The Most Durable Power

Another treat for the anniversary of ‘I Have A Dream’. This is one of my favorite preachers, Rev. Tamara Lebak, Associate Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you only listen to one sermon today, make it Dr. King’s, but if you listen to two, make this the next one.

You Are Set Free


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.

Journeying on by Stages

Abram's Altar

It’s no secret that I’ve been part of several different varieties of Protestant church: Baptist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, Presbyterian…

All this time, I’ve been longing for a tradition, something bigger than my little self, of which I can be a part.  Each time I land somewhere new, I think I’ve found it, that is, the place where I will finally put down roots and stay forever.  And each time, I end up leaving after a few years.  I’m beginning to think my ecclesiology is not as strong as I once thought.

I tend to leave each tradition with a keen (and perhaps overdeveloped) sense of what is wrong with it.  My most severe criticism has been reserved for the one tradition that, during my youngest years, shaped me more than any other: the Baptists.

I graduated from a private Christian high school in the Bible belt that was run by a Baptist church (watch the film Saved! for an idea of my high school experience).  I got to see the very worst of the Baptist tradition there.  Theologically, they were the sweaty-brow, pulpit-pounding, Bible-beating, hellfire-and-damnation preachers for which the American south has become famous.  Their commitment to ignorance was the foundation of their stupidity.

At no time was their hypocrisy more apparent than during my senior year when the pastor of that church sexually assaulted a student and the church covered it up.  Meanwhile, that student’s mother (who happened to be a teacher at the school) was fired from her job.  Later that year, another student was expelled from school because she was caught drinking at a party.  The administration defended their actions, citing “discipleship” and not “evangelism” as the institution’s raison d’être.

After that experience, the one variety of church that I intentionally avoided was Baptist.  To me, they represented the very worst of dogmatic and legalistic Christianity that was devoid of any mysticism, relationality, or intellectual integrity.

More recently, as I’ve been exploring what it means to believe and live as a self-identified liberal Christian, I have been basking in the light of several authors whose lives and words have touched me deeply.  Specifically, I am referring to Howard Thurman, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These icons of liberal Protestantism have touched me deeply with their commitment to everything I thought was lacking in my experience of the Baptist tradition.

And then it hit me: these four men had one thing in common that had eluded my consciousness until now.  They were all Baptist ministers.

Delving a little more deeply, I discovered a whole new perspective on the Baptist tradition that I hadn’t noticed until now.  Apart from the die-hard fundamentalists among them, Baptists are (and have been for four hundred years) committed to the power of freedom.

Walter Shurden has articulated the Baptist commitment to freedom in terms of four central values (I have lifted the following summary from Wikipedia):

Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body

Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)

Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual

Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the “civil corollary” of religious freedom

Needless to say, this discovery has sparked a reconsideration of my theological roots, dare I say it, the tradition in which I was raised.  Upon further reflection and research, I came to another realization about my heritage:

Apart from the high school I attended, my experience of Baptist churches via the ones I attended as a child was an experience of very moderate to liberal Baptists.  My parents, who I would describe as moderate in most respects, brought us to two different Baptist churches during my youth: First Baptist Church of Melrose, Massachusetts and Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  First Baptist of Melrose is where I have my earliest memories of church.  Binkley Baptist is where I received my first Bible in the third grade.  Both of these churches are American Baptist, formerly known as Northern Baptist, a much more diverse and moderate denomination than its southern counterpart.  Binkley Baptist is also affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, a very liberal denomination that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980s.  That same church made waves decades ago by hiring an openly gay minister before it was popular, even among mainline Protestants.  Upon close re-examination, I would say that my perspective on my Baptist roots is shifting dramatically.

Having just completed my transition to the Presbyterian Church in the last twelve months, I’m not looking to make another switch.  However, if one were to ask me what I see God doing in my personal life right now, I would probably point to the way in which my relationship toward my Baptist heritage is being redeemed in my own memory.

For the last several years (before this process began in earnest), I’ve even had recurring dreams of returning to Binkley.  One involved making my way down a snowy path through the woods behind my childhood home and arriving at Binkley in order to talk with their pastor.  In another dream, I was worshiping in their sanctuary on a Sunday morning, but the internal arrangement of the church (pulpit, pews, etc.) was 180 degrees opposite to what it had been when I attended there.  Those are striking images, considering what I’ve been talking about here.  Could it be that this internal redemption of my denominational heritage was an unconscious work-in-progress for several ears?

All of this material came up in my mind yesterday during my personal devotions.  I was reading a passage from Genesis 12, where Abram is called away to an unknown land under divine guidance.  The voice said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  He had no idea of where he was going.  All Abram knew was that he would be blessed and would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

You would think that this would be the beginning of a long epic that ended years later with his arrival in the Promised Land.  However, such is not the case.  We read in the text that Abram arrived in the Canaan by the end of the next paragraph.  That seems rather anti-climactic and counter-intuitive to me.  Where was the author’s sense of story and adventure?  Odysseus took fourteen years to get where he was going, Abram took a paragraph.

But then I noticed something else: Abram’s journey did not end with his arrival in the Promised Land.  It was only beginning.  He continued to live as a nomad in Canaan, moving from place to place, “journeying on by stages,” as the text says.  And at each stage along the way, he set up an altar.  He acknowledged the sacredness of each patch of earth and gave thanks to the One who had called him in the beginning, guided him thus far, and promised to bless him until the end.

As it was with Abram, so I believe it is with me.  Perhaps I have been in the Promised Land all along, still living as a nomad, traveling from place to place and church to church.  Perhaps that sense of tradition and belonging for which I yearn has been with me the whole time.  Maybe it is only now, as I am being led to embrace the part of my heritage I have despised most, that I am finally able to see my real tradition.

I build an altar here, acknowledging the sacredness of this patch of earth called ‘Baptist’ and blessing the One who brought me to and through its territory.  I do likewise for the other theological provinces I have visited: Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, and Presbyterian.  I do not know where my journey will lead me from here, but I look forward to exploring the land that is being shown to me and experiencing the mutual interflow of blessing between myself and all the families of the earth.

Common Sense Liberalism

I had a fascinating exchange with an old college pal this week.  I mentioned in an email that I self-identify as a Liberal Christian.

My friend responded, “So, what is a ‘Liberal Christian’? When I hear that, it makes me think it’s a code word for ‘Christians who think they’ve figured out how to be pro-choice Democrats, and still be in-line with the Bible’… Seems like they all listened to U2 also…”

While I’m not a registered member of any political party and my views on abortion do not conform to either pro-life or pro-choice platforms, I had to laugh at myself over the U2 comment.  They just so happen to be my favorite band… I guess some stereotypes are true!

After that, I proceeded to this gentle-but-long-winded long-breezed history lecture on 20th century Christians and biblical interpretation.  Unwittingly, I fell right into the two habits that most annoy me about Liberal Christianity: Negativity and Elitism.


Have you ever noticed that we Liberal Christians spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe?  We don’t accept Young Earth Creationism.  We don’t think the Bible is inerrant.  We don’t believe eternal life depends on accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  We read books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (both of which happen to be good books, by the way).


Along with our tendency to accentuate the negative, it’s also pretty obvious that our churches tend to be populated with college-educated, upper middle-class white folks.  We Liberal Christians pride ourselves on being better educated, informed, and enlightened than our Evangelical counterparts.  Just as some Evangelicals tend to hide behind walls of biblical literalism, Liberals tend to hide behind walls of intellectual superiority.  Even though none of us would put it this way, we consider ourselves to be the “one true church” because we have risen above the naïve superstitions of Catholics and Evangelicals.  Despite our claims to open-minded pluralism and tough-minded skepticism, we still claim to be the sole possessors of the “real truth” about Christianity.  Despite our lip-service to diversity, our churches tend to be pretty monochromatic.  Despite our passion for social justice, I once heard someone say about us, “They’ll bake a casserole for every cause but they won’t go to jail for any cause.”  Is this really the legacy left by the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, and Martin Luther King?

In response to these tendencies toward Negativity and Elitism, I’d like to see us develop an Affirmative and Common Sense Liberalism.

 Affirmative Liberalism

What do we believe as Liberal Christians?

First of all, we believe in freedom.  That’s what the word liberal means, after all.  We are free to make full use of our minds and hearts as we grow in our faith.  We are free to disagree.  There should be no litmus test of doctrine among us.  Sadly, this is not always the case in practice.  There are just as many mean-spirited Liberals as there are Bible-thumping Fundamentalists.  I once witnessed an Evangelical ministry candidate in my own denomination being publicly mocked in front of her colleagues by a Liberal pastor who asked whether she thought the Second Coming might involve Jesus returning to Earth “in a rocket ship.”  If I am free to question traditional doctrine, others should be free to accept it.  We should rejoice with those whose lives are changed, for example, by a charismatic “born again” experience.  We have every reason to believe that they have truly encountered the Spirit of the Living God.  The difference is that we also believe the same for Gandhi, Buddha, and anyone who has ever scored free swag from the Oprah Winfrey Show.  The mark of a truly Christian Liberalism is when we leave room for those who would not leave room for us.  Personally, I’m still working on that.

Second, Liberal Christians believe in graceWe are all created, connected, redeemed, and sustained by the absolutely unconditional love of God.  No one is exempt from this Good News, regardless of time, place, religion, or sexual orientation.  We are all equally God’s children.  Full stop.  There is no moral standard upon which God’s ultimate approval is based.  This does not mean, however, that there are no moral standards.  We believe in the fair and equal establishment of liberty and justice for all.  It is sometimes necessary to act decisively in correcting behaviors, protecting the innocent, or redressing grievances, but this does not involve a final condemnation or an ultimate devaluing of the whole person.  Human parents must enact discipline in order to shape a child’s character, but eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s purposes as a loving parent.  What could make you subject your child to eternal torture without relief?  No one is irredeemable.  In short, everybody gets into heaven (if there is such a place).  Alas, Liberal Christians have often failed on this front as well.  One friend of a friend commented that, after leaving her rather Conservative Mennonite church for the United Church of Canada (a prominent Liberal denomination in the Great White North), she was disappointed to find just as much hard-nosed legalism among Liberal Christians.  The difference, she noted, was that Liberal Christians made her feel guilty about recycling rather than masturbation.  Whenever we are overwhelmed by either unfounded humanistic optimism or righteous indignation, we Liberal Christians should remember to keep this song in our hearts: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”

Common Sense Liberalism

Watching certain candidates on the presidential campaign trail has reminded me how many people respond to folksy wisdom more than actual data.  Conservatives seem to have cornered the market on common sense while Liberals cite academic facts and theories.  I refuse to accept the necessity of this arrangement.  We too can make pithy bumper stickers.  We too can appeal to those beliefs and values that lie deep within the human heart and lead us toward a better world.  We too can quote the Bible to support what we have to say.  I’ll even do it in the good old King James Version:

  • “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” – 1 John 4:16
  • “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12
  • “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18

Liberal Christians believe that God loves everyone.  We believe that all people are created equal in one human family.  We believe in fairness.  We believe in freedom.  We believe that God is a mystery so big that no one can fully understand.  We believe in grace.  We believe in justice.  We believe that diversity makes us stronger.

The term Liberal has become a dirty word in recent years.  It is used in the halls of Congress and churches to accuse, demean, and degrade.  I want to reclaim the term Liberal, especially as it applies to Christian faith.  There are no doubt others who will question my intellectual and moral integrity.  That’s fine.  They can do that.  I’ll try not to argue back.  This is just me trying to figure out what I believe and where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  I am a Liberal Christian.

“Here I stand.  I can do no other.” – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms