Declaration of Dependence
John Adams died 195 years ago today, on July the 4th, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of our nation’s Declaration of Independence.
He was a remarkable statesman and visionary—visionary to see so much possibility in the American enterprise; statesman for his keen ability to reconcile the many disparate and even opposing convictions as to best ways to fulfill that vision.
Virtually all of his sentiments regarding this enormous endeavor found their way into letters between Adams and his wife Abigail across these tumultuous years—over a thousand were exchanged between them. In one such letter, written in 1775, Adams wrote these words:
America is a great, unwieldy body . . . I need to pause here and ask, Could he possibly have imagined how well that would describe the very same country two and half centuries later?
Or maybe we have no idea precisely what he and his contemporaries were facing then in the way of challenges to the ideal of a good society.
America is a great unwieldy body, he wrote to Abigail. Its progress must be slow. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest.
When I consider John Adams’ description of America as a great unwieldy body, I am always reminded of another great, unwieldy body—the young and restless church at Corinth, to which Paul wrote the letter from which Karen read just now. The subject is how to be considerate of others at the Lord’s table.
Apparently some were arriving for the worship gathering earlier than others, and eager to get started, they proceeded to share the sacrament, along with a fellowship meal that was commonly connected to the Lord’s Supper. By the time others arrived, the deviled eggs were all gone, the green bean casserole was reduced to the trim of crust around the edges of the Pyrex dish, and all that was left of the crumb cake were crumbs. But the more serious matter, the greatest offense, was that the eucharistic meal had also already been shared and put away.
Paul’s instruction to the church to rectify this problem was breathtakingly self-evident, summarized in four words: Wait for one another. His simple admonition is an ethical code for the Lord’s table, to be sure, but also for life beyond sacramental gatherings. Wait for one another. It works the same in kindergarten as in Congress. In marriage. In our various ministries in the church. With siblings and soccer mates. At the farmer’s market, and certainly on the freeway.
It works in seeking understanding beyond other people’s narrow attitudes and easy platitudes, and also beyond our own; beyond that awful lens of stereotype and suspicion that shrinks others in our view even as it shrinks our own hearts. Wait for one another.
Every month, in partaking of the Lord’s Table together, we get to practice in a very literal way that ethical code of waiting for one another. The first ones to come forward will be waited for by those who come after; and those of you who have come first will then wait, once returning to your seats, for those who follow. Everyone waits for somebody; and everyone is waited upon by somebody. Holy Communion makes us more conscious of both of these things: that we wait for others, and that others wait for us. I think of it as practice for the way we live the rest of our lives, both in Christian community and in our public lives in the world.
On the day we mark the anniversary of the signing by the second Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence, in this room we also mark something else. As followers of Jesus, we mark our declaration of dependence, to borrow a phrase from our bishop, Robert Schnase; dependence on God and one another.
For once we grow wise enough to see it, the waiting we do for each other is not merely a matter of being nice toward others who are not quite as together as we are. The waiting is grounded in an understanding that, contrary to our own more naïve or arrogant presumptions, tolerance always goes in both directions.
Those who are slower than I am, different somehow, aligned more to the left or right in their world views, darker-skinned, lighter-skinned; those I wait for, put up with, tolerate, accommodate in attitudes or church work or public policy; all of these are in one way or another accommodating me as well. In a double bind from which there is no escaping I depend on others as much as others depend on me.
In John Adams’ metaphorical convoy with fast ships and slow ships, that double bind of mutual dependence is evident: The fastest and fleetest ships would have had very few essential provisions on board—that’s why they’re so fast and fleet. Guess where those provisions are lodged. On the ships that are dull and slow, of course, which is why they’re dull and slow—they’re carrying the necessary cargo for the whole convoy—including the fast ships—so that together all can make it safely across the ocean intact. The slow ships can be grateful for the navigating skills of the swift; and the swift, that the slow carry their supper.
While we’re sharing the Lord’s supper today, a ritual recalling God’s grace lavished upon the world through the life and death and resurrection of Christ, I invite you to pay attention to two very obvious things: the fact that you’re waiting on others part of the time; and that part of the time others are waiting on you.
All of this will surely bring to our awareness just how much others depend on us to extend grace in their direction; and, perhaps more importantly, how much we depend on others to extend grace in ours. Sometimes we call the bread and cup means of grace, but they’re not the only means of grace in the room today. There’s the bread, the cup; and there’s you, you, me, all the ships, all the speeds, all the necessary gifts for life together.