It’s a familiar refrain that most of us have known how to sing from the time we were children – it was, in fact, one of the first songs I learned in my first grade music class: “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; about the value of a drivers’ license 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 – 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, justice and peace. 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 seems that most times when we talk about freedom we speak in terms of freedom from something – from poverty and want, 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 30 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 about restraint and rule, but rather about relationship – about 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 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.
You know these people – some of you are this people – 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, how they keep going and what sees them through, one way or the other they’ll tell you the same thing: that it’s 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 instead 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 – but the question for us 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. A few years back Garrison Keillor, the writer and host of “Prairie Home Companion” did this public service ad on the radio for volunteerism; and I always loved the tack that he took on this issue: he said that nobody says you have to love someone else; you are not required by law or anyway else to do one single thing for any other person. And yet, Keillor concludes, many people do; think what more could be done if you and I would join in.
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 (!), but I love the story behind it – you see, Ray Charles recorded “America the Beautiful” in the late sixties, during a time when this country was filled with civil unrest, not only regarding the war in Vietnam, but also regarding racial strife. By the summer of 1968, the country was reeling from the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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 what is the second verse in our hymnal, written by Katherine Lee Bates back in the 19th century – and for me, it’s the verse that says it all:
“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.”
It’s no wonder that this song enjoyed 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: 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.
So let freedom ring, indeed. Let freedom ring!
And may we be blessed in our ministries of love, letting our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry