used to exist as a moral authority, an assurance that you were OK with God. This vacuum was filled with a number of competing authorities and experimentation in church governance; and the one really loud voice of Ben Franklin, one who had the power of a printing press at his disposal. His sayings, fused with a budding merchant class eager to put a virtuous face on their business transactions, found fertile ground and might be summed up as this: If you are virtuous, diligent in work, wise in spending and investing your money appropriately, then you are blessed of God. Some might even say that if you are virtuous and industrious, then God will bless you with monetary riches. This is not what Scripture says but does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this find resonance in our policy decisions towards the poor, the homeless, the tired and struggling masses yearning for freedom?
By now, you might be wondering what this historical review of the beginnings of Capitalism is doing in a sermon, wondering how does this relate to Paul or the prophets, or even the words of Jesus himself? Or even asking, how does our financial system square with that well know, well-loved invitation from Jesus, “come unto me you who are heavy laden…”
It is good that we wrestle with questions like this during our celebrations. For as we celebrate our financial freedom, our electoral freedom, our freedom of expression, we also need to remember those who are burdened: those who for no fault of their own have somehow come up short in the American Dream, who have had their chosen line of profession disappear from under their feet, who have needed to retool their resume, revamp their lifestyle. In our rapidly changing industrial landscape, there are winners and there are losers. Perhaps you know of someone, a friend, a family member or yourself, who through no lack of virtue, or hard work, or trying to invest wisely, do all the things that Ben Franklin advises, still feels like they have fallen short of God’s blessing.
So on this Independence Day Sunday, this celebration of revolution, I give you a different sort of revolution – a revolution that sounds like a whisper and comes with a smile and a song about love between my brother and my sister.
Jesus was a radical teacher. Unlike his contemporaries, other itinerant preachers of his time, he didn’t proclaim an overthrow of a political system. Instead he preached love and pointed the way to a healthy relationship with the Divine. Numerous other transformative leaders: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Saint Francis, Martin Luther King, Jr., have somehow also been able to realize and articulate a transformational path along the way of loving one another – a love that is strong and vigorous, not some ineffective words to a trite love song.
For despite our cultural impulses that emphasize that we need to be competent in everything, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and reach for that golden ring that is ours to grab, it is only in the give and take of relationship and sharing that we will know the fullness of the Divine. It is only in giving love, aid and assistance, that we can also, gracefully, receive love, aid and assistance.
This revolution of love can be found here at ECA. During the summer, members of our core team are reaching out to other like-minded non-profits, to have conversations about where we can work together to do the practical work of loving our neighbor, one that goes beyond the work of prayer and puts feet to faith. We also have our numerous outreach projects such as our work with South Sudan, Montgomery Meals and pastoral care teams. These projects, and many others, help us to share the burdens of others and ourselves
This is the true revolution, powerful, strong, clean and pure. It is when we give love, receive love, share the burdens of this life with one another, in fellowship and worship, sometimes in just being someone’s friend and listening to their story, that the real revolution continues and that we are blessed by God.