I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (Mahopac, NY) this Sunday. You are invited to come if you are in the neighborhood (Directions – View Larger Map). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67; Romans 7: 15 – 25; and Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30.
I think that the hardest sermons to write and preach are those on Sundays, such as today, which coincide with a national holiday. I say this because, very often, the national interest or reason for celebration runs counter to the teachings or interests of the church. And then again, the way people see the particular holiday may differ from the intent or reason for the holiday. This particular Sunday is no different.
We have heard or will hear politicians on both sides of the political aisle and preachers across the similar religious spectrum speak of freedom. But the freedom which is spoken of from the pulpit is supposed to be different than that spoken on the campaign trail.
Politicians speak of freedom obtained through armed force and conflict. They speak of a freedom that comes through the sacrifice of blood and youth. But they see the cost of war and conflict as a plus, not a minus. They do not see war as it truly is. On Christmas Day, 1862, General Robert E. Lee wrote his wife and said,
“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace. … My heart bleeds at the death of every one of our gallant men.”
We should never be so stupid as to prefer war over peace; yet, that is what it seems we do or seek to do. No major politician today who seeks office ever says that the solution to the world problems comes through feeding the people, healing the people, or building them homes. They won’t because it won’t get them elected.
And while conflict is necessary at times to preserve our freedom and it is inevitable that blood will be shed in such conflicts and young men and women will die in that effort, I have to wonder if we should glorify such efforts? Must we continue to create a culture of war that says that only those who have lead young men and women on a field of battle are capable of leading us? If leadership is learned in battle, and battle is the only way to resolve conflicts, how will we ever live in peace?
The sad thing is that too many preachers today do not speak out against war and conflict but rather seek to support it. Last year, when I spoke at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (And What Will You Say?), I made the comment that I saw a parallel between what is happening today, relative to the church and politics in general, and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s.
Then, when Adolph Hitler came to power, one of his greatest supporters was the Lutheran Church in Germany. They heard his nationalistic rhetoric and overlooked his racism and bigotry. It is hard to realize that some seventy years ago people died because the church turned a blind eye to the suffering and pain of the people. John Conway wrote,
It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).
Many religious leaders today still speak of the inevitability of war and the need to fight to win the peace. But very little is said, in either the pulpit or in the heat of a political campaign, about removing the causes of war, or removing the causes of oppression. People seek war because they see it as the final solution. People who are hungry need food; people who are homeless need shelter; people who are sick need medicine; and people who are oppressed seek liberation. And they will listen to those leaders be they in the pulpit or in politics, who promise them everything if they will sacrifice their liberty and freedom and follow them.
Freedom is not won on a battlefield; freedom is earned when there is respect between people. Freedom is a choice made in compact with others.
This is, I believe the message of the Old Testament for today (Genesis 24: 34 – 38, 42 – 49, 58 – 67). The servant in the story is sent from Israel back to Ur to find a wife for Isaac. As you read or hear the words of the servant, you hear a certain hesitancy in his voice because he fears what will happen if he fails in this task.
You know how he feels. Sometime in your life, either as a child or at work, you have been given a task to complete. And with the task comes a feeling of dire consequences should you fail. This is how I think the servant feels. But he is given assurances that nothing will happen if he fails; in other words, he is given the freedom to finish the task.
Too often today we are told that dire consequences will come to us, individually and as a country, if we do not do something. The politics of today and any discussion of freedom today is given within the context of fear. But remove the element of fear and great things can happen.
Rebekah is also given a choice in this story. She can choose to go with the servant and become Isaac’s bride or she can choose to stay with her family in Ur. She did not have to go with the servant but she choose to do so and, in choosing that path, chose to follow God’s plan.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Romans 7: 15 – 25 ), also speaks of the freedom to choose. He understands that he is free to choose the path he wants to walk; he understands that he is free to chose to live however he chooses to live. And he understands the consequences of his choice when he chooses the wrong passage. Much has been made of this particular passage and other passages where he speaks of the things that bother him. Paul never does come out and say what it is that torments his soul. But he does say that the conflict is resolved when he views his life in terms of Christ and what Christ did for him, even when he (Paul) sought to persecute the early church.
I have heard it say that war is inevitable and that we must be prepared to go to war. I will not deny that we must defend our freedom but if we do nothing to remove the causes of conflict and distrust, then conflict will be inevitable. So why should we wait until the dogs of war are barking at our door? Why do we not do what we have been asked to do over the years.
The Great Commission states we are to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people. But that is not necessarily the best translation of that passage. It is a convenient translation because it gives us the opportunity to continue a war mentality; if you will not become a disciple, then we will make you one.
But other (and I believe better) translations tells us to have the people follow the ways that we were taught. And we were taught to feed the hungry, heal the sick, build houses for the homeless, and bring hope to the oppressed. The burden of freedom can be a heavy burden; that is why the Gospel reading for today (Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 -30) speaks of a yoke. We have chosen to wear a yoke that we call freedom but it is a heavy yoke and it encumbers us and enslaves us. We call it freedom but in reality it is sin.
But, in Christ, we are offered a chance to remove that yoke. In Christ, we are offered a choice of freedom, freedom over sin and death, freedom from slavery and oppression. And, as those who proclaim Christ as their Savior and Lord, we must bring that choice into the world.
Freedom is a choice, a choice to follow or not to follow. Freedom is an opportunity and we have that opportunity today.