Sermon preached November 16, 2014
Texts: Exodus 6:1-11; Galatians 5:13-26
Richie Havens, “Freedom” (live at Woodstock) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5aPBU34Fyk
Freedom. The idea runs deep in our national psyche. In the “Declaration of Independence” we read that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Preamble to our Constitution says that the constitution was written to, among other things “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” In New York harbor we have a Statue of Liberty. This past week, as our nation commemorated Veterans’ Day, we often heard phrases about “defending freedom.” Freedom.
Freedom is more than a national concept, however. The idea of freedom is deeply embedded in our faith. “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, o baby, let my people go. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” The God who told Moses, “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be” is a God working for freedom. Author and public theologian Brian McLaren in his new book We Make the Road By Walking writes this about the Exodus story. The story of Moses and the escape, or exodus, from Egypt glows at the core of the whole biblical story. It makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of the slaves, not the slave owners! God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future can come. (39). A story that glows at the core of the entire Bible is a story about freedom. God is on the side of freedom.
There are political dimensions to this part of our faith, and we need to keep asking questions about that, about the meaning for our politics that God is a God who frees for a newer world, for a better future. Those discussions are for another day, however.
Freedom certainly has political dimensions, but its meaning goes beyond politics. Freedom is a rich idea. Paul, in his letter to the early Jesus communities in the region of Galatia, the New Testament book we call Galatians, addresses a different dimension of freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” In the words of the theologian Ernst Kaesemann, “Jesus gives freedom.” He goes on to write, “Jesus’ gift is Christian freedom and we live by that gift and grace of his” (Jesus Means Freedom, 155).
Freedom here is more than release from bondage or captivity, though that remains important. Freedom here is more than having certain rights, though that is vitally important as well. Freedom here is being free to love, free to give, free to grow, free to live. Considered in this way, there are many kinds of slavery and bondage beyond being slaves in Egypt. Patricia Adams Farmer: “We’ve all felt trapped at some point in our lives, and it feels like hell” (Embracing a Beautiful God, 95). Brian McLaren, in We Make the Road By Walking, writes: The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery. On personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control (41).
Paul seems to have understood this. Jesus gives freedom. Sisters and brothers, we are called to freedom. “Only do not use your freedom for an opportunity for self-indulgence.” We are set free, but it is not a permanent condition. It is a wilderness journey. We can use our freedom in such a way that we are led back into enslavement. We can use our freedom in ways that lead away from love, generosity, growth, life. Paul even offers some clues to tell us if we are on the right road, the paths of freedom. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are qualities that enhance freedom. When we use our freedom to nurture these qualities in our lives then we are more free to love, to give, to grow, to live.
What we are about as a church, a Jesus community is being freed by Jesus from whatever enslaves us, is sharing the good news that Jesus means freedom, and is walking freedom’s paths. What we do can be framed in these terms.
Worship. We worship to hear freedom’s story again and again. We come to be reminded that Jesus gives freedom. Here we are reminded that we are loved, that we are valued, and that in our lives we can love, give, grow and live. We connect with God here, the God whose work is freedom, the God of the exodus.
Prayer. Prayer is another way we connect with God. Prayer is also a technology of freedom. Sometimes what traps us is the working of our own minds. We can be driven by our compulsions. We can be plagued by our own negative thoughts spiraling downward. Prayer slows us down, helps us get a better grip on the working of our minds. And prayer connects with God’s empowering Spirit.
Yet prayer can contain traps of its own. Last week I mentioned I had a nice opportunity to share a plane ride from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis with Tom Albin, Dean of the Upper Room Chapel. One of the things we chatted about was prayer. Tom shared with me some of his thoughts about prayer. He thinks that many people, clergy included, are dissatisfied with their prayer life. It is filled with guilt and should-be- doings. We begin to feel inadequate and who wants to keep revisiting that? I told Tom that one of the best things I ever read on prayer was a book that the Upper Room had published many years ago, Prayer and the Everyday Life, and one of the quotes from that book is that we should pray as we can pray, and not pray as we can’t. Freeing prayer is prayer that honestly begins where you are.
The Bible. The Bible is a book filled with stories of freedom, yet it has often been a book that makes us feel trapped. It is dull in some places. It is just plain difficult in some places. People have used it as a weapon sometimes. It is placed on such a pedestal that we are afraid to make a mistake with it. I think the Bible becomes a more freeing book when we are free to ask our questions about it. One of the things I deeply appreciate about Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible is that he helps free this book for us so that it can become a book that frees us because we hear God through it.
One of the most helpful ideas Adam discusses in his book is the idea that the material in the Bible might be considered in three buckets. In one bucket, we have Scriptures that reflect something of the timeless purposes of God. I think that Paul’s writing about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 fits that very well. I would think God has always wanted us to cultivate in our lives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In another bucket, there are Scriptures that may have reflected God’s purposes for a particular time, but not for all time. Adam suggests much of the ritual law in the Old Testament fits this description. The third bucket would be those Scriptures that reflect the historical circumstances in which they were written, but never reflected the best of God’s purposes. Passages which provide directions for owning slaves could be among such passages. For instance in Exodus 21, slave owners may be punished if they beat a slave and the slave dies immediately, but not if they beat the slave and the slave lives for a day or two (Exodus 21:20-21). (Making Sense of the Bible, 273-274). Thinking in terms of these three buckets frees the Bible up for our reading, helping make it again a book that can free us.
Acts of Compassion and Justice. The paths of freedom become very narrow if we are not helping others become free. We share good news, we work for a better future simply because it is part of the freeing work of God which we are invited to join in Jesus. But engaging in acts of compassion and justice also enhances our own sense of freedom. Giving of ourselves - with our time, with our energy, with our resource – adds to our lives.
You were called to freedom brothers and sisters. It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life (The Message). The free life to which we are called, the freedom given us as a gift of God’s grace in Jesus is freedom to love, freedom to give, freedom to grow, freedom to live. Together we help each other stay free. Together we walk freedom’s paths. Together we are, in the words of Martin Luther King, jr., “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.” Amen.