As I wrote my approval papers in the first half of 2005, one of the sets of questions focused on the proper place of secular patriotic holidays in worship. July 4 had fallen on a Sunday in 2004, and using that as a case study, we were asked to write a long section on how we would or would not address the holiday in our particular setting. In my case, I was serving on internship in a growing, vibrant church in Anchorage, Alaska, where they had a tradition of celebrating the Sunday nearest July 4th as “Freedom Sunday.”
Let me be clear. The political landscape in Alaska is extremely conservative. The largest and most conservative megachurch in town didn't just have a flag in the sanctuary that day. They had a tradition of removing the cross at the front of their sanctuary that day and replacing it with a huge American flag, front and center. So celebrating Freedom Sunday became, for my people, a way to celebrate the holiday (to not do so would be completely out of touch with that culture) without removing the cross from the center of worship. It was an attempt at a middle way that would challenge the typical liberal and conservative labels, and the claim by other churches that there was only one way to be a patriotic Christian.
Fast-forward five years, to worship planning for 2010 in western New York, an area with its own particular conservative streak. With Erica Schemper's excellent article on this topic fresh in my mind, I set out to create a Freedom Sunday of my own that would honor the stories of my people, my congregations, and this nation without allowing the story of our origins to overwhelm the story of Jesus. With Veteran's Day approaching in November, I thought it might be a good time to share.
A sermon preached on Sunday, July 4, 2010, “Freedom Sunday,” at Zion Lutheran Church, Silver Creek, NY and Grace Lutheran Church, Dunkirk, NY
Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25 and John 8:31-36
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
1776 is the title of a musical all about the events leading up to the original Fourth of July, 234 years ago. It definitely takes some liberties with historical facts, but it tries to draw on other primary sources to fill some of the gaps in what was recorded about those days in Philadelphia, long ago. And it's notable because it treats the founding fathers not as saints, but as real people.
I have had the good fortune to see 1776 twice―once in Alaska when I was there on internship, and once in Syracuse just a few years ago. And I was surprised at how different the experience was, not because of the actors, but because the second time I saw it in a state that was one of the thirteen colonies represented in the play.
As the events unfold and the representatives from the various colonies choose to vote for or against independence from Britain, New York always manages to abstain from the vote…”courteously”…because its legislature has not decided which way to go (which may in itself sound familiar today!). Seeing 1776 in the state of New York made the whole thing much more alive, much closer, much more a story about this very land and these very people who inhabit it.
That being said, the power of experiencing the story of independence on stage is that it helps you to see that this is everyone's story in the United States―that even if you never set foot on the territory of the original thirteen colonies, even if you have nothing in common with the founding fathers in that hot, sticky room in July, this is your story too. The American story, the story of our roots, the story of grasping for freedom against all other odds, belongs to us all. Because we all have been enslaved to something in our lives. At one time or another, we have all longed for something better.
At the very end of the musical, the resolution to declare independence comes down to a final delegate's vote: James Wilson of Pennsylvania. If he votes yea, the resolution passes; if he votes nay, it fails. For a moment, the action and witty dialogue ceases, as Wilson pauses to consider what he will do. Finally, he decides he doesn't want to be remembered as the man who prevented American independence, and votes yea.
Just as that one lone delegate, so many years ago, held in his hands the fate of our freedom today, so does freedom lie with each one of us, with each person living in the United States. Throughout the years, freedom has not been simply a gift, to do with as we like. It has been a fragile legacy that requires each of us to receive it with responsibility.
Christian worship on the Fourth of July is not an easy thing, because we follow a Messiah who during his life spoke out against the government of the time. Our own gratitude for what the founding fathers did 234 years ago cannot overshadow our promise to follow Jesus, even if that path leads us away from country and our American identity. If the call to be a disciple and the call to be a citizen conflict, we must choose to be a disciple first.
That being said, the freedom of a Christian, like the freedom of an American, is also a gift that each of us must accept with responsibility. We see this in our readings today.
In Galatians, Paul was writing to a community that was deeply divided over what role the Jewish law was going to play in their life together. Some felt the law was still important and refused to eat with those who were not following the law. Some felt the law was no longer important because Jesus had come.
Paul was trying to make the point that while they had been set free from Jewish dietary laws, neither side was or should be free to act in a way that divided the community. It was ridiculous to Paul that people should be concerned with matters that divided the group when Jesus' death and resurrection signified God's will to bring people together, to unite Jews and Gentiles fully and completely as a new people, as the body of Christ.
Freedom is given to them and to us for a reason: to build up the community, to fulfill the Greatest Commandment of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you look at the list that Paul gives of “the works of the flesh” later in the reading, you can see that all of them are unholy primarily because they break the bonds of community. And of the fruits of the Spirit that he lists later, most of them are holy because they serve the community. Each one of us may be “free,” but as the body of Christ we are always bound together, never truly free of the expectations and requirements of living in community.
This has also been a common challenge in our nation's history. We are on a continuum between “freedom” on one end, and “unity” on the other end, and because we want both, we are always looking for just the right balance between the two. How can we err on the side of personal freedom, and yet also foster a society with enough order that others can also live out their dreams? How can we be one people when we disagree on so many things? What is it that unites us?
Our reading from John has something to say about that. The thing that both unites us and sets us free is the truth. In terms of our nation, the thing that unites us and sets us free is the conviction that each one of us is created with inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in terms of our faith and our reliance on the grace of God, the thing that unites us and sets us free is the truth that Jesus came to earth, lived, taught, healed, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead, all so that we might live a new life.
In that truth we are united as the body of Christ, and yet in that truth we are set free both from our bondage to sin and our bondage to earning our favor with God. We are set free from having to curry God's favor and bargain for our salvation. What will we do with that freedom? Live as though there were no claim on our lives? Of course not. Freedom that is won through the cross is not to be taken lightly. For Christians, this day is not just Independence Day, but also Interdependence Day, a day when we receive our freedom but also pledge ourselves to build up the entire body of Christ.
As much as we give honor and gratitude to those who have put their lives and their honor on the line for our country, we owe God an infinite amount of that same honor and gratitude. For while those who declared independence so long ago have given us a legacy of freedom that lasts for this life, Christ has given us a legacy of freedom that will last forever. The Son has made us free, and we are free indeed. Thanks be to God! Amen.