Sermon Archives

Our Declaration

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jul 07

READING -- Galatians 6: 1-10

 

Our reading this morning is from the last chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.  In earlier chapters, Paul has been trying to guide the early church there through a crisis of division. There were bitter disputes over  how to live in community, how to read the Mosaic law, how to handle disagreements over things like gentile conversion and circumcision.  Paul concludes his pastoral letter here in chapter 6, offering encouragement to be gentle with one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to not grow weary, all with an eye towards working for the good of all people!  Embedded in these first  century exhortations may be a message for our time as well.   Hear Paul’s words now:

 

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads. 6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

 

Gentleness, humility, and perseverance.  According to Paul, for those who know God’s Spirit, these are the attributes that will lead us to live as true followers of Christ. These are the values that will allow us to take responsibility for the welfare of others, even those with whom we disagree. These are the virtues on which rest Paul’s vision for the common good.   After exhorting his readers to embody these values, he then tells them why and for the sake of what?  “So then,” he says, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.”

I did an unusual thing this week and started writing my sermon on Thursday, as opposed to Friday or Saturday!  Thursday was the 4th of July. I was here in Cambridge waiting for Nancy’s return from an extended visit to Arizona where her mom is improving after 10 days in the hospital. Before her mom got sick, we’d planned our usual annual 4th of July week visit to the Finger Lakes of eastern New York state where Nancy’s family has a farm.  Her mother’s side of the family has gathered there for the 4th for decades.  In addition to dressing in red, white and blue, attending the fly-in pancake breakfast at the local airfield and the small town tractor and fire engine parade, the Kilburns have a tradition of gathering in the late afternoon on their large screened in porch for a family reading of the text of the Declaration of Independence. We sit in a circle and each person from age 5 to 85 gets a line or two. We mak our way around the circle a few times reading it through until every last signatory has been named from John Hancock to Josiah Bartlett to John Carroll of Carrollton to Abraham Clark!  Most of Nancy’s family lean hard to the political right. Some are military. Several are conservative, corporate lawyers. Most voted for and many continue to support Trump. In this crowd, the Declaration is shared with reverence and patriotic pride. Though it took me a good few years, I’ve come to appreciate the family ritual and the fact that some in Nancy’s family seem to have what the political philosopher Jonathan Haidt might call a ‘moral tastebud’ - an almost hard-wired proclivity -  to value the sanctity of tradition, and a moral tastebud for loyalty to God, country and family.  Meanwhile, I and other hard left leaning liberals like me, have our own moral taste buds, a palate that senses  more keenly the values of fairness and justice.   I wonder if people in first century had different moral taste buds too, some with an appetite to maintain the Mosaic law, say, others with a yen for inclusion.

 

Had I gone to the farm this year, I can tell you it would have been next to impossible for me to have conjured Paul’s virtues, especially the gentleness and humility, given the state of our nation’s political landscape - the horrifying conditions at detention centers at the border, the threat of more executive orders that will further disenfranchise citizen rights,  a fourth of July spectacle of Presidential ego.  But, I did manage to re-read the Declaration on the 4th, all the way through, all by myself.  The Kilburns would be proud! What’s more, I found it a profoundly uplifting, even visionary exercise, that might even make Paul proud! 

 

The credit for my inspired reading is due to Danielle Allen, a Harvard Professor and political theorist who wrote a remarkable 2014 book called Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.  Allen offers what she calls a “slow-reading” of our nation’s founding document -- savoring and unpacking and shedding new light on virtually every line and phrase.  Take the famous line “in the course of human events.” for example. She reminds us that “course” is a term that would have for its original hearers conjured a river and navigation.  In the wide, ever flowing river of human events! 

 

Her writing and ideas were mostly inspired by her time teaching the Declaration to a diverse group of night school students on the West Side of Chicago.  Her students, many first generation immigrants, would read the document with wonder and excitement. To Allen’s surprise, the students, while keenly aware of the wide gaps between their own real world experiences and the lofty ideals of the declaration, found that the document, far from stoking their cynicism, exhilarated their sense of agency and hope for our democratic experiment.  Through their eyes, Allen came to discover a new lens through which to read the Declaration.  With great erudition and care, she builds a case that it’s not merely a statement about national independence nor liberty from terrorizing and tyrannical forces abroad, which is by the way, a favorite theme of the Kilburn family and of so many patriotic, freedom-loving Americans.  Instead, she reads it is a coherent philosophical argument for the twin values of equality and freedom, in particular the  equal opportunity to participate in our democratic experiment and the freedom that such opportunity is supposed to offer.  Yes, she speaks directly to the vexing questions of whether women and enslaved persons, and the Declaration’s so called ‘merciless Indian savages” were included in the original drafters vision.   Her answer is a “no, but.”  NO, women, indigenous and enslaved persons were not considered by Jefferson and others to be included in that self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”  BUT,  she acknowledges, with gentleness and generosity, that the early drafters were aware of the tension between their principals and habits, in this case, the deeply entrenched, economically driven habit of slavery.  In fact, she notes that earlier drafts, written by Jefferson himself, included recognition of the humanity of enslaved persons yet sadly these lines were edited out by the Contintental Congress. 

 

At the heart of Allen’s case is her conviction that the declaration’s writers were as, if not more interested, in equality with the King, than freedom from the King.  They sought a power equal to his to shape their own destiny.  She hones in all the more and claims that the declaration is what establishes the bedrock principle of our democracy that every person should have equal opportunity to participate in the body politic. 

 

Seen in this light, Paul’s conclusion to his letter to the Galatians may read like a blueprint for our declaration.   So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.   Can you hear it, almost like an octave resounding through the centuries?  Paul and the Declaration seem to be built on similar foundations of what constitutes a path to our individual and collective flourishing, namely each of us having am opportunity to participate in working for a greater good.

 

As one reviewer has noted: “Allen’s view is that today the U.S. overstresses the value of liberty and underplays the value of equality, not in the sense of socio-economic status, but in the sense of “equal political empowerment.” Basically, she is championing the cause of what could be called procedural equality – the ability of everyone to take part in the political process on a level playing field. ...

 

In order to explain this concept of equality, Allen breaks it into five aspects that feature in the Declaration. First, that the newly created US states are equal to existing countries. Second, that each person can identify the “happiness” that he or she has the right to pursue. Third, that no matter a person’s social status, he or she is a valuable member of the community. Fourth, that people must have equal standing in their relationships with each other in order to encourage reciprocity and freedom. And finally, that the kind of political system the Declaration is hoping to establish has a high value for every person.”

 

Can you imagine if these were our take aways all these past 250 years?  Can you imagine if this is what we celebrated each and every fourth, and held our selves and government accountable to - a Declaration of Equal Political Empowerment?  Talk about a Revolution!  Imagine if every person in this country, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or class,  shared an equal freedom and opportunity to speak, to be heard, to be counted, to pursue happiness?  Though a far cry from our current reality, this vision is what so ignited Allen’s night school classes!

 

I was reminded of these themes in a recent Krista Tippet interview with the Sally Hemmings biographer, Annette Gordon-Reed, and the painter, Titus Kaphar.  Reed, an African American woman, had just told a story about being pulled over in seemingly routine traffic stop.  A white friend of hers was driving the car. Yet the cop still asked for her ID. She was a passenger!  Kaphar responded: “The thing that I don’t think that we think enough about — because the stop, obviously, is disheartening, is demoralizing. We all get that. What I don’t know that people understand is that when that’s happening, you feel less like a citizen. You feel like this country is not yours and that your rights are subject to somebody else’s whims. That’s the part that I think that we need to understand here, today — that when you make these sort of arbitrary stops, you are pulling folks outside of the conversation of our political structure more and more. And ultimately, they go, I don’t want to be a part of your thing, because it clearly has nothing to do with me.”

 

This sense of people feeling “less like a citizen” strikes me as an enormously poignant and sad statement!  We see it happening every day.  In fact, it can sometimes seem as though those in power in our government are deliberately working to making black and brown people, LGBTQ people, incarcerated people and poor people feel less and less like citizens, deliberately making people feel more and more that this country is not theirs?  The effect is corrosive! Its not just those who have felt historically excluded, sometimes violently, by a system that has not protected or cared about their participation!  The country is steadily becoming less and less yours and mine, and more and more the province of the corporations and foreign powers.  Talk about a crisis of division, one that  involves the law, and how we live in community, and how we settle our differences!  What’s more, we are living in a moment when many are growing weary of politics, losing an appetite for civic engagement, maybe because we don’t want to be part of Trump’s thing, because we are exhausted, or because some of us can choose to avoid it altogether and not be stressed because we know our relatively privileged lives, families and interests are not what’s being threatened! 

 

 I wonder. Are we losing ground, so to speak, because we are losing our grounding? I wonder if we are losing our capacity to slowly read and digest sacred and even our secular founding documents that have the power to  inspire us and exhilarate us. We are losing the practice of claiming our rights to be equal partners, under God and under the law, equal partners in determining the shape of our present and future.  Can we listen with humility and gentleness and perseverance not only to the much meeded wisdom these texts offer but also to wise and brave contemporary voices that are findings way to speak the truth and change the centuries old narrative of their exclusion from the political processes?  If we are growing cynical, feeling ineffective, exhausted, more like we want nothing to do with this thing, we, not unlike that First Church of Galatia, need the help of nothing less than the word of God, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the nourishment of Christ’s table to revive our souls, with them, we can hope, the soul of our democracy!  As Paul reminds us, the church at its best does not exist for itself but as a vehicle for the greater good of all! We are, as faith based community organizers say, an important and necessary, mediating institution for our democracy, a training ground through which we can learn that we are all citizens, dual citizens of earth and heaven, and through which we can make our collective voices heard as equal partners in creating a shared future and a greater good for all!

 

Fundamentally, it’s about participation! It’s about equal part-taking!  The word participate comes from the latin words for “part” and “take!” When we come to the table we model this participation.  We literally “part take” in the body of Christ!  Each has an equal share in the endeavor. Each is welcome to their bring our whole selves. Here we come humbly before God.  The best part about what we do here in worship, if you ask me, is that its just practice for our work in the wider world, its practice in creating and participating in and part taking of a wider community that lets us work for the good of all!  For all of our ideals as a Christian Community, we come together, broken, having missed the mark repeatedly.  The same is true for our nation!  As we are rising into ever deeper awareness that our country, for all its greatness, is not manifesting and has never manifested the ideals of the Declaration.  We need gentleness, humility and perseverance to own our failures and to persist nonetheless towards that greater good for all! 

 

By God’s unending grace, we are invited, once again, to come to the table as equal partners, to participate, to humbly and gentle and perseveringly create space for others to part take, until everyone is an equal part of the process, until everyone can feel more and more like a citizen, of this country, of this planet, of Gods realm where love and justice are real! Amen.

 

 

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