Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Freedom for Whom?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

On their way out of church, people will sometimes say to me, "Did you notice how the hymns we sang and the lessons and the sermon all tied together?" I usually smile and say, "Isn't it funny how that worked out? Sometimes I guess things just fall in place together." Like watching sausage being made, if they had sat in on the not-so-godly "conversation" that Foster, our organist, and I had over which hymns we should sing, they might not ever come back to church. Together, he and I work hard to make sure that our music dovetails with the readings in ways that reinforce God's word to the congregation each week yet still give them the chance to sing hymns they love. We trust that even those who do not notice will appreciate our efforts in subconscious ways.

In the same way, it shouldn't surprise us that the collect for each week usually ties in with the readings and the broader spirit of the day. I don't have anything to do with that, but the people who have shaped the lectionary throughout the centuries have made sure that in ways subtle and not-so-subtle all of our prayers and thoughts in worship are "collected" together in one, clear, over-arching prayer for the occasion. That's particularly clear on days like Christmas Day and Easter Day and Thanksgiving Day, when the text of the collect and the day's liturgical celebration are already on everyone's mind. On other days, like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, the connections are harder to see but can usually be teased out without much effort. I rarely preach on the collect. It is a part of my formation as I prepare for a sermon, but, like the hymns, I hardly ever focus on it, but today, Independence Day, the collect seems to beg for a sermon.

Every year, as we approach the Fourth of July, Byron Rushing, who currently serves as the Vice-President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, sends an e-mail to the listserve for members of the General Convention, reminding us that the collect for Independence Day misses the mark in a profound way: "Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us..." He asks us to look around at the members of our congregation and ask whether that is a true statement for our community and then ask to what extent that is a true statement for the Episcopal Church and for all who celebrate this patriotic holiday. Who are the we that pray this collect? Is it only the European descendants whose liberty was secured when the founders of this country won independence from Great Britain? What about those whose freedom was not guaranteed until after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and after the Civil War was fought over the question of whether southern states had the right supersede the federal government's authority to declare that human beings could not be owned as property?

And what about those who are in different forms of slavery to this day? What about the disproportionate number of African-American men who serve long prison sentences for non-violent offences? What about the children who grow up without those fathers and the wives who struggle to make ends meet in their absence? What about the multitude of people that are trapped by mental illness and who, because they are stigmatized by society, continue to be denied reasonable health care? What about those teenagers who are lured away from their homes and families and sold into sexual slavery? What about the parents who fled violence and have come to this country in search of freedom only to discover that fear over their immigration status requires them to work below the minimum wage and without any benefits because they have no one to whom they can report their bosses' employment violations?

Who is really free? For whom was that liberty fought? In the 241 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, who has been given the gift of freedom, and who still waits to be set free?

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." Until that vision is a reality, true and universal liberty will still be a dream. Liberty cannot exist when they are held by some and denied to others. It requires complete vulnerability. It requires those with power to risk their status by yielding to the welfare of the other. Jesus' vision is of a reign where all recognize universal access to the good life--shared access, shared possession, shared future. That's radical stuff. It's a vision of a world that we are not ready for. It's a vision of a world that can only exist when God reigns.

Real freedom is something that only God can give. God alone can be wholly vulnerable yet completely powerful. Only God can accept the threat of universal submission to the welfare of the other without any diminution. This is the kind of divine work that the contemporary theologian Kathryn Tanner envisions when she simultaneously emphasizes God as the giver of all good gifts and the non-competitive nature of the relationship between the Trinity and humanity (see K. Tanner's Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity). We must remember, therefore, that our nation, despite being a beacon of liberty in this world, is not the author of liberty. We are its distributors. To the extent to which we recognize that God, not us, is the source of all blessings and share those blessings without limitation, we are true to our godly heritage. To the extent to which we confuse the origin of those blessings and maintain a tight grip on what we have been given, we deny what it means to live in the land of the free. Until we are all free, none of us is free. Until all of us live a life of liberty, that liberty is only a story. On this anniversary of freedom's declaration, may we search for true liberty in the one who gives it until we share in it equally with all people.

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