What Counts is a New Creation

An Independence Day Sermon

Lectionary Texts: Ps. 30; Gal. 6.1-16

1. Presbyterian Hymnal 181: Come Sing to God (vv. 1-4)

2. Hymn 298: There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (vv. 1 & 2)

3. Hymn 564: O Beautiful for Spacious Skies (vv 1, 2, 4)

Douglas Olds, Elder and Candidate for Minister of Word and Sacrament

St. John’s Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, CA

July 4, 2010

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

[Introduction:] This is the radical opening to the day and document that our nation celebrates on July 4.

The Declaration of Independence is steeped in the Protestant Reformation, a movement that said no to the divine right of kings and popes, and located in the inner witness of the individual an unmediated relationship with true governance: the happiness and true liberty that is promised in the Reign of the Creator God.

And this, I submit, is the foundation of Christian liberalism: individual opportunity seeking and working to bring God’s Reign—the Creator’s Intention to Love--to full fruition on the earth.

The July 4, 1776 document ends with these words: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

Nationhood in America is founded on the divine establishment of individual honor and mutuality—neighbor love. This, again, is a major part of the document we attest to today.

How differently the U. S. Constitution locates authority--in We the People, with no mention of God and with its disestablishment of church in the First Amendment.

Civil liberalism, as opposed to Biblical liberalism, is thus populist, concerned with the coming together in congress of the People: its deliberative mode is compromise, and justice is that which results from congress so long as that result does not become tyrannical or oppressive over minorities.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution checks the majority will and balances against it rights for minorities by means of the judiciary and the executive branches of government.

You of course know these ideals from civics classes. But I want to highlight how different is the Biblical concept of justice.

God’s justice is the power of love balanced with judgment reserved for the divine.

Justice is a frame of mind and heart that endeavors to bring God’s Reign through acts of human charity.

Justice in this sense is God’s establishment of these charities in eternity, where acts of love of neighbor and God last through to the Final Days.

Judgment is reserved to God, for only God can judge between that which is authentically loving and what is self-interested within our acts of charity.

A Christian liberal accepts this foundation of eternity and works to love neighbor regardless of the interests of the nation. [10/15/13 edit: by which I mean to clothe, heal, and feed, not to support a neighbor's violence]

The Declaration of Independence subordinates the foundation of the nation to the Reign of God, while we have seen that the Constitution does no such thing.//

An illustration demonstrates this historical difference of the people’s reception of these documents: After the Civil War:

“In 1882 J. Franklin Jameson made his initial visit to the library of the State Department in Washington, DC, to undertake research in American Constitutional history…,[where] he noticed a curious phenomenon: ‘The constitution of the United States was kept folded up in a little tin box in the lower part of a closet, while the Declaration of Independence, mounted with all elegance, was exposed to the view of all in the central room of the library.’”[1]

We learn that The Declaration fascinated visitors in contrast with the hidden, boxed embarrassment of the Constitution.

Only 11 years after the Declaration, the Constitution wrote what abolitionist William Garrison called a “covenant with death” when it defined African slaves as 3/5 of a human being.

I submit that this is an example of failed justice that comes from congressional deliberations devoid of what we know of God’s Reign of mercy guided by prayer.

The Constitution represents the American citizen who has reputedly “grown up” as Langdon Gilkey (Naming the Whirlwind, p. 155) projects, when,

“No power outside of himself is authoritatively and finally to determine for him his thoughts, his standards, his decisions, or to create his meaning. …Autonomy, or coming of age, in a secular context…means moving from the tutelage of the external authority of some ‘other,’ some authority or Lord, to self-direction…regarded as the sole level of creative humanity.”

In this autonomy, we American citizens are tempted by the powerful's claim to rightful power--we are tempted to ignore the founding documents of our society--just as we who claim to be citizens of the Reign of God are tempted to ignore the authority of the Word of God in discipleship and ethics.

Yet how different is the sentiment of the apostle Paul in Gal. 6 and the psalmist in Psalm 30, which we read aloud this morning as the preface to this sermon:

[Exegesis:] “You lifted me out of the depths

and did not let my enemies gloat over me, begins the psalmist in the 30th psalm. This attests to God’s prerogatives, and to God’s electing justice.

While the psalm concludes with the public virtue of gratitude: “O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.”

This is the attitude of the Protestant Reformers who shaped the Declaration of Independence:

God elects a new creation—a new nation—and our response is gratitude, the signal public virtue for a new political reality. Do we post-moderns carry forth this gratitude? I wonder.

The Apostle Paul is concerned with autonomy, like the framers of our government, and refuses to commit to body markers like circumcision as the basis for shared nationality. Instead, what counts for Paul is ethics: the bearing of burdens and the doing of good that makes one a natural neighbor. Paul writes in Galatians,

2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load.”

It isn’t the circumcision of national birthright that matters in the Reign of God, but rather what counts are the ethics and the charity of neighborliness that promotes the wholeness and shalom of the new creation. With these acts, you lay down the basis of citizenship in eternity that God promises to guard and keep safe. //

[Application:] Abraham Clark, William Floyd, John Hart, Philip Livingston, Thomas McKean, Benjamin Rush, James Smith, Richard Stockton, George Taylor, Matthew Thornton, John Witherspoon:

these were the 11 Presbyterians of the 56 men who signed the Declaration.

What did these progressive men, in the Spirit of their Age, envision for the future of this nation?

I propose 6 charter principles found in the Declaration that are now part of the bridge-building, liberal American Dream:

· There will be no national church: diversity is a value

· There are no sacred seats or places: spirit is everywhere; in cities no less than wilderness—in wilderness no less than cities.

· a nation founded on immigration;

· the principle of law not social position;

· gratitude for divine providence; and-

· voluntary associations favored above the straightjacket of birth relationships

How our reactionary age perverts these principles!

Our economies of academics no less than agriculture and business promote monocultures of class and consumerism.

We flee our neighbors to seek the Holy Spirit in solitude.

Arizona, Virginia, Nebraska engage in wholesale discrimination against migrants;

financial bailouts of elites contrast with punitive bankruptcy laws for the less well off;

the public virtue of gratitude seems non-existent and the virtue of reverence for what are permanent values in society and culture seems likewise non-existent,

while freedom of assembly is challenged by law and when the poor and unemployed become immobilized by our sputtering job markets.

Human self-sufficiency in modern America is celebrated in reason and in opportunism as the basis for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--

in distinction with the divine grant of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration.

Instead, human creativity devoid of an ethical standard becomes our god, with consequences and horror inflicted on minorities only remediated when those oppressed organize for redress, at risk and cost to themselves.//

In conclusion, I think what is important to note about the birthright of America is that its Constitution is preceded and founded upon the Declaration’s witness to God’s providence and God’s grant of divine rights.

Government in the United States is not solely the search for political agreements outside of revelation which derive from the human intellect to fashion creative situations in the face of problems. These situations often take the face of diversions rather than solutions to what really ails us as a society and nation.

American Independence is a profoundly Protestant [10/14/13 edit: I would contextualize this statement now as Protestantism in 2013 has a theologically different meaning to me than I what I sense then] discovery, and our search for new solutions to vexing human problems finds grist in the progressive Reformers of the founders’ time and of our own. In repudiating the King as Head of Church and State, the Reformed founders recognized that human reason as expressed in politics is an instrument for recognizing divine truth, not a creative source of the mob’s or the elite’s favored truth claims.

This is the liberal, bridge-building genius of American Independence, a God-soaked consciousness that is scolded by the anti-religious but readily affirmed when we return to the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776--for its vision of the Reign of God—and the mercy and forgiveness promised there.

Come; let us go forth in the freedom to fulfill our deepest nature. Not a nature that slaughters and exploits, but a nature that brings charity and provides redress to the powerless and oppressed.

In going forth to love, we submit to God God’s prerogative to judge, and trust our hearts to do unto others what we would have them do unto us.

That is the Christian’s pursuit of a New Creation in life and happiness, in the great liberty of the children of God promised the enduring fruits of eternity.

It is the New Creation that Counts:

In America, in our neighborhoods, in our hearts. AMEN.

[1] Kammen, Michael. A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 127.