Byron C. Bangert

July 5, 1998

Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Matthew 6:24-34

"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." These are perhaps the most familiar words in the Declaration of Independence. They declare the existence of "certain unalienable Rights," that is, rights that belong to us by our very natures, rights that no government or earthly power can rightly take away. These rights are essential to our humanity. They go along with being human.

Thomas Jefferson, the principle drafter of the Declaration, drew his list of rights from the philosopher, John Locke. Locke's list included life and liberty, but the third item on his list was private property. Jefferson changed "private property" to "the pursuit of Happiness." It is often noted that Jefferson did not say that we have a right to happiness, only a right to its pursuit. One of the questions that will engage us this morning is, What is involved in this pursuit?

My primary purpose this morning, however, is to reflect upon the "unalienable Rights" of the Declaration of Independence in light of the teaching of Jesus in our New Testament text. Both of these are about life. Life is the first of Jefferson's unalienable rights. Without life, nothing else would seem to matter. To say that we have a right to life is to say that no one has a right arbitrarily to deny us our existence. It is noteworthy that Jefferson included a vigorous condemnation of King George III for permitting slavery and the slave trade in his initial draft of the Declaration. Among the words that the Continental Congress deleted from Jefferson's work were the following: "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither" [cited by Diane Ravitch, THE AMERICAN READER, 21-21]. The fact that Jefferson was himself a slave holder complicates our current estimations of him and makes us wonder about the extent of his commitment to liberty, but here we see clearly his belief that life, at least, is a universal human right.

On the one hand, this claim of a right to life seems basic. What would we do without it? On the other hand, it hardly seems necessary. Isn't it obvious that to be human we must have life? Yet sometimes, in our zeal to shape life the way we want it, or think it should be, we lose sight of the fact that nothing matters without life. Sometimes "we destroy the village in order to save it". We end up crushing the very life that we are trying to rescue, nurture, or make better. Ecclesiastes asserts that "a living dog is better than a dead lion" [9:4]. It is important to remember that life itself is of tremendous value. We must not lose sight of the value of preserving life for its own sake.

But then we still must come to terms with Jesus' saying, "Do not worry about your life." If life is so important, how can we not be anxious about it? The King James Version of this verse reads, "Take no thought for your life . . ." Is this what Jesus means? Are we to proceed in total disregard for our own existence? I hardly think so. Jesus is not counseling us to be heedless or totally oblivious to what we need. He is not suggesting that we can ignore bodily demands with impunity. He is addressing our spiritual condition: "Do not worry." The point is that life is a gift, not an achievement. There is nothing we have done to attain our lives. There is nothing we can do to secure our lives. And the point is that there is so much more to life than security and survival. Our lives do not consist in what we are able to accumulate, or what we are able to consume. The real challenge and opportunity of our existence is not to manage to survive but to learn how to live.

These words of Jesus do not diminish the importance of life. Jesus says, in describing God's care for the birds, "are you not of more value than they?" The question gets at a fundamental premise of our existence: Are we here by our own efforts, or by the providence of God? If we think it is by our own efforts, then we will behave as "the Gentiles" do. They are the people with a warped understanding, people who do not know God. But if it is by the providence of God that we are here, then why should we be preoccupied with food and drink and clothing--the mere means of our continuing survival? God has not put us in a world where such things are in short supply. Ah, you may protest, there is the rub: Even though God may have made us and this world, and even though it is a world abundant with resources, it is surely a world in which many lack access to what is needed. It is a world in which many do go hungry and thirsty and naked, and do not have any security about their lives. Could it be just for that reason that Jesus goes on to say, "Strive first for the kingdom of God and [God's] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well"? In a world that is ordered according to the purposes of God, there would be no problem with what to eat, or what to drink, or what to wear.

Jesus counsels the pursuit of righteousness, not the pursuit of happiness. Is there a contradiction here? For Jefferson, and also for Locke, the contradiction would have been only apparent. For both, true happiness meant immortality, eternal life with God, beyond this earthly life. And immortality is given to those who are righteous. So righteousness is the right path to the only true happiness. The successful pursuit of happiness must then require the pursuit of righteousness [cf. John Spencer, "The Pursuit of Happiness," sermon in Kalamazoo College Chapel, June 29, 1979].

But there are several problems here. In the first place, Jesus is not talking about immortality, or life hereafter. He is talking about the manner of our lives, and their possibilities, in the here and now. The righteousness that Jesus enjoins is a righteousness in which all our earthly needs will be met. In the second place, even if Jefferson believed that true happiness awaited the righteous beyond this life, most of us who hear his words about "the pursuit of happiness" think in terms of the benefits of this life. If anything, we tend to equate the pursuit of happiness with the very things that Jesus says we ought not to be worrying about. Perhaps few would admit that happiness is a sumptuous meal, a fine wine, fancy clothes to wear. But don't we all assume that happiness entails a sufficient accumulation of this world's goods to be comfortable and secure, and a sufficient level of consumption to rise above subsistence, to be conspicuous, or at least to manifest our mastery of the world? Yet, as those in our congregation who have traveled to Posoltega, Nicaragua, have come back and reported, the people there seem to be notably happy with hardly anything more than the means of their daily survival.

Happiness, as any wise person knows, is not a measure of what we have managed to secure for ourselves. Nor is happiness to be attained by its pursuit. We all probably know this in our heads, but not in our hearts. Happiness comes unsolicited, when we are busy doing other things, pursuing other goals. Happiness is a by-product of the good life, the life well lived. Thomas Jefferson may have improved upon John Locke when he substituted the "pursuit of Happiness" for "private property." But it would have been even better if he had declared that the point of our freedom is to pursue the life that is truly good.

The remarkable thing about the teaching of Jesus in our text is precisely the way that it pictures that good life. It does not picture the good life simply in terms of the moral life, the responsible life, or the life of good behavior. The good life, according to the picture provided by Jesus, is a life that relies above all upon the providence of God.

"Look at the birds of the air." If you are outside, particularly at dusk, you can see them flitting through the skies. They are probably feeding. Their flight looks so effortless, so graceful, so free. Years ago I saw the results of a survey that asked people what extra-human ability they would like to possess. As I recall, the single most desired ability was the ability to fly. Of all the creatures in the creation, the birds in their flight seem most to capture our desire for freedom. "They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet [our] heavenly Father feeds them." To fly and feed at the same time!--this would seem to be the height of ecstasy and joy and delight.

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;" they do nothing to clothe themselves, or to make themselves beautiful. "They neither toil nor spin." Yet they are more beautifully clothed than Solomon in all his glory. Contemplating the flowers of the field, a philosopher was once moved to write:

Take the subtle beauty of a flower in some isolated glade of a primeval forest. No animal has ever had the subtlety of experience to enjoy its full beauty. And yet this beauty is a grand fact in the universe. When we survey nature and think however flitting and superficial has been the animal enjoyment of its wonders, and when we realize how incapable the separate cells and pulsations of each flower are of enjoying the total effect--then our sense of the value of the details for the totality dawns upon our consciousness. This is the intuition of the sacred, which is at the foundation of all religion. [cited by Spencer, op. cit.]

Are you not of much more value than the birds? asks Jesus. Will God not much more clothe you than the flowers? But of course! Not to worry! God is in the world, doing the Divine Creator thing. We have been made for God, to let God provide for us, to delight in and enjoy God's creation. In order for this to happen, however, we must do our part to re-order this world in keeping with God's purpose and human need.

The liberty that is implied in Jesus' vision of the good life is a liberty from anxious toil. It is the liberty to enjoy, but not to exploit. It is the liberty to participate, but not to dominate. It is the liberty of those who do not need to prove themselves, their value or their beauty, in order to justify their existence. It is a liberty that is a gift, to be received rather than achieved. Jefferson, too, understood liberty to be an endowment, a gift of God. His understanding of this liberty, however, had more to do with political rights, whose blessings government was needed to secure. Jesus presents us with a somewhat different picture of liberty--liberty as the material and spiritual freedom for which we have been divinely created, bestowed upon all who strive for citizenship in the commonwealth of God.

It seems to me there is something fundamentally right about this vision that Jesus presents. We are not given anything like a blueprint for how to re-order this world, but we are given a picture of what life would be like if our world were properly ordered. We are given a picture of what our own lives will be like if and when we learn the difference between the conditions of life and the art of living. The conditions of life are the things we need, or think we need, for what we hope someday to accomplish. The art of living is the capacity to appreciate and enjoy what we are given in each day, and to delight in all that surrounds and sustains us in our life together.

My friend and mentor, John Spencer, once wrote:

The Gospel, the Good News, is that God both intends and enables us to be like the swallows and the flowers, if and when we will. We do not fly nor are we heedlessly beautiful, but we are made to be in love, and to be surrounded with those we can love, each in a unique and different way, if only we were not obsessed with having just the right conditions before we could begin living [op. cit.].

According to Jesus, God has already provided the conditions for our living. We have been given life, and the liberty to pursue it in all its goodness. Moreover, happiness is not something for us to pursue, as if it were fleeing from us. Rather, happiness is pursuing us, and could come upon us, if we would stop fleeing from it. AMEN.