Text: Galatians 5:1,12-25
Freedom. My first taste of freedom, or so I thought, came on October 4, 1979—the day I turned 16. I awoke early that day, dressed quickly and waited rather impatiently for my father to take me to the DMV to get my driver’s license. All that stood in the way of my freedom was passing both a written test and an actual driving test. Given that I had been driving on the family farm since I was about 10, I didn’t worry a lot about the driving part. The written test gave me a bit more pause, but after all I had studied for weeks, so I was also quite confident about that, too. As was the procedure, I took the written test first. An eternity passed before the DMV instructor came over to me and said, “Okay, let’s see if you can actually drive.” Relief washed over me. At least I had passed the written part. As for the driving test, it was a shaky start. Getting out of the parking space I hit the brakes just a bit too hard. After we recovered from whiplash, I proceeded to the stop sign at the entrance to the DMV parking lot. Guess what? Driving instructors don’t consider a slow stop a complete stop. Nevertheless, I did manage to recover from that as the nice man loudly cleared his throat and I quickly came to a complete stop before I was completely in the middle of the road. Thank goodness we agreed to chalk those first few minutes up to nerves. From that point on, I did fine. And on that day, I felt a sense of freedom that I had never felt before, and it was exhilarating. I was, as the saying goes, “footloose and fancy free.” At least for a 16 year old.
The next such memorable moments came at 18, and then the day I left home for college, followed by graduating from college and moving away from my hometown. (Remember I went to college in the same town I had grown up in.) With each new freedom, came a bit more responsibility. But the responsibility that came with the freedom was something that I welcomed. I wanted the freedom to make my own choices. I longed for the freedom to be my own person—to shape my life apart from my parents and family. I even welcomed the freedom to make my own mistakes. Freedom in those early years, as I look back, meant greater independence and I, for one, was ready for all of it.
Feeling such freedom is an important part of “growing up.” I often hear teenagers discussing and longing for freedom. And likewise, I often hear parents struggling to discern how much freedom to give their children and when. Freedom, at any stage of life, is something we all desire and long for. Who wants to feel caged in, controlled by others, limited in who we can be and what we can do? We want freedom for ourselves, and for those whom we love.
But freedom is not just about growing up and having more independence. Freedom is one of the highest values of our nation. We take great pride and honor in being a “free” nation and a “free” people. Freedom is the bedrock on which our founding fathers shaped our nation. Thomas Jefferson said: “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” John Adams wrote: “A Constitution of Government once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost, is lost forever.” And a century later, James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, would say in his inaugural speech: “Under the Constitution the boundaries of freedom have been enlarged, the foundations of order and peace have been strengthened, and the growth of our people in all the better elements of national life has indicated the wisdom of the founders and given new hope to their descendants.” Possibly, it is these words that inspired the great illustrator, Norman Rockwell, to paint his famous Four Freedoms series: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want. And even more plausible is the truth that our desire for freedom is what made his series so popular.
Building on this bedrock from our founding fathers, our Baptist forebears outline four fragile freedoms on which we, as Baptists, would stand: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, and Religious Freedom.
Bible Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.
Soul Freedom is the historic affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.
Church Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive as gifted for ministry and to participate in the larger body of Christ, of whose unity and mission Baptists are proudly a part.
Religious Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.
And so, as citizens of this country and for those of us who claim the identity of those early Baptists, FREEDOM is in our DNA. But long before our founding fathers and long before our Baptist forebears rooted themselves in the soil of freedom, the apostle Paul had this to say: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” For freedom, we have been set free. And so we ask, freedom from what and freedom for what?
Before speaking to Paul’s words, I want to shift for a moment to a quote that has been attributed to Harriet Tubman that you will find on the front of your worship guide. I want to admit upfront that there is some question about the authenticity of this quote. There is disagreement among scholars about whether Harriet Tubman said this or not. And possibly, without being able to attribute the quote to her with certainty, I should have noted it as anonymous. However, whether these were Harriet Tubman’s words or someone else’s, they speak a truth that needs speaking in our day. The quote reads: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Freedom from what? Freedom for what?
Longing for freedom, at 16 or 26 or 46 or 66 or 96 is one thing. Knowing what we need freeing from or for is yet another thing. We desire to be free from controlling parents. We long to be free from having to live by someone else’s rules and expectations. We dream of a life “footloose and fancy free” from all the responsibilities and obligations that weigh us down—things we feel that are sucking the life out of us. It’s only human to want such freedom. But do we know to what we are enslaved?
It is important for us to ponder individually what has us enslaved—those things from which we seek freedom. But there are some larger, collective freedoms that I feel are at stake for the soul of our nation and for the soul of humanity, and it is these freedoms of which I speak this morning: the freedom from fear, the freedom from (not for) religion, and the freedom from stress-filled lives.
Freedom from fear. We need freedom from the fear-mongering politicians of our day who speak of specific ethnic groups as evil and rapists. We need freedom from the fear that grips us as a humanity that causes a person to walk into a school or church or gay nightclub and gun down human lives. We need freedom from the fear that drives us to hoard wealth when our sisters and brothers all across the globe and in our own backyards are starving and going without health care. We need freedom from the fear that we are not good enough. We need freedom from the fear that the only way to protect ourselves is to arm ourselves with guns. We need freedom from the fear that tells us our military budgets have to be larger than our humanitarian budgets. The politics of fear has a stronghold on not only our nation but on nations all around the world. And thus it has a tight grip on us as individuals. FDR’s words are still true: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
There is another freedom that I believe is at stake for humanity—freedom from religion. Here I stand on the wisdom of theologian Karen Armstrong. In several of her books, Armstrong makes the case that what our world needs is less religion and more compassion. Religion, she notes, has us literally killing one another. This truth has never been more visible and real in our lifetime than it is today. In the name of God, people are killing people. Whether it is the pro-life Christian killing the pro-choice doctor or the white self-professed Christian walking into a black church and killing nine people because of the color of their skin; or self-proclaiming Muslims killing Coptic Christians in Libya or flying planes into buildings on US soil killing thousands; or Jews murdered at the hands of anti-Semites—religion has us killing one another. People of all religions need freeing from such religious hatred and violence. We cannot, as humankind, keep hiding behind religious hatred. Therefore, I say we need freedom from religion. And we need freedom for more compassion, more understanding, more love.
This last freedom that I want to say just a brief word about is less poetic and less famous than freedom from fear and freedom from religion. It’s not in the constitution, and I don’t think Norman Rockwell has a famous illustration of it. It is what I call freedom from stress-filled lives. I have been astounded lately by many of my pastoral conversations, with people of all ages, at how stressed out we are as a people. We are stressed about money, our health, of being able to take care of our families and ourselves. We are stressed out about being good enough—a good enough parent, spouse, good enough at our jobs. We are stressed about being liked and accepted by our peers. And we are stressed about what’s happening in our world. And I’m not talking about a “normal” amount of stress. Some stress is helpful. I’m talking about life-altering stress—the kind of stress that leaves us depleted, depressed and in despair. Can you feel this stress? If not in your own life, in the lives of those whom you love and care about. Can you feel it in the soul of our nation, our world? I feel it. I see it. And I listen as you tell me about it. It is real. But I am ever more convinced it does not have to have the last word. There is freedom from these stress-filled lives we are living. And this is where I come back to Paul’s words to the people of Galatia.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…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…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
For Freedom, Christ has set us free. For what? Free to risk love for all of God’s people, free to experience the joy of those things that bring us pleasure, free to speak peace when conflict is all around us, free to relax and be patient with our humanity, free to practice kindness every day with friends and strangers alike, free to be generous for the well-being of others, free to live faithful without judgment, free to be gentle with ourselves and others, free to not chase after every new gadget or popular idea that promises to make us happy but leaves us more empty. It is this freedom—this kind of freedom—that takes the stress out of our lives and releases us from the anxiety and fear to living peaceful and hopeful lives.
Throughout my life I have learned that my freedom ultimately comes in knowing that I am God’s beloved, that I am enough, just as I am. It is in God’s love that I am set free to be me. And so my prayer for all of us, my prayer for our nation, my prayer for our world is that we may realize that we have been set free to love one another as God loves us! In such freedom we become stronger more compassionate people, a stronger more compassion nation, and a stronger more compassionate world.