It is only fitting that we as Anglicans gather to give thanks for our independence and to pray for our nation. I say it is only fitting given how Anglicans played key roles in our struggle for independence. Let me name but a few. Anglican Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, “Give me liberty or give me death” in St. John’s, Richmond. Anglican Richard Henry Lee first proposed that a Declaration of Independence be written. Anglican James Madison was the father of the Constitution. Anglican John Paul Jones was the father of the American Navy. It was in an Anglican church that Paul Revere hung the famous lantern to warn of the British arrival. And of course the father of our nation, George Washington, served on the Vestry of his parish. I tried diligently to find famous founders who were Church of Christ, but alas to no avail. So next time you greet a brother and sister in the Church of Christ, say to them, “You are welcome.”
Notice in your bulletin that just before the war broke out the Continental Congress called the colonies to a day of prayer and fasting, calling on God “to forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities, to avert those desolating judgments, with which we are threatened…” and they end the call by saying “And it is recommended to Christians, of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and to abstain from servile labour and recreation on said day.” Think of that. The Congress called on Christians to fast and pray and to stop work and assemble for public worship. Either those poor guys didn’t get the concept of the separation of church and state or we have grossly misunderstood it in our day. But that is a topic for another day. We need more leadership like that today.
As our society grows not only even more secular, but also more hostile to Christianity, many are wondering which way to turn. I read that there was a lot of talk about the Benedict Option and monastic communities at the ACNA Assembly last week. If you haven’t heard of the Benedict Option let read you an excerpt from an article on the topic.
“The question…to talk about (is) whether America is headed the way of the Roman empire. Bureaucratic decay, massive public debt, an overstretched military, a political system seemingly incapable of responding to challenges—the late Roman empire suffered these maladies, and so, some fear, does contemporary America…Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence—to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.
Christians have been here before. Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.
Benedict gained a reputation for holiness and gathered other monks around him. Before dying circa 547, he personally founded a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous Rule, the guidebook for scores of monasteries that spread across Europe in the tumultuous centuries to follow….Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.”
It is an interesting concept and is one that has worked before. Some may be called to it but I am not convinced that is the way for us to go for a couple of reasons.
First I’m not convinced that we need to move physically into Christian communities. That is the calling for some, but not for all of Christ’s Body because that was not the pattern of our Lord. He didn’t retreat from the culture, He embraced it with His love. He came like a Physician to a leper colony. To the offense of the religious folk, He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He traveled throughout their towns and villages and stayed in their homes. He was so much among them that His enemies labeled Him a drunkard and a glutton. I understand that this call of the Benedict Option is not to be completely cloistered from the world but I believe that human nature will head in that direction once the communities come together. It is difficult enough in a parish not to become insular let alone when everyone is living together.
But where I do think Benedict’s example has something to offer us in post Christian America is in how we view ourselves. The monks saw themselves as taken out of the world in order to serve in the world. Jesus prayed for His disciples who were in the world but not of the world. Romans 12 says that we are not to conform to the patterns of this world but we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So we do not need to physically remove ourselves from the world but we do need to spiritually and mentally detach ourselves and live as citizens of another kingdom.
To be honest we have not done a good job of this as Anglicans. Years ago, even when the Episcopal Church was solid in its orthodoxy, it was known as the “country club in prayer.” It was not uncommon to find folks who were good and faithful churchmen but had no clue about what they really believed nor had lives that manifested the fruits of the Spirit. To this day Episcopalians would rather be called “heretic” than “tacky.”
As Anglicans we need change this. We need to be even more intentional about seeing ourselves as IN the world but not OF the world. We need to think of ourselves as missionaries to America and strategize and discern ways to serve those who are products of a post Christian America. What we must remember is that while many celebrate the breakdown of our society, that breakdown will eventually impact everyone, and the Church needs to be ready to help them find their way back home.
A second reason that I am not convinced that the Benedict Option is the answer is because of Jesus’ commission to us. He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” It’s difficult for men to see our good works if we are cloistered up in a Christian community.
Years ago I visited a convent in Spain where the nuns weren’t even allowed to see you. So when I went to buy something from them, I put the money in a tiny turnstile in the window. The nun on the other side spun it around, took my money, and spun around my purchase. This did not make me want to glorify my Father in heaven. It was actually kind of creepy. I made me feel like I was on an episode of the Adam’s family and had just done business with Thing.
But again, where Benedict can be helpful to us in an increasingly post Christian America is to take seriously his rule. He had three core rules.
First is obedience. Benedict had a saying, “Prefer nothing to Christ.” Our first obedience must be to Christ. And we also need to be clear when it comes to preferring nothing to Christ, that there must not be a close second. That is what Jesus was saying when He called on His followers to love Him even more than their own families. He wasn’t calling on them to break the 5th Commandment, rather He was calling on them to place Hi above all, vastly above all.
On this day in particular we need to be careful to not allow love of nation to be on par with our love for God. Christians in the past have demonstrated that while a Christian can be patriotic they should avoid nationalism. A patriot loves his country but nationalism says, “My country is always right.” We cannot take that approach because there are times that God calls upon Christians to stand up to their nation, point out its sin, and call it to repentance.
Next in Benedict’s rule is stability. Just as the monks were committed to remain in their communities for the rest of their lives and not bounce from monastery to monastery every time they got upset or their feelings were hurt, so we need to remain committed to the community in which the Lord places us.
It is tempting, with all of the insanity in our country, to want to move to a quiet beach in another part of the world. But Jonah is a great reminder that we cannot run away from the Lord. If He wants us in Ninivah, is makes no difference if we want to go there are not.
The vow of stability is especially important when things get tough. People find all kinds of convenient reasons to quit but if you bale out on Good Friday, you never get to experience Easter. Our job as Christians is not to escape discomfort. Our job is to be a witness to the Lord even if and especially when the ship is sinking.
The third vow is conversion of life. To me this is ingenious. If you only had obedience and stability then your life would be in a rut, and as you have heard before, a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out. Obedience and stability keep you committed, but conversion of life brings about change while you are staying put. As we offer our souls and bodies to the Lord to be living sacrifices, He molds us and shapes us and changes us to ever be more effective for His kingdom. Change can be difficult but it is what life is about. The good news for those in Christ is, that according to the Scriptures, our change is about going from glory to glory. We need to see ourselves as disciples, always learning and growing and changing.
If you look at the signs of the times, the signs are not good. America may not be the Titanic but she is taking on water. It is another reason that it is so important that we take some time on this day of celebration to pray for her. I believe that as Anglicans we are called to discover a via media in our response as Christian citizens. We need to find a place somewhere between being Pollyanna on one extreme and Chicken Little on the other. This is a great nation but it is not perfect. There are ills and injustices that must be addressed but it doesn’t mean that every time we see something wrong that the sky is falling.
As citizens of heaven we can and should work to make this a more just and righteous nation and I don’t believe that we can do that by retreating into Christian communities. At the same time we must constantly be reminded that our hopes are not fixed here. First and foremost our citizenship is in heaven. The motto of our nation may change every time we get a new President. But the message of the Church remains the same to every nation. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Amen.