“Free for What?”
June 7, 2020
My Chimes letter indicated that I would expand on the topic of freedom in today’s sermon. Under normal circumstances it might make more sense to do so around July 4th weekend but current events have conspired to make it most relevant right now.
And yet still, I’ll ask you to turn the calendar forward those four weeks with me and imagine that it is July 4th for a moment. When you think about the flags unfurled on front porches and in roadway medians; when you picture parades of men, women and children riding in radio flyer wagons; when you recall the speeches, the steady thump of patriotic songs and of course the late-night flare of fireworks – what is it all for?
On some level it’s an annual exercise in “group identity-formation.” Every year we practice these rituals because they shape who we are as citizens of these United States of America; the holders and defenders of a sacred set of values.
If you wish to be a cohesive group, forming a common identity is key – but it takes work, it takes memory, and it takes repetition.
Identity formation typically includes a canon of quotes – perhaps from the historical heroes of that group, the founding fathers and mothers. The ones who articulate that identity best.
So let’s play with that a bit and test our own grounding in this national identity we share.
I’m going to start a quote and ask you to finish it out loud wherever you are.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are –
(Congregation fills in the words)
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence
In my younger years I remember saying these words at the start of the school day:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands – (Congregation fills in the words)
one nation, (under God), indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Let’s not forget Patrick Henry who perhaps articulated these values most directly when he said:
“Give me Liberty or –
give me death”
Now I can’t hear you where you are but I wager that more than a few of you could rattle off those quotes quite easily. All of which indicates a well-formed collective identity.
Freedom, Liberty, Equality and Justice for all. Those are the values we reinforce over and over again.
Where it gets complicated, however, is that even if you name the same values and hold them with the same passion, it does not mean you understand them in the same way.
Take Freedom for instance. How do we define freedom? The USA certainly has not been the first to try.
Paul had a word to say about freedom centuries before the Founding Fathers powdered their wigs…this is what he writes in his letter to the Galatians:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Paul is really good at lifting up paradoxes.
On the one hand – “Christ has set us free, do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
On the other hands he says “Do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but make yourself slaves to one another.”
Do not become a slave.
Become slaves to one another.
Which one is it, Paul?
He wasn’t the only one thinking and writing about freedom back then.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (Eh-peek-tuh-tos) said that “Freedom is the right to live as we wish. The one who is free is the one…whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end.” A former slave himself, Epictetus wrote and articulated his thoughts on freedom in the first century as well, making him a contemporary of the Apostle Paul. Even then there were two thinkers living in the same time who articulated freedom so very differently.
Epictetus. Freedom is doing what you want. Versus Paul. Freedom is making yourself a slave to one another out of love.
Do you hear the tension? I imagine Paul might push back against Epictetus and say that his kind of freedom is the very self-indulgence he warns against.
But here’s what I think – if life consists of nothing more than pursuing what I want, when I want it, with little concern for anyone else – If freedom places me, myself and I squarely in the center of the universe – it might be gratifying for a minute, but eventually living like that will make me very lonely.
I think what Paul wants us to understand is that freedom is not for the individual at all…it’s for the community.
Think about the prepositions we use after the word freedom. I think they matter:
Our national understanding of freedom most often invokes the preposition “of.” We have “the freedom of…”
The Bill of Rights guarantees these freedoms for every individual.
We also can speak of “freedom from…” Tyranny, Oppression.
That’s all over the Declaration of Independence
Now there are times when we need the freedom of
And there are undoubtedly times when we need freedom from –
But Paul wants us to understand that freedom in Christ is freedom for – for somebody else, anybody else. It’s a freedom that moves us towards the beloved community, where every single person has value.
These past weeks have been dominated by protests. At first it was folks agitating to re-open businesses, public spaces, churches. And sure enough – I saw folks brandishing their signs replete with those slogans we know so well – the “freedom of” and the “freedom from” slogans.
And now there are very different protests happening because George Floyd died under the knee of an officer of the law, saying over and over again “I can’t breathe.”
Think what you want about these different protests happening throughout our land. For my part, I don’t think it’s time to re-open our churches. That’s not how we love and serve one another right now. AND something did compel me and my nearly nine year old daughter to show up across the street at McCorkle place with our masks on to say that black lives do matter.
And I get it – that may seem inconsistent. That may seem like a contradiction. But for me they both grow out of the same Gospel value.
We are freed, not so that we can do what we want when we want to do it, but so that we might become servants to our brothers and sisters who have never known freedom before.
At the National Cathedral in Washington DC, there are flags flying inside, one from each of these united states. When the Cathedral was dedicated in 1933, the States were asked to dedicate their flag in memory of a significant citizen. The State of Georgia could have chosen Woodrow Wilson. A few decades later and they may have chosen Martin Luther King, Jr. But in 1933 they dedicated that flag to Robert Alston. It would not surprise me if you’re wondering “Who’s Robert Alston?”
He was a member of the Georgia Legislature following the Civil War, and he was disgusted by the corruption of that body, particularly by the prisoner lease program. Businesses and families could use state prisoners to work on their mansions, or to build their commercial buildings, or to farm their plantations. You didn’t have to pay them, you didn’t have to house them or insure them…all you had to do was provide lunch. And what’s worse, most of these “criminals” were former slaves, persons of color, serving sentences on fabricated charges. Alston said, “This is worse than slavery,” so he announced, “Tomorrow I will introduce a bill into the legislature to make this practice against the law.” The next morning he came in with his bill. A fellow legislator from one of the wealthy families…came over to him and said, “Mr. Alston, are you going to introduce your bill today?” Alston replied, “Yes, I am.” The man reached inside his coat, pulled out a Derringer, and shot Robert Alston down.
I don’t share this story to perpetuate the myth of the righteous white man turned hero. I share it because it illustrates something that I think Paul is trying to help us understand.
That for Christians, freedom carries with responsibility. It compels you to stick your neck out for those who are not free. It is a wonderful paradox, but Christian freedom is becoming a slave for somebody else…because as followers of Christ our group identity is rooted in humble and sacrificial love.
We may have to repeat it and ritualize it seven ways ‘til Sunday until it truly sinks down into our bones. But that is what we do – every time we lift bread and cup, saying “This is my body given for you. This is my blood poured out for you.”
Every time we pour water in the font and say “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Every time we confess our brokenness and hear “In Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”
Every time we open the scriptures and find the words of our Savior:
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
“I will be with you unto the end of the age.”
“Love one another, as I have loved you.”
 Gratitude to Tom Are for this insight, from a sermon entitled “It’s My Life, Right?” dated September 30, 2012
 Craddock, “Why the Cross?” p. 81-82.