Independence Day

July 4, 2010

Deuteronomy 10:17-21
Hebrews 11:8-16
Matthew 5:43-48

Thomas Jefferson was only 27, but his great intellect and eloquence led the Committee of Five, appointed by the Continental Congress, to ask him to write a declaration that would lay out both the philosophical and legal basis for ending the thirteen American colonies’ relationship to Great Britain. He began working on June 11, after long days of fevered legislative debate in Congress. On June 28, 1776, the Committee presented its draft of “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”

For five days the Congress argued, unable to reach the unanimous vote necessary for the Declaration’s passage. Finally, on July 2, they managed to get the South Carolina and Pennsylvania delegations to vote in favor, with New York abstaining. On July 4, the Declaration was sent to the printer. It opened with the words memorized by every American schoolchild:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

The Declaration presented a litany of offenses that Congress believed that Great Britain and its King had committed against them. And then it ended with this pledge:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The United States of America was born.

In Thomas Jefferson’s later musings, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the final draft of the Declaration. For, at the insistence of Georgia and South Carolina, this paragraph was omitted from the charges against King George:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The only remnant of the original paragraph on slavery is the phrase: “He has excited domestic Insurrections among us.”

Unfortunately for the United States and for Jefferson himself, slavery was not abolished at the founding of the Republic, and the stain of its evil would nearly destroy the nation less than a century later. The United States of America was and is a noble experiment in the ideals of a democratic republic, but it is not and has never been, perfect.

Funny that word “perfect.” Jesus uses it in today’s Gospel. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s one of those annoying little Jesus sayings that Matthew strings together to form the Sermon on the Mount. One more of the passages that everybody acknowledges and then promptly ignores.

I mean, really, come on: Love your enemy? Pray for those who persecute you? We can love our neighbors pretty easily, that is, if we could ever find out their names. But those who are our enemies, well, that’s just not our way. JFK did not say “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, love and pray for any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He said “oppose any foe.” That’s our way. Spare us from all that hippie peace-nik stuff, please.

After the 9-11 attacks, we did not start loving or praying for Osama Bin Laden. Instead we pledged that no matter how long it takes, no matter what nation we have to invade, no matter the cost in gold or blood, and we will find him and we will kill him. That’s our way.

Of course, nobody’s perfect.

Unfortunately, hate is a virus of the heart. It spreads when you’re not inoculated by prayer. The virus of hatred America caught after 9-11 has infected our homeland. Now, our enemies are no longer just confined to far off battlefields. We perceive them at home, infiltrating our schools and universities, our workplaces and health clubs. They are across the street from us. They are in the next pew. They want to destroy the Constitution, rip the Declaration of Independence into shreds. Enmity has replaced fraternity as the very air we breathe. If you disagree with me, it’s because you love terrorists or you’re a fascist or a socialist or you hate America or you’re just plain stupid.

On November 17, 1957, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King preached a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” using today’s Gospel as his text. He acknowledged how hard it was to love people who wanted to keep the chains of oppression locked around the hands and feet of black Americans. He acknowledged that loving your enemies did not mean liking them or loving what they do. But, he said, we can try to understand them and acknowledge that

within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

He concluded his sermon with these words:

So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America, I say to you “I love you, I would rather die than hate you.” And I am foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those who cursed us, to decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Martin King was not the only American to have proposed such a vision of American charity. President Ronald Reagan often quoted as his inspiration John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop believed that God had a purpose for New England: it was to be the place where people would live out the ethics of Jesus. Winthrop has long been accused of a Christian triumphalism, painted in stark Puritan black and white. And that is certainly one way to read him. But post-modern hermeneutics aside, his most famous work, A Model of Christian Charity, gave this guidance for the colonists of New England:

[F]ollow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us… when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” reference was likewise taken from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. He paired it with Micah’s admonition to do justice, love mercy and humbly walk with God. His counsel to “abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities,” calls to mind Moses’ charge to the fledging nation standing on the western shore of the Jordan River:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

The foundation of the nation of Israel was the divine justice of caring for the poor and loving the strangers among us. This was the charge to Israel, and the charge Winthrop made to New England, the summation of the Law and the Prophets, the light of the City on a Hill.

Only once every seven years does Independence Day fall on a Sunday. Every time I approach this pulpit, I do so with my heart in my throat aware that God’s Word is alive and among us and that I am under its judgment more than you. Today, I am more keenly aware of that than usual. For I know that in our hyper-political times, the things a preacher says may appear to be partisan, divisive, unjust. So today, on that rare day when secular hope meets sacred reality, I pray that I can speak the truth and you can hear it.

From my own experience working in the public square, I have come to see those who differ from me are not my enemies, but are co-laborers in creating the City on a Hill. One of my very best friends sits in this chancel with me. I would die for him in an instant, without hesitation. We often argue politics, and have been known to say some pretty tough things to each other. Father Chuck Petit is a conservative, West-by-God Virginia Republican. I am an unapologetic social democrat, with family roots only stretching back three generations on this continent. We approach the biblical concept of justice for the poor very differently. Chuck believes that less government is always better, I believe that better government leads to justice sooner. But I do not for a moment believe that Chuck Petit does not care for orphans, widows or immigrants any less than I do. Nor do I believe that his love for Jesus Christ is any less than mine is. We are at complete unity.

Could it be that conservatives love the poor and desire social justice as much liberals, but believe fewer public programs and lower taxes provide a better chance to reduce the number of poor people? Could it be that liberals are as just as patriotic as conservatives and only desire America to fully achieve her mission of liberty and justice for all—and especially for the strangers among us? Could it be that, if we started listening to each other instead of shouting at each other, we might find that our bonds of unity are stronger than our strife? Could it be that, in John Winthrop’s words, we could really “delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body?”

On this day when politics and religion meet in an uncomfortable liturgical dance, is it not time for Americans of faith to become Americans of love and prayer? America is not a Christian nation, not by a long shot. But America is a spiritual nation, which has appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” Christians in America should be leading the way in reconciliation and understanding of others’ points of view. We should be ready to confess our own sins and hard-heartedness, our own failures. We should be willing to admit that even the best public policies may sometimes lead to the worst public outcomes.

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start voting for politicians that I disagree with. (Sorry, Chuck.) But it does mean that I must be willing to die rather than hate those I disagree with. It does mean that I must be foolish enough to believe with Martin King “that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.”

May God bless us in our foolish hope. And may God bless the United States of America. Amen.

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