You Are Set Free

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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.

Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.  Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases.  Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater.  I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).

Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.

In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives.  For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth.  For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.

In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.

As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals.  They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation.  They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God.  Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God.  They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page.  Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward).  They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship.  In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity.  They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity.  There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.

Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility.  For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error.  Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God?  I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):

We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking.  Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page.  For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God.  The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word.  In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant.  The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia.  These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.

In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends.  Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about.  We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all.  In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t.  My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson.  He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out.  These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics.  To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing.  They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.

The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals.  We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology.  We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible.  Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”

I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality.  I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality.  He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?”  I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be.  As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past.  I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book.  It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God.  They stretched to describe the indescribable.  They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts.  I love the scriptures for their messiness.  It gives me hope for myself.  God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.

The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago.  It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.”  Here’s how it works:

  • Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15).  Read it slowly.  Out loud, if you can.  Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
  • Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
  • Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment.  You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations.  You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage.  God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words.  God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words.  The Spirit blows where it wills…
  • Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard.  This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
  • Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you.  It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
  • Close by reading the passage slowly once more.  Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.

I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way.  We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.