This past Tuesday, the whole country stopped to celebrate the Independence of our country that took place with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While for many, this particular holiday is celebrated in fine fashion with cookouts and fireworks, parades and baseball games, for me it has been a time to reflect on the circumstances that led to our declaring that we were Independent. Each year, I read and think about our founding fathers and mothers. Each year, I try to learn something new about that time and what was going on that led to the decisions of this noble treason.
I suppose it was my father’s love of history that instilled in me a similar passion. History is important because we are shaped by our history, in so many ways, even without knowing it. My own history is rooted in dissenters, people who made treasonous decisions that could have led to disaster for them and for their families.
Historical tradition of the Charlotte, Mecklenburg area of NC maintains that in May of 1775, like minded citizens of Mecklenburg County gathered in the home of Hezekiah Alexander to sign a treasonous document declaring their independence from England and the rule of King George III. The document itself was lost and not discovered until well into the 1800s so the proof of this event is sketchy. Many historians believe that the document was the Mecklenburg Resolves, which was put together as a protest against the laws of the crown and the cruelty that came to people as they were enforced and not really a Declaration of Independence at all.
No matter which document it was, the men who signed it had been meeting in secret for a long time, trying to decide what course of action they should take. They were bold and passionate about fairness and justice, at least when it came to their own interests. Even the tradition of this document, proven or unproven, means that people were talking about declaring independence from the crown at least a year before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence that we hold dear.
The signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence or the Mecklenburg Resolves were brave souls who knew they were taking a risk that could have led to death, but they signed anyway. Two of the names that appear on the document are James Harris and Zaccheus Wilson. Both of these men were my sixth great grandfathers.
So it is no wonder to me that as this time of the year rolls around, I reflect about what it means to be free and Independent. I find myself going back to those men and women who were alive and hardy during those difficult days of our history. Each year, I discover something that reminds me that they were humans, just like any of us and that sometimes they failed as we all do.
This year just before Independence Day, NBC news released a story about a discovery at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. The discovery was the living quarters of Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. As DNA testing improves it becomes apparent that this enslaved woman gave birth to several children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. The living quarters were found to be adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s personal rooms.
The summer I was six years old, my parents took our family to Monticello. It was the first time I had ever been to a museum or a large historic house. I was fascinated by everything that I saw—the inventions, the gardens, the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Although there was common knowledge of the enslaved people that lived and worked at Monticello, there was very little information offered that day that interpreted their lives. The information that Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman that gave birth to some of Jefferson’s children, would have been scandalous in 1967, as it is today, but not for the same reasons.
I have returned to Monticello numerous times over the years and each time there is more to see. A few years ago, Mulberry Row was opened to visitors. This section includes restored workshops and cabins where the enslaved people of Monticello lived. Their stories are told in great detail in this particular part of the tour. Already I am looking forward to the time when I can see the restored room of Sally Hemings and hear her story brought to life.
These exhibits that are added year by year show the great pains that have been taken to make certain that the whole Monticello story is told. These great pains are being taken to make certain that history does not cover up the fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all are created equal, did not practice that notion in his private life. For as important as Jefferson was to the founding of our country, he was not perfect. For all the wisdom that he possessed, he was not wise in all things.
As I have read the Gospel lectionary lesson for Sunday I have thought even more about Monticello and much more of our history where the flaws and the sins are covered up in order to justify what we have done and maybe are doing. Jesus is teaching the crowds and proclaiming that the people are missing the point of what God offers to us and expects of us—that life is about being in relationship with each other, treating each other with kindness and fairness, with justice and love, but we have failed.
Jesus indicates that there are constant hints and clues about how to live with each other and care for each other. The prophets were sent. John the Baptist was sent. And Jesus came and still the lesson has not been learned. There are still those who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. Jesus calls these folks to himself, saying that he will give them rest. Jesus says “take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”
For Jesus, it didn’t matter what caused these folks to be weary and bearing heavy burdens. It didn’t matter if the choices the people made put them in difficult situations or if the choices that others made put them in difficult situations, Jesus called them to him for rest. There were no conditions that they dress a certain way, believe a certain way, talk a certain way, Jesus was willing and is willing to offer peace and hope, rest and comfort.
This week as I have read this passage from Matthew, I can see Jesus standing on Mulberry Row at Monticello, with Jefferson and maybe other founding fathers and mothers. I can see him gather everyone together, the enslaved folks and those who enslave them. I can see Jesus looking at them, first firmly as he meets the eyes of Jefferson and others and reminds them that time and time again, we have all been taught that we are all equal in the sight of God, cherished and loved. I can imagine that Jesus gently reminds them that humanity has failed at this relationship thing miserably and that failure results in people who are hurt or damaged or put down or enslaved. I can imagine that Jesus looks at them firmly and tells them that it has to stop.
And then Jesus looks at those who are enslaved and offers them comfort and love, hope and renewal, rest and comfort. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give your rest.”
That scene with Jesus gathering folks together to teach and to remind us that we are all loved by God and that God wants us to be generous in our love as we care for each other is a scene that can be envisioned over and over again, because humanity has not learned this yet. There are so many groups that are weary and burdened and sometimes it is because we, the ones who follow Christ, forget that we are called to love, to put others’ needs before our own, to see humanity and each individual as God sees.
From reflecting on our Independence this past week, I am reminded that our founding fathers and mothers did not always get everything right. They did not always treat people as equals or with love, but they worked hard to develop a country where we can continue to grow in understanding of how we treat others. I hope that treating people, all people with dignity and respect, even if we don’t agree, will be important to us as Americans, that this wise characteristic can be a hallmark of who we are.
May Christ help us to look at ourselves and offer us forgiveness and grace for our sins and inspire us to love others as he taught us. It is not an ideal. It is the way we are supposed to follow Christ. It is the way of freedom.
To God alone be glory!