On the fourth of July 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania a group of 56 men representing the thirteen colonies long and sore oppressed gave their approval to the final draft of a document detailing the reasons for their July 2nd vote for independence from the tyranny of King of England. That beloved text, The Declaration of Independence, states in its second sentence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Truth be told, the Declaration as a whole was generally ignored in the first few decades following the American Revolution. Few Americans knew, or for that matter cared, about who had written and signed the Declaration or what it said. Over time, however, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence has become one of the best-known sentences in the English language" ( Lucas, "Justifying America", 85.)and has been called "the most potent and consequential words in American history.” (Ellis, American Creation, 55–56.) In many respects, it has come to define the moral standard of the United States of America. Despite what it has come to mean, for most of its history, the United States has lived as a contradiction unto itself as it has been standard practice to subjugate various peoples, and too often, it has not been often self-evident that all men were created equal.
It was four score and seven years later that Abraham Lincoln used the phrase in his Gettysburg Address to re-frame the Civil War as not merely an economic or political war, but the labor pains of “a new birth of freedom.” Just three months shy of one-hundred years after Lincoln's Address, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior stood in front of Lincoln's memorial and declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'”
While most of the men who signed that creedal document in American history didn't really believe what it has come to mean, especially as it related to African-Americans and women, I feel safe in asserting that this nation was founded on the ideal that each of us was created by God as a whole person deserving all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities given thereto.
A quick blush of Scripture might lead us to believe otherwise, but careful study reveals to us that this truth, that all men were created equal, has been key to understanding God's dream for his Kingdom from the very beginning. Take, for example, the story of Naaman we heard this morning. Naaman was the ultimate outsider in Israel during the ninth century BC. He was a commander in the Syrian Army, one of Israel's chief enemies at the time. He joined the brutal King of Aram in worshiping the pagan god Rimmon who we know as Baal. Naaman suffered from leprosy, one of the chief sources of fear and ritual uncleanness in ancient Israel. But, as 2nd Kings tells us, Naaman was used by “The Lord,” by YHWH himself, to bring about Aram's most recent victory of Israel, God's chosen people.
So the story goes like this, Naaman, the outsider, had a skin condition that his wife was eager to see go away. So eager, in fact, that she would listen to her slave-girl and go so far as to suggest trying track down the foreign prophet of a foreign (and as she saw it, relatively weak) god in the land of their pesky neighbor and favorite punching bag, Israel. So this Syrian, pagan general who, unbeknownst to him, has been God's hand in victory over Israel, sets off to see if Israel's God can really help him.
Nobody in this story believes that all men are created equal. The King of Israel is so fearful of another defeat at the hands of the King of Aram that he tears his clothes in fear and anguish as he reads Naaman's letter. Elisha, for his part, won't even come out of his house to address Naaman. Instead, he sends a messenger out to tell him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman, well Naaman doesn't even believe all rivers were created equal, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?”
Nobody in this story believes that people are created equal, excepting, of course, God. God, who has used the pagan worshiping leper, Naaman, to teach his people, Israel, a lesson about fidelity knows for a fact that he has created all men equal and that his whole creation is good. He knows that one man singing his praises in 9th century BC Syria is as beautiful a sound as one woman singing his praises in 9th century BC Israel, and both are as desirable as any one person singing his praises in New Zealand or Haiti or the United States today. And so, despite Naaman's unbelief and protestations, God blesses him with healing so that Naaman's next words, just beyond our text this morning, are “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Isreal.” YHWH, not Baal, is King. Of course, Naaman still has a lot to learn about the God of Israel. He still doesn't believe that all men are created equal. He doesn't even believe yet that all dirt is equal as he loads up enough Isreali soil to build himself an altar for YHWH in Aram. But we who hear this story gain insight into the very nature of God who is beyond borders, races, classes, and genders.
For most of its history, at least one hundred plus four score and seven years of it,. if not more, the United States of America has struggled to live up to God's truth as it is stated in our creedal document, The Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. Over time, and through many hard lessons, not unlike that of Naaman and his leprosy, God has taught generation upon generation to see that initially overlooked second sentence as a statement of his unchanging truth, his dream for the Kingdom. Surely, there is work still to be done as men, women, and children in this nation, and even in this very city still find themselves sore oppressed, but every day we get a little closer to what God had in mind when he first created Adam and Eve as equal partners in his Kingdom Garden. Today, as we celebrate Independence Day in this great land, we give thanks for those, like President Lincoln and The Reverend Doctor King, who over the last 234 years, in this nation, and thousands of years beyond that, have taught us to follow God's Dream no matter the cost, to pursue life, liberty and happiness based on that God-ordained truth that all men (and women) really are created equal. May God bless us with the eyes to see and hearts to live into that truth. Amen.