Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sermon for July 1: Chariot of Fire

Proper 8 C, 2 Kings 2:1-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

Wednesday is July 4, and today is Canada Day (and we have fifteen Canadians visiting today, from the Drayton Reformed Church in Ontario), so I want to talk about freedom today. "O Freedom, O Freedom, O freedom over me."

I want to talk about freedom that is spiritual and freedom that is moral and freedom that is political. My text is from Galatians, "For freedom Christ has set us free." I want to address some issues of Christian citizenship. This sermon will start out as a history lesson. And we will have a little fun.

Freedom is precious in America, even more than in Canada, because of slavery and how long in America so many people did not have it, even though the Bible told them it was what God wanted for them, and the Bible gave them hope, and you can hear it in Negro Spirituals, which came out of the slavery experience. "Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go."

Listen to these words which introduce the Ten Commandments. "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The house of bondage. God had given the people of Israel political freedom from Pharaoh, and spiritual freedom from the gods of Egypt, in order to practice moral freedom from their own inner bondage to sin, and for the purpose of practicing that freedom God gave them the Ten Commandments.

In the Bible, the Law is not the opposite of freedom, it is for freedom, it tells us how to live in freedom, the freedom God has won for us. The Law of God was given to Israel to help them do their job as a "Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation," both during exodus and in the promised land.

The Ten Commandments and the other laws and statutes that expanded them were the law-code of a brand new nation, the Kingdom of God. And this nation was unique. It was all former slaves. It had no royalty, no nobility, no hierarchy, no army, no police, no landowners, no masters, no slaves, everyone was equal, so who was going to tell you what to do? The Law of God. In order to practice freedom, you have to have law.

You see how Israel was the world’s first "constitutional" nation? Abraham Lincoln could have been talking about Israel in his Gettysburg Address (and in certain ways I think he was) when he talked about "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Let me say in passing that we were taught in public school that we got democracy from the Greeks. Maybe. In part. But I think if you ask the descendants of the slaves in America where we got democracy, they would know better and more accurately, that we got it from Exodus.

A little more history. The Book of Judges tells us how Israel, once in the Promised Land, kept going after other gods and goddesses, and in doing so they surrendered spiritual freedom, and, in St. Paul’s words, they "submitted to a yoke of slavery." Inevitably they fell off on their moral freedom, and they kept losing their political freedom to the Amorites and Moabites and Midianites and Philistines. God would keep sending judges to set his people free. Finally God sent them David, to set his people free.

Our Old Testament lesson today comes from after Davids’ time, the time of Elijah and Elisha, when Israel kept putting itself under the yoke of slavery to Baal. Elijah’s mission was to set his people free.

In Jesus’ day, the Children of Israel had lost their political freedom to the Roman Empire and to the Jewish puppets in power by Rome. The people were hoping for the Messiah who would come, like the judges, like the prophets, like David, to set his people free.

So you need to read our text from Galatians in Jewish terms: "For freedom the Messiah has set his people free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

But where Jesus himself and St. Paul take it is a different direction than the political direction the people were expecting. The freedom Jesus won for them was not from the bondage of the Romans, but the power of sin, and their own "flesh." He won that liberation not on the field of battle, but on the cross.

He won the spiritual freedom for the practice of moral freedom, and that moral freedom was the distinctive mark of the early church, even when they had no political power at all, especially so. Indeed, they refused political power, at least through the first three centuries, till Constantine.

More history. The spiritual freedom from the Gospel, and the moral freedom which expressed it, gradually, over the centuries, worked its way through the nations of the world, in fits and starts, though highs and lows, but it is always there, like leaven in a loaf, like seeds in the ground.

I could take just two examples, the liberation of the Netherlands from Spain, which led to the founding of our own congregation, and Great Britain, the first great Protestant empire. Our second hymn was that famous one, And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, with words by William Blake. It’s been a patriotic hymn in England, and it makes use of that image of the Chariot of Fire from our first lesson. (And it’s where that movie got its name.) That hymn actually challenges England to live up to its Christian pretensions.

Canada, like Great Britain, was legally a Christian nation. They do not have the separation of church and state. The United States, by contract, in legal terms, was never a Christian nation. But historically it certainly was. The idea that human beings have an "inalienable right to liberty" is a Biblical idea. And yet our slavery showed how much repentance we had to do.

There is no question that the USA is a special nation in the world. We are special because of our ideals. It’s why so many immigrants are trying to get here. But political freedom cannot endure without moral freedom, which is a problem for America. And moral freedom requires spiritual freedom, which is our part in the whole equation. Because freedom requires discipline, and humility and repentance.

Our President said that America is God’s divinely chosen instrument to bring freedom to the world. He’s hardly the first person to make that claim. But he’s wrong. I mean if he’s speaking as a Christian he’s wrong. It’s not America, it’s the church. The church is God’s divinely chosen instrument to bring freedom to the world. Through the preaching of the Word and practice of Christian discipline. I don’t mean the organized church, but the church as the community of people who have been set free by Christ for freedom.

I’m not saying it’s only Christians who offer freedom to the world. Can other religions develop freedom too? Why not. But now I’m speaking to you who are under the Lordship of Jesus. You are called to be citizens of your own nation, and to contribute to it, to sustain its ideals by your speech and your community and discipline.

Now look at Luke’s gospel. He shows us how not to do it, and he shows us the temptation that is attracting to so many in the religious right, to be oppositional, to call for judgment on those who disagree with us. Jesus tells his disciples it’s hard enough yourselves to follow him, don’t judge other people. Look to yourselves, challenge yourselves and your own commitment. Challenge yourselves to exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit. They’re listed in Galatians.

And so it’s for the sake of our nation that we be a community of love. It’s for the sake of the USA that we exhibit joy. Our nation needs us to model peace. It’s for America that we practice patience. The world is desperate for models of kindness, and for demonstrations of generosity and exhibitions of faithfulness, democracy requires gentleness and citizenship requires self-control. There is no law against such things. For freedom Christ has set us free.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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