May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Fourth of July weekend everyone! I hope all of you here had a great opportunity to rest, reflect, and celebrate at one point during this holiday weekend. I know that I had a wonderful time. My parents were able to come down to visit Yinghao and me.
We went all over the place. We listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence at St. John’s Episcopal. We visited a thing called Butterflies Live at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. We saw a Flying Squirrels baseball game, which ended with fireworks. In good 4th of July fashion we even celebrated Yinghao who recently took and passed her US citizenship test. We had a busy week, but it was a good week to be with family.
Independence Day means a lot of things for many people. Though there is something central to this day of celebration, if you asked 10 people why they enjoy this holiday, you will most likely get 10 varied answers. For small children it may be the ability to see fireworks for the first time. For some, it is a time to bring family together in the midst of busy schedules and long distances. Still others remember the men and women who helped provide our nation’s independence and those who continue to defend it or help realize a dream of greater freedom and prosperity under the rule of law rather than the threat of force. We are still working to realize this dream for all people.
For my father in law, Dr. Wenqing Long, this holiday held for him the possibility of greater opportunity. He diligently searched for it, even toward the end of his life, opportunity. Growing up in the People’s Republic of China, he worked hard to get a strong education. There he went to medical school and became a doctor. Though he loved his country, his home, Dr. Long wanted to provide more for his family and he began seeking out ways to come to the United States.
While working full time, he studied English at night for a number of years. He sought out citizenship with Canada, because it afforded him an easier path to the United States. And he worked for a full year in that country separated from his wife and child in order to provide them with a home. After many years, he was eventually granted a work visa in the United States, which brought him to Charleston, West Virginia. Without this opportunity, I would have never met my wife.
Before his death to liver cancer in 2008, Dr. Wenqing Long had been able to realize many of his dreams for his family, his friends, and his career while a permanent resident within the U.S. Though he was never made a citizen, his life was a testament of gratitude to this country for the opportunities afforded him.
With greater opportunity, he worked more than most men I have ever seen. He worked at two different hospitals and opened his own clinic in Logan, West Virginia to help low income families. He often received little gifts like angel figurines (which he loved) or food as payment for the care he provided. He lived an extremely humble life, giving what he could and saving almost everything else to provide for his family if he should die and to afford his children a better education than he received.
In the United States, Dr. Long was granted many opportunities and he chose to use them for others. He worked for his family. He worked to save lives. He worked to help the poor. This was his patriotism. And though he never granted himself much time for leisurely pursuits, I believe that if he were standing here today, he would say that his life was well lived and for good purposes.
As, I looked through today’s readings earlier last week, I couldn’t help but find commonality with the memory of Dr. Long and the words found in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches. In this end portion of Paul’s letter, we see that he is advising these young faith communities on how they should focus their attention. Earlier in the letter, he reminds these churches that in Christ Jesus, they are free. Their acceptance into the family of God was not dependent on changing their cultural identity or following a law that was given to another people. Knowing Christ Jesus as the individuals we were created to be was enough to know God’s love, to accept the gift of salvation, and to honor the task of doing His will in the world.
Our reading today focuses more on the latter. Despite the freedoms they were granted at the time of their creation or the gifts and differences that lay within each human heart, Paul asks the churches in Galatia to order their lives in a certain way. He wants them to live by the law of Christ.
What this means can at times seem confusing, but Paul offers some insight with his words. When someone in their community commits a transgression, he tells them to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” and to “bear one another’s burdens.” He believes that faith in Christ allows individuals and communities to sow good within the world. As such, Paul says that Christians must “not grow weary in doing what is right,” for we are called to “work for the good of all.”
These powerful and compassionate words reflect the same nature as the sacrificial life Jesus embodied throughout his ministry on earth, even unto the cross. Paul wants his flock to do the same with their lives and their freedoms. Paul wants them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves. This is the task given to these churches in Galatia. This is the task given to all members of Christ’s body, the Christian faith. This is the task I think Dr. Long took part in to the best of his ability as he utilized the freedoms and opportunities given to him throughout his life and time within these United States.
Though, we are a nation that represents a very large spectrum of human expression and identity, some who belong to a faith tradition and some who do not, the message represented here in Paul’s words surpasses simple religion. His words on individual freedom and our duty to the welfare of others can be seen in the cultures of countless people regardless of their religion or manner of governance. One can easily cite hospitality customs to show this is true. Though they vary, they are always looking outward to the benefit of the other.
Yet, as Christians within this democratic nation, we must use this time of celebration not simply for our enjoyment, but for reflection and reorientation of our core values. We live in a land that grants us many freedoms, but to what end? We live alongside others who may differ in countless ways, so how is it that we stand united? Today’s culture bolsters the importance of individualism, consumerism, and personal entitlement, so wherein can we understand a sense of duty and honor? These questions or many of them have been asked from the time before our nation was formed. Many have offered different answers, none of which have seemed to bring the discussion to a close.
Still, it is my hope that offering some words on this matter will prosper our conversations and our actions with one another as a Christian people and a people living within this nation. So today, I leave you with a few words that I stumbled across when reading some of the personal letters that John Adams and Abigail Adams sent to one another as our nation was being built.
The portion of the letter I will share with you is written by John to his wife on Oct. 29, 1775 during a session of the Continental Congress.
Mr. Adams writes,
“My Opinion of the Duties of Religion and Morality, comprehends a very extensive Connection with society at large, and the great Interest of the public. Does not natural Morality, and much more Christian Benevolence, make it our indispensable Duty to lay ourselves out, to serve our fellow Creatures to the Utmost of our Power, in promoting…the Happiness of Multitudes. The Benevolence, Charity, Capacity and Industry which exerted in private Life, would make a family, a Parish or a Town Happy, (but) employed upon a larger Scale, in Support of the great Principles of Virtue and Freedom…might secure whole Nations and Generations from Misery, Want and Contempt.”
Though, these words may seem difficult to follow, I feel that they truly honor the sentiments we find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the life led by my father in law, Dr. Long, and the sacrifices made by those who helped form this nation.
As I understand them, I believe he is saying that freedom exists not simply for the wills of the individual, but to afford the individual the opportunity to use it for the betterment of another. With God’s help, may we also exercise our freedoms and our lives in this manner. Amen.