In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, I pray all the blessings and joy on this day when we Americans commemorate the independence of our nascent country from her mother kingdom. Ours is a national birthright rooted in the proposition that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This is the high rhetoric of an age singularly committed to the enlightenment of man. When we consider how so far below the mark they fell, how the greatest expression of man’s intrinsic political equality had been penned ironically by a slave owner, we may be tempted to hear only the discordant notes of hypocrisy. Man so often falls short of the angels, but does that render him a beast? And if man is no more than the wiliest and most cunning of beasts, then is he capable of self-governance, or is he doomed like all other beasts to be leashed and to be muzzled by those who would presume to protect him from himself? The Book of Genesis offers us the template from which we may endeavor to answer such questions, for we are told that man is made in the image of God, but has forsaken his likeness with God. Not contented with being the image of his Creator, man squandered his birthright in an ill-fated attempt to be his own god and creator of his own destiny. He strived to be great without being good. Given how we are mired in our sins, and prone to fall short of our own best nature, we may be inclined therefore to write off the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence as simply sentiment, pretty words from a prettier age than our own, more akin to poetry that perhaps stirs the soul but has no bearing on our pragmatic everyday actions. From this perspective the United States Declaration of Independence is no longer the declaration of a nation, but rather a work of fiction colored sepia by age and irrelevance. I submit that this view is much too pessimistic. Man falls short of his noblest aims, but he is mindful of them. Moreover, we perceive in history that for every man who lights his lantern in order to venture down a dark and rocky path, there are two or three who look for God’s light to lead them back to the river’s edge. Stated another way, the bad men may get all the press, but the good men outnumber them. The vagabonds and the rioters may turn up the good soil, but the steadfast plant the seeds and pull up the weeds. The good persist, because God is with them. The good stand upright and press forward, no matter how precarious, no matter the odds, because God stands behind and before them, holding up their backs steady and firm, but also revealing before their eyes a glorified life just up ahead for those willing to make the trip. The good prevail, for God Himself is providential, the lead Actor and Director in our salvation play, the fellow Pilgrim with whom we may walk who alone carries the only compass that works. If the noblest aims espoused in the Declaration of Independence are anything more than sentimental fiction, then it is because Christ Jesus has leveled the mountains and straightened the path.
We say the words, “all men are created equal,” but what does that really mean? The original author, Thomas Jefferson, surely knew and acknowledged that all men did not share in equality of opportunities, equality of outcome, equality in intelligence, nor equality in virtue. Notwithstanding what he may have thought about the Bible, Mr. Jefferson was certainly very much aware of the Genesis account of creation. He knew what we know: The one trait that all men share equally is that they are made in God’s image and have forsaken God’s likeness. No matter our station in life, we all need Christ Jesus on the cross to be the one, holy, and sufficient sacrifice for our sin. Seen through the prism of our faith in Christ Jesus, the Declaration of Independence does not describe where we Americans have been so much as where we may travel, if only we hold fast to the Providential God who calls us to our better nature and has redeemed us in His Son. For if all men are created equal, then all men may be made perfect in Christ Jesus and given his final hearth and home in the Father’s Kingdom.
In the Epistle reading for today, St. Peter urges us to “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing.” We should be a blessing for one another so that “ye should inherit a blessing.” If all men are equal in their sin, in their corruption, in their necessity for Christ Jesus, then by virtue of grace all men are equal in their capacity to be a blessing to one another. How each of us may be a blessing to our neighbors will differ from person to person. Some of us bless in our actions, some in our steadfastness, some in our words, and some in our silence. We all have different talents and personalities, and yet we all have it in us, if we put on the armor of God, the mantle of Christ, and the breastplate of His righteousness, to be truly a blessing for one another. If we are all endowed with Unalienable Rights, then by virtue of grace we have it in us to exercise our Rights in a manner that will be a blessing for one another. If we all have the Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, then by virtue of grace we have it in us to live out our lives, to exercise our liberties, and to pursue our happiness in a manner that will redeem the time and build up one another. The deeper insight here is that for the Christian the equality of all men, the Rights we all share, the lives we all live, are good and efficacious, and so worthy of an annual celebration, to the extent we are a blessing for one another. For it is in Christ Jesus that men may hope, and so it is in Christ Jesus that the rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence indeed may point to a reality above poetic beauty and sentiment. We know that the Declaration of Independence was among the first salvos in a long war for political freedom, a war marked by the suffering of a winter at Valley Forge, and the displacement of thousands of people, loyalists and patriots alike, whose homes and farms were left in ruins. St. Peter reminds us in our Epistle reading for today that “if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.” People will continue to debate the righteousness of the revolutionary cause that the Declaration of Independence pushed forward; but as Christians we know that where politics will fall short of the mark, and where political movements inevitably will be the occasion for some manner of compromise with the devil, in Christ Jesus there is total righteousness. Whatever the cause, suffer for Christ, keep Him and His example in your hearts, love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself, and in time you will see how that cause has been made more sacred and more in line with God’s will. Christ Jesus has declared our independence from sin and death. Fight for that victory, hold high that banner, and we Americans may be both great and good.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.