July 1, 2007 –
Post Presbyterian Church
Galatians 3: 26-29 and 5:1, 13-14
My twelve-year old son, Elliot, has already begun to ponder what his life will be like when he will go to college, be responsible for himself and finally be free to do what he wants. There are days when I offer to pack his bags and encourage him to leave the unfair confines of our home and family life and embrace here and now his God-given freedoms and inalienable rights highlighted in the Declaration of Independence.
In a sermon entitled, Freedom, Choices and Commitment, the Rev. Peter Gomes, pastor of the Harvard Memorial Church, said, “When I asked a freshman what she most liked about being away from home, she responded, ‘The freedom.’ I imagine she meant the freedom to go to bed as late as she pleases, to get up as late as she pleases, to eat what and when and where she wishes, to dress without comment or censor, to attend or not attend her classes, to blow her credit card with one blowout on food, clothing, or entertainment, to express her most outrageous and unfounded opinions, to discuss books she hasn’t read and to criticize people she hasn’t met.”
Freedom: we love the word, the concept, the sound. Freedom is one of the most sacred concepts in Western thought. We live for it, love for it, are prepared to kill for it, and are willing to die for it.” I have read (from the sermon entitled, “The Great Reversal: Free to be a Slave” by John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, July 1, 2001) that July 1, 1776, 231 years ago today, was a hot day in Philadelphia. To make matters worse, a storm struck, thunder, lightning, and pelting rain fell on the delegates to the Continental Congress that was meeting in the state house. In his best-seller biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes how Adams, not known as a great orator, rose to speak and described with great eloquence how the delegates “were in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world.” After Adams inspiring speech, the delegates debated for nine hours in the state house and then adjourned and talked late into the night at the City Tavern, where many of the delegates were lodging.
The delegates began again on the morning of July 2, at 9:00am. At 10:00, the storm returned outside and a vote was taken inside. No colony opposed the motion and the colonies had declared their independence. McCullough reflects: “It was John Adams, more than anyone, who made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to his beloved wife, he poured out his feelings.” Adams wrote this to Abigail:
“The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illumination from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
The delegates discussed the matter and refined the document for two more days. They argued over every word and voted for a final time on July 4th. McCullough said they all lined up and signed the Declaration of Independence and then sent it out for the world to hear. On Wednesday, July 4th, we will be celebrating the great anniversary festival of our freedom that John Adams had the insight to write about as it was all going down. John Adams also hoped that the birth of freedom would be commemorated in churches, and so today, I believe it is appropriate for us, as a people of faith in solemn acts of devotion to God, to reflect on the meaning of freedom in our lives.
Our scripture for this morning is a portion of a letter that Paul wrote to the Christian churches in Galatia which is now the country of Turkey. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. For all are one in Christ. For freedom, Christ has set us free….Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In a sermon entitled, “The Great Reversal---Free…To be a Slave”, the Rev. John Buchanan says that Paul’s understanding of freedom and becoming slaves to one another differs radically from our popular, modern understanding of freedom. Our culture defines freedom as autonomy, independence, and the right to do whatever you please. In a book called Who Are We?, University of Chicago sociologist, Jean Bethke Elshtain, worries that in our obsession with individual rights, our insistence on the right of the individual to do whatever he or she pleases, we are losing a sense of social covenant, a sense of obligation to our communities and our neighbors.
Those brave souls who signed the Declaration of Independence weren’t thinking about declaring their right to do whatever they pleased for their own self-realization and gratification. They were declaring independence in order to become a new nation, and perhaps more than anyone else in history, these delegates knew that freedom from external political coercion was freedom to serve the common good and that it was going to require serious sacrifice: people were going to die for it, and fight to defend it and work very hard to maintain it. David McCullough wrote, “What in another time and society might be taken as platitudes about public service, were to John and Abigail Adams a life-long creed.” These dedicated revolutionists knew that real freedom is the liberty to give oneself fully and generously to others.
John Buchanan said, “Real freedom is found in the act of serving another person, an institution, a cause other than yourself. Real freedom is discovering yourself by forgetting yourself for a change. Jesus turned a lot of things upside down. You can’t earn your way into the kingdom. God has already opened the door and invites us to stop groveling, to stand up and walk in. You can’t earn God’s love because God has already given it to you. All you can do is be grateful and try to live up to it. You can’t get in because you’re the right race, or gender, or economic class. It’s not a matter of ethnic group, income or even sexual orientation. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.’
“And so,” John Buchanan suggests, “We are not really free when we are doing exactly what we want to do. We are really free when we are voluntarily limiting our freedom by being a servant to others. A slave, Paul said, so we would not miss the point. Jesus said that if we want to find our lives, then we will find a way to give it away. The Good news is about grace and responsibility. Grace leads to freedom, which leads to love. And unless we get to the love and the being a servant, then we really haven’t known the grace. If our freedom simply allows us to make our selves our life’s project, then we’ve totally missed the point!”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one who understood very vividly that the cause of freedom is inextricably tied to servanthood, making life better for the common good and giving life away in order to have it. Addressing a crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church two months before his assassination, he said, “I would like somebody to mention on the day of my funeral that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life to serve others. I would like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say on that day that I tried to love and serve humanity…and that is all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a song, if I can show somebody they’re traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
Poet and author Maya Angelou, in her book entitled Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now, writes about the necessity of sharing who we are with others for the common good of all people. “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our actions, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift. Since time is the one immaterial object that we cannot influence—neither speed up nor slow down, add to nor diminish—it is an imponderably valuable gift. Each of us has a few minutes a day or a few hours a week, which we could donate to an old folk’s home or a children’s hospital. The elderly whose pillows we plump or whose water pitchers we fill or whose sad story we hear, may or may not thank us for our gift, but the gift is upholding the foundation of the universe. The children to whom we read simple stories may or may not show gratitude, but each such interaction with a child strengthens the pillars of the world.”
On this day when we celebrate our freedom, we are thankful for humble reminders that real freedom is the liberty to give ourselves fully and generously to others. As we remember the sacrifice and bravery of those first Americans, we are humbled by the knowledge that who we are and how we have been put together by the gifts, experiences, brokenness, and passions of our living is all we need to love and serve others and work together for the common good of all people.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Gracious and Loving God, we gather in this place on this Independence Day Sunday to worship You and to give special thanks for our country and for the brave delegates to the Continental Congress of July 1776 who declared a revolution and fought to establish a government where freedom was foundational. We are humbled by their sacrifices and by their understanding that real freedom is the liberty to give oneself fully and generously to others. We are thankful for reminders in our everyday lives of our human connectedness to all people and we pray for the ability to see that when we give of ourselves everyone benefits and in our transactions of compassion and kindness between others, our world is made more whole.
We pray on this day that You would be with our friends and loved ones who are experiencing illness, grief or depression. Help them and us to know that God uses our suffering to bring healing and new life to our scarred souls and that as we find ways to give life and love away, we become more free and more fully alive. May our worship on this day remind us this week of the things that truly nourish our souls and sustain our lives. In the name of the One who showed us how to live and to love, we pray, Our Father, who art in heaven….AMEN.