(a sermon for July 4, 2021, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost and Independence Day, based on Galatians 5:1, 13-25)
It’s a familiar refrain that most of us have known how to sing from the time we were children: “My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing: Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim’s pride, From every mountain side, Let freedom ring.”
Let freedom ring: the words alone have a way of stirring even the most hardened of hearts. But what is this thing we call freedom? The truth is that the word carries a multitude of meanings, in many ways unique to each one who hears it. Certainly, the patriotic songs that we sing in honor of Independence Day define freedom in terms of the blessings of liberty – the freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of religion, and so on; the very embodiment of the motto of the Granite State, “Live Free or Die” – freedoms that have been fought for and defended in nearly every generation.
However, if you were to ask a teenager about freedom, you’d be apt to hear a different description; no doubt you’d hear about being free from the rules of parent, teacher and all manner of adult; to go wherever they want to go and do whatever they want to do. Likewise, there are many “adults,” and I use the term loosely, who live their entire lives unto the idea that “Live Free or Die” means no rules, no commitments and no regrets; just living for the moment, whatever sounds good right now.
On the other hand, ask anyone who has escaped the bondage of addiction what freedom means, and they might tell you it means the ability to stand up and walk proudly, released from the grip of that which completely and tragically controlled their lives. Or think of those in our midst who continue in the struggle for equality and justice. For people in the midst of such struggles, freedom is simply the right to be who they are, without persecution, in safety and with full dignity and respect; or, if you will, with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It does seem that so often when we talk about freedom we speak in terms of freedom from something: freedom from poverty and want, freedom from persecution and oppression, even the freedom from being prohibited from doing what we want to do! And so, it was interesting to me to find this definition of freedom in, of all places, the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. There it says that “freedom is the capacity for deliberating and choosing among desired courses of action, and pursuing the preferred course without restraint.”
Now that’s different! “The capacity for deliberating?” Choosing a course of action? Pursuing it without restraint? That sounds more like a job description than it does a declaration of independence! Rather than speaking of being freed from something, this definition would seem to suggest that we are freed to something: freed to make choices that involve commitment, being disciplined about fulfilling that commitment, and, dare I say, accepting a dependence upon something or someone other than you! Actually, it brings to mind a little free verse poem – for Good Friday, no less – that I first read nearly 40 years ago and has stuck with me ever sense: “You are free… FREE! …free to be shackled any way you wish.”
Actually, there’s a Biblical precedent to what we’re talking about here, and it can be found in the reading we just shared this morning: that indeed, it is “for freedom that Christ has set us free… for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love becomes slaves to one another.”
It turns out that true freedom, that is, the freedom that comes to us in Christ Jesus, is not quite the same as how we traditionally perceive it. As Paul describes it in Galatians, Christian freedom is about living by the Spirit and loving others; it’s not so much a matter of being released from restraint and rule, but rather a matter of relationship, of devoting ourselves wholly first to a relationship with God, and then to providing for the care and nurture of others, even to the point of becoming as a servant… a servant bound by love.
It may seem like a contradiction, but in fact, it happens all the time when love is involved. Over the years I’ve come to know a great many men and women – some in this very church family – people who have “given up” a great deal of their own personal freedoms in their acceptance of the role of caregiver for an elderly relative or friend, or for someone in their family who’s facing a debilitating or life-threatening illness. They fix meals, they change bedpans and clean up messes, they face night after sleepless night sitting up, staying close, and doing everything that needs to be done. They go to the doctor’s office and the nursing homes and fight like fury for the best of care and resources; and often, they’re the ones making the tough decisions that no one else can.
These are people whose entire lives have become adjusted and focused almost wholly around the care of others. And make no mistake: it can be a hard life! And yet, when you ask them why they do it and what sees them through, one way or the other they’ll tell you it’s about love; it’s always about love! Love, you see, frees you to be bound.
All too often in this culture freedom is defined as the space and the permission to be, in the words of William Willimon, “utterly consumed by self-concern,” in which the rule of the day is that “anything goes,” and so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, it must be OK. And it was no different in Paul’s day: you’ll notice that a large part of our reading today was a firm admonition against, shall we say, the temptations of a free society: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, and on and on. But here Paul reminds the Galatians and us that we are called to another way of life. That we are free, yes, but always remember that we are freed from ourselves by the love of Christ, so that we might be bound to others with the same kind of love: “For freedom,” Paul says, “Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Instead, become servants who serve one another in love!
Central to the Christian life is Jesus’ call to discipleship. And each one of us in this room is being called – challenged, really – to embrace a discipleship that calls us to freedom: the freedom to delight not in the passing thrills of the moment, but rather to the good things that the Lord does in our midst. This is the freedom to love, with abandon and with joy, placing ourselves at the service of others; it’s the freedom to become lovers of life and all that is beautiful, true and good; to nurture and cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Yes, we are free, beloved; butthe question for you and me is, what are we freed to? After all, “it is for freedom Christ has set us free,” each of us needs to choose how we will use the precious gift of that freedom. After all, we are free to do what we want, spiritually and otherwise. And yet, I think you’ll agree that when we choose wisely, not only does that make all the difference for us in these days of confused situations, but it’s also what can change a nation and the world for the better.
I have to say that of all the wonderful patriotic hymns, my absolute favorite has to be “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” or, as it is also known, “America the Beautiful.” And my favorite rendition of this song, without a doubt, is the version by the late Ray Charles. Not only does that recording have soul in overflowing abundance and a true gospel feeling (!), but I love the story behind it: you see, Ray Charles released “America the Beautiful” in 1972 on an album entitled “Message from the People,” and it was recorded during a time when, interestingly enough, this country was filled with civil unrest, in particular regarding the still on-going war in Vietnam, but also having to do with politics and racial strife.
Those who came of age in the late sixties and early seventies will remember those being tumultuous times, and in terms of pop culture and top 40 radio, it didn’t seem like a great time for flag-waving; but Ray Charles thought differently. In fact, he wanted to pay tribute to those who stood strong in the struggle for freedom with hope, courage and faith. So when he went into the studio to record “America the Beautiful,” he began it with the third verse, based on a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates back in the 19th century; and for me, it’s the verse that says it all:
It’s no wonder that this song enjoyed such resurgence in popularity in the days following 9/11, and continues to get played on the radio every 4th of July. It’s because the message is clear and just as important now as it was back in 2001, 1972 or, for that matter, 1893 (!): we are free, friends, but it’s only when we are free to love mercy more than life, free to be bound in love to a neighbor, a friend, a stranger; or, for that matter, our nation and hurting world; only then do we become true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Actually, the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, who is Senior Pastor at the American International Church in London, England has expressed this very well when she writes that what we really have (or ought to have) in this country and through our faith is a “Declaration of Interdependence” that unites us with one another. “Freedom comes,” she says, “when we build relationships of love, and we are free from loneliness and isolation.
Freedom comes when we build networks of care, and we are free from worry about our safety. Freedom comes when we share our resources, and we are free from fear of hunger or homelessness or want. Freedom comes when we work together to make peace, and we are free from violence and war. Freedom comes when we cultivate loving relationships, and we are free to be ourselves and know we are loved. Freedom comes when we give ourselves completely to God, and we are free from anxiety about our future.
Freedom comes when we live in love, and you and me and all the children of the earth dwell in the loving arms of the Holy One.”
That’s freedom, beloved, true freedom… so what else is there left to say on this 4th of July except…
…let freedom ring! Let freedom ring!
And may we be blessed in our ministries of love, letting our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.