Sunday, July 25, 2010

Great Servants

Sermon for the Patronal Feast of St James the Apostle, 2010 -- the 157th anniversary of the founding of the parish.


SJF • July 25 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

How fitting are these words for us to hear, we gathered here on this festival of Saint James the Apostle, our Patron! For although I have the privilege and responsibility to bear the title of Minister in a formal way, yet each of us is a minister in this place — and a minister beyond this place. Each of you has a ministry to carry out as much as I. I have spoken many times before of the responsibility each Christian bears to witness to the saving gift of Christ, to witness to the truth that is in you as you go about your daily life in the world at large.

This is a vital ministry, a life-giving and life-saving ministry, particularly in our day when the church has ceased to be at the center of society. When this parish was founded 157 years ago, those who gathered to begin that noble work were not such as we: working people, tradespeople, students, craftspeople, laborers. No, they were the cream of their society, men — and in those days they were as the founders all men, though women played a very important part, of which I will soon say more — but men of wealth and influence, captains of industry and commerce, leaders in trade and politics, mayors of cities, diplomats, and generals and admirals in the army and navy.

And yet all of them served — however high they were on the scale of earthly achievement, they did not think themselves too high and mighty to soil their hands with the hard work of providing a place for the people of God to worship. They did not flinch from digging deep into their own pockets to provide for a parish that would stand the test of time, stand for more than a century and a half, as a testimony and a tribute to their devotion and their ministry. And I want to name just a few of them, from those early days.

Gustav Schwab, one of the wealthiest men in this Borough in his day, chaired the building committee for the construction of this church, paid for many of its appointments, including all of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, from his own pocket, and worked long hours diligently to serve the people, without any reward. Truly he was a Minister who served.

George Cammann, of whom I’ve spoken before: a renowned physician of this City, the chief physician of the Home for Orphans and Foundlings, did not think to profit from the stethoscope that he invented, but made it free to the public domain, so that anyone could manufacture it, thus spreading the reach of this powerful tool for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Truly he was a great servant of all people.

Franklin Edson, the Mayor of the City of New York, served this parish as a vestryman for 21 years, taking time from his civic work to attend meetings and serve on committees with diligence and skill. Truly a Minister who served.

William B. Ogden, the first Mayor of Chicago and president of the Union Pacific Railroad, who loved Saint James so much that he loaned its name to the cathedral he founded in Nebraska, who was baptized and confirmed late in life, at the age of seventy-one at this very altar rail, who died and was buried from this place the following year — truly he was a great servant to the people.

Closer to our own time, some of you here will remember those gentle spirits Ralph, Ken and Gladstone, true gentlemen and gentle men, who served in this sanctuary and sang in this choir — or our dear Rita and Rosetta, just last year taken from us to serve in a greater choir.

And who can forget Florine, or Rhena, Mervis, Katherine, or Noel, Viola, Maggie, or Jane, or Mercedes, or Ira, or the names of so many other women who did so much to build up this church, to keep it going when others were ready to let it go. Recall that it was the women of the church who provided it with the chalices from which we still take the sacred blood of Christ, and the magnificent paten upon which rests his consecrated Body, when they dedicated those gifts in 1853. All of these, and so many others whom time will not permit their naming, were Ministers who served, great servants of the people.

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In this is one of the great mysteries of Christ: that whoever seeks greatness must do so not by exaltation but by service, not by putting oneself forward, but by putting oneself to work, not by standing prominently on the street-corner making an empty show of religion, but by stooping down to wash the feet of the poor, to bend one’s back under the cross of service day by day, that alone makes one worthy to bear the name of “Christian.”

Our Lord came not to be ministered to, but to be a minister to all; he came not to Lord it over us, but to raise us up by his own descent to the very depths. His was a baptism of pain and suffering that he knew he must undergo, his a death in which he knew he must go under: even unto the grave, even unto hell itself, to free from bondage all imprisoned there since the day our ancient parents fell from grace. For only in giving his life as a ransom for many, only by drinking that bitter cup of betrayal and death, only by this full and perfect sacrifice of himself once offered upon the cross could he be sure that nothing would be lost: to catch us all from falling, to lift us up from where we had already fallen, he would place himself beneath us all, beneath us as a servant, and a savior, to catch us as we fell, and to raise us up with him.

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Each of us is challenged to do the same: not seeking exaltation and glory, the best seats at the banquet and the roles of power and prestige, but instead diligently to seek for the opportunities to serve that present themselves to us day by day and year by year. To ask oneself: Is there some church committee or group that needs my help, that needs the skill I have, the gift God gave me, and yet which I am not using for God’s purposes? Am I storing up my treasure in a barn, or burying it in the field instead of putting it to work as God would have me do?

Or is there some opportunity for me to witness to the love of God to those with whom I work, by showing them the faith and joy of one who serves the Lord? Dare I pass among the byways of the outer world and keep such grace as I have known in this place secret? Dare I let it be said of me by those with whom I worked, after I am gone, “We never knew he was a Christian”?

Or is there in my neighborhood some task to be accomplished that needs my help, some task in which my hands might make the difference, and making the difference, further or complete the work? Do my friends and neighbors know me as one to whom they can turn for help, for comfort or for aid? How do I witness to my Lord to those among whom I live?

Or is there even in my own family someone from whom I have been estranged, some kith or kin with whom I have not spoken through some grudge or past wrong yet unforgiven or unrepented? And might my reaching out bring the balm of healing to that wound, in a true ministry of charity and love, a ministry commanded by our Lord, who urged us to forgive, even as we are forgiven?

These are the ministries that God places before us as he placed them before the disciples James and John. We do not know who will find themselves in the exalted seats of honor in the kingdom of God when he comes in glory to judge and rule the world. But we do know that the baptism of Christ is the baptism into which we have been baptized; that the cup from which he drank is offered to us still to drink from; that the cross he bore is offered to each of us day by day to bear — or to refuse. God offers us this choice, and offers us the promise that those who do God’s will on earth will truly find their reward. May we always choose to follow our Lord as ministers and servants, ministering to each other and to those whom God places on our path, that we may do the will of him alone to whom we now ascribe, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+


Sunday, July 18, 2010

What's Missing?

SJF • Proper 11c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians includes one of the more difficult passages in Scripture. Paul declares that he himself is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” It sounds as if Paul is saying that Christ’s sufferings were somehow insufficient — as if his death on the cross was somehow not a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of himself once offered, for us and for our salvation. Could it possibly be that Paul, the great defender of salvation through Christ alone, the great champion of the saving cross of Christ, could be suggesting that Christ’s sufferings were themselves “lacking”?

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In several of my sermons over the years I have used the image of a gift: a birthday or Christmas or some other present. Usually such gifts are beautifully wrapped. Often they come with a card. But as I have asked once before, would any of you receive such a present, such a beautifully wrapped gift, but leave it wrapped and unopened? If you did so, you might say that you have the gift even if you haven’t opened the package and don’t even know what the gift is. But in truth you don’t really have the gift until both of these things are accomplished: until that wrapping comes off, the box is opened, and you see what the gift is. Unless you are one of those who believe you can “have your cake and eat it too” — I think you will agree that there is more to really having a gift than just holding it in your hands.

Or think of it this way: there were once two good friends, Jim and Tom, who were always engaging in little friendly wagers with each other. Jim normally won the bets, so often so that on one occasion when Tom bet Jim ten dollars on whose memory of a baseball score was right, and won — Tom proudly said he would frame the ten dollar bill and never spend it. Whereupon Jim said, “In that case, can I write you a check?”

We all know that an uncashed check is something like an unopened gift. You may wave the check in the air and say that you’ve got the $10; but until you cash that check, or deposit it in your own account and wait for it to clear, that $10 is still really resting in someone else’s account — and if you never cash he check or deposit it, that’s where it will stay, in someone else’s bank. A check isn’t money, but a promise of money. And if there is nothing to back up that promise, it is worthless. It’s no good saying, “My account can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” If you don’t have money in the bank, in your account, any check you write will be just a piece of paper, with nothing to back it up. For a check really to be of any value you need to have something on deposit in your account.

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The crucial word in all of this is that simple little two-letter word in. What Paul is saying is that the package has been presented and is being unwrapped — the mystery that had been hidden throughout the ages and generations — the contents of the package, what’s in it — is in the process of being revealed — but not only in the death of Christ on the cross, but also in the flesh of believers, his flesh, Paul’s that is, and the flesh of the people of Colossae, Corinth, Ephesus and wherever the church has spread the Gospel. And what that mystery is — the contents of the package, — is the mystery of the Church itself, the body of Christ: the whole company of all the faithful who are in Christ as Christ is in them. As Paul says, the mystery of God is “Christ in you.”

Thus, when the church suffers, Christ suffers. When the church suffers, Christ’s sufferings are added to. And this isn’t just a crazy idea that Paul came up with on his own. He learned it from personal experience from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. For when Paul, or as he was known in those days, Saul, was himself busily persecuting the church, rounding up Christians, members of the Body of Christ, and sending them off to prison or punishment or torture or death — when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus what did he say? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Persecute me!” That’s what Jesus said to Saul the persecutor of the church. Jesus was saying to Saul, “When you persecute and hurt the church, you persecute and hurt me.” For the church is the body of Christ, it is his body, that Paul, or Saul, was persecuting. This was a hard lesson for Saul to learn, but learn it he did: The suffering of the church is the suffering of Christ himself.

Now, there is nothing new in this — after all, Jesus had said, in his preaching on the end days, in that powerful passage from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you have done to the least of these who believe in me you have done it to me.” Whenever and wherever the church is persecuted, perhaps most especially when one part of the church persecutes another — member against member, one part of the body against another part of the body — whenever the church suffers, Christ suffers, for the church is his body and each of us are individually members of it. As Paul also reminds us, when one member suffers all suffer — we are truly all in this together, and how we treat each other is how we treat Jesus — for he is in us as we are in him.

Which is why the sufferings of Christ are not yet complete. The package has not been completely unwrapped — the check has been deposited but it has not yet cleared. Until the last great day when all is swallowed up in that final victory, suffering continues: our suffering for and with each other, our suffering due to our own failings and sins and the sins of the world, and the suffering that we inflict on others in our ignorance and imperfection: all of this will continue to contribute to the suffering of Christ in his body the church. And all of this suffering is taken up by Christ not as a surplus added to what took place on Calvary, but rather as a working out in us of what was accomplished once for all by him — the full revelation of his gift to all of us, which is the gift of the cross that was presented for all the world on that spring afternoon during Passover-time in Jerusalem of old — but whose impact is felt in each of us as we take up our own cross day by day. This is nothing less than the full negotiation of that promissory note — the fulfillment of salvation — a check that will not clear for good and all until the last great day. It continues as long as this earthly life shall last — for there are many who yet will be saved who have not yet even been born!

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As each of us suffers, our sufferings are taken up by Christ. Paul suffers with Christ “in his flesh” — as he also said to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ living in me; and the life I live in the flesh is the life of faith in the son of God.” As each of us, too, takes up our cross day by day, we participate in the sufferings of Christ.

For Christ’s work is finished but not ended — there are still many in the world who hold him in contempt, or who are ignorant of his good will and purpose for them. And as I said before, there are many yet who will come to believe who have not even been born. The mystery of the kingdom of God is in some ways like those gift boxes that you open only to find another smaller box inside, and then another inside that, and then another. We will only come to the end, an end to all suffering — both Christ’s and our own — when he comes in power and great glory to rule the world. And what a day that will be! And so we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come. +


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Very Near to You

SJF • Proper 10 Year C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you…+

It was a hot summer day, so hot that the air conditioning didn’t make much difference. The hospital had that “hospital” smell; you know what it’s like: that mix of antiseptic and floor polish, covering but not concealing the evident aroma of sick and ailing humanity. It was mid-afternoon, a sleepy time of day, and I’d just as soon have been taking a nap! I’d been making my chaplain’s rounds most of the day, checking in on patients I’d seen before, and visiting new arrivals.

Then I noticed, in the posting at the nurses’ station, that one of the patients I’d been seeing quite a bit of was going to be discharged that afternoon. I headed to her room, wanting to say goodbye and wish her well. As I got to the doorway, I saw that she was on the phone, so I motioned that I’d wait in the hall. I just stood outside her door, leaning with my back against the wall, my suit jacket feeling a bit uncomfortable, that little trickle of sweat going down my back in the still air and humid warmth.

Just then, a man stuck his head out of the next room down, out of the doorway, stared at me intently for a moment, then turned his head back into the room and said, “Here he is!” I hadn’t gotten a page on my beeper, but I figured that the patient in that room must have called the chaplain’s office. Since I saw that my other patient was still on the phone, I waved an “I’ll see you in a minute” and headed one door down the hall to the other room. The man waved me in and then followed me.

I wasn’t ready for what I saw. A middle-aged woman was not in a bed — she was braced and bound almost upright in a stainless steel contraption — the like of which I’ve only ever seen used in prisons to administer a lethal injection to a strapped down criminal. She was upright with both of her arms stretched out, and was holding onto the bars at either end with all her might, and it didn’t take a medical degree to see that she was in great pain; the expression on her face — eyes clenched tight shut — told me all I needed to know. It was like walking onto Calvary — for the woman was literally crucified on that bed of stainless steel.

Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, and a wave of relief flooded over her, her arms and her hands relaxed just a bit, and she said, “I knew you’d come.” I thought to myself, “Well, this is good timing. Glad I decided to wait outside the other patient’s room for a few minutes!”

The woman relaxed a bit, some of the tension in her arms softening. We talked about how she felt, and she told me about her faith — which was great. She’d had cancer once before, and gone into remission, but now the cancer had reappeared. But she felt sure that God was with her and would be with her in and through all of her pain. There really wasn’t much for me to do as a chaplain — this was a woman who had it all together, and she knew where she’d put it. And with the gathered family we prayed and prayed and prayed — you’d think I’d been born and bred a Baptist to see me that day, and the power of Pentecost and the Spirit was upon us in that room.

As the prayer came to a close, and we all became quiet for a moment, I asked if she had called for a chaplain, so I could make the proper entry in the hospital records. That’s when I got my second surprise.

“Call for a chaplain?” she asked, looking a little confused. She looked at her husband, who shook his head. “Why no. We didn’t call for a chaplain.” That’s when I guess I looked a little confused.

“No,” the husband said, “We were praying a little while ago, and then my wife told me she’d had a vision that a man of God was coming to see her. And that’s when you came.” Suddenly her husband’s short sentence, “Here he is!” took on a whole new meaning.

Suddenly I was no longer simply talking to a woman and her husband in a hospital on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Suddenly I was sitting in a room with people for whom visions are reality, for whom faith is a certainty, for whom men of God come walking through the door as a matter of course, people for whom God is very near. This was not just Golgotha, but in its own way the new Jerusalem.

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In his farewell in Deuteronomy, Moses told the children of Israel, “The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you….” The lawyer in today’s Gospel used a rabbi’s classic technique of combining two Scripture texts — Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy concerning the nearness of the law and loving the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and that text from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But it took Jesus to show him who the neighbor was. For the neighbor is the one who, like God, is very near to you.

God and God’s word were and always had been truly and uniquely present with the children of Israel: God had led them out of Egypt with signs and wonders, had been with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, God had dwelt among them in the tent of meeting, the tabernacle of the presence, God had even bent the heavens themselves and come down to the top of Sinai.

Yet, as Jesus assures us, God is just as present in every loving act of charity done to a neighbor. The work of God is as close as that, as close as the needy one placed in your path by circumstance or design — and after all, is there any “circumstance” under the grace of a God who fills his people’s hearts with the knowledge of his presence? who is so very near to all of us? God is present in the meeting of a hated Samaritan and a wounded Jew. God is present in hospital wards and nursing homes. God is present in the peace we share in this liturgy, and in the bread we break and the wine we drink. God is present to us and in us and with us, when we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hands to work and pray. There is no circumstance — it is all design!

The commandment of God is neither too hard nor too far away. We can all take part in it, all of us neighbors to one another, all of us working together, being present to each other as God is present to us.

And it’s not just that we become agents of God when we help others. That is true, and it is God’s will for us, and we give thanks to be instruments in God’s service, to be “good Samaritans” to lend a hand when it is needed. But God is also present in the ones who suffer; as God was uniquely present in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that the whole world might come into the reach of his saving embrace. God is present in the sick and wounded whom we serve, for as Christ told and assures us, when you do good to the least of these, you do it to me.

When I walked through the door of that hospital room that hot summer day, the woman there saw in me the presence of God, believing I’d been particularly sent down that particular hall on that particular day, to that particular room at that specific time. And indeed, I had been sent, though I didn’t know it at the time. God can do such things, even when we aren’t aware God is doing it; leading and guiding us to be where he wants us to be, as he led that Samaritan once long ago, as indeed he had led the priest and the Levite who instead of following God’s lead, chose to pass that gracious opportunity by. God leads us, but it is still up to us to follow.

But I’ll tell you something else: when I went through the door of that hospital room, and saw that woman with her arms stretched out, and the grip of terrible pain upon her face, I knew I too was in the presence of God, the God who in Christ became flesh and suffered upon the cross, the God who bears our griefs and weeps with us and for us, the God who is very near and not far off, very near, so near that we can feel his breath.+


Sunday, July 04, 2010

Independent for What?

SJF • Proper 9C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For thus says the Lord: “I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.”

Today is Independence Day, but you may have noticed that the Scripture readings we heard were not those appointed for the Fourth of July, but the regular readings from Proper 9 in Year C, for the Sunday closest to July 6. Part of my reason for choosing the regular Sunday readings rather than those celebrating the holiday is exactly that: celebration.

What exactly are we celebrating on the Fourth of July? Obviously we are celebrating independence — the independence of the United States — or as they were at that time the several colonies — from the British crown. It was on the Fourth of July in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. So it is abundantly clear that independence that day in Philadelphia was independence from.

My question today is what is independence for. And that is why I chose to use the readings for the regular Sunday rather than the readings appointed for Independence Day. For although that first reading from Isaiah starts out with plenty of good news to celebrate — all of that language about prosperity flowing like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and being breast-fed at the glorious bosom of Jerusalem — after all that upbeat language comes that threat of the Lord’s indignation, when the Lord will come in fire with chariots like a whirlwind to pay back his anger in fury and his rebuke in flames of fire: “for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh!” Does that sound like something to celebrate?

There is also sobering language in Jesus’s instructions to the disciples as he sends them out — empty-handed and like lambs among wolves. They are to beg for their food and wish peace to those who give it to them, but to pronounce an awful curse upon any who are inhospitable towards them, and who refuse to receive the good news they bear. And even when they return, excited and proud that they have been able to triumph even over demons, Jesus reminds them not to rejoice in their victory over spirits, but rather to give thanks that their names are written in heaven.

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And so, even as we rightly celebrate the fact that the United States freed itself from the dominion of the British 234 years ago — it is good to recall that even that declaration of liberty was followed by several years of hard warfare. It is also good and right and important for us to take stock of where we are now.

Is prosperity flowing like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream? Most of the overflowing we’ve been hearing about over the last few months is not the wealth of nations but the waste of industry, a glutting spout of oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and perhaps even the Atlantic shore, depending on how the waters flow and the winds blow. And the wealth of nations seems more like the wealth of notions, as any sense of value to anything seems geared not to consumable or practical things like goods and services, but rather to the relative values of the various national currencies, and of money itself; and even credit, which is merely the ghost of money, has become a commodity and object of speculation; and that latter speculation has brought about near total collapse in a financial world based on promises instead of performance.

And as for peace, is there peace to this house and to the world — or is the world as torn by strife and battle as always: druglords and criminals in the Bronx, in Jamaica and Mexico; our own seemingly unending battle against terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, with further threats in Pakistan and Iran and North Korea — surely our world is more like that world of fire and whirlwind, rebuke and the sword coming upon all flesh, than like the vision of peaceable Jerusalem. And Jerusalem itself — and Gaza and the West Bank — is this the peace of God?

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Yet in the midst of all this we still see Jesus — the perfectly innocent man who was crucified, who suffered death for crimes he did not commit, for sins of which he was not guilty. We hear the voice of the apostle Paul raised in affirmation that he dare not boast of anything except the cross, the cross of Christ by which the world has been crucified to him and he to the world. He does not boast of his successes; he does not glory in his own accomplishments; he takes no stock of those who follow the law or of those who disregard the law — for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but only the new creation, the new life in Christ.

Jesus himself, when, as I said, the disciples returned like excited schoolboys flush with their latest victory on the pitch, reminded them not to place their joy in this passing victory, but rather to plant the banner of their joy in the firm and secure knowledge of salvation — salvation won not by them but for them — by him, when from before the foundation of the world he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. It is that cosmic independence — liberation from eternal death and for eternal life — that we are called to celebrate, with names written in heaven brighter and more lasting than any earthly fireworks.

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Today is Independence Day. But my brothers and sisters, it is not only a day to celebrate our independence from the domination of foreign powers — whether from the merely human foreign power of the British crown, or from the power of terrorists and militants ranged against us both at home and abroad, or even from the natural power of a hurt and wounded world lashing back at us for the damage inflicted upon it, or even freedom from the supernatural domination of the devil. We are, it is true, free and independent of all these things when we place our trust in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But there is more: because we are not only independent from, but independent for. God has a purpose for us — not only to be dandled like children on the knees of our mother Jerusalem; but for us to take our stand as adult men and women, disciples called to serve, and sent to serve. The harvest still is plentiful and the laborers willing to do their labor far too few. We may be sent forth — on this fourth of July — with limited resources. We may — no, we will — face rejection from some even as we offer them God’s peace and a kingdom word of good news.

But let us not lose heart, and let us not allow anyone to make trouble for us — for we too carry the marks of Jesus branded on our bodies. Those marks were made when we were baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, and the sign of Christ’s cross was made upon our foreheads. God help us, if we glory in anything other than that, if we rejoice in anything but the fact that we have been saved, that our names are written above, and that we have been called and commissioned to serve this wounded world. Let us make this the Forth of July — the day we march forth from this place in the power of Christ and of his Holy Spirit, to the service and the glory of God the Almighty.+