Our Episcopal Church parish serving Edgefield and Saluda Counties is a small one, with a history of outstanding priests. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that our Vicar gets the call from the diocesan Bishop to serve at a larger parish than ours, leaving the Church of the Ridge to conduct yet another search for new parish priest. We are in the middle of such a vacancy now, and we are being served – and quite well, I should add – by “Supply Priests,” who seem to enjoy the opportunity to visit our somewhat unconventional parish of three churches in three towns (Edgefield, Trenton, and Ridge Spring) here on the Ridge.
This week our Supply Priest was Fr. Peter Hawes, who lives just outside Asheville and had not the opportunity to serve us for several months; he specifically asked for Independence Day weekend. He called on the previous Tuesday and asked whether we could use as our readings from the Lectionary those specified for the Fourth of July, and for music several religiously themed patriotic tunes from our Hymnal; we were most happy to oblige. Knowing that Fr. Hawes is a dynamic as well as a learned pastor and that he had been thinking about this particular sermon for several weeks, we all wondered what he would say.
The Episcopal Lectionary for services on Independence Day has several readings, and of course they were chosen to highlight the connection between our duties to God and our duties to one another in a democracy. The Old Testament lesson was from Deuteronomy, and centered on our duty to Welcome the Stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is a topic that was familiar to many in our congregation, as it is to readers of this column. The Gospel lesson was from St. Matthew and spoke of Christ’s commandment not just to love one another, but to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In these days that see our nation seeking to welcome refugees from the ongoing horrors in Syria and Iraq, while we witness acts of terror in Orlando and Sacramento as well as in Europe and this week in South Asia, how then are we to welcome these strangers and how are we to love our enemies?
Fr. Hawes’ homily walked us all through the goal that St. Matthew laid out, for us to strive to be perfect – perfect in our religious life, and perfect as citizens of our great republic. It is easy to paint all Muslims as enemies, and to try to deny access to refugees. But these sentiments arise from our all too human nature, a nature that we are called on to examine both rationally (refugees are seeking shelter from the same enemies who try to harm the rest of us!) and compassionately (terrorists are mortal threats to those within their own religion, even more so than to those of us with other religions or with no religion). We cannot, stated Fr. Hawes, expect to reach perfection; but we must avoid the baseness of easy prejudice ourselves.
The challenge, then, is how to seek that perfection in an imperfect world, especially in this election year. I hope and trust that our nation will continue to be up to that challenge!