July 7, 2019

When Rights are Wrong
Galatians 5:13-15

Last Thursday, we celebrated Independence Day. It’s always a special day for me because I am proud to be an American; and I hold in highest esteem those men and women who gave, and still give, their lives to procure, protect, and preserve our precious rights.

Not too long ago, a group of elementary children were asked what they liked about America. Here were some of their responses:

Jackie, age 9 – “We’ve got more stuff and things in America than anywhere else in the world. We have pizza and it don’t grow any other place on earth except maybe Italy.”

Heather, age 5 – “Everybody wants to live in America because we own the moon. The President bought the moon from God for a million dollars and I saw him send spacemen up on TV.”

Shawn, age 9 – “America is great because we have the most plumbers in the world. That’s because we’ve got more tubs. I want to be a plumber like my uncle ‘cause he’s real rich.”

And finally, Elliott, age 6 – “I think America is best because we’ve got a bunch of rights and all them other countries have a bunch of wrongs.”

Well, I don’t know about the accuracy of Elliott’s observation, but I do know this. America does have a bunch of rights and I’m thankful for those rights, especially those rights that protect my freedom of religion, speech and conscience. But while our rights contribute to America’s greatness; sometimes I’m afraid our national preoccupation with rights may contribute to many of our problems.

Sometimes I think Americans have become “rights crazy.” Our courts are literally bursting at the seams with people suing each other over the violation of some perceived right.

Not too long ago I heard about a woman who was trying to sue a casino in Las Vegas, alleging the casino had unduly influenced her to gamble all her money away. She claimed the casino had violated her personal rights.

Come on. Suing a Vegas casino for making you gamble is about like suing McDonald’s for making you eat French Fries. And so it goes, in one court after another, Americans push our legal system to its limits, advocating for personal rights.

This morning, as we think about our rights, I want us to examine a text from Galatians 5, a text that talks about exercising our God-given rights.

Before I read today’s text, let me remind you of the background of The Book of Galatians. The church at Galatia was, for the most part, made up of Gentile Christians. These Gentiles had received Christ when the Apostle Paul visited them and preached the gospel. Afterward, Paul stayed in Galatia about two years to establish and nourish these young Gentile Christians.

Unfortunately, when Paul left Galatia, Jewish leaders from Jerusalem came and told these new Galatian Christians that they were not real Christians nor did they have the rights of real Christians. According to these Jewish leaders, the Galatians could not become complete Christians until they first became Jews, which meant submitting to a myriad of Jewish customs such as circumcision.

To combat this heresy, Paul writes a letter to the Galatians, telling them that in Jesus they are free and have the same rights as their Jewish brothers and sisters. But at the end of his letter, Paul offers a warning to the Galatians about abusing their spiritual rights. He tells the Galatians that they should never exercise their freedom for selfish purposes. Listen to our text from Galatians 5:13-15

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

As I stated at the beginning of this sermon, I love my country. I love living in a land that extends so much freedom, but as I live in this land of freedom, I’m haunted by this question. “If Jesus was an American would he advocate for his personal rights?”

It might surprise you to discover that Jesus was never an advocate for his own personal rights. In fact, the opposite was true. Jesus talked more about giving up rights than pursing them. Never once do we find Jesus saying, “Go out there and claim your rights.” Instead, Jesus tells us to relinquish our own rights because of our love for others.

If Jesus was an advocate for rights, it was always the rights of others, particularly the rights of those who were poor, despised and disenfranchised. Jesus was an advocate for the rights of women, for the rights of foreigners, and for the rights of those considered unclean, but when his own rights were challenged and he faced illegal crucifixion, Jesus remained silent so he could reveal the Love of God.

Think about Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Over and over again he talks about giving up what is rightfully ours so that others might know God’s love.

Jesus told his followers, “You have the right to go back home when you’ve carried a soldier’s load for a mile. But forget your right and carry it the second mile so the soldier may know God’s love.”

Jesus said if man takes your coat, don’t sue him to get it back. Instead, give him you shirt as well so that he might understand God’s love.

Jesus talks about someone who slaps you on the cheek. Obviously, you have the right to slap back or at least defend yourself. But what does Jesus say? Give up your right and turn the other cheek so that the person may know God’s love.

Do you see what I mean? While we Americans tend to fight for our personal rights, Jesus advocated setting aside our personal rights so we could help others understand God’s love.
Listen again to today’s text. Paul writes,

. . . do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. . .

Serve one another in love, even if it means giving up your rights. Yes, as Christians we are free. As Americans we are free, but Jesus tells us not to indulge in our freedom. Instead, Jesus tells us to give up our freedom so others will understand the love of God.

Obviously, Chris Carrier of Coral Gables, Florida had Jesus in mind when he gave up his rights for the sake of David McAllister.

When Chris was 10 years old, McAllister kidnapped him and ultimately left him in the Everglades to die. Miraculously, Chris survived; but for twenty years the case remained unsolved.

When David McAllister was 77 years old he became very ill and was moved to a nursing home in North Miami Beach. Realizing he would soon die, he confessed to the crime, wanting to clear his conscience. When Chris Carrier was informed of the confession, he immediately asked to visit the man.

According to law, Chris had the right to sue this man for everything he owned, but Chris was an ardent follower of Christ and instead of exercising his legal rights, Chris took another course of action. When he visited the man who had abused him and left him for dead, Chris offered forgiveness.

But that was not the end of it. Chris continued to visit the man in the nursing home on a regular basis. Each time he visited, he read the Bible to McAllister and prayed with him. Shortly before McAllister died he gave his heart to Christ.

Did Chris have rights? Of course he did, but like Jesus, Chris gave up his personal rights to reveal the love of God. Instead of exercising his American rights, Chris exercised his Kingdom rights, rights that are always more anxious to do what is best for others than what is best for self.

So what does all this have to say about America? Should we just ignore the rights for which our forefathers died? No, I don’t think so. As our Declaration of Independence says, human rights are endowed to us by our Creator. Those rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are at the very heart of God. So don’t leave here today thinking I’m against American rights. For me those rights are precious.

But what I am saying is this. My first loyalty is not to America. It’s to the Kingdom of God, and as a citizen of the God’s Kingdom I am called to a higher understanding of personal rights. I am called by Christ, not to seek rights for myself, but to seek them for others. I am called to seek them for the disenfranchised person of color. I am called to seek them for those to whom justice has not been served. I am called to seek them for the desperate immigrants who throng our borders and for those who call Grainger County their home. I am called to seek them for all who cannot seek them for themselves. Yes, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m called set aside to my rights so I can demonstrate the gracious love of God.

Listen again to the words of our text. They are words every American Christian needs to hear. You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful (selfish) nature; rather, serve one another in love.

“Serve One Another.” It’s not just our right. It’s our God-given responsibility. So, exercise your rights, not simply to advocate for self, but to advocate for others. For when we seek our rights for selfish gain, our rights become wrongs in the Kingdom of God.