My Rights vs. The Common Good (Pentecost 9C and The 4th of July)

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sparkler-with-american-flag-30f09ec483c906ae(A Sermon for the 4th of July Weekend, July 3, 2016)

Good Morning! And Happy Fourth of July Weekend! I confess I love this holiday. I love the music and the fireworks and the feeling of American solidarity that rises up among us when we gather. This year, I don’t know what it will be like because I’ve never known a time when Americans were so divided. Not simply by different opinions, not by the usual political parties, but by political blocs spewing hatred at each other. Deep and personal and irrational anger.   Outside my last sojourn in academia, I haven’t known a time when people were so identified with their grievances. When the tension between individual rights and the well-being of all seemed so volatile.

I don’t remember a time when the group considering itself most aggrieved consisted of a category of white men. And, to quote Leon Wieseltier in a Washington Post article this week, these competing groups, “in the myopia of their pain… kindle racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.”1   For starters. People look at the UK and the quick unraveling of its economy and social cohesion after BREXIT. They look at the unleashing of a racism that “Britain-firsters” deemed legitimate. Americans of all stripes now worry – could that happen here?

Well, of course, it could, but we are people of God and not limited to political and demographic data in our reflections. As Christians, we look through the lens of Scripture and of our founding documents as Americans. On this Sunday, most churches read Chapter 6 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galations, which syncs well with the Declaration of Independence. Together, I think, they show us what Paul called a “more excellent way” through the mistrust and opprobrium that currently cloud the American political scene.

They both speak to human freedom in terms of a community of relationships and there is no indication in either of them that personal freedom might ever trump consideration of the common good. I was stunned a few years ago when several conservative American politicians were citing Ayn Rand, the prophet of selfishness, as authority for their views on individual rights. How did Ayn Rand define freedom? “Freedom (n.),” she wrote: “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To delifelibertypend on nothing.”2 Well, bushwa. That is un-American, un-Christian, and, I would argue, patently untrue.

The Declaration of Independence was revolutionary in its proclamation that governments cannot just own people or claim sovereignty over them based on military might or power. Instead, the Founders asserted that human beings have human rights that precede government. “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 Founders dreamed this nation into being grounded on what they perceived were God-given rights all people could claim and no one could take away.   They meant the Declaration to be a beacon of light to the rest of the world, and the ideas they espoused are as radical now as they were then.

There have been complications. The British Empire didn’t agree with their ideas, nobody really knew how to implement them or even to enforce the rights claimed. Nor, as you know, did the nation’s founders agree on precisely to whom they applied. It was a long time before anybody thought to extend the term “all men” to men who didn’t own property or men who were black or to women of any color or social status.

domviolThe tension between individual rights and the well-being of the whole reared its head early and continues to trend. Consider the argument over gun regulation: I have the right to own and carry firearms however and whenever I want vs. we have the right to safety in public places and to the reasonable protection of our children. What gives? And when we read the 6th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see the same tension. In v. 2, Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But in v.5, he says: “All must carry their own loads.” Which is it? If I have to carry your burdens, that impinges on my own freedom. How about I’ll carry my own burdens and you carry yours. That sounds more fair.

And we respect it. I like the example someone recently gave of the mother eagle who decides that an eaglet is ready to fly. The eaglet stands at the edge of the nest and its mother gives it a shove. She flies above her baby in case something goes wrong, but the baby learns pretty quickly how to unfurl its wings, flap them and fly.

We respect also the independent spirit of those who have suffered greatly and refuse to be defined by it. We admire those who have somehow found the resources in themselves to demand that others not treat them as victims – of cruelty, neglect, or bad luck. Not because they’re too proud or don’t deserve sympathy and understanding, but because self-pity feels bad and doesn’t help. If you ever decide to “help” a blind person walk down the street, you will find this out right away.

But how about the “bearing one another’s burdens” part? It obviously refers to helping each other out in times of hardship – something the church community excels at. But it’s more than that. This is the one Paul calls the “law of Christ.” Caring for someone who’s sick or has a baby or has difficulty getting out of the house. Caring for someone whose life has fallen apart. Caring – from afar – for people who lack resources or need care. We are, as Christians, committed to this “bearing of one another’s burdens.” And if bearing our own burdens, when possible, produces respect, bearing another’s burdens, when needed, produces love.WHRD

It’s the flip side that gets us. Most of us believe so strongly in the virtue of independence that we have a profound fear of being seen to be dependent. It’s as though we’d rather die than owe somebody something. We fear the loss of dignity we believe is a byproduct of dependence. But it’s independence that, in the end, leaves us alone and robs us of the love that can transform our lives. Dependence and care create holy relationships that are vital and life-giving – with our children, our parents, our friends and whomever else falls into our web of compassion.

So where does all this leave us? Our faith and our freedom and our politics and our participation in the great dream that is America? What do we do now? I think we start by moving beyond what Wieseltier, in the same Washington Post article, called the “parochialism of pain.” Let us listen and care about the tribulations of others and the injustices done to them — as much as we’d like theWhat-does-the-Lord-require-of-you-wordpressm to listen and care about ours. Let us not compete for whose is worse. And then let us build on the deeper understanding we glean from each other. Because this holiday and these Scriptures call us – not to hatred and opposition to people who disagree – but to interdependence, to collaboration, to cooperation and to sacrifice in our time and in our place. To practice God’s politics, which are guided always by justice and compassion and a willingness to work for all people to enjoy the blessings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen.


1 Leon Wieseltier, “How voters’ personal suffering overtook reason — and brought us Donald Trump,”  The Washington Post, June 22, 2016

2 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943), Chapter XII, p. 149 ; Dominique Françon to Alvah Scarret.


Patriotism and Faith …. 2013

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fourth-july-fireworksUsually, on the Fourth of July long weekend, we try to keep religion and patriotism in their own corners, lest we confuse them to our peril.  Still, there is a way in which they come together: in which Scripture speaks to our citizenship and the national celebration partakes of our faith.  Our national Independence Day is not a religious holiday, but it stirs in us much that is religious – that has to do with high ideals and high hopes and a dream of justice and equality that requires a deeply costly and sacred commitment.

It has been suggested that the founders of this country dreamed the nation into being.  Imagine it:  “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.”  Those words are powerfully stirring.  But, it hit me with special force this year, what they describe is not self–evident.  It isn’t self-evident now.  And it wasn’t self-evident then.  The world in which the founders lived did not look like that.  Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves and even after the Revolution, the only people who had a right to vote were white men who owned their own property and had the deed to prove it.

Liberty? Rights? Equality? Hardly. But the vulnerability and the tenuousness of those convictions did not end the dream.  And new people picked up where the old ones left off.  In church today, we hear of Elijah’s healing of the Aramite voting rights protestgeneral by having him immerse himself in the river seven times.  (1 Kings 5:1-14)  Well, this country has needed to dip into the river more than a few times to keep on healing our national consciousness.  Between 1776 and now, African-American men have won recognition of their citizenship and the right to vote.  Women didn’t achieve that right until 1920.  And the truth is, it took the mighty Civil Rights Movement of the last century before African-Americans in all parts of the country really could vote without risking their lives and property – a right that is looking dubious given the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of critical sections of the Voting Rights Act.   Even so, between then and now, children have won a legal right to equal education, African-Americans and white people  won the right to marry an opposite sex partner of their choice, and, only last week, gay people in this country won recognition of their right, equal with all others in this country, to marry and create families.

When we look at our country on this weekend of celebration, we can see progress in our stretching for what the Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr. called the justice toward which the arc of history is bent.  The process, hallowed by Jesus, of continuing to expand the circle of acceptable people, entitled to rights and God’s love.  And we can also see great gaps – in our wars, in the ways we treat prisoners, in our continuing racism and homophobia and plain old sexism, in the violence – physical and emotional — with which we continue to resort as a response to threat or fear.

But as it turns out, that’s where God is – in the gap.  God works in the struggle, the stirring, our recommitment to what we are about.   And, on this weekend, I believe God is calling us to renew our faith in his power and in his grace and in his goodness – to believe and to act — in hope – for the good of all those who are yet on the margins – looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Giving thanks for this country and thanks for the dream.  And letting our faith guide our citizenship in the knowledge that God’s plan is sure.  That God’s plan works through us.  And that God’s grace can provide all that we need to help heal the world.  One piece here, another piece there.  All in the gaps.

bakersfield+same+se+marriage+rallyHave a blessed week.