This is the message that I presented on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (6 July 2003) at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 5: 1- 9, 9 – 10, 2 Corinthians 12: 2 – 10, and Mark 6: 1- 13.
What exactly is freedom? What do we expect when we seek freedom? Freedom is one of the most elusive concepts we have today; for how we think of freedom today in no way matches what it really is.
Ask any fifteen-year-old what freedom means and they might reply that it means they can have a car. But ask the same individual some two years later how they are enjoying their new found freedom and they may very well complain about the cost of insurance and what it takes to keep the car they so long desired running.
We want freedom because we think it will take away our responsibilities and that there will be no problems. But freedom brings with it increased responsibilities and with these responsibilities come new problems. Freedom doesn’t release us from anything; it merely redefines our limitations.
It is clear today, as we look backward through the lens of time, that our founding fathers really had no clue what would be the outcome of their efforts of the summer of 1776. But we do know that they knew what the price of their efforts would be. Should the war for independence and freedom have failed, the Declaration of Independence would be their death warrant. Putting their names on this document meant that they were also willing to pay the price that came with freedom.
Sin can be that way; it can seemingly offer us freedom because it offers no responsibilities and promises no problems. But no matter how it is stated, sin’s promise of freedom is simply a cover for slavery and ultimately death.
True freedom comes when we are able to throw away the shackles of slavery and death. Even with the threat of death hanging over their heads, the founding fathers of this country choose freedom rather than slavery imposed by British colonial government. Paul also speaks of freedom, the freedom that could only be found through Christ. It was a freedom that one could have, as Paul reminded us, boasted of countless times.
Paul had every reason and every right to boast. His life before Christ was one of vindictiveness and hatred, of seeking glory through personal triumph and the defeat of others. His actions as Saul were those of someone who thought in the old ways, of thought of power on earth as the only possible solution. To bring the rebel Christians back into line with established religion was his goal for it would bring him power and glory. But he found it to be a hopeless task and one that ultimately brought him face to face with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He is the one of whom he writes in today’s second lesson.
But Paul also knows that boasting about his past triumphs will not help him with the present task and those tasks still to be done. But boasting doesn’t get the job done and boasting takes away from the task. There is some question about what the thorn in his flesh was, that little thing that he referred to on a number of occasions but never fully explained. But it was clear that whatever it was, it was a reminder that his job was not to boast about the successes that he had but to continue working to the end.
Still, he found that as he worked, he grew stronger. And that no matter the pains or agonies he was to endure, the rewards he gained would be greater than whatever he might gain otherwise. And as he did the work of Christ in this world, he would get stronger.
That is the nice thing about freedom. It gives us the chance to boast. But it also reminds that there is still plenty of work to be done. We can boast about the successes of the past but our past successes are no guarantee for the future. They only serve as a reminder of what we must do for the future to be successful.
Because we have to work to hold on to our freedom, because the pain and suffering seem at time too much to bear, we do not want freedom. We are like those who would seek accommodation simply because it would reduce the burden on us. We would much rather have others do the work than have to do the work ourselves.
This, like so many other things, is nothing new. Today’s Old Testament reading is the culmination of years of struggle by the Hebrew people and the unwillingness of a people to hold onto the freedom that was given to them. As we look at the Old Testament, we can see the history of Israel in its early stages. The first five books are the traditions and the laws of the country. They show a nation governed by wise men and women, people who sought the counsel of God when facing perplexing decisions.
But the people of Israel saw the nations around them with kings and they felt that they needed a king as well, even though they had sworn allegiance to God as their only King. Now, it is apparent from the various prophecies that God did not mind the Israelites having a king but the Israelites wanted a king for the wrong reasons. The King that God wanted for Israel was one who would provide and show them the path of righteousness. The king the people of Israel wanted would be like the kings of other nations and would lead them into battle. And whatever the reasons for wanting a king, they amounted to a rejection of God as their one and true king.
As we progress through the book of Judges and Ruth, we see a nation that quickly forgot how it had agreed to be governed and how it transformed itself into just another nation in the Middle East. With the two books of Samuel, we see God responding to the clamor of the people for a king and the appointment of Samuel as the prophet who would anoint Saul as the duly appointed king of Israel. Samuel comes into the picture because the current leaders, including the sons of prophets, have been corrupted by the position and the power.
Saul is the first of God’s anointed King but his was a reign much like the leaders that preceded him. God’s choice for a king was someone who would walk in the ways of God and that is why David was chosen. But as we shall see over the next few weeks, David was susceptible to the trappings and power that came with the office and Israel would again stray from God.
The people of Israel wanted a king for all the wrong reasons. The most important was that they did not want to take on the responsibilities that came with the freedom that they had gained. And a people that is unwilling to take on the responsibilities of freedom is unprepared when the time comes for them to lead or when leadership fails.
I say this, having experienced it first hand. I developed a pretty decent junior bowling program back in middle 70’s but when circumstances forced a change in my own life, I found it necessary to turn the organization over to others. And because I had failed to prepare others to do the work that I had been doing, the organization ultimately collapsed.
If nothing else, that is why I put so much emphasis on reaching out to those who are members of this church but are not presently attending. In order to be a positive and active leadership, those in leadership must be willing to transfer their power to others and others must be available to take over the leadership positions. There is nothing wrong with people providing expertise wherever it is needed but there is also a definite need for others to be involved as well.
That is what Jesus was doing in the Gospel reading for today. Though the disciples were still not getting the idea that they were ultimately going to take over the work that Jesus was doing, Jesus knew that they had to be doing it before He left. And that is why he sent them out, two by two. If they did not start doing the mission work that Jesus was doing, they were not going to be ready when the time came and they would be unable to do the work.
As we celebrate the independence and the founding of this country, we should remember that freedom comes with a cost. John Kennedy, in his inauguration speech, said “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” But he also added, and I think that most people forget this, that it will be the American people who must do the work. “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”
But this call was not, as some might say, for a continuation of the old ways. It was a call to seek new solutions to old problems. “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year, out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Through Christ, we have gained freedom as well. It is the freedom from sin and death. And it gives us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the power and the ability to find new solutions to the old problems. Just as Jesus empowered the twelve before he sent them on that first mission trip, so too does the Holy Spirit empower us to help the sick, the impoverished, the downtrodden.
We are able to walk the path of freedom today because of the efforts of others. We walk a path of freedom from sin and death because Jesus died on the cross for us. We are asked today to insure that freedom continues. And we know that this path is a rough one. But because we have accepted Christ as our Savior, we have the guarantee that it will be a road that we can walk and one that does lead into the future.