A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 3, 2016
Galatians 5:13-15; James 1:22-27 ESV
The concept of “Freedom,” which we so cherish and celebrate this weekend, is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood and most abused concepts known to humankind. When some people think of freedom, they may immediately think of I, me, my individual rights and privileges to think as I want to think, do as I want to do, and live as I want to live, to the exclusion of or without consideration of anyone else.
But should freedom—true freedom—exist in a vacuum? In other words, should freedom be free of obligations and responsibilities? Or, could it be that freedom is, in fact, tethered to obligations and responsibilities, to something larger outside of myself? To entertain such a thought may seem like an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. I admit that.
But when our founding fathers spoke of and wrote about freedom, I don’t believe they had in mind the license to do as we darn well please, without some restraints and restrictions and responsibilities accompanying it.
We might even choose to look at the idea of freedom as freedom from and freedom to. For instance, I imagine our founding fathers had in mind freedom from tyranny, freedom from injustice, freedom from oppression, freedom from unreasonable taxation without representation, and freedom from overbearing rule.
But our founding fathers also envisioned freedoms to: freedom to bear arms, freedom to assemble in religious meetings without harassment, freedom to pursue happiness, freedom to work hard and pursue one’s trade or profession and make a living and accumulate wealth and acquire property, and so on.
But as already noted, our founding fathers probably did not envision freedom as a license to do anything I please apart from the rights, privileges, and well-being of others. In other words, my freedom should not impede the freedom of my neighbor.
And freedom doesn’t mean elevating self above others. Such means that in the exercise of my freedom, I must not treat others as a means to an end. Here is an example. Several years ago, when I was a teenager and playing in a Country & Western band, we did several shows for a man who came to town whose stated objective was to raise money for the disabled and/or developmentally challenged. Of course, he printed and sold tickets to the shows, but he also went to all the businesses in the area and sold ads for a printed program handbill. He paid us a nominal amount of $100-125, rented the VFW meeting hall, paid himself a salary I am sure, and the rest was supposed to go the charities he had signified. Now, we never had any way to verify that any of the money actually went to those charities, but we always wondered about it. In other words, there was always the question in our minds if he actually used the disabled and developmentally challenged of our community as a means to an end of making himself rich.
In a similar way, we remember that a couple of Tennessee charities that were supposed to be raising money for cancer research and patients were exposed a few months back, as it was learned that the majority of the money raised was filling the pockets of the CEOs. All of us would agree, I think, that such acts constitute an abuse—downright corruption—of freedom. Freedom does not give us the license to use others as a means to an end.
So clearly, our freedom from and freedom to come with obligations and responsibilities. To cite a few other examples, we may have the freedom to bear arms, but we are not free to use our firearms to go around murdering people because they look, believe, or love differently from the way we do. Our nation was built on the lofty ideal of freedom to be as we are, as long as we don’t infringe on the well-being of others. So while I may own a firearm, freedom dictates that I use that firearm responsibly and do not use it to bring harm to others.
We have the freedom to drive the highways and roam across this great nation of ours as we desire. We have some marvelous, beautiful national parks in America that are said to belong to all of us. But our freedom to roam our great country at will and enjoy those magnificent natural landscapes does not free us from paying taxes to support those national parks or to keep up the highways that get us there. Some Americans feel they should be totally free of paying taxes and supporting government programs of any form. But are they willing to stop driving the highways and streets, willing to stop drinking the water and using the electricity our municipalities provide, stop depending upon police and fire department services, and so on?
Many Americans cherish the freedom to attend the church or other religious center of their choice and would get fighting mad if someone told them they couldn’t do that any longer. But not as many are willing to grant the same freedom of choice to others whose beliefs and religious practices are quite different from their own. But the meaning of freedom is that I can worship where and how I choose, but I have to give the same freedom to others, regardless of their Christian denomination or world religion, whether it be Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam, or something else.. I may be free to worship and practice as a progressive or liberal Christian, but I have to be willing to defend the right of others to worship and practice whatever religion they so choose—provided that their religion accords with the same freedom principle and brings no hurt to others in the process.
So it seems obvious that a part of the make-up of freedom itself is my responsibility toward everyone around me as I take measures to assure that they have the same freedoms that I do. I may be free, but I am not totally separate from others.
In the final analysis, the way of true freedom—the way of biblical freedom, anyway—is the way that can’t be separated from the larger community and world of which I am a part. The Apostle Paul left us a classic passage on Christian freedom in his letter to the Galatians, which reminds us that freedom should never be divorced from the Law of Love, which was cited by Jesus as being the Supreme Law which should dictate every other aspect of our lives. And so, the Apostle Paul reminds us that tied to our freedom are the requirements of both love and service. From a Christian perspective, being free from tyranny, guilt, fear, unreasonable demands of the Law, and so on means we are able to use our freedom in a positive way, to love and serve others for the betterment of all concerned.
I have an affinity with and ministerial standing with the Congregationalists, as I have noted in sermons past. I love the Congregational platform and devotion to the three F’s—Faith, Freedom, and Fellowship. The Congregational Way is Faith in the teachings and leadership of Jesus; Freedom to gather and order a local church apart from the dictates and control of any denominational hierarchy (sounds a bit like this United Church, doesn’t it?); but also Fellowship with other Christians and churches which join in loving service to the world. So for Congregationalists, Freedom is one branch of a trinity, as it were, which is vitally connected to Faith and Fellowship and service.
So, the reason for freedom is not so I can separate myself and do as I please. The reason for freedom is that I might be a loving, serving, part of that which is much greater than myself, as I use my freedom to make a positive difference in the world. May it be so for us. Amen.