"FREEDOM" - Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Galatians 5:1,13-26

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Galatians 5:1, 13-26


            FREEDOM!  This has always been a big word in American history and culture. It is a significant word this week as we come once again upon Independence Day.

            We find ourselves today just a few blocks from where Patrick Henry said this in 1775, before the colonists had gained FREEDOM from Great Britain: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me . . .  (say it with me) liberty or give me death."

            We find ourselves in this great commonwealth, in the shadow of the Capital designed by Thomas Jefferson, who is famous for lots of things, but especially known for writing these words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights-that among these are . . .  (you recall them?) . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This month, we have been celebrating 75 years since D-Day, and the FREEDOMS gained against tyranny and horrible Nazi oppression.

            This week, we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City – an event that kicked off the modern gay rights movement that has brought FREEDOM to so many people to be who God created them to be.

            This week, we will certainly see lots of red, white, and blue, lots of American flags, lots of fireworks, and patriotic happenings. So, this week brings a fresh opportunity to think about FREEDOM, and what FREEDOM looks like and should look like for all of us. Indeed, at the close of worship today, we will sing about America: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. . . . . ” That hymn reminds us that we still have so much work to do to be the kind of country that is noble, and fully refined, “from sea to shining sea.”

            Perhaps like you, while I love this country, I find it hard to rejoice in our FREEDOM when we keep hearing about families separated at the border, and children detained in cages.

While I celebrate so much about our nation, it is hard to rejoice in our FREEDOM when it seems that our reputation as a country of dignity and fairness, of decency and noble pursuits is very much in question.

            It is hard to rejoice in our FREEDOM when we continue to be a nation that sees so many killed by gun violence.

It is hard to celebrate FREEDOM when we know we lead the world in percentage of people incarcerated (especially people of color).

            It is also hard to rejoice in FREEDOM when the numbers for  suicide in this country continue on a drastic increase and mental illness remains such a challenge for so many.

There are many references to FREEDOM in Holy Scripture. The very idea of FREEDOM seems fundamental for God and for life. God gives us life. God wants us to be free to live, free to love, free to prosper in the world.

FREEDOM is a central theme in the Old Testament – the story of God creating, cajoling, coaxing God’s beloved people toward life – life loving God and life living and loving in God’s world. The story of God and God’s people is so interesting, so complicated, because God creates humankind as FREE people – not puppets, not marionettes on a string – but free to make choices, free to make mistakes, free to wander off, away from God. And this is what happens in the Bible – it is a story of a very dynamic relationship full of ups and downs because we are all free moral agents, free to choose many things. And the story of human history shows how humankind often chooses and uses that FREEDOM in ways that run counter to God.

But the story of God and God’s people is a story of God never giving up on us. God keeps calling, and cajoling, and coaxing us to use our FREEDOMS in ways that serve God and serve one another.

There are 50 references to FREEDOM in the New Testament. And today we have a passage rich in FREEDOM, rich in helping us consider again what life is about, how we use our FREEDOM for God’s important work in the world. Listen to Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13For 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. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 

18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The Apostle Paul writes to a people seeking to be faithful Christians in a region known as Galatia – an area that would be today central Turkey. This is an area that was claimed by the Roman Empire around 25 BC. This letter is most likely written, in the middle of the first century, not to one group of people or church, but to a number of congregations in the area of Galatia. In Paul’s first and second missionary journeys through the region (recorded in Acts), he met people, shared the story of Jesus with them, and urged them to keep meeting, to form churches, to grow in faith and service.

But as we know, church life can get complicated. We strive to worship and serve God, but various questions and conflicts always come up. Certain questions and issues can divide people. How is the Spirit at work in a very pagan world? How do people balance traditional customs in Galatia, (or even modern America) and their Spirit-filled faith? Do these new churches, who are excited about Jesus, need to align with Jewish practices, like many of the other new churches? Do they need to be circumcised to be God’s people? Do they have to follow certain rules and expectations, about what and when to eat, or how to dress? What are the rules and practices? There were many opinions on these things.

Here is how Eugene Peterson explains the problems in Galatia: When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting or keeping them ‘in their place.’ The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious. It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom. . . . Paul, of Tarsus, . . . was doing his diligent best to show something radically and entirely different - the free life in God. . . .  Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways, but a personal savior who set us FREE to live a FREE life. He founded churches. Then when Paul visited a few years later, Paul learned that religious leaders of the old school had come into those churches, herding all these FREEDOM-loving Christians back into the corral of religious rules and regulations. Paul was furious – furious with this old guard with their strong arm religious tactics, but also furious with the Christians in Galatia for caving in to the intimidation. His letter to Galatians wants to help them recover their FREEDOM. (see The Message, Galatians)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians does not mention the turmoil for families at the southern border, or cages for children. His letter does not mention gun violence, or the need for prison reform. He does mention, “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” He does mention, “stand firm, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” He does remind us: “love your neighbor as yourself.” And he does say, “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” His words are always relevant to our life and times.

Paul is trying to remind us what the FREE life in God looks like. It is more than singing patriotic songs and waving the red, white, and blue. It is more than enjoying fireworks and festivals. It is about being absolutely FREE to live lives that honor God, that promote peace and healing, that guide us into the reign of God.

“For FREEDOM, Christ has set us free.” That is a statement of fact – to move us into the ways of God – the ways of the Spirit – not the ways of the flesh.

The ways of the flesh are all around – enmity, strife, jealousy, quarrels, dissensions, factions, . . . the list is very long and very familiar.

But “for FREEDOM, Christ has set us free.” And it looks like this: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Imagine a world filled with those traits!

FREEDOM means our lives are FREE to look like Jesus’ life.

FREEDOM means we are no longer trapped in the ways of enmity and strife which lead to death; no, we love one another. FREEDOM allows us to live for that!

Dorothy Day said it so well – Christians are commanded, Christians are expected, Christians are exhorted “to live in a way that doesn’t make sense unless God exists.” (D. Brooks, Second Mountain. p. 223)

Last week Ginger and I went to see the movie “Emanuel.” Emanuel, you might recall, is the name of the great AME Church in historic Charleston, SC, “Mother Emanuel,” which was also the scene of a horrific shooting 4 years ago this month. “Emanuel” is a documentary about the people closest to that shooting. This documentary delves into the lives of those 9 people killed while they were in a Bible study at the church. The film shows so much about their faith and commitments. There are extensive interviews with the families of the Emanuel nine – the husbands and wives and daughters and other relatives.

This is an amazing and inspiring story. You may recall – and it is depicted in the film – how the judge allowed family members of the victims to speak directly to the shooter at his initial arraignment just days after the shooting. And in that initial encounter, some of those faithful members of Mother Emanuel told the shooter that they forgave him. Forgave him!

That story of forgiveness sent shock-waves – both inspiring and conflicting - around the world. That forgiveness was an awesome witness to a bedrock principle of Christian faith. For FREEDOM, Christ has set us free – free to live like Christ!

That forgiveness also created tension and uncertainty among the community because those words of forgiveness dissipated the anger and the inclination of so many to riot, to express anger.

Like Richmond, Charleston has a 400-year history of racism and oppression of African Americans. For some, the word of forgiveness to a white supremacist felt like giving in - one more time!

The movie shows that not all of the families of the Emanuel nine could express this forgiveness. Some said they were “a work in progress” (no small matter!). Others said they would pray for their loved ones’ murderer (also no small matter). Yet, all of them talked about the importance in their lives of their Christian faith, their church community, and God’s sustaining care for them as an angry, racist, young man entered their church and brought such unspeakable pain to their lives. 

The film is amazing and powerful. It was also powerful to see it in the theater. At the conclusion of the film, no one moved. Sheer, sustained silence. When the lights came up, initially everyone just sat there – in silence. Then, slowly and silently we filed out.

The movie is a witness to the power of faith and the promises of God. God never gives up on us. God keeps calling us to deeper lives or love, service, trust, and commitment. In amazing ways, the faith and lives of the people at Mother Emanuel give us current, real-life inspiration for what Paul is urging from all of us – “for FREEDOM, Christ as set us free; stand firm therefore. . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.  . . . The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. . . .For if we live by the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit.”

            We never know what standing firm, and living by the Spirit is going to look like in our lives. We never know what is going to be called forth from our lives as we strive to trust God and serve God.

            We do know that with God the worst thing . . .  is never the last thing! God has the last word – and it is always a word of hope and light.

            Let us always remember – especially in these days - that “for FREEDOM, Christ has set us free” and our real and only goal and purpose is to live – not by the flesh, not in enmity and strife, jealousy and anger – but to live by the Spirit and so inherit the wonderful reign of God. Alleluia. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And by your Spirit, keep shaping us in the ways of Jesus. Amen.

Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 30, 2019.