A New Birth of Freedom

Proper 9C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

If you pull a coin from your pocket (any coin) and read what’s written, you’ll find the words “Liberty” and “In God We Trust.” The torch of Lady Liberty shines with arm uplifted, defiantly proclaiming a welcome to distant shores “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” (Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus). We celebrate these foundational ideals of America which find an echo in the gospel of Jesus. This, the soul of our nation which animates the lively experiment of American democracy, is worthy of our sacrifice and praise to extend and preserve it.

Yet the same gospel makes clear, there is no ‘most favored nation’ in the kingdom of God. There are no borders or boundaries to contain God’s saving grace. Christians must be geographic, cultural, national, religious, and ethnic egalitarians. There is no geographic center of the world, only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. God lavishly loves the world, each person, and every place without exception.

So, I wonder, this July 4th, will that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave o’er a land where all people are free? When will the home of the brave have enough courage to acknowledge our brutal history of genocide, slavery, and a systemic racism? When will we put more trust in God than in ‘bombs bursting in air?’ We need a spiritual transformation to match our material revolution.

Tomorrow the nation celebrates its independence. While God declares a distinct preference for inter-dependence. We cannot not exist separately from everything else that exists to produce air, water, food, and shelter. (If you’re not sure about this think about how long you would last in outer space.) God works through us and not without us. We do God’s work with our hands. It takes a great God to stoop low enough to work through ordinary people like us. We need a new heart and a new mind to grow up into what God intends for us to be.

We need the sort of transformation that cannot come from bloody revolution. Christian liberty is not liberty won by force, but liberty freely given. It is freedom to serve with a glad heart created in us through mercy and forgiveness. This kind of liberty cannot be stored up but demands to be shared without regard to race, nation, or creed. This liberty demands the church must never be partisan and also that living our faith must always be political. We cannot wash our hands like Pilate nor turn our backs to suffering and injustice all around us.

We need a transformation. We must learn by doing. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (Luke 10:2). He sent out thirty-five pairs of disciples like lambs into the midst of wolves (vs. 3). Jesus will later say as they fan out and set to work, he ‘watched Satan fall again and again from heaven like lightening.’ (Luke 10:18)

The seventy are almost giddy with the thrill of their first endeavors. They are filled with joy and amazement. This decentralized gospel proved unstoppable working through their mortal hands and voices. For proof they offer the same evidence Jesus did in response to the questions of John the Baptist: The blind see, the lame walk, the spirit is with us, Christ is alive.

We need a spiritual transformation to knock Satan from their throne once again. Contemporary, mainline Christians are not accustomed to talking about the devil. The gospels use simple language about Satan in reference to a commonplace reality. Satan is called “the tempter,” “the accuser,” the “prince of this world,” “the prince of darkness,” “the murderer from the beginning.” A functional reading of Satan in Luke makes it clear Satan is always lurking in the background of this world, delights in violence, inspires fear and is involved in orchestrating the death of Jesus. (I don’t know about you but the bible’s talk about the devil seems more relevant to me today than it did just a few years ago.)

The Devil’s traps and snares are sticky. We easily get ourselves caught up in them. We cannot free ourselves. We would have no reason to hope but for grace. In God we trust to rescue us from the grave and to win our liberty. See, we are a new creation. “While traveling throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East, bible scholar John Dominic Crossan and his wife, Sarah, made a surprising discovery. Over and over again, they found paintings showing something they had never seen in Western art: the risen Jesus grasping the hands of Adam and Eve as he rose into Heaven.” This led the Crossan’s on a fifteen-year investigation across Egypt, Italy, Turkey, Syria, Israel and Russia. What they found led them to the unexpected realization that the East not the West, has a more holistic understanding of Easter.” While the Western church depicts an individual resurrection, Eastern Christianity depicts a universal one. (John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter, Harper One, 2018)
The risen Christ has taken us by the hand to lift and raise us to new life. Even now the whole creation groans as in childbirth (Romans 8:22) Is now the time? Is this the year America will awaken to Christ? We Lutherans, and other denominations, insist and debate with yet other Christians that Christ is truly present here, now, at the table. This conversation has been very important in the history of the church but whether Christ is fully present in the wine and bread has no real meaning unless Christ will become fully present in us.

I’ll give you an example of the kind of transformation and liberty I’m talking about. On Dec. 14, 1934, a failed stockbroker named Bill Wilson was struggling with alcoholism at a New York City detox center. It was his fourth stay at the center and nothing had worked. It was in the midst of the Great Depression, the national economy and the promise of the American dream was shattered.

This time, he tried a remedy called the belladonna cure. It called for infusions of a hallucinogenic drug made from a poisonous plant. During treatment, he consulted a friend named Ebby Thacher, who told him to give up drinking and give his life over to the service of God. Wilson was not a believer, but, later that night, at the end of his rope, he called out in his hospital room: “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

As Wilson described it, a white light suffused his room and the presence of God appeared. “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing,” he testified later. “And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.” Wilson never touched alcohol again. He went on to help found Alcoholics Anonymous, which, almost 90 years later, has some 2 million members in 180 nations worldwide.

In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness. In a nation that often celebrates individualism, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another, learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort.” (David Brooks, June 28, 2010 NYT)

I believe we need an awakening, not unlike the one Bill Wilson had. We need a spiritual transformation today to knock Satan from their throne and to set us on a path to life through which all life and all people may flourish. We need a new birth in freedom. What we sow, we reap. And so, our lives bring forth a harvest. The gardener and farmer know, what new fruits are possible that God can bring from our labors.