This is the one holiday the three-day-weekend people haven’t tried to move to a Monday — because the date itself is so powerfully etched in our minds and memories. On this day in 1776, some provocative and powerful words were put to paper and ceremoniously signed:
“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 Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those were and are powerful words. These are “no going back” words. Words that both launched a nation and charted its course. The words themselves we memorize in grade school and then spend the next 70 or so years trying to live up to their meaning. This is the essence of what it means to be an American. So it is fitting that we celebrate our freedom.
But we also celebrate our freedom in Christ, and for me personally, this day has a spiritual dimension dating back to the summer I was 8 years old. I had just started Catholic school the previous fall, and during the school year I had made my first confession and my first communion. And I was in love with the grandeur and Silence I encountered in the magnificent church of St. Mary’s in Oshkosh. And so, on the morning of July 4, 1965, I found myself sitting alone in the church, the morning sunlight streaming through the windows that faced the lake, and in a moment of pure prayer, I heard a voice say in my young boy’s head, “You are my priest.” I was 8 years old, so I had no doubts, no questions, no need to know any details, and certainly no fear. The God whom I had always known was with me, guiding me, wanting something big from me, had finally made everything clear. Of course, the doubts, questions, needing to know how and the fear were all to come into the picture later on, but in that moment of pure connection with God, I felt I would always live in the light of that morning.
And I’d love to tell you that from then on my life was an easy ride, but that would be a lie. There were challenges ahead, joys and sorrows, wrong turns and violence, insecurity and pain, but honestly, I always knew I would survive in order to thrive another day. I would also like to say that since I knew God was with me, I found it easy not to sin anymore, but that, too, would be a lie. That’s why I find comfort in finding out that life didn’t work that way for St. Paul either:
“What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. For I know the law, but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.”
It would be impossible to overstate the profound peace and freedom I felt when God first spoke to me, but the truth is I want to do the right things, but end up doing the wrong things many times. I’m free to make the right choice — and sometimes, I make the wrong one. It seems that in the very freedom God has given us — as a nation, as a church and as individuals — is also the challenge to use that freedom responsibly. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to do that on our own. This is the meaning of the words, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
As a nation, the freedom we enjoy was bought for us by those who went before: our founding fathers and mothers who had the courage and vision to imagine a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” They made the down payment — in blood sweat and tears — and subsequent generations have made “balloon payments” ever since: claiming and reclaiming that vision of a nation with liberty and justice for all. Working to include blacks in the proposition that all are created equal during the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement: and the challenge continues. Expanding the vision to include women and gays and lesbians in the proposition that all are created equal. The challenges continue. None of us are free unless all of us are: the birthing of a nation begun in 1776 continues today.
Likewise our spiritual freedom — our salvation — was bought for us by the generations who have gone before. Abraham and Sarah and their faithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh; the Hebrew people who received God’s law through Moses and were called again and again into faithfulness by the prophets; and Jesus — our Savior — who paid the price of his life. We celebrate that freedom and need to keep reminding others of the amazing freedom there is when Jesus occupies one’s heart.
As we celebrate freedom this Independence Day, both as Americans and as Christians, Paul’s experience offers parallels to our own — as a church and as a culture. For as much as we desire to do good, we far too often fall short of the mark: and wonder what went wrong.
As a church, again and again our ability to proclaim the Gospel is hampered by internal squabbles — quarrels about power that masquerade as debates over doctrine; fights with each other that so consume our energy we have nothing lift to give to the work of calling others to Christ. We may intend to do only the good, yet often the result is just more pain and isolation.
As a country, over and over our efforts to ensure the freedom of one people seems to lead to the oppression of another. What’s happening in Kosovo is but the latest example: thousands of innocent Serbs suffer as we join with NATO forces to end the tragedy of ethnic cleansing — there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer in Yugoslavia … or Bosnia … or Rwanda, Turkey or Ireland. It seems that no matter how hard we work to “do good”, some evil fallout is the result. And here at home, as hard as we try to make the Pledge of Allegiance come true, we have yet to truly insure liberty and justice for all. Where do we turn for answers?
Let’s turn again to Paul’s words as contained in The Message:
“I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
Where do we turn for answers? The same place Paul did. For Jesus Christ can and does. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” he says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me — for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” — words of promise that there is nothing we have to bear by ourselves: nothing too heavy for Jesus to bear with us. An invitation of profound reassurance — whether in the poetic language of the traditional translation or in the accessible words of the paraphrase:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live lightly and freely.”
“Come to me.” Jesus’ words in verse 28 remind me of the words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuge of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The difference…freedom is not found in a place, but in a Person — the One who guides us, strengthens us, feeds us, sustains us. So as we gather around the altar today to be fed once more for the journey, let us celebrate the freedom we own in Christ. And let us resolve to go from this place to engage even more deeply in the work that is ours to do.