True Freedom

Deuteronomy 10:12-22 Galatians 5:13-26

July 3, 2011 Celebrating Independence

July 4th - Independence Day. Tomorrow we celebrate our freedom as a nation, of the colonies having escaped the oppression of England’s rule and heavy taxation. Freedom is a popular focus of conversation on July 4th, in speeches at town gatherings all over America. There were quotes about freedom in the local Free Press that we received a few days ago. The quotes are from famous Americans throughout our nation’s history.

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” - Abraham Lincoln

“Those who won our independence believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” - Louis D. Brandeis

“There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism..” - Alexander Hamilton

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” - Thomas Jefferson

There are many ways to look at and express what freedom means, as is obvious from this sampling of quotes. It is also obvious when we tap into our own understanding about freedom; what we think about it, what freedom means to us and how it impacts us. Where does freedom touch our lives, really? Do we even notice? Mostly I think we reflect on our freedom when we hear about the struggles against tyranny in other countries. We see stories in the news almost every day that address the fact that many places in the world do not offer full freedom to their people. When we hear stories like this we count ourselves lucky or even blessed to live here in this country where freedom is considered to be a birthright.

This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy clearly addresses the reality of foreigners and how to treat them. If we are to take this reading seriously, then the freedoms we enjoy in our country are not just for us alone. We are meant to share what we have with those who are in need. This is tough for us to do, especially in times of economic hardship. It can be difficult to think about sharing what little we have. We worry that there will not be enough left over for ourselves. This happens in our lives as individuals as well as in our experience as a nation. We may find ourselves closing our purse to charitable organizations, concerned that we may not have enough to share right now. It also happens in our nations, as we close the borders to those who may want to live and work here, and as we clamp down on people who already live and work here, but are not official citizens of the U.S. What does welcoming the stranger look like today, under these difficult circumstances? At the recent New England Conference we took time to learn and talk about the struggles undocumented people have, and we asked ourselves what we as a church ought to be doing to help them. One effort the Conference is making is to open a center where these people can come to get legal advice and support as well as help filling out the forms that are required if they want to stay and work in the United States. Many of the people affected have children who were born in the US, so if the parents are deported, they must decide if the children will go back with them to unstable, possibly unsafe places, or if they will somehow find a way for the children to stay here without their parents. Churches all over our country have been actively helping in these situations.

What is freedom, if it is not shared? Are we really free if we are not willing to share our freedom with others who might want it as well? Most of us are descended from immigrants who made their way to this country generations ago, looking for new opportunities to make a life for themselves. Our ancestors found refuge here and a new life, so how can we rightfully refuse this to others now? Should the doors close at some point, and how do we decide when? Are we the ones to decide? These are some very difficult issues that we face as a nation. Our country obviously cannot manage to care for everyone who wants to be here, and yet where does the line get drawn?

Galatians offers us a new perspective on freedom that is almost paradoxical to our usual take on it. Eugene Peterson translates part of it in this way:“It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love, that’s how freedom grows.” Contrary to what this letter is saying, I think most of us do think about personal freedom in terms of being able to do whatever we want to do. In some ways, this is our actual definition of freedom. It is how we describe freedom when we are attempting to understand what it is. My dictionary defines freedom as “The power to act, speak or think as one wants, without hindrance or restraint.” Nothing holds us back from acting as we wish to act, if we take this definition of freedom to heart. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. Of course, in most circles we add in the caveat that we can do whatever we want whenever we want to do it as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights and freedom of anyone else. But this still leaves the door pretty wide open as to how we define freedom and how our sense of freedom influences our actions.

In reading both Deuteronomy and Galatians we discover that the kind of freedom our faith calls us to is very different from that which our country or our independent spirit might call us to. As people of faith, people who would follow Jesus, we discover that our freedom is given to us so that we might enjoy making good and wise choices, choices that make both ourselves and other people happy, choices that serve something larger than ourselves in some positive way. Most of us have faced situations in which we might have wanted to do one thing, but the thought of how it would affect our loved ones caused us to make a different choice. It simply feels better to make choices that uplift our loved ones, choices that help them and encourage them. On the other hand, when we use our freedom, our free will, to make choices that cause our loved ones distress, we feel that distress as well. Often the emotions we go through in knowing how tough our choice has been on a loved one is enough to get us to change our ways and make different choices in the future. Being free is not really about doing whatever we please. The letter to the Christians in Galatia has this counsel, “Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.” True freedom means living by the spirit within us that is, at its heart, free from all selfishness. It means doing what is needed in a situation and looking at the broad picture when figuring this out, rather than giving in to our personal whims and fancies. True freedom is living in harmony with the spirit of God within us and with the world around us. It is about being freed up to cooperate with the natural flow of life and growth of which we are a part. True freedom is about embracing who we are, so that we can be a part of the solution and a part of what is possible in this time and place, for God’s sake, for the world’s sake, and for our own.

PRAYER by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Bless our beautiful land, O Lord, with its wonderful variety of people, of races, cultures and languages.

May we be a nation of laughter and joy, of justice and reconciliation, of peace and unity, of compassion, caring and sharing. We pray this prayer for a true patriotism, in the powerful name of Jesus our Lord. Amen