July 5, 2020

We Become What We Worship
Pentecost 5, Proper 9, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

On the Fourth of July, we stop and celebrate what this country is all about. What IS this country all about? The Declaration of Independence, adopted some 244 years ago, included what is one of the most well-known phrases in English: 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. So, equality, life, liberty, and happiness. Simple. So simple that men and women have been fighting about what that means ever since.

For example, in 1776 “men” meant “white males.” I am happy to report that, 244 years later, women are almost fully human and equal to men. Almost. Now we are fighting over whether “men” can include people of color, as well as actual, certifiable, human beings who don’t fit within rigid gender definitions.

There is one term in that famous English sentence where I wish we would go back to using the meaning it had in 1776: Happiness. In 1776, the pursuit of Happiness was not about an individual “finding themselves,” or seeking pleasurable experiences, or being entitled to do whatever they darn well wanted. The “Pursuit of Happiness” was about the right – yes, the right – of every person to be governed with policies that let them thrive.

The whole reason for the Declaration of Independence was because the British government was doing the opposite: using government to oppress people, British citizens, who lived in the 13 colonies, so that they could not thrive. The Declaration of Independence includes a list of some 27 abuses permitted or actively fostered by the King of England, from taxation without representation to burning towns to the ground. Governments, according to the Declaration of Independence, should have as their goal creating communities where all people can thrive, not just those with a certain heritage, skin color, or bank account.

Now, as imperfectly as they may have lived into this ideal, where did the people who drafted this document get this cockamamie idea that one person shouldn’t get what they want at the expense of another person? that the happiness, the well-being, of the community hinges on everyone in the community having happiness, doing well? That the “happiness” a society has a right to depends on whether all the members of that society are treated with dignity, respect, equality, and fairness?

It’s a 2-word answer: The Bible. Specifically, the teachings of Jesus Christ. Every single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was a man of faith, and aligned with one or another Christian denomination. Over half of them, by the way, identified as members of our denomination, what is now known as the Episcopal Church. That they were not all from the same brand of Christianity means that there was plenty of diversity in their beliefs. But the principle of serving common good was shared by them all and that this principle was endowed by their Creator: God.

“Common” does not mean “conforming, and “Unity” does not mean “uniform.” It’s perfectly OK that we do not agree with each other, that we have freedom of thought and expression. Discussing differences is how we make positive change, moving over the years toward justice for all, not just those who think like we do, who look like we do.

Even as we remember where the principles behind our founding document came from, we must never confuse government and faith. Those of us here today who are citizens of the United States must, as Christians, distinguish between the duty to support and defend our country, and our call to WORSHIP God, and only God, the God revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This cannot be overstated, because there is an ancient truth at work: We become what we worship.

When we worship money, we become materialists. When we worship ourselves, we become egoists. When we worship a country, we become nationalists. And the one word for worship of any and all of these and other things that are not God is idolatry. An idolater is anyone who places their own desires and interests ahead of serving the God who created them, and it’s the Number 1 “Thou Shalt Not” law.

But, it’s really, really easy to be an idolater. Paul emphasizes this in his anguished letter about his wanting to do things right, getting it wrong, getting confused, getting lost serving his own interest instead of God’s. And he does it time and time again. Idolatry IS the human condition…

To read the full sermon text, click HERE.

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