Lessons of Summer
Flags, Fireworks, and Freedom audio to be added later
Micah 4:1-4; Galatians 5:13-18, 22-26
Pastor Marty Raths
There is an old rabbinic story. A man comes to his rabbi and asks, “Rabbi, why did God choose to speak to Moses out of something so lowly as a bush?” And the rabbi answered, “God chose to do so to show us that there is nothing so common or ordinary in life that it cannot become a means for God to speak to us.”
This is the wisdom behind our worship theme this summer: The Lessons of Summer. Our faith is an incarnational faith, meaning that God came to us in the humanity of Jesus, and God comes to us, and speaks to us, and calls to us, from out of the everyday experiences of our lives, even something as lowly as a bush. So this summer we are exploring some common summer events, and activities, and occasions, road trips, weddings, golf, baseball, gardening, leisure time, listening for a word from God, and gleaning from this life and faith lessons.
Today we are exploring our celebration of national observances. The summer is framed by two of these observances, Memorial Day and Labor Day, and in the middle of the summer we celebrate Independence Day. These national observances help us to commemorate and celebrate important parts of our shared experience as a nation. They are meant to give us pause as people, and it is good for us to give pause sometimes, as individuals and as communities.
Mohandas Gandhi wisely observed once, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” But our society sure thinks otherwise. Speed is what seems to matter, at least when it comes to technology, which is influencing more and more of our lives. But the world of the spirit is not the world of technology. When it comes to all the fruits of the spirit, speed has little to commend it. It is far more a hindrance than a help. It causes us to miss things, important things, or to lose sight of them, or to take them for granted.
So it is good for us, and good for our spirits, to give pause sometimes. On Memorial Day and Labor Day we are encouraged to give pause, allowing us time to honor those men and women who gave their lives in service to our country and to acknowledge the importance of work and the contributions of labor to our national inheritance.
Our observance of Independence Day is meant to give us pause as well. Granted much of what we do on this weekend of the 4th is devoted to picnics, parades, parties, and the like. And that is all well and good. But it is also well and good for us to give pause to remember why we observe Independence Day, to give thanks for the many freedoms that we enjoy, to honor those who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom, and to recognize that the work of freedom in our world is never done.
Nearly 3000 years ago the prophet Micah envisioned freedom this way. “All shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees; and no one shall make them afraid.” I find this to be one of the most moving images of freedom in all of scripture, an image in which all people are free from want and fear, and all are able to enjoy the fruit of their own labor. But we are not there yet.
This is apparent from our own national history as well. Though our Declaration of Independence was signed 240 years ago tomorrow, the work of freedom had to continue. It would be many more years, and much struggle later, before some of the freedoms enshrined in our founding documents were extended to African Americans and to women. Even today the work of extending freedom continues on behalf of those who do not yet have a full share of freedom in our country, and then there are all the people around the world whose freedoms are curtailed by poverty, disease, corruption, injustice, and war.
The work of freedom is ongoing, and it will be until the kingdom comes. If we let it speak to our conscience, then there is a deep truth, and an unsettling one, in Martin Luther King’s statement that no one is truly free until all are free. This means that the work of freedom is never done, which is a part of the reason why we observe Independence Day, so that we can ask ourselves again what still needs to be done for the cause of freedom.
In his letter to the faithful in Galatia Paul writes to them about the ongoing nature of freedom. Freedom is never a permanent condition. It can be misused and abused, and that happens all the time. So Paul gives a word of warning about using freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Freedom can be relinquished, sacrificed to others for promises of security or privilege or prosperity or any number of other gods with a small g who are demanding but not deserving of our loyalty. And freedom can be taken from us.
In many ways freedom is a choice, or many choices really, that we must make again and again. And there are times when the choice takes commitment and courage and perseverance. So Paul encourages us to stand firm, to not gratify our lesser desires, and to live by the Spirit, all of which is Paul’s way of saying that, from the perspective of our faith, the work of freedom continues for all of us, and this reminder should be a part of our observance of Independence Day.
As I was doing some reading about the beginnings of both Memorial Day and Labor Day, I was struck by the fact that both observances began as efforts at reconciliation. Memorial Day was first observed in 1865, in part to begin the healing of a nation that had been torn apart by civil war. And Labor Day was first observed in 1878, but it became a national holiday in 1894, in the aftermath of the death of several workers during the Pullman Strike.
And that got me to wondering as I thought about our celebration of another Independence Day tomorrow, and all that seems to be dividing us as a nation today. And I know that this is naïve, but so be it. Jesus was naïve at times too it seems to me. How can hope not appear to be naïve sometimes? So I just could not help but wonder what if? In keeping with the original spirit of our national observances, and given the political mess that we have right now, what if we were to devote more of our time and efforts and resources to the work of reconciliation.
I mean we have raised to an art form the cultivation of our differences. Our politicians never seem to miss an opportunity to exploit what divides us, or what may potentially divide us. The media seems to live off all this 24/7. And as a society, we are all complicit in this to some extent.
But what if we all were to step back a little and devote at least as much of our energies to the work of reconciliation. Instead of exploiting our differences all the time, what if we were to stake out some common ground. Surely we have some that we can build upon. And instead of trying to get ourselves heard all the time, what if we were to pause long enough to listen to the other side, to really listen, refusing to settle for one-sided truths, the truths that simply further our own agenda, even though we know deep down that they are only half-truths. Half-truths do not heal a wise person once said, and we have to know that we are never going to get out of our current mess by just asserting our half-truths over and over and over again.
Jesus said that the truth will set us free, not our half-truths. Since none of us are the sole possessors of the truth, then we have to find ways to pause long enough to be able to listen to one another, in our family life, in our church life, in our national life. Here is one suggestion for how we might do this. Another wise person once said that, when we are having a disagreement with someone, say to them, “What you are saying is true, in part.” This opens up some space between us. It maintains our own deeply held convictions because we are not saying that the other person has the whole truth. But it also acknowledges that the other person has a valid perspective with thoughts and ideas and insights that just might be helpful for us to hear. Just imagine how different our lives and our world might be if we could bring ourselves to say just these two words to one another, “in part.”
Yesterday I was reading a book by the religious writer Barbara Brown Taylor, and it spoke to me when she wrote that salvation is the divine spaciousness that comes to us when we find ourselves in a tight spot. And as a nation we are in a tight spot right now because we have painted ourselves into such partisan and polarized corners. But as we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day, I feel the need to ask, Where is the freedom in this? Are corners really the most spacious, and the most gracious, places for us to be? And how might we step out from them even a little to engage with others who see things differently from us?
Image that happening across the aisle in congress, or between the congress and the white house. And that brings me to the dreaded word. Dare I say it? I know that it is anathema in certain circles, or in certain corners actually, but it is not even true in just politics. If any of us have ever been a part of a family, or ever had to work with others, or ever tried to be the church together, and that means all of us, then we know that life and not just politics is the art of compromise. There I said it. Compromise.
And in so many words Paul said it too. Paul’s deepest insight into freedom, and it is really the perspective of the scriptures as a whole, is that freedom is not an end in itself. It too can become an idol. After warning us about not using our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, Paul encourages us through love to become servants of one another. From the perspective of our faith true freedom must be constrained by love. It must be willing to consider the needs of others as well, lest it become self-indulgent, self-interested, and self-serving.
So thoughts of Independence Day have got me to wondering what if? What if we were to use our freedom to work towards reconciliation, to chart a different course, a more loving one, that looked beyond just the next election, or beyond just what is in it for us, a course that considered what is best for our nation, for all of us, and especially for the most vulnerable among us, and for generations yet to come?
There is a lot of fanfare to our celebration of the 4th. And to some extent, like our celebration of communion, there is a sacramental quality to our celebration. The bread and the cup are outward signs of the inward reality of God’s grace. And all the fanfare this weekend, the flags and fireworks, really point to the deeper and more enduring reality of freedom.
It is a time for us to give pause, and an invitation for us to go more deeply, to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be truly free? what are the responsibilities that come with freedom? and what are the costs, and who should bear them? And it is an opportunity for us to imagine what if. What if everyone in our world were free? What would that take, and what would it take from me? and from us?
Our gathering around the table of grace is a time for us to give pause too, and an invitation to renew our commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives, to consider again what would it mean for us to truly follow him? And the table of grace is also an opportunity for us to imagine what if? As we come to the table and share in the bread and the cup, and as we go forth nurtured in the Spirit, we are given the opportunity to imagine what if? What if everyone had a share in the world’s bounty? What if all were given a place at the table, and all were to go away fed? What would that take, and again what would it take from me? and from us?
And there is a lot of overlap in these 2 what ifs, and I want to leave them with us today, for us to ponder on this Day of the Lord and on Independence Day tomorrow. What if all in our world were fed and free? What if, as Micah envisioned long ago, all sat under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one made them afraid? What if? Just imagine that. Amen.