For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;* only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,* but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 14
The date: May 7, 1788 – the place: the Vienna State Theater – the event: the Austrian premiere of Mozart’s new opera “Don Giovanni.” Mozart had been the darling of Vienna, and the opera had been wildly successful at its 1st performances in Prague. But Vienna was different. For one thing, unlike in Prague, the State Theater in Vienna catered to the wealthy and the aristocracy; and for another Mozart’s collaborator – Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the words – was intensely disliked and mistrusted in Vienna. It is not a major surprise then to learn that the Vienna premiere was less than successful. While the failure of the production in Vienna though can be ascribed to a variety of reason, the reactions of the audience to one crucial scene insured its failure. Near the end of the big party scene in Act II there is moment when the entire cast – all 8 of them – seem to break character, turn towards the audience and sing these words: Viva la libertad! Viva, viva la libertad! - “ Hurrah for liberty – Hurrah for freedom!”
Only a few months later the French revolution would break out and take the life of not only close friends and relatives of many in the audience for that 1st performance – but would also take the life in a humiliating and brutal way of France’s Queen, Marie Antoinette – the sister of Mozart’s patron, the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II. Is it any wonder that these words struck fear into the hearts of the audience that night: Freedom / Liberty / Justice / Equality! These words were the rallying cry of the French as they stormed the Bastille in July of 1789, only little over a year later. And this movement, no, this hunger for freedom swept across the face of Europe as many took up the cry for Freedom and Liberty and Justice and Equality – for all! But, inspiration soon turned to revulsion as the French Revolution quickly disintegrated into a lust for revenge and power and wealth. “Is that what Freedom is all about?” some wondered. “Is that where liberty leads us?” The French experience threw a bucket of cold water on the flames of the spread of the liberty movement in places like Vienna and in England. However, one place in the western world had begun its commitment to liberty and freedom before the French and this one place managed, sometimes with difficulty, to prevent the kind of disintegration that had occurred in France.
And, of course that one place was in the British colonies on the mainland of North America. Chaffing under British rule the colonists began to advocate for self-determination and self-governance. But, in the face of British intransigence this quickly grew to a hunger for liberty and complete freedom from foreign control. Things came to a head in July of 1776 when the Continental Congress of the Colonies, meeting during a terribly hot summer in Philadelphia issued a written statement to King George III and the Parliament in London making it clear their patience was at the end. This statement, the Declaration of Independence, contains one of the best know passages in the great history of our nation: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Well, we know what happened next. And the fact that close to 250 years later we are here in this place celebrating the anniversary of the signing of this Declaration is testimony to the importance, the enduring nature of, and the success of the struggle. Why? What is it about the American understanding of Liberty and Freedom sets it apart?
To focus on this question – I would like to share another story from the 18th century – this one from Boston, 1770. There was perhaps no place in the American colonies more hostile to British governance than Boston in the days leading up to the revolution. In the early evening of March 5, 1770 a hostile crowd approached the sentry post of a Custom House on Bunker Hill, in the suburbs of the city. In the confusion that followed the British opened fire and 3 were killed, 11 injured, of which 2 died later making the total mortality for this incident 5 dead. The British Captain, Thomas Preston and his regiment were all arrested and tried for murder. In this hostile environment, when many were looking for a chance to take revenge on these British troops for all the pent-up anger they had towards England, no legal counsel could be engaged to defend them; until a leading Patriot stepped forward and undertook the defense of these British soldiers. The Patriot was none other than John Adams, who would one day be the 2nd President of the United States. Adams taking of this case stunned many of his fellow patriots and contemporaries, and not only that, but Adams was such a brilliant attorney that he got 6 of the 8 soldiers, including Capt. Preston, acquitted and the other two received only a light.
Writing later about the trial Adams writes: It was… one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right. The point is this – liberty means that justice is for all – not just justice for people like us – people we like – people we agree with – justice for all - even for our enemies. Liberty and Justice is for all. For Adams – Freedom is not Freedom if it is not for all; Liberty is not Liberty if it is not for all; Justice is not Justice if it is not for all; Equality is not Equality if it is not for all! This is what set the American understanding and experience apart from the French. The French revolution essentially exchanged one dictatorial system for another. But not in America where democratic ideals took root – because these ideals were based on the principal that they are for all!
And so in this important episode in the life of one of the great leaders of the American Revolution we begin to see the emergence of a definition of Freedom. And it is not doing whatever I want, and has little to nothing to do with an individual’s narrow self-interest. Freedom has to do with being in community and reaching out to others – even to the point of putting one’s life and livelihood at risk for the sake of others’ access to freedom and justice. Let’s turn now to St. Paul.
St. Paul must have been in a bad mood when he wrote his letter to the Galatians. It is obvious that he was angry and that he felt very strongly about the issues he addresses. Apparently after he had established this church in the region of Galatia others had followed him who began teaching things that were in opposition to what Paul had taught. Specifically the primary issue centered around the place of the law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Do Christians need to become Jewish in order to be fully Christian? Paul said a clear NO! For Paul it came down to this: in Christ we are set free from the need to focus on finding our own way to God. We are forgiven and saved through the Grace of God and thus we no longer need to keep the law of Moses in order to earn God’s favor and acceptance. Rather, now, in Christ the law of Moses becomes a gift and a guide which frees us to serve others. Paul writes – For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment – You are to Love Your Neighbor as yourself. Paul knew as well as anyone that this does not come naturally to men and women; that our own self-interest gets in the way and that we need to be freed from our fears and worries and from the selfish task of achieving, or working our way into heaven, if we are ever to be able to move towards loving others.
And let us not forget that Jesus’ approach to the law of Moses was the same as Paul’s. This seems to be one reason why the religious authorities of his time were so unhappy with him. But again and again when presented with the choice of reaching out to care and love people or following the law, Jesus ALWAYS opted for reaching out and caring for people. When we hear this story of the Good Samaritan read the emphasis is usually on the Good Samaritan himself. But this morning I would like to lift up the Priest and the Levite. Those who passed by on the other side, because these are the ones I think that are most like us. For we are the ones who are most inclined to pass by on the other side when we see others in need or others who are being excluded or others who are struggling. Like the Priests and the Levites we are too often disabled by our fears and self-centered attitudes; we are too often disabled by our self-interest or our need to maintain our own view of the world, or our greed, or our fear of those who are different from us or any number of things. And in our turning our backs on others – we threaten our own freedom, as Paul says we are submitting to the yoke of bondage.
In my lifetime I have never seen so much division and bitterness affecting public discourse as there is today. It is true that we have some serious problems that we face in this country currently. But I do not believe that anything that we face is worth turning our backs on our values, or giving up our foundation of liberty/freedom/justice and equality for all! But yet, there are some who would seemingly trade liberty for political uniformity and (a false) security. In the areas of both citizenship and in our lives of faith, freedom must be free of manipulation, of selfishness, of exclusivity and of exploitation – or it is not freedom. When we allow others to tell us how to think or vote – our freedom is threatened; when we reject another as being not a real American or a real Christian because they do not agree with us or our group – our freedom is threatened; when we exclude others because they are somehow different than us in any way – our freedom is threatened; when we allow others to tell us how and what we should believe – our freedom is threatened.
Our faith teaches us that freedom is found in reaching out and caring for others – the work of great Americans like John Adams teaches us that true freedom and liberty must be for all or none; Martin Luther writes concerning liberty that A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, and at the same time a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.
So how then do we define liberty? The definition I believe is not to be found by looking inward at our own self-interest; or by giving in to our fears. It is to be found by looking outward, to see ourselves as part of a broad and diverse community; It is to be found by looking outward to see the needs of others in places like Steeleville or Sparta or Chicago, or in Louisiana, Washington DC, Mexico, England, Afghanistan and many other places both far and near. The answer to the question: what is freedom? - is found not by answering the question of what is in MY selfish best interest, what do I want, or what would best benefit me; it is found by seeking the best for my neighbor and the community.
I would like to conclude with one more story from America’s early history. In 1814 – our nation was facing dark days indeed. The nation’s capitol had been attacked and the White House and Capitol Building were burnt to the ground. It seemed to many that the great experiment in liberty, as some called it, was a failure. But on September 3, two men boarded a British Warship anchored outside of Baltimore in the Chesapeake Bay in order to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. After a surprisingly gracious reception and a fine meal in the Captain’s cabin, Baltimore attorney Francis Scott Key and his companion, John Stuart Skinner were detained (not arrested) for the duration of the night. From the vantage point of his cabin on board the HMS Minden, Francis Scott Key watched the British navy commence their bombardment of Fort McHenry in the port of Baltimore. As part of the defense strategy all lights in the city had been extinguished. Consequently, the bombs bursting in the sky above provided the only light that illuminated the Fort. And with each blast Key noticed and then carefully watched the flag flying above the fort. Throughout the bombardment the flag flew, never wavering. Inspired by this sight, Key wrote a poem which begins: O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light… each stanza of this 4 verse poem, later a song, now our national anthem, concludes with these words: O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave? O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Land of the free! We have many problems in our nation – but we will never solve them by compromising our commitment to freedom and liberty and justice and equality for all! These form the rock and foundation upon which this great nation was built. May God grant to us all the strength and wisdom and courage to reach out of ourselves and to commit ourselves as both citizens of this great land and as Christians to our call to freedom!