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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our two boys Vitali and Alexei were only four and six years old when they first glimpsed the shores of America. Circling above the city of New York, we gazed down on the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the mighty tugboats, the towering skyscrapers, the historic Ellis Island and a fleeting peak of the State of Liberty. It had been a long non-stop flight from Moscow to New York. By any other standards it was cruel and unusual punishment. Fifteen trips to the bathroom- per child, cramped rows, communication troubles, fatigue, sleep deprivation and anxious nerves. But as we were preparing to touch down, our youngest son Alexei just waking from his sleep, leaned across the row of passengers to his older brother and said, “Vitali, eta Amerika.” Vitali, this is America.
The 4th of July should be a day filled with patriotic memories and historic reflections. Especially this year. It is a day which we will celebrate with renewed excitement as we emerge from the dark shadow of the pandemic. Parades and fireworks will once again be a part of this day, as well as family picnics and concerts. Flags and bunting will adorn our city and everywhere the events will be colored in red, white and blue.
Curiously, 245 years ago, in 1776, July 4th was not a joyous day. They were chaotic and turbulent times. The 13 American colonies were at war with the powerful, British Empire and sometimes themselves Already for a full year, battles had been fought in the New Land, and the war was far from over. In the eyes of the world, the American uprising was doomed to fail. The colonial leaders were fools who failed to recognize the authority of the king. They chided that the colonial David would ultimately fall before the mighty English Goliath.
Historians will note that the Continental Congress had actually voted for independence two days earlier on July 2nd, and to his dying day, Vice President and then President John Adams refused to celebrate the 4th of July. He insisted that 2nd of July was the official day of the birth of the nation. In the two days following, Thomas Jefferson penned a more poetic form of the declaration that was adopted by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4th. Only the President of the Congress, John Hancock signed the original declaration before it was sent off to be printed in the newspapers on July 6th. The rest of the Continental Congress did not sign the declaration until August 2nd. The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence took place on July 8th as the Liberty Bell rang. As for the founding fathers’ dispute over July 2nd versus July 4th, the fate of the lesser July 2nd celebration was sealed 50 years later when both late Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, the 4th of July, 1826.
Over 5 long years passed, and in 1781, the colonists won the Revolutionary War. Against all odds the Americans were the winners and the British were the losers. Now, as a former American history teacher, I have often wondered, “Why were the colonists so successful?” Were the Founding Fathers of the American nation better soldiers? Perhaps. Though they needed the support of the French Army and Navy to win the war. Were the American colonists more faithful church- goers? By no means. The American Revolutionaries were sons of the enlightenment. They believed that God created all things and then retired to heaven. Church attendance was very low. Were the early settlers more courageous? This might be a strong possibility. But I rather suspect that the American colonists won the Revolutionary War, because they knew the cost of defeat and they agreed on a common set of values.
And so we turn to the theme of the early kings of Israel. Last week we meditated up the King’s Saul’s paranoid and jealous treatment of David which ultimately led to his defeat and death Mt. Gilboa along with three of his sons. One of Saul’s sons survived. Ishbaal. Saul’s loyal court, including his trusted general Abner, placed Ishbaal on the empty throne of Saul to reign as the new king of Israel. David, however, remained in the territory south of Israel, in the land of Judah. Having settled in the city of Hebron, he was anointed a second time as king of Judah. So began a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. The kingdoms were disproportionate in size. David’s kingdom represented only one of the original twelve tribes, but scriptures say that David grew stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.
The political intrigues in the house of Saul, led to the tragic death of Israel’s military commander Abner as well as the cruel death of Saul’s last remaining son, Ishbaal. David acted less than mercifully when he rewarded Ishbaal’s assassins for removing his rival to the throne by dismembering them of their hands and feet and hanging their bodies in the public spaces of Hebron. In short, prior to David’s coronation, the Lord’s anointed one was no perfect model of generosity and mercy. He was a great leader, a strong warrior, and a skilled musician and poet, but at the same time, he could be ruthless. There was, however, no one else to turn to, and so the elders of Israel journeyed to Hebron, to anoint David as their king.
So, what did the elders of Isarel see in David? Surprisingly, it may be the very same attributes that the signers of the Declaration of Independence saw in the promise of America and in in their common fight against the British crown. It is the attribute that we must continue to see in our neighbors as fellow Americans if we are to remain vibrant and strong.
First of all, they recognized that David was of the same “bone and flesh.” Certainly, David was from Bethlehem of Judah, so his tribal affiliation was with Judah in the south—not Israel in the north. But both Israel and Judah were descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their ancestors suffered side by side through the long siege of slavery in Egypt and the forty-year trek in the wilderness. Israel and Judah had a great deal in common—and little reason to be divided. The signers of the Declaration of Independence, though from varied colonies North and South, and conflicting political backgrounds realized that had much more in common with each other, than with the king. That is still true of our lives as Americans today, whether Republicans, Democrats, Independent or Libertarians, whether North or South, that is the promise of America.
Second, the elders of Israel recognized that, “In times past, when Saul was king, it was David who led out and brought in Israel.” The elders of Israel were stating that, even though Saul was their king, David performed many of their king’s military duties. That was true for the members of the Continental Congress as well. Their leaders may not have had the titles, but they served where they were needed. It actually is at the heart of the American ethos. You can disagree with somebody, and at time even find your neighbor disagreeable, but you can still serve together with them side by side. You can come from different ethnic, national groups and still be united in service against a common enemy- and more importantly, you can work together for a common cause. That is the promise of America.
Finally, the elders of Israel recognized, that the Lord had said to David, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.” There was something compelling about David’s call to his kingship that was divine. The members of the Continental Congress may not have seen anything divine in a king, certainly not King George III, but they found something divine and holy in each other. And they affirmed that conviction in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal. and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The elders of Israel believed that David was chosen not to be king to rule over them, but to be a shepherd who would guide and protect them. That is why they anointed him as king- to be their shepherd, and to enjoy a good and safe life of opportunity in his care. That is ultimately the promise of America as well.
As quickly as David was anointed king over a united Israel and Judah, he sets his sights on a new capital, a city further north closer to the territory of Israel. It would replace the city of Hebron. The military location was important. A city on the heights of the mountains. David’s vision was set for Jerusalem, a fortified Jebusite city. The fortifications were said to be so secure, that even the lame and the blind could protect it. But with a united army behind him, David knew there was one vulnerable entrance to the city where there would be success and victory. They would attack they city by entering through the water system. And so, they approached the city from its underbelly. David soon occupied the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem and renamed it after himself. This David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of Hosts, was with him.
The anointing of David as king may seem like an odd passage for our nation’s 4th of July celebration when in 1776 we declared our independence from a tyrant king, but I think there is an important sobering, message here.
As a poignant epilogue to the classic World War II movie General George S. Patton, the general is heard reflecting on his victories at the end of the war, “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
My friends, the story of Israel’s early kings teaches us that neither human personality nor charisma, not good looks nor powerful appearances can hold a kingdom or a nation together. Not even the fabled King David, the conqueror of giants could manage it. The kingdom he had united broke into two within one generation. A nation, you see, must be built on something more.
Flying into New York, a little boy exclaimed, “Vitali, eta Amerika.” My friends, the America that I have grown to love and honor, and that I have chosen to share with my sons does not rest on great personalities and fleeting glories. That America that I have chosen to share rests on a sense of responsibility for our actions and attitudes. It is an America that rests on a healthy respect for our neighbors as our fellow human beings. It is an America that rests on a sense of reverence for our Creator and his will. Without these common values, all glory is fleeting. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.