My final sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY:
I would like to say a few words this morning on the subject of freedom. Specifically, I would like to talk about where freedom comes from and what freedom is for.
A discussion on the subject of freedom is particularly apropos this week as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963. Dr. King’s words represent a great moment in the history of freedom and I will have more to say on them in a moment.
For my biblical text this morning, I will take our reading from chapter 13 of the gospel according to Luke. This also is a noteworthy text on the subject of freedom. It begins with the story of a woman who attended a synagogue where Jesus was preaching. They tell us she was afflicted by “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
Let me ask you this morning: how many people do you know who are crippled in spirit? How many are “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up straight” in our churches and on our streets?
Let me tell you something: when I hear that women in this country still make only 81 cents for every dollar made by a man, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I read that there are more African American men in jail than there are in college, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I see 20% of the population controlling 80% of the resources, wallowing in luxury while millions starve, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I talk to Americans with foreign-born spouses who long to return home to their country but can’t because the federal government refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a marriage between two partners of the same gender, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
This is the reality we live in. And it is certainly crippling to the human spirit. Skeptics and cynics believe that there is nothing to be done, that you can’t fight city hall, and these problems are just too big to solve. But there is another reality that we all live in. As the apostle Paul says, there is a God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being.” Jesus has something else to say to those who are crippled in spirit, bent over, and quite unable to stand up.
The Bible tells us what Jesus did. First, it says that “he saw her”. Jesus looked at this woman with all the compassion that heaven could muster; he looked at her with a love that knew her name and counted the hairs on her head. How many times do we just let those statistics just wash over us? How often do we look the other way or change the channel on those of God’s children who are bent over and quite unable to stand up straight? We don’t see them, but God does. And the Bible tells us that the first thing Jesus did for this woman was see her, really see her, as she was.
Next, the text says that he “called her over”. Not only did he know her name, he spoke it. He singled her out and drew her close to himself. He took this no-account, poor, sick woman and brought her to the center of the life of the religious community, the synagogue in which he was preaching. Jesus interrupted his own sermon to call and empower the least likely and most forgotten member of their church. The one who sat in the back, trying not to be noticed, found herself suddenly placed at the center of what God was doing in the life of her community. That’s how God works: taking the people in the margins and placing them in the middle.
Finally, Jesus said to her, “Ma’am, you are set free from your ailment.” And there’s that word again: Freedom. Isn’t Jesus’ choice of words here interesting? He doesn’t say “You are healed of your sickness.” No, he says, “You are set free from your ailment.” There is something freeing, even liberating about what Jesus is doing in this person’s life. Somehow, it’s not just about recovery from a medical condition, it’s about freedom.
There is a great deal about freedom we can learn from this passage. In fact, I think we have to. In this age when terms like faith, family, and freedom are tossed around as political buzzwords on the campaign trail, we owe to ourselves as voters and critical thinkers to know what these words really mean, especially the word freedom.
So first, I want to look at where it is that freedom comes from. It seems that those who hold public office in this country would have the people believe that freedom is a commodity to be regulated and doled out by our leaders as they see fit. They anoint themselves as champions and defenders of freedom in times of crisis. They tell us that freedom comes from the barrel of a gun or the platform of a party. Some would even have us believe that our rights and freedoms ultimately come from the Constitution, but this is not so.
The truth is that Americans do not revere the Constitution because it creates freedom, but we respect it because it recognizes freedom. In point of fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who identified for us the true source of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote. Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson is quite clear about the source of our rights and our freedom. He does not say that “we are endowed by our government”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our military strength”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our Constitution”. He says that “we are endowed by our Creator” with the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is where freedom comes from. Freedom comes from God. Any system of government is at its best when it recognizes said freedom and holds it in high esteem. Any claim to the contrary amounts to a totalitarian usurpation of the throne of God, which is blasphemy.
This is the truth that emperors and despots the world over have failed to realize throughout history from Pharaoh to Caesar, from Napoleon to Nebuchadnezzar, from Stalin to Hitler, from the Confederacy to Governor George Wallace, and from Monsanto to Halliburton: that freedom is the gift of God to all the world. We disregard it to our own peril.
Jesus distributed this gift liberally in his encounter with the bent-over woman. When he calls her to the center of the church, he does not play 20 Questions, he does not ask her anything about her theology or her morality, he does not check her criminal record or her charitable donation history with the synagogue, he does not require her to take a literacy test or present a government-issued photo ID. No, he simply lays his hand on her and proclaims with the authority of God alone, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Now, it seems that some folks in the church didn’t like that very much. One of the leaders of the synagogue was indignant with Jesus. That happens a lot, by the way: whenever Jesus shows up in church, the preachers and the elders get real uncomfortable (probably because they never know what he’s going to do). So, they decided real quick that they needed to shut this thing down. The leader stepped in, saying something about the church bylaws and biblical precedent, but Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Jesus set him straight pretty quick. You can’t stop the Spirit, once God gets moving; all you can do is hop on board or get out of the way. That’s how it is with Jesus: he gives God’s free gift of freedom for all, uninhibited by the religious or social institutions of the day, because freedom comes from God and God gives freely.
You don’t get freedom from bullets or ballots. Freedom cannot be legislated. Freedom is. Those among us who are truly free know that they are free whether the government chooses to recognize their freedom or not. That’s the strength that led Christians to continue gathering for worship in communist Russia, even though churches were outlawed and the practice of religion was forbidden. That’s the faith that led Martin Luther King into jail where he sang hymns of praise to God like Peter and Paul in the New Testament book of Acts. These people were all free, living in the freedom that God gives, regardless of the government’s recognition of their freedom.
So, that’s enough about where freedom comes from.
Let’s talk a little bit about what freedom is for. We can see this in the gospel story too. After Jesus had seen the woman, called her over, and proclaimed her God-given freedom, the text says “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” So you see, she wasn’t just set free from something, she was set free for something.
This is probably the most ignored aspect of the gift of freedom in this country. We selfish folks tend to think of ultimate freedom as the freedom to be left alone while we do whatever we want, but that’s not what God has in mind. God’s will is not that we should be set free from tyranny and oppression in order to be left alone; God’s will is that we should be set free in order to be together. When we are no longer weighed down by the burdens of guilt, fear, injustice, and suffering, we are finally free to love our neighbors as ourselves as we see the image of God in them and they see it in us.
We are freed for love. Love is the inner law that binds us to one another with chains of affection. There is no threat of punishment that keeps us in line with the law of love. It works by persuasion, so that love’s fruit is genuine and free.
In a world so full of injustice and un-freedom, where our brothers and sisters, God’s children, are bound, bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight, we are commanded to love them and work with them until all have obtained God’s promised freedom in equal measure. This is the gospel. This is good news in action. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free. We are free to love, free to be loved, and free to live together as God’s beloved children on God’s green earth.