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A Fourth of July Sermon

On Rights and Responsibilities

I was honored to be asked to be the lay preacher at our church this morning.  Here are my remarks as prepared for delivery.
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh
July 4, 2010

On a sweltering July day eleven score and fourteen years ago, a group of men “mutually pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor” as they declared their freedom from Great Britain.  It happened not so very far from here in downtown Philadelphia, but we should remember that in the eighteenth century Chestnut Hill was a summer community several hours’ journey from the city, and may have seemed somewhat remote that July 4th.  It was hot in Philadelphia, but I’m sure the breezes out here were cooling and the trees provided ample shade—especially with no cars or trucks on Bethlehem Pike.  The view looking out from our hill over the fields of Hope Lodge, then in the process of being sold to William West, must have been bucolic compared to the raucous scene around Independence Hall.  The following year, however, the fallout of this audacious Declaration was brought home to St. Thomas’ as after the British victory at Germantown the redcoats stormed up Church Road to the top of this very hill and the area saw fierce fighting.  The little church that stood on this site was destroyed—its windows blown out and its graveyard desecrated.  These events make this Sunday on the date that precipitated them even more sacred for our congregation.  Since our predecessors thought it was worth dying over the Declaration of Independence, it seems to me an opportune moment to reflect on the great gift we were given all those years ago, and how we can act as good stewards of it today.

Eleven score and fourteen is more cumbersome than the lyrical “Four score and seven” that began President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, but I deployed it anyway to highlight how young the nation was when Lincoln gave his great speech.  Lincoln was addressing a country engulfed in the agonies of civil war whose survival was far from assured, but he spoke hopefully of “a new birth of freedom” that would come after we as a nation had reaffirmed “the proposition that all men are created equal”—and in a historical footnote I would add that Lincoln managed to make his point in 10 sentences, an admirable brevity that I’m sure everyone eager to get to their celebratory picnics hopes I will imitate—but bear with me a little longer.

From our vantage point so many scores of years later we may be pardoned for taking for granted the happy fulfillment of Lincoln’s optimism, but I think this would be a dangerous complacency.  The Declaration of Independence asserts that we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” but it does not follow that they are automatically guaranteed to us.  I believe we need to understand that these are precious gifts from God, and like many of his gifts, they are not entirely straightforward.  Rights come with responsibilities.  In order to fully receive and enjoy them we need to exert a little effort of our own, beginning with understanding just what they are—an exercise I found surprisingly difficult and personal, and I’d like to share the results with you today.

“Life” may seem reasonably self-evident—I expect it certainly did for Thomas Jefferson and his companions—but for our generation it has become considerably more challenging.  Our Founding Fathers were asserting each being’s right to live unmolested.  While you could forfeit your right to life through criminal behavior, it could not be arbitrarily taken from you by the state.  Today our society is engaged in a debate that they could not have imagined over the nature of life, when it begins—and so when an individual assumes this divinely bestowed right to life.  We need to treat this issue with tremendous caution and care as in the case of our county, “Life” is more than a science experiment, it is a foundation block of our nation.  As our medical capability increases ever more amazingly, we owe it to ourselves to review its ramifications for the right to life at every step.  Is it acceptable to destroy life in order to preserve it—or even to create it?  These are painful and difficult questions, but with God’s help we must not shy away from them.  Decisions over who exists and who does not should not be made on the basis of convenience or expedience, but with a seriousness of purpose and a clear understanding of what the right to life means in our nation.

Liberty is a similarly complex proposition.  Of course we want to be personally free—free to worship and marry as we please, travel at will and make all range of personal decisions that in other countries are arranged by dictator, potentate or junta.  But liberty, while always welcomed by the recipient, has proven remarkably difficult to share for we mortals.  The creation of a free collective society is no easy task.  Establishing who would be endowed with the right to liberty—and how far their freedom would extend—tormented our country for much of its first two centuries of existence.  Lincoln preserved the Union and abolished slavery, but the struggle was far from over.  We have, however, made remarkable—almost historically unprecedented—progress towards understanding that until all of us are free none of us truly understand liberty.  All politics aside, it is wonderful to me as someone who was born five months to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in anger to have my two children live in a world where it is perfectly acceptable—even unremarkable—to have a black man become the President of the United States.  Again, this is a development the Founding Fathers probably did not anticipate even when they acknowledged the country would have to confront the discrepancy between the claim of an inalienable right to freedom and the practice of slavery at some point, but I have to think they would be pleased.  Progress may not always happen as quickly or efficiently as we would hope, but it can happen when we keep our founding principals in front of us as the standard down the road towards which we work.

And now for the fun one: the right to pursue happiness.  That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  As the old song said, don’t worry, be happy!  Ah, but again there is a catch.  This right is about opportunities not guarantees.  It wasn’t designed to be a passive state.  The results of the gift are of our own making, whether we succeed, fail, or chose not to enter the race at all.  I am coming to think that many of the problems we face today are caused by a misinterpretation of this gift caused by our own prosperity.  So many have done so well given the opportunities provided by the United States that we have come to believe that this is our natural condition and if anyone fails it is the fault of the state and so the state’s responsibility to remedy the situation.  I fear we are losing sight of the value of the pursuit—of the risk and effort, the worry if you will—that goes into building happiness.  I say this as an enormously fortunate child of this country who has benefited greatly from the great opportunities we enjoy.  There is of course another side to this coin—lore on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family has it that her father was friends with Milton Hershey.  Mr. Hershey came to him for money once to invest in a business he was starting.  My great grandfather complied.  The business went belly up.  A year or so later, Mr. Hershey was back with another idea.  Again, my great grandfather invested.  Again, the business failed.  Some period of time later Mr. Hershey was back again, this time with a scheme to make chocolate.  My great grandfather said he simply didn’t have any more money to invest.  The moral of the story is that you sure don’t win them all, but we have to guard our right to pursue our own happiness, and not be contented with what is allocated to us by the state.

And so in conclusion I found that what we have been promised in the Declaration of Independence is a far more complex, challenging gift than I had assumed.  Clearly, given what has transpired over the last 234 years these gifts inspire and sustain human creativity and productivity.  But at the same time, we should not grow too self-assured in our own might.  For all the bravery and strength the heroes now sleeping in our quiet churchyard displayed in fighting for our freedom, our inalienable rights were not won by force of arms, but rather freely bestowed on us by a greater power who we must trust and turn to for guidance in our frailty.  For as we learned in the reading from Luke, “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”   And that is the greatest gift of all.

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