Freedom is Coming

July 1, 2018

Series: July 2018

Category: Communion Sunday

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

 Freedom is Coming

I was looking through some of my old files recently, and I came across the sermon that I preached last year on the Sunday before the Fourth of July. I opened that sermon by noticing that when you look at the lyrics of our patriotic songs, freedom stands out as a value that is very important in this country.  I then said, (yes, I am about to quote myself – my ego must be wildly out of control), “When I read and hear the news stories from around our country these days, I’m not sure how confident I feel singing about this country being the ‘land of the free.’ Certainly, we have many freedoms here that people in some other countries don’t have. However, it seems to me that freedom in the United States is very dependent on your skin color, and your income level, and your educational background, and your religious beliefs. Depending on who you ask, you would probably get a wide range of opinions about how much freedom Americans actually have.”

Fast forward one year, and not much has changed. If anything, it has gotten worse.  As we contend with children with brown skin forcefully separated from their parents, people from predominantly Muslim countries banned from traveling to this country, children sitting in school classrooms fearing for their lives as their classmates are shot, and continued tension between people with black skin and law enforcement … it is really hard to say that the United States is the “land of the free.”

For example, a couple weeks ago I took a class at the seminary in San Anselmo. It was taught by a visiting professor who is a Womanist Theologian – her focus is specifically on black, feminist theology. Many of our readings focused on how entrenched racism is in this country, and how if we think the Civil Rights era put an end to racism, we just haven’t opened our eyes.  Several of the black students in our class talked about how difficult it is – on a daily basis – to navigate life as a black person in this country, and how they fear for the safety of their children.

One of my fellow students is a pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ (the denomination in which I am ordained), which is a predominantly black congregation in Chicago. This issue of safety is so important to their congregation that they felt the need to make a video for their young people called “10 Rules of Survival if Stopped By Police.”[i]  Some of the rules included, “Be polite and respectful, Don’t argue, Keep your hands in plain sight, Do not make sudden movement, Stay calm.”  The video ends with the urging, “Remember, your goal is to get home safely.”

Before my classmate showed me this video and described the fear that so many in her congregation live with, it would not have even crossed my mind that this would be something a church community would need to produce. This is simply not my reality.  But it is a dire reality for the people of Trinity UCC.  I wonder if they believe they are living in the “land of the free.”

It seems that more and more frequently I read the headlines and feel utter despair. There are so many people in our country who, for one reason or another, are not experiencing freedom.  In my despair, I really relate to the Psalmist. I feel his pain as he laments, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Hear my voice!  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for the Lord.”  I feel like I have been crying out to God a lot lately.  And then waiting.  Waiting for God’s light and God’s love to break into our world. 

But you know, the people of Trinity UCC didn’t wait. They saw their children living in fear and they took action. I realized during my class that waiting on God only happens from a place of privilege.  Waiting on God only happens from a place of freedom.  So many people don’t have the privilege or the freedom to wait.  Yes, as a white, well-educated person, I do enjoy a lot of freedom in this country.  But, if we truly are one in the Spirit – as we say we are – none of us is free until all of us are free.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul calls us to renounce the shameful things that we hide – perhaps the reality that we are not actually “the land of the free”?  However, Paul also reminds us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And the Psalmist reminds us that with God there is hope and steadfast love.  God does bring hope and love and freedom to all … and we are called to help make that promise a reality.

There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown. She is yelling, "It’s no use running! I’ll get you! I’ll knock your block off, I’ll..." Suddenly Charlie Brown stops running, turns and faces her. "Wait a minute," he says, "Hold everything! We can't carry on like this. We have no right to act this way. The world is filled with problems. People hurting other people. People not understanding other people. Now, if we as children can't solve what are relatively minor problems, then how can we ever expect to..." POW! Lucy drops him with one punch. As she walks away from a flattened and dazed Charlie Brown, Lucy turns to a friend and says, "I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense!"[ii]

That seems to be too often how we relate to each other these days. Rather than having open, honest dialogue with each other, or helping each other to live into the freedom of the Spirit, we simply chase after one another, trying to prove our power and our strength. We flatten one another rather than walking with each other.  When we do that, none of us are free.  None of us are living with the beauty, love, and joy with which God intends for us to live.

Hans Christian Anderson once wrote a tale about a butterfly that was getting older. Towards the end of the story, Anderson writes, “Now it was a windy and wet late autumn; the wind blew cold down the backs of the poor trembling old willows. And that made them creak all over. When the weather is like that it isn't pleasant to fly about in summer clothing, outside. But the Butterfly was not flying out-of-doors; he had happened to fly into a room where there was a fire in the stove and the air was as warm as summer. Here he could at least keep alive.  ‘But just to keep alive isn’t enough,’ the butterfly said, ‘To live you must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower to love.’”[iii]

Just keeping alive is not enough. To live you must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower to love. How many people in this country are doing all they can just to keep alive? To simply get from one day to the next? What are we doing to make sure that the Spirit of freedom and joy and hope is living and thriving in our communities? How are we engaging in relationship and conversation to lift up on another, rather than looking for ways to flatten each other? How are we helping to bring some flowers and sunshine to this world – to make known God’s light and God’s love – rather than waiting passively from a place of privilege.

There is a song in our hymnal called “Freedom is Coming.” It was born in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980’s.  I wanted to sing it today, but then I felt a little strange about doing that.  Who are we, a relatively privileged Presbyterian congregation in Tiburon, California, to sing about freedom coming?  On the other hand, it was included in our hymnal to be sung.  So, I did a little research, and was moved by the words of Dr. C. Michael Hawn, who is the Professor Emeritus of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology. He writes, “Who should be singing this song? Is it for everyone or a select group? For those of us who have not experienced oppression like the groups that gave us this song, we may feel self-conscious about singing. We may even wonder if we are ‘allowed’ to sing. After all, this song is so integrally connected to the struggle and identity of particular peoples.”

Hawn continues, “Christian identity is integral to love of neighbor and bearing one another’s burdens. We sing together not only to express our deepest concerns, but also in solidarity with others. This is perhaps at the heart of the sung identity of the Christian community who is continually being shaped by song and sacrament into the body of Christ. I invite you to make this song of oppression part of your Christian identity ministering to your own forms of bondage, in solidarity with others who are persecuted, and as a witness in defiance of oppression in whatever form it takes.”[iv]

So let us sing together. Let us sing with the hope of the Psalmist and with the urging of the apostle Paul that we will be the instruments that help make this promise of freedom a reality.