Today’s readings: Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 8; Colossians 3:9b-17; Matthew 25:31-46
Today, as we gather on this Independence Day, we celebrate our birth as a nation, two hundred and forty-four years ago. This is a day that causes us to rejoice over the end of oppression, the freedom to be governed in a way that protects our interests. Indeed that very word “freedom” is the word that immediately comes to mind on this ubiquitous national holiday.
But, as I have often preached, freedom is a concept that is very frequently misunderstood, and very often imagined according to one’s own selfishness. That couldn’t be clearer than it is on this particular Independence Day, celebrated as it is during a pandemic and amid heightened racial tension and social unrest. These crises have shown a rather harsh light on our understanding of freedom and what it actually means.
Our nation’s founders knew the importance of the common good. For them freedom meant the ability to pursue that common good so that the nation could grow and prosper. Indeed these concepts were considered to be obvious ones, as is evidenced in the document that we celebrate today, the Declaration of Independence. Listen to what it says: “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.” The exercise of these rights was considered an exercise for all, not just some, and the exercise of one’s own rights was considered to be in relation to the exercise of the rights of others. That’s the concept of the common good.
But somewhere along the line, I think we’ve allowed selfishness to replace the common good. “Look out for number one” has been a concept that has come to the forefront over the last few decades, and, obviously, to our detriment. Right now we see it clearly in terms of the pandemic: people don’t want to wear a face mask, they don’t want to social distance, they just want life according to their own terms, regardless of whether that occasions a surge in illness and death. We see it clearly in terms of racial injustice: people continue to marginalize others so that they can get ahead, they profit off of white privilege and they ignore the marginalized. We see it in city violence: people think nothing of taking the life of another human being.
In the year 1863, then-president Abraham Lincoln mused in his Gettysburg Address whether this nation could “long endure” given the civil war that was raging at the time. One might wonder the same thing given the selfishness that has run rampant today.
I think we can, but it’s going to take strong leaders with a sense of integrity, who know the concept of the common good. It’s going to take great thinkers who can discern truth from logical fallacy. It’s going to take a people that insist on the best from its leaders, and from themselves, so that we can build up this great nation with the ideals our ancestors enshrined at the nation’s founding.
We need to start getting things right. As Saint Theresa of Calcutta would say, we can’t expect people to pursue the common good when a mother can kill the baby in her womb. We can’t insist that people “find their humanity,” as the Mayor of Chicago has urged, when people can have abortions at will, at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. Death begets death, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that we find ourselves with rampant city violence, ignorance of safety protocols to control a pandemic, and renewed signs of racial injustice.
Jesus makes the common good very easy for us in today’s Gospel. Whatever we do, we do it to him. Have we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick? Have we taken care to prevent the spread of disease, to seek the inclusion of those marginalized because of their race? Have we taken a stand against abortion and all the death it begets? Then we have done those things for Christ and have contributed to the common good. But when we have neglected those things, when we have chosen not to take a stand for them, when we have been comfortable with the way things have become, we have offended our God and detracted from the common good.
Our ultimate freedom is the freedom we enjoy in Christ. It is a freedom from sin and the ultimate effects of death, but also a freedom to become the beloved sons and daughters we were created to be, a freedom to pursue justice, peace, inclusion, love and wellness for the common good.
These, friends, are the truths we hold to be self-evident. These are the truths that, when we pursue them, ensure that our nation can long endure. May this Independence Day find us insisting on the common good, and pursuing the well-being of all of us with all our hearts.