Sermon 7/6/2008: On America, Freedom, and Paul

July 6, 2008 at 9:58 am Leave a comment

Proper 9A

Messiah Lutheran Church

July 6, 2008

 

I consider myself a pretty patriotic person.

I love to play Sousa marches on my stereo.

I sing the national anthem, with my hand over my heart, facing the Stars and Stripes,

and to that flag I pledge allegiance with the best of them.

So I consider myself a pretty patriotic person

on the Fourth of July and anytime.

I value the freedoms we enjoy in our country.

The freedoms of assembly and speech, which we are enjoying right now.

The freedom to pursue happiness in the way I choose.

The freedom to be tried by my peers, although I hope I never have to exercise that right.

But truth be told, there is something that is uncomfortable

about this word, “freedom,”

of which we are so rightly proud.

There is the fact that freedoms that have been granted some have been denied to others,

but that is not primarily what I am thinking about.

There is also the fact that we as Americans cannot agree upon

how the concept of freedom should work in practice –

for example, some hold that the practice of abortion

is an essential part of liberty,

and others decry it as deprivation of life to the most helpless among us.

While some see the right to own a handgun as a manifestation of freedom,

others see that as simply a threat to life.

We are not all agreed on the meaning of American freedom,

or to whom it extends and how.

But when I think of the word “freedom,” I always remember that,

in our American definition,

it means “freedom to” do things.

It also in the second sense means “freedom from,” in the sense

of being free from foreign domination.

But even if we are free to do whatever we wish,

and we are free from the lordship of a foreign king or power,

Americans remain, as all people, captives.

 

The history books tell us that when the first colonists

came to what would one day be called the United States,

they came in search of “religious freedom.”

We assume we know what that means –

that they came to be able to set up a Methodist church on one corner

and a Lutheran church on the other

and a Catholic church down the block.

But that’s not what it means at all.

In fact, the colony of Pennsylvania was different from most of the other colonies

in the sense that its original charter

allowed for the exercise of differing religions within its borders.

But when those whom we know as Pilgrims and Puritans arrived in the 1600’s,

they came in order to make a “new” England,

not simply a freedom from religious domination,

but a place where they could live a holy life,

set up a holy commonwealth,

realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Indeed, throughout American history there have been many such attempts,

from the Shaker communities

to the Mormon church,

from the flower children of the 60’s

to Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth,

from the People’s Temple of  Jim Jones,

to the folks who tried to escape on the Hale-Bopp comet,

America has been fertile ground for those trying to achieve a perfect society,

those that believe that on this soil

there can be escape from the systems that bind us.

 

They should have read Romans 7.

They should have considered that others before them had thought of this.

They should have considered that St. Paul had already discovered

that the true enemy was not outside,

the sinners around us or the sinners ruling over us,

but inside,

the sin ruling over the flesh

and enslaving even the one devoted to the law of God,

so that even God’s holy law could not free one from sin.

 

This proves doubly ironic for Paul.

For Paul had always thought that the Ten Commandments and the laws like it

were God’s best gift to his chosen people, the Israelites,

freeing them from the tyranny of sin,

setting them apart from outsiders.

Don’t a lot of Americans, too, who think we need a religious revival

talk a lot about the Ten Commandments,

demanding that they should be posted in schools

and other public buildings?

I would settle for them being posted in our churches and in our homes,

where we are indeed free to do so.

But the ironic part for Paul

was that the more he knew the commandments,

the more he knew that he did not keep them with a whole heart.

Indeed in some sense he knew that there was war inside of him,

a revolt against his self which delighted in God’s law.

Most gallingly,

he found that the law even provoked sin in him,

for the law suggested trespasses that he hadn’t even thought of.

He wouldn’t have known what it was to covet, to be jealous of what someone else had;

But God’s law told him “Do not covet,”

Suddenly he is filled with all sorts of jealousy!

And so it is that given all the tools to be free,

knowing what God desires,

even wanting to do what God desires,

Paul finds it impossible to be anything but a slave to sin,

not enjoying the liberty for which he is made.

He needs a rescuer, for he finds himself in a constant state of civil war.

 

We Americans regularly celebrate our freedoms,

without wondering what ends we use our freedoms for.

We celebrate that we have been free since 1776 from foreign domination,

neglecting the fact that even if we stand unconquered for one thousand years,

each of us individually and together as a nation

are still in need of rescue from outside,

for there dwells within us a foreign power who would keep us captive

and make us servants of a rebellious spirit which seeks all freedom for itself

and slavery for all other creatures.

 

Lutherans understand Romans 7

to mean that our true enemies are not political, but spiritual.

That while we would prefer that we were free in every way,

the only freedom that truly matters

is the freedom that only Christ can give,

the freedom from sin and death that Jesus gives as a gift.

St. Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

When they are being Lutherans, Lutherans know that Paul is right –

the rescue from the inner enemy that keeps us captive

means that all outer circumstances, while important, become relative.

Whether American or no, whether free or under oppression,

there is a freedom which is known in the Spirit

that our political freedom is unrelated to.

 

So it is that neither patriotism or political change

are generally the subjects of Lutheran sermons.

Neither the Rev. Jerry Falwell nor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright

would fit in comfortably in a Lutheran pulpit.

Their understanding is that in order to have the kingdom of God

you have to have the right political conditions.

A Lutheran understanding says that even under the best political conditions

you still have the basic problem of needing to be rescued from sin and death.

We don’t preach about how wonderful America is

or how America needs to change

but about how wonderful God in Christ is

and how we need to change.

And that’s a message that can apply to Americans, Europeans,

Africans, Asians, any person under any condition

in the whole world.

 

But as Christians who hold the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship,

we do have a tremendous opportunity.

We can rightly be grateful, and proud,

that in the United States of America

we have the privilege of exercising our best judgment,

as voters, as citizens, as members of the government,

as to how best our neighbors can be served and protected.

With our political freedoms intact,

we may spend our days seeking that spiritual freedom

which, despite the sin that infects our lives,

we Christians know to be found in Christ.

 

So I consider myself to be a pretty patriotic person.

I am glad and proud to have been born an American citizen,

but I am even more greatly humbled to have been baptized a Christian,

and to know that though sin infects my life,

I have found in Christ a remedy which truly frees me

in a way that no earthly citizenship could have.

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Sermon – Saints Peter and Paul: June 29, 2008 Sermon 7/13/2008 – The Seed is the Word of the Kingdom

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