Preached on the fourth Sunday after Trinity, July 1, 2012.
“O Eternal God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech Thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (The Collect for Independence Day, BCP p. 263)
“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” So begins Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise The Social Contract, published in France in 1762. Rousseau was a philosophe—a leading thinker and writer in a movement called the European Enlightenment, which advocated the use of reason and science to liberate European culture and society from the chains of political tyranny and economic poverty. You will remember from your history classes that France in the 18th century used the ideas of the philosophes like Rousseau to dismantle not only the monarchy but also the Christian Church, which they saw as an impediment to true human liberty. The leaders of the American Revolution were students of the European Enlightenment, but came to different conclusions about the role of religion in society. They derived many of their political ideas about how to construct and govern a society from the philosophes, but they did not abandon Christianity. According to the American Founding Fathers, true liberty in a democracy could only survive if the people in that democracy were virtuous. Because they believed that the institution that could best help people be virtuous was the Christian Church, they concluded that the Church played a necessary role to help their political experiment of freedom and self-governance survive and flourish.
History has proven the French philosophes wrong, and the American Founding Fathers right. The American experiment at self-governance has been successful in the past because generations of Americans have accepted the virtue of responsibility that self-governance put on them. They raised their children, built churches and schools, established trade, and created and followed laws because this is what self-governance requires. In the future, the success or failure of our American experiment will depend on the degree that we continue to accept these burdens of freedom, which can only come from a healthy conscience rooted in God’s revelation of Himself through the Bible and in Jesus Christ. The people of a free democracy need God more than people in any other kind of government, because the only way we can “maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace” is through acknowledging our need for the grace of God, “through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old.”
If all this is true, then perhaps the greatest threat to our public life is not the occasional outburst of vice or lawlessness, but the slow, rising, dismal tide of responsibility’s opposite: entitlement. Entitlement is the expectation that our life, our security, and our happiness is someone else’s responsibility—not our own. Many cultural commentators observe that most of our contemporary political discourse is framed in a language of entitlements and rights, and not in responsibilities. If this is true, and I think it is, we must be careful to observe our Lord’s warning in today’s Gospel that we not be hypocrites who judge the specks in others’ eyes without judging the beams in our own. Before we condemn an entitlement mentality in others, we must recognize our own sense of entitlement. How can I condemn people in our country who receive welfare or unemployment benefits when I received federal support for my college loans, whose low interest rates and forgiving terms came from taxpayers who could have used that money to start businesses, educate their children, or give alms to the church and aid to the poor? I did not have to receive those loans: I could have done what my grandfather did who spent one semester earning his tuition and the next semester attending classes. Instead, I surrendered my personal responsibility, accepted the entitlement that was offered to me, and became bound in chains of debt. This is not to say that all forms of public assistance are unhealthy. Veterans returning from military service to our country should receive some assistance to return to civilian life. The chronically ill, the mentally feeble, orphans and widows are worthy recipients of private charity and public help. But by and large, the Founding Fathers believed that the taxpayers of our country do not owe me or any other able-bodied person a college education, free food, or free housing. Nevertheless, whether through student loans, Social Security, Medicare or any number of the other federal programs supported by our elected officials, many if not most of us participate in the chains of the entitlement mentality and culture. As a nation, we were born free, but today we find ourselves in chains.
The truth is that entitlement is not fundamentally a political or cultural problem; it is a spiritual problem with cultural and political consequences. Those suffering from the spirituality of entitlement tend to believe that they are at the center of the universe and that they deserve whatever they desire simply because they desire it. It is a form of narcissism, of the self-centered inward focus that we call sin. In my experience, entitlement springs either from the spirit of fear or the spirit of resentment.
The spirit of fear comes from a desire to control our life, which comes from a mistrust that God is willing and able to give us the things that He promises. When we fall victim to fear we become like a screaming toddler who gets so upset that she shuts her eyes and fists so tightly that she cannot see her mother’s face or receive her comforting embrace. To them and to us, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Consider the fowls of the air. They sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? […] Therefore, take no thought, saying What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? […] for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:26, 31-33).”
Those who trust in God’s love, which was so great that He gave us His only-begotten Son to die on the Cross and to open the gates of heaven for us, know that God will provide everything we need—not because we are entitled to it but because He loves us.
The spirit of resentment comes from a desire to be compensated for an injustice that we have suffered, and a mistrust that God will ultimately bring greater good out of whatever evils we have endured. When we fall victim to resentment, we become like the addicts who, while reaching for the bottle, the slot machine, or whatever object to which they are attached, say “I have had such a hard day, I have had such a hard life, that I deserve this.” To them and to us, St. Paul says in today’s Epistle, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).” Those who trust in God’s power and mercy, which was so great as to reverse Jesus’ unjust death on the Cross into His Resurrection as the first-fruit of a new Creation, know that God will heal and transform their wounds, disappointments, and betrayals because that is just what God does: out of suffering He always brings greater good.
Therefore, the key to breaking the chains of an entitlement mentality, whether born from fear or resentment, is trust in God. I know this because I am an expert in entitlement thinking: I am an Olympic-class champion in Fear, Resentment, and Mistrust, and I have the personal wreckage in my life and the lives of those whom I love to prove it. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God already know this about me, and He loves me anyway. It is the same with you. God knows all about your fears, your resentments, your mistrust, and your ruinous sense of entitlement, and He loves you anyway, too. Earlier in his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul said, “God [shows] His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” God does not start to love us only after we trust in Him; instead, His love for us has been at work to build trust in Him long before we were born. Jesus said, “They that are whole need not a physician: but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31-32).” You and I may not yet have sufficient trust in God to be free from fear, resentment, and a sense of entitlement, but we can trust that God’s love and grace is at work in our life to free us from those chains, and to bring us to a place of healing and true freedom.
Joan Davies is 90 years old, and she is one of our newest members. Recently, facing a decline in her health and her finances, she moved from her home in Miami to Houston to live with one of her sons and his family. Joan was born in England in 1922, and she became a nurse just in time for the Blitz, the Nazi bombing of London, during which she met her husband. I met Joan a month ago when her daughter-in-law asked me to visit and to bring her Holy Communion, because her health prevents her from leaving the house. If Joan wanted, she could persuade herself to have every right to feel fearful and resentful about her life. Her first daughter, Robin, died tragically when she was two years old. Her husband, a doctor who had given his life to serve as an epidemiologist, died ten years ago in a prolonged and painful way from a horrible cancer that devoured half his face. But instead of being bitter, Joan is as sweet and cheerful as you can imagine. I asked her about her good spirits, and she told me two brief vignettes. The first took place at the beginning of the war, when she sat all night at the bedside of a sailor who was dying of pneumonia, comforting him. When dawn broke, the sailor said to her, “Thank you for sitting with me tonight. Now I think I’ll fly out that open window.” And lying in his bed, he closed his eyes and died. Two years later Joan was stricken with a case of double-pneumonia, and everyone feared she was done for. Suddenly, lying in bed, she was overcome with a profound feeling of peace, joy, bliss, and total love. Realizing that she was standing at the gate between this world and the next, she told herself, “Remember this….remember this.” Later, after she recovered, she understood that she had felt what the sailor felt as his soul flew out that window. Ever since then she has not feared death, and has only been grateful for her life, come what may.
Every blessing in life, whether in this world or the next, is a gift from God. We are entitled to nothing, yet through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ God has given us everything. Ultimately, nothing belongs to us except the love of God. He is the one who gave our forefathers the grace to win our liberties. He is the one who gives us the grace to maintain them. He is the one who breaks our chains, and blesses us so that we, with Him, might become chain-breaking blessings to others.