The Fourth of July always conjures up very vivid images for me. Every year, when I was a kid, my family would drive to Eisenhower State Park, watch the fireworks, and then try to get out of the parking lot through a traffic jam so bad that people actually got out of their cars and milled about while they waited to move forward. And every year, as we came to understand anew why it’s called a parkway, the American humorist Jean Sheppard would come on the radio, and every year he told the same wonderful story. So, for me, the Fourth is fireworks, crowds, traffic jams, Jean Sheppard and the story of Ludlow Kissle.
For some of you it might be backyard barbecues—hot dogs, hamburgers and charcoal briquettes. Or maybe it’s a trip to the beach, or a picnic, with mountains of potato salad. Or maybe it’s homemade ice cream. An afternoon at Two Lights. A trip to the Eastern Prom. I don’t know what it is for you, but it seems that everyone has their own rituals for celebrating the Fourth.
I know of families who, at Christmastime, traditionally read the nativity story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. How many of us, on the Fourth of July, even consider reading the Declaration of Independence, the nativity story of our nation? (Or, as my father does, get up early enough to hear the good folks of NPR do it for us?) I think that a lot of us forget that this day is more than just the last holiday until the Labor Day weekend, that this day is, in a very real sense, the birthday of our country. And birthdays are a time for taking stock.
The Declaration is, in the preamble at least, as much a theological document as it is a political one. Hear those words again: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men [we’d now say, “all people”] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What are these but theological statements expressing beliefs about our place in, and relationship to, the Universe? All human beings are made by God, having certain rights—we are born with them, and no one can separate us from them. Among these are the right to live, the right to be free, and the right to pursue our happiness. [Note that it doesn’t guarantee happiness, just the right to pursue it.] That, friends, is theology.
The Declaration, of course, is also a document of political theory. Governments, we are told, are created for the purpose of ensuring that these God-given rights are secured, for this purpose and no other, and that the only power governments have is the power given to them by the people governed. Governments do not exist in and of themselves; they are created by people to serve people. When Walt Whitman wrote, “Those who govern are there for you, it is not you who are there for them,” he was saying nothing that the Founders of our nation hadn’t said themselves.
And that’s just what astonishes me most when looking back over these words—how modern and radical they are. “[W]henever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government . . .” That’s really what the whole document is about. The colonists looked at their government, the Monarchy of England, and declared that it no longer served them and that, therefore, it was their right and their duty to abolish it and start on a new path.
This is my next-to-last sermon for this church season, my penultimate possibility for play in this free pulpit that you so generously give me week after week. It’s said that every preacher has, at most, a couple of sermons that she or he keeps preaching over and over again in ever-so slightly different forms. That is certainly true of this preacher, and today’s sermon is unquestionably one of my Top Two. You’ve heard it’s major themes before, yet I feel compelled to repeat myself. I’ve even found a way to put the whole thing into one sentence—the Chinese proverb at the top of your Order of Service: “if you do not change your direction, you will likely end up where you are headed.”
If Jefferson and the others in the Continental Congress were right 225 years ago, if we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inherent and inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then I think we’re in serious trouble.
Read the paper, turn on the evening news and it is painfully apparent that we live in violent times. And, while it’s clear that the media plays up the violence and danger around us for the sake of ratings, it is also clear that you can be killed simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is often a randomness to the violence which defies our attempts to make sense of it. By the age of 18 most children will have seen hundreds of killings and thousands of violent acts on TV and in the movies. And there’s a growing chance that they’ll have seen it firsthand, as kids shoot kids in classrooms. In the United States today our right to life does not seem so secure.
What of our right to liberty? Well, it, too, seems to be on shaky ground. There are more people imprisoned in the United States today than in any other country. And what of the rest of us? When racism still runs rampant, when a woman is more likely to be beaten or killed by a family member than by a stranger, when homosexuals are forced to hide who they are because they fear reprisals . . . how free are we? To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. King, “Oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.”
And as to our freedom to pursue our happiness . . . ? For many of us life consists of going back and forth from work, work that far too often does little to feed the soul. When we come home we turn on the television or the radio. We settle for giving, and getting, “quality time,” as if the best we could hope for is a taste of it now and then. Sadly, for many of us, it is.
Let me ask you: did you pass any flowers on your way here this morning? What was the last thing you said to your loved ones last night? What did you have for lunch on Friday and how did it taste? Our fast-food, fast-lane, fax-it-to-me-yesterday lifestyle is not conducive to being present to our lives. We’re told that we must keep moving onwards and upwards, that more is always better and new is always best. We’re told to pursue the trappings of success, to pursue the accumulation of things, but where in all of this is our happiness? Where is the time to really be with our children and others that we love; where is the freedom to be with them when they need us, not only when we can fit them it? Where, in our consumer oriented society is the freedom to pursue the things which really fulfill us, which feed our souls and help us to grow deeper, more loving, more alive, more free, more joyful?
If the United States really is based on documents like the Declaration, then it is based on thoughts like this: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it . . .” I would go further to say that whenever any social structures become destructive of these ends, then it is our right and obligation to change them.
Now it’s true, Jefferson did include this caveat: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes . . .” Yet I recently saw a paleontologist explain that if you plot the history of the earth on your outstretched arm, the history of humanity would begin here, at the tip of your fingernail. If we then charted the history of human existence on our outstretched arms—expanded the fingernail if you will—our modern so-called “civilized” societies would start at about our wrists. July 4, 1776 would be somewhere around our fingers. This particular experiment in human community is relatively new. The course we are on is not inevitable. We chose it. We can change it.
The Wampanoag elder and lore keeper Medicine Story wrote in his book Return to Creation, a book I highly recommend,
“It is time for us to go beyond where we have been.
It is time for us to transform ourselves, transform our relationships, transform our communities, and transform our society and all its institutions. It is time for us to go beyond power over and power against, and discover power with each other and all Creation. . .
It is time for us to go beyond.”
I believe that we can. I believe that we can wake up from our deep sleep behind the wheel and change our suicide course. I believe that we all are born equal, and that each and every one of us—here and around the globe—has the right to live a life which empowers rather than pacifies, that fulfills rather than deadens; I believe that each and every one of us has the right to be free to be who we are and to follow all of the potential within our souls; I believe that each and every one of us has the right to pursue our dreams and our destiny, to pursue that which brings joy to our hearts and through us to the world.
What’s stopping us? A Lie. A Lie that tells us that we are independent of each other and separated from the world in which we live; a Lie that tells us that we are all essentially alone in the Universe and that we must struggle against one another for our very survival; a Lie that tells us that there isn’t enough to go around and that whatever someone else gets means less for me; a Lie that tells us that what I have determines who I am; a Lie that tells us that the world’s problems are too big and that we are too weak and powerless to make any real changes.
225 years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote,“All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We, today, can decide that our patriarchal consumeristic society is insufferable; we can decide that we will no longer live according to the Lie. Once we see that the predominant culture in which we live is destructive of our “inherent and inalienable” rights, then it becomes not only our right but our duty to work toward its abolition.
And we can. There is within each of us infinite capacity for beauty and creativity; there is within each of us the power of all Creation. We can declare today “Inter-dependence Day” recognizing that, contrary to the Lie, we are part of one family, and we are all in this together—what harms you, what harms a homeless woman in New York City, what harms a farmer in China harms me. If we were to act on this belief, if we were to live our lives from trust rather than fear, if we were to believe in ourselves and our ability to make an impact, we could change the world. We have within us and around us all that we need; we’re not alone, and we don’t have to do it all ourselves, or overnight. But if we each took responsibility to make the part of the Universe we inhabit more joyful and loving, there is no telling what we could accomplish together.
May it be so.
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