In 1776 a Genie Was Let Out
A sermon based on: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio, on July 5, 2020* 2010
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I LOVE THE FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND! Every year, as far as I can remember, it has been full of great feasts and celebration. Tastes. Smells. Sights. Sounds. Parades. Colors. Unified exaltation by many Americans regardless of politics, regardless of differences. I did not appreciate it as a child, but as an adult I love knowing that all of this fuss and feasting and fun is done every year over powerful words that birthed a noble cause – and a country– in a remarkable experiment that has changed, and continues to change, us and the world. I find that one of the many blessings of being clergy is that I get to stand up Fourth of July weekend and read aloud in public one of the most influential sentences ever written – words from that Declaration of Independence, a secular document. The words of the second sentence vibrate with Divine presence. I am going to read those famous words now and let them just float out there in the air:
“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. . . ”
What a gift, what a blessing that statement of truth has been to America, to humankind. Since those words were first published 244 years ago they have inspired not just our nation to grow, into and toward, the truths enumerated, but, other countries as well. They declare a universal truth. While the exact words are not in the Bible, the universal truth is. In fact no, less than George Washington wrote to a Jewish community in Rhode Island quoting to that minority group the promise in Micah 4:4, everyone is entitled to equal well being under their own vineyard and fig tree. Washington proclaimed, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” 1
Of course, God’s mandate of equality is not just in Micah. The Bible states it elsewhere. Another example is the Genesis teaching that every single person is made in the image of God. In Galatians Paul tells we are equal, one in Christ Jesus. Throughout the Gospels Jesus treats all as equal, to love everyone equally. Jesus’ acts and teachings can easily be heard to support the right of all to be alive, to be free, and to be un-oppressed as they live toward happiness.
To borrow a phrase from The Pledge of Allegiance; it is fair to say that the Bible, Jesus and The Declaration of Independence all express the Creator’s aim for “liberty and justice for all.” They declare that we are called by our Creator to understand all as created equal; all as given basic human rights. That’s what this secular holiday weekend is mostly about. That is what going to church on Sunday is mostly about. There may be a separation of church and state requirement in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence there is an unmistakable unity with Biblical teachings.
Like I said not much of this was on my mind as kid. My fondness for the 4th of July weekend as a child was about the festivities and all the treats and sights and sounds that went with it. My family did not go to the big slick firework shows. We had our own collection of fireworks (legal and illegal) kept in huge box my dad would pull out at dusk on Independence Day and then light– and help us light– until they were all gone. There was no slickness to it. Most Fourth of July nights we sat on a hodgepodge of chairs and benches and blankets on the ground in our yard vying for a better view or a turn to light a fuse, all the while pursuing the happiness that comes with gathering with family and friends on such occasions. We “Ooooed” and “Awed” at the colors and noises as they were set off on the driveway in no organized fashion. There were also duds and misfires, and accidents and tired tears and upset and some fighting mixed in with all the good stuff.
Those home grown firework shows can serve as a metaphor for the Declaration of the Independence and the rights it acknowledged and how the quest for them has played out . . . is playing out. The God given rights and the promise of seeking and providing access to them in the Declaration has never come about in an organized fashion like slick professional firework shows. It’s always been messy and disorganized, with duds and misfires and tears and upset and fights mixed in with good stuff.
Our present Constitution and the Bill of Rights are an example. They were a decade in the making as the original constitution, The Articles of Confederation, failed miserably. People vied and clamored for access to this and that right back then – AND they have every vied and clamored for access to them right up to today.
In our history some Americans have felt that full access to the God-given rights and equality should be limited to them. In our history some Americans have felt since they have full access to rights and equality that is good enough, no more need be done. In our history some Americans have NOT been provided full access to rights and equality– and those Americans have long clamored for them. In our history other Americans have joined them as allies clamoring for equality and full access to God-given rights. All our lives we have read about this and seen it happening in history books and in our streets.
All of the “fireworks” over equality and rights can get loud and noisy and confusing. Some of the noise is angry. Some are un-welcoming to the efforts for the well being of all, which religiously speaking is, the peace God and Jesus want for everyone which only comes about with full access to equality and rights. Jesus indicates in our lesson that such unwelcome to efforts for God’s peace is deserving of protest, of clamoring. Which he knew, and we know, creates uncomfortable noise and messes. But have you ever noticed that all that noisy messy clamoring brings us one step closer to what Jesus in today’s Lectionary reading calls the “Kingdom of God?” In the times of protest in streets, mentioned in the lesson – even in such times– Jesus can be heard to tell us that the Kingdom, the Empire of God “has come near.”
That Empire is near and it gets nearer every time our nation moves toward fully fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence and Jesus’ teachings– God’s call. The promise of equality and rights fulfilled is the promise of peace. Jesus taught us to teach and preach and act to bring about such peace, God’s shalom. As a whole, Americans glom onto the idea of such peace in The Declaration of Independence and we celebrate it.
As a whole we continue in fits and starts to seek that peace and provide that peace more and more, but not nearly fast enough, or fully enough, for everyone. Two hundred-and-forty-four years is far, far too long a time to require any group of Americans to wait. That we have yet to provide those basic rights fully to everyone in word AND deed is sad and tragic and unjust. It is unfair, unAmerican and unChristian and so there is protest and noise in the streets, just as there have been since the start.
It is interesting that at the start, on July 4th 1776, the colonists in charge of the rebellion who aimed for access to equal rights were primarily upper-class white males, the landed gentry of British heritage, who rightfully felt slighted in the denial of rights on our shores. So they clamored and protested in the streets. Then they clamored and formed a union of colonies. Then they clamored and declared their independence as States setting out why. They mostly got what they sought for themselves at the end of the long and bloody clamor, we call the Revolutionary War. But they did not ensure that others got full access to equality and God-given rights. Women, non-whites, LGBTQ, and the poor were left out at the start.
Nonetheless the words unleashed on July 4th two hundred and forty-four years ago acknowledging the equality and unalienable rights let a genie out of the bottle– the genie of the truth of God creating all of us as equal and giving us all rights. The good news is those words, that truth, has led, and continues to lead, to one group after another clamoring for access to those God-given rights . . . And the good news includes that over the decades many allies have joined in to fight for them.
The good news also includes that this weekend we have been celebrating the genie of God’s truth being let out! We have been celebrating the truth of God creating us all equal and giving us all rights that cannot be taken away. All the world knows that truth now– which thankfully has most of our citizens agreeing that all male and female Americans are recognized under the Declaration of Independence – and the Constitution– as having the same equal status and rights the founders clamored for.
As we gather today we know there are Americans we need to still get access to full rights and recognition as equals, even as our constitution and many laws require those rights and that equality. Americans with Black skin, have been rightfully clamoring since 1776 for nothing more or less than equality and access to God given rights enumerated in the document we celebrate this weekend. Other People of Color, and Women and LGBTQ have also been clamoring since 1776 for nothing more or less than equality and access to God given rights enumerated in the document that we celebrate. The year 1776 is not just important because the Declaration of Independence acknowledged universal rights, but because it recognized and declared every human equal and entitled to them, and set off a clamor for a founded on them! It let the genie of God’s truth out regarding universal entitlement to equality and fundamental well being. Entitlement under the laws of the universe. Entitlement under the morals of humanity. Entitlement under the declaration of the Creator itself Entitlement by the nation’s fundamental founding principles.
All the clamoring for access to rights that has gone on, and goes on in the United States is amazing if we think about it. In the history of our nation many who have sought rights have got rights, and history proves that without a doubt more will get them. The wait and the clamor, the protests in the streets should not have to happen–and it has been far too slow a process to get access to equal rights to everyone– not just in word . . . but in deed!
God’s peace is about everyone getting what is due and God’s peace should not be slowed down or put on a back burner or have to be clamored for. Making noise and protesting in the street is something the founders of this nation did when they did not have such peace, when Britain put their rights on a back burner. As far as their actions were non-violent, they were following Jesus’ advice to make noise and protest when bearers of his peace are rejected. Such non-violent actions to correct the mistakes of whatever nations governs on these shores has always moved us toward the Empire of God which is near, very near.
“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 so powerful that if they are fulfilled throughout the world heaven will be fully on earth. The kingdom of God will not just be near, it will be here! Let us pray and act like our ancestors did to finish what they started and fully bring about God’s kingdom. Let us pray and act so that equality and rights not yet fully accessible are made accessible quickly and peacefully to every American as soon as possible– so that God’s realm is not just near . . . but here. AMEN
1. This quote is found in “Vine and Fig Tree” an article by George Tsakiridis, Ph.D. Instructor in Philosophy and Religion at South Dakota State University https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/vine-and-fig-tree/
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