Joshua 24:14-18, Galatians 5:1-6
July 4, 2010
“For freedom Christ has set us free…” Those are noble and lofty sounding words, aren’t they? And they are wonderful words for this Fourth of July Sunday! I wonder how many preachers are using them for their text today. But we almost gloss over them without thinking, don’t we, as we live here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. At the very least they are words that remind us of the freedom we enjoy in this country, and they help us understand our roots. They remind us of the religious heritage we share in America – despite what some might think about the separation of Church and state.
I would also use them to remind us this day of our Presbyterian Heritage. This has been a wonderful part of my life being back in this area that has such a rich history. I have to admit, I wasn’t as much of a history buff when I lived here before, despite the fact that I was serving at the Neshaminy-Warwick Church – one of the two churches pastored by William Tennant. The other, of course, was the Bensalem Presbyterian Church – our mother church.
I have also been amazed as I’ve learned more about the role the Presbyterian Church played in the founding days of this country. I knew it was an important role. I knew for many years that one of the models used by the framers of the U. S. Constitution was the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church. I knew that. But I’ve since learned, and I would remind you today, that it was the “Historic Principles” of our Church, that helped lay the foundation for the principles upon which our country was built. In those principles we find the important ideas of the freedom of thought, of individual liberty, and of the notion that “people of good conscience can differ” in opinion! Those principles began to grow in people’s minds in the 1700’s.
I was amazed to learn that when hostilities began to grow between the colonists and Briton, independence was not important to them at first. The colonists simply wanted better treatment from the mother country. Many hoped for some kind of settlement. They felt secure under the British flag. And first part of the amazing document we celebrate today actually states that. But, as the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing the same Object evince[d] a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism…” the words “freedom” and “independence” began to be used more and more often. And it was the Presbyterians who were most known for those words. It was the Presbyterians who were at the forefront of those thinking that it was “their right, it was their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The Declaration of Independence is an amazing document. This is a good day to go look it up and read it. There you’ll find the words I just quoted. And I guarantee you goosebumps! There’s even a bit of humor to be found there. I had to smile when I read the words, “all experience shows that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In other words, people would rather be miserable than change things! And (You know where I’m going with this!) some feel that is also part of our Presbyterian tradition!
That’s not historically true, though! We Presbyterians were right in the middle of the debate about independence! And because of that, there were those in the British government who did not want to see Presbyterians serving on town councils and colonial assemblies. They were nothing but trouble! In fact, one writer even said that there were those in the British government who saw the American Revolution as a “Presbyterian Revolution.”
That’s our heritage. I’m proud of that heritage! I hope you are. And it goes back even further, because the Presbyterians had found a good foundation in passages like this one I read today. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Let those words ring in your heads today as you experience all the Fourth of July events! “For freedom Christ has set us free!”
Then look at what comes next. “So do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Now we can’t go by that part without recognizing the thoughts and the emotions it brings out. But whether we like it or not, part of the wonderful history of this country includes, unfortunately, the “stain” of hundreds of years of chattel slavery. And whether we like it or not, it’s also a stain on the Church that the slavery in this country was often justified using the biblical references to slavery. But the comparison goes no further than the words themselves! Slaves and servants in the Bible were often the same thing. And such people in the Bible were often slaves because of debt, not because of the capture and subjugation a race of people! Servanthood was their job, until they could pay off their debt. That’s a positive thing. That’s how Paul was able to tell them that they should be obedient to their masters. But that’s not comparable to the slavery in this country!
When I was in New York in 2008, I did something I had never done before. I went to the Statue of Liberty. And I learned something I never knew before. The Statue of Liberty is most often thought of as having to do with immigration. That’s what I always thought. It was the beacon of light of a new world to people in ships coming to this country. It spoke the silent words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore… Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” I can only imagine what it was like for people seeing that statue and that lamp for the first time.
But that was not the original meaning of that statue. Before Emma Lazarus wrote that famous poem “The New Colossus,” the Statue was a celebration of freedom. It was given by the French as a recognition of the valiant and difficult struggle of this country in abolishing slavery. Lady liberty is standing New York harbor on the broken chains of oppression! And she’s striding forward. She’s taking the light of that struggle for liberty to the world, not beckoning the world to come to her. I never realized that before!
The “green lady” in the harbor is standing on the broken chains, the “yoke of slavery.” So what did Paul mean by telling us “not to submit again to the yoke of slavery?” After all the title of this message is “Once and Forever Free.” So I want you to think today about the things that threaten to “chain” us again? What are they? Are they ideologies? Are they politics? Is it Fear? Hatred? Possessions? Is it guilt, pain, depression, or worry? If you think about it, we are slaves to anything that threatens to take from us the joy and peace of God in Christ. And that comes from many directions.
For instance, other people threaten to submit us to that yoke. We know that. They can threaten to make us miserable, to impose on us their views, their expectations, their requirements, and their prejudices. And those things can be hard to deal with, especially if they come from people who are influential in our lives, people such as teachers, parents, peers, employers, or politicians. That’s why Paul said “For freedom Christ has set us free…” We can have difficulties with other people. We will always have difficulties with people. (And people will have difficulties with us!) But it is to Christ that we look for our freedom! The writers of the Declaration stated that “we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights…” Not, “These are the things we demand!” We find freedom the most when we look to God!
Circumstances can threaten to enslave us. Lord knows the credit monster is threatening to devour us all! (And in the end, it just might!) But even beyond that I don’t need to tell you that sometimes life itself is difficult. The “valleys” of life can be difficult to handle. Bad circumstances and tragic events can threaten to chain us to misery and despair. We know Christ has set us free, but sometimes it sure doesn’t seem like it! That’s when we need to emphasize the last part of that phrase. “For freedom, Christ has set us free…” And we need to remind ourselves what Jesus himself said, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36)
In all this, though, sometimes we are the worst offenders! We are our own worst enemies! Too often, we willingly submit to the yoke of slavery. Or we impose it on ourselves. When, for instance, we think only legalistically about our faith, and not about our relationship with God, when we let our feelings rule our lives – like we talked about last week, when we allow the feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and weakness to rob us of our joy and keep us from stepping forward in faith, when in our spiritual lives we choose misery rather than seeking change, when we simply and profoundly forget that Christ has made us free, those are the things we do to ourselves to submit to the yoke. Like the Ghost of Jacob Marley, we respond to Ebenezer Scrooge about our fetters, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
For freedom Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. Enjoy the celebration of this day. Read the document we celebrate! Remember your freedom in Christ. Remember his words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
That’s the Christ who has set us free! Once and Forever!
Eternal Father, we bless you and thank you for you have made us free in Jesus Christ. Help us to live in your freedom, to proclaim the good news, and to be the light of the world to all your children. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.