This week we will celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our Independence as a nation. 242 years ago, we declared our freedom from the rule of the British crown and our nation moved into a state of sovereignty, declaring that we wanted to make decisions for ourselves, with a representative government. 13 years later, in 1789, the Constitution of the United States came into force, establishing the formation of our government and our laws. It was not until 1791, that our First Amendment was ratified.
First Amendment to the Constitution, 1791:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
You may know that this past week, I exercised several of those freedoms as I protested, chanted and was arrested with 22 other clergy members protesting Family Separation at the border. (You can read the full story in our July newsletter coming out this week….)
Now, I say “arrested” but I am aware that I am fortunate: The police were kind and helpful, offering us water and making sure we were okay; after a short trip in a van, we were taken to the parking garage of the downtown station where we were issued citations for our violation and sent on our way. No fingerprints, no booking photos, no time in a cell, no criminal record, no judge.
As we 23 clergy sat in that parking garage – priests, rabbis, pastors, lay people from all kinds of denominational backgrounds – as we waited several other police cars drove in and the officers emerged with someone else who’d been arrested, probably for a different violation. They walked, hand zip-tied behind them (like ours) looking forlorn and upset, as they were led into the building, not to be freed easily, like I was.
This week as we celebrate our FREEDOMS, it may be easy to celebrate the general idea of freedom and not the specific freedoms we enjoy every day. But freedom is much more than merely not being in shackles. And freedom means different things to different people. For example:
- To those incarcerated, freedom means “time served,” second chances, an opportunity for a new life.
- To those addicted, freedom means the ability to breathe, to exist without the bounds of desperation, pride in what you’ve accomplished.
- To those who are affected by chronic illness – physical or mental illness – freedom means a time of clarity, a reprieve from pain.
- To those abused, freedom means a return of self-worth, a realization that I am indeed a beloved child of God and I deserve safety and love.
What does it mean to be FREE? AND what do we DO with our freedom?
What does it mean to, as the prophet Isaiah writes “proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners?” Freedom is a blessing, a gift, and in his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul is trying to explain what freedom means for new Christians in the early church. As with most of his writing, Paul letter to the Galatians was written around 50-70 years after the death of Jesus, when those first followers were trying to figure out what they were supposed to do in order to follow this new movement called The Way.
As you know, this movement was originally a branch of Judaism. Jesus and the disciples and all those first adherents were faithful Jews, following the customs, traditions and the laws of the Jewish faith. So when this new movement began to branch off, you can imagine that there were questions about how to follow the rules! Do we need to first become followers of the Jewish faith in order to follow Jesus? And most importantly – do we need to first be circumcised?
Now, at the time, there were others who were doing the same work – teaching and guiding followers in the “right” way to follow Jesus, and we can read – in the words of Paul – his frustration and anger.
In Galatians 5: 6-8, Paul says this:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.
Through Christ, Paul says, God offers a relationship without preconditions except that one remains in the relationship itself. There is no need to take on oneself the biblical law in addition.
BUT….. does that mean we can just go be free! Exercising our freedom and we will have no repercussions?
No. Each time we are “freed” from something, we take on new responsibilities, new obligations, new rules.
- Once we are freed from the bonds of addiction- often we need to follow new rules of sobriety, of accountability to others.
- Once we are freed from incarceration, there are new obligations to meet with a parole officer, to adhere to the laws of society.
- Once we are freed from student loan debt, we must now follow different rules to ensure we remain free from the shackles that debt can be.
Paul makes it very clear that freedom is not just release from something – in this case the demands of the Law – it is also freedom for something, namely a relationship with the God who loves. That has to mean that one also engages in such loving. When this happens we are more than fulfilling the requirements of the Law, as Paul writes:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
We are free. Now, what do we do with that freedom? How do we use that freedom to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? How do we use our freedom to help our neighbors, to help our communities, to help our nation be the dream it can be?
As we gather around this table, in the family of God, may we who are blessed with the freedoms we enjoy, use those freedoms to help love our neighbors – for all are loved by God and all are a part of our human family. Amen.