Pentecost 3, July 3, 2011

INDEPENDENCE DAY SERMON, 2011

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm145; Matthew 5:43-48

 

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On this Independence Day weekend, I want to talk about our country and what faith says to our present situation as a nation and people.  We began our service today with an alternative to the usual organ prelude.  It was the first of several quotations from the writings of Thomas Jefferson set to music by the composer Randall Thompson, the beginning of a choral work written in 1933 to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jefferson, one of the major contributors to the birth of our nation.   The composer deliberately set out to write a type of “public music” that would lift up the origins of the American struggle for independence.  In fact one of the early performances of  the work would be as a tribute to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the latter’s death in the waning days of World War II in 1945.

Neither Jefferson nor various others of the signers of the Declaration of Independence released on July 4, 1776, were devout Christians, but they used the language of faith to describe the grounds of the struggle which gave us this country in the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

These words written by Thomas Jefferson were immortalized by the success of the American Revolution.  But they were by no means any novelty on July 4, 1776.  They were not produced out of Jefferson’s originality or creativity.    Some years after the Revolution, John Adams complained that Jefferson had written nothing new, to which Jefferson agreed.  Indeed, the political leaders of the Revolution were of a common mind concerning the “self–evident” truths of the Declaration, one in which the hand of God was seen in the struggle for freedom.  And in issuing the declaration, they set out to express these views not for themselves alone, but as the mind and will of the colonists as a whole.  The prayer with which we began this service echoes that history, and in a few brief words brings it up to today.

Lord God Almighty, we prayed, in whose Name the founders of this county

won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations yet

unborn. . .

Those words remind us not only of the legacy of our own two and a half centuries of nationhood, but the surprising uprisings this Spring in North Africa and the Middle East in which citizens have risen up non-violently to throw off oppressive regimes.  Will those uprisings succeed in creating societies of justice?  Will peaceful transformation win out over violence?  Will a vision such as the one which animated the hopes of our founders give way to intolerant and repressive religious or social ideologies?  And what of our own country?  At times like these we do well to reflect on the meaning of our own freedom and its continuing challenge to us.  I invite you to look at the two passages of scripture appointed to be read today.  They may be helpful in thinking in what ways our national heritage is grounded in our belief in God and whether and how that speaks to our present.

Our first reading was from the Book of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Jewish Torah, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.  Elements of the book go back to the early years of Jewish faith in God, Yahweh, but what we have in the book as it was passed down through the centuries is the refined faith of a people who have been through fire, who were captured and exiled in Babylon, and only after struggle returned to take up their lives again as a free people.

The beginning of the chapter from which today’s reading came has Moses descending from Mount Sinai, inscribing the Commandments of the Divine Law on stone tablets which are to be placed in an ark, a chest which would be regarded as holy.  Today, Jewish synagogues continue to do just that, place the most holy writings of the Torah in a cabinet which has a central place in the synagogue, much as the altar is central in a Christian church.

Moses prepares to lead the people into the Promised Land of Israel.  “What does the Lord require of you?” he asks them.  “Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to follow him, to love him, to serve him with all your heart and soul, and to observe the laws and teaching which I am giving you this day.  Do this, and all will go well for you.”  Then come the words which comprise our first reading: God revealed as creator, God as governor of all things, God as no respecter of persons, God who secures justice for the fatherless and the widow, God who shows love towards the alien who lives among us.  “He is your proud boast, your God who has done for you these great and terrible things.”  “All your works praise you, O Lord,” we recited in today’s Psalm.  “They make known the glory of your kingdom, and speak of your power; that the peoples may know of your power… your dominion endures through all ages.”

Against that background, there is no question from whence the words in the Declaration of Independence arise,  that (we) are endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life and liberty. As we have just seen, the Hebrew scripture is shaped by metaphors, words which describe the power of God, as judge, as governor, as advocate, as parent, as healer, as the one who created and sustains his people.  The Declaration affirms that we are indeed created with unalienable rights, that is, ones which cannot be taken away from us by others because they are the gift of God.  Life is clearly a part of such an endowment.   Liberty is as well, in a personal sense that no one deserves to be treated as alien or second-class, and in a public sense that a people or a society derives its identity from the fact that it was created to give expression to the relationship with the Creator. When the United States Constitution was adopted in 1789, in fact there were whole segments of the population whose rights as full participants in the society were not guaranteed: women had no vote, those who owned no property likewise, slaves astonishingly were counted as only sixty percent human, native Americans were treated as aliens on the very soil on which  they had lived for centuries.  American history since its founding has been a struggle to claim its promise as something new in political and public life.  The revolution in 1776 became more than an in-house quarrel between the colonists and King George the Third over taxes.

But what of the third word listed among our unalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness?  At first, the expression may strike one as something of a surprise.  In fact, the delegates in Philadelphia had tried several versions of what to say before Jefferson’s phrase was adopted.  For example, the Virginia Convention of delegates unanimously had voted on June 12, 1776, less than a month before, for an article which read:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Which word would prevail, the means of acquiring and possessing property or the pursuit of happiness?  We are, of course, entitled to a fair share of the bounty of this world: that is a Biblical understanding.  The right to pursue happiness, however,  is an understanding much broader in scope that the acquisition of property.  The phrase pursuit of happiness in the Declaration is traceable not only to Jefferson but other authors such as John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in the Federalist papers. That it was chosen for the Declaration is a clear espousal of a Biblical view of our human rights and destiny.

And for that, we turn to today’s Gospel reading, which is drawn from the so-called Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 to 7 in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus’s sermon begins with the familiar Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; the kingdom is theirs.

 

The key word blessed — in the Greek language, makarios in which the passage was written — conveys a sense of joy in life, of being spiritually prosperous, in short, happy.  A modern translation renders the first verse: God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the kingdom of heaven is given them.

In the Declaration, the pursuit of happiness is, then, closely tied to the other unalienable rights, life and liberty.  The Declaration hinges on the conviction that faith in our nation is an expression of the belief that God’s will speaks to us as a people as it does to individuals.  We are God’s people, and as God’s people we are accountable for the totality of our lives.  Makarios, the state of being blessed, of enjoying true happiness, is a gift of God to us if and when we actively pursue it.  As a holiday devoted to recalling our national roots the Fourth of July is not merely a hole into which the past falls if we remember it as no more than an occasion for backyard cookouts. Instead, our memory is meant to be inventive, creative, and alive — an ongoing activity through which we turn our own experience of being blessed into seeking the common good, of being peacemakers.

Key words from the Declaration are on the cover of today’s bulletin.  Read them again.  Jefferson’s creativity successfully captured the inner meaning of our American beginnings when he wrote the words that articulate those rights and freedoms.  They have lived throughout history. They were immortalized by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in the “Four score and seven years ago” speech at a time when the cause of freedom and justice was challenged by a bloody war over the issue of race.  Today our nation is rent by deep divisions over the proper role of government itself, and a dangerously widening gap in income and access by millions of our citizens to education, health, housing and employment.  Public discourse is characterized by divisiveness and rancor.  We are hostage to no less than three wars.   Our freedom is about much more than the success of the Revolutionary War declared in 1776.  It forms the grounds for a struggle to rediscover for our time the earnest vision and deeply spiritual grounding of that July day in 1776, and shape the country for its future.  As today’s Gospel puts it, There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds. (Matt. 5:48)

 

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