Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church,July 6, 2014
[Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25]
How can people truly appreciate freedom, if they have never experienced bondage or imprisonment? What people have always known & experienced & never lost is often taken for granted, like the air we breathe. It’s just there. If the air we breathe or the freedoms we have are ever threatened, our appreciation for them skyrockets.
What is the freedom we are celebrating this weekend? It’s America’s 238th birthday – we are actually a YOUNG country in the history of the world. We celebrate independence from Great Britain, now one of our closest allies. We celebrate our Constitution’s declaration that we are free to pursue LIFE, LIBERTY and HAPPINESS. Some of us who attended the first half of the “God and Country” video program by Andy Stanley were reminded that our nation’s official motto since 1956 is “In God We Trust.”
Certainly, we are celebrating America… the land of red, white and blue, a country of great hopes, dreams and expectations, a country of immigrants… from the first waves of Spanish, English, Irish, Scotch and French settlers, to the more recent waves of Asians, Hispanic/Latinos, Africans, and Middle Eastern ethnicities. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to gather in groups, freedom to own property, freedom to carry arms: are just a few of the freedoms we hold dear. We have been immersed in freedom, most of us, since we were born.
Yet, we’re in danger of not understanding REAL FREEDOM. Real freedom is not cheap. Real freedom is not a sense of “ENTITLEMENT” – as if the world owes us something just because we were born in America. Our rights as Americans are linked closely to our responsibilities as children of God. Trusting in God is DIFFERENT than trusting in our selves. Let’s probe a little deeper.
As we look at two Scriptures this morning, we discover the SOURCE and the PARADOX of real freedom. The Old Testament lesson from Zechariah is usually read and studied on Palm Sunday: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” However, the original audience for Zechariah was the people of Israel who had just returned from exile in Babylon to find their holy city in shambles. Zechariah was one of the last prophets recorded in the New Testament and was sent to encourage the people to “re-build” their lives and their temple.
Zechariah provides equal encouragement to a small community like ours seeking to build a future in St. Pauls Presbyterian Church, when times have really changed. Zechariah reminds us: “A king comes to us, invites us into a movement, which includes the proclamation of peace to the nations, and it is a movement that seeks to enlist all “prisoners of hope” (vs. 12).
Notice the word “movement” – which is quite different than the word, “institution.” An unknown Hebrew King and the Jesus of the Gospels invite us to become “active participants in a wild, upside-down, transforming movement.” The leadership qualities for this movement are paradoxical. Although our king is declared “triumphant and victorious, his method is humility: a much different form of power than most nations exercise. When we in the church are at our biblical best, we are paradoxical – we go against the grain of every culture, including our own, and our movement is characterized by inclusive resistance and renewal. We include all people and hope to renew all people.
We belong to the “Way” – if we follow the earliest Christians, a cadre of followers walking in the footsteps and guided by the risen Christ. Albert Nolan, a South African Benedictine, writes that: “Jesus did not found an organization; he inspired a movement…scattered individuals and groups who were known as the Way.”
Lives are transformed much more by a movement than an organization. Institutions seem fixed in form, devoid of urgency, structures rather than souls. Movements, on the other hand are oriented to people; they are energetic, fluid, and visionary; they connect us to a cause which is compelling. When a church commits itself to the Way of Jesus, as a dynamic movement, you will see a congregation that has an irresistible presence and witness in its neighborhood and its world. Such a church is not “bound by” or “tied to” a building per se, but to a dynamic movement of God’s Spirit.
Right now we are spending a lot of time, money and energy “shoring up” our facility, which is timely and important, but virtually useless if we are not also “shoring up” our commitment to the Way of Jesus which is dynamic and transformational in peoples’ lives.
So what is this “movement” Zechariah describes? This king “commands peace to the nations” (verse 10). According to Douglass Bailey, a professor at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, NC and President of the Center for Urban Ministry, “peace to the nations” should be an integral part of every congregation’s mission. He says: “We are always to be in the process of commanding gracefully and modeling boldly a desire for peace, healing and wholeness for all of God’s global children.”
According to Bailey, “Our salvation, our wholeness and our peace are found in advocating for the authentic justice and wholeness of all other people.” In other words, we’re not free until all are free. Our freedom is integrally connected to the freedom of others. Bailey says: “Show us a peace-giving and foot-washing congregation, and we will show you a changing neighborhood around it.”
Finally, this movement Zechariah describes engages all “prisoners of hope.” What on earth is a “prisoner of hope”? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Any Christian following in the Way recognizes we are always in process; none of us have arrived. There’s no such thing as a completely fulfilled Christian human being, only hope-full human becomings! We believe in, invest in, and bank on the hope of Jesus Christ, but we are always “prisoners (and proponents) of that hope” because it’s a sacred journey.
A contemporary woman theologian, Joan Chittister, writes in Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, that “Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside….it is about allowing ourselves to believe in the future we cannot see…about trusting in God…then we can hope even when we have no reason to hope. Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black, sky that it can possibly come….Hope is the last great gift to rise out of the grave of despair.”
Real freedom, according to the prophet Zechariah, is exercising TRUST IN GOD, despite all outward circumstances to the contrary. Trust banks on these words: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” (Zechariah 9:11-12)
Today’s New Testament passage is also paradoxical: one of the most troubling and liberating texts in Paul’s writings. In Confirmation Class, we invite our youth to memorize this verse, as a way of exploring a deep and frustrating human dilemma:
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Paul goes on to say: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Real freedom in Christ is different than “political” or “legal” freedom in society, which is self-protective, rather than self-disclosing. Paul confesses and recognizes his own imprisonment within his own body, his own ego and his very soul. Despite his best intentions, for he delights in the law of God in his inmost self, he cannot carry out his best intentions, because there is another law within him which makes him captive to sin. Have you ever NOT understood your own actions? This passage sounds similar to the beginning of an AA or other 12-step meeting, where the common practice is this: Hello. My name is Sue, and I’m an alcoholic. In this case, Paul writes: “Hi, my name is Paul, and I’m a sinner.”
Real freedom is to recognize our own powerlessness to be the people God invites us to be. Real freedom means letting go of our stubborn self-reliance. The apostle Paul sees the deepest, most stubborn root of sin…stated in Romans 1:21 as this: “They did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
When we turn from God-centeredness to self-centeredness, our minds and lives are darkened and we can no longer execute our good intentions. The SOURCE of our freedom is not ourselves and our own striving, as proud as we may be of our independence and accomplishments. The SOURCE of our freedom is throwing up our hands as Paul did… saying “Wretched person that I am!” I just can’t get it right, no matter how hard I try! The SOURCE of our freedom is hooking up to Jesus Christ. And the PARADOX of our freedom is that once we “let go and let God,” the real adventure begins.
While we were at Carolina Beach the girls and I went on a 2-hour Kayak Tour. Our guide, a young handsome college graduate, carefully monitored the weather before we left to make sure we didn’t get caught in a storm. About half-way through the tour, the wind & waves were higher than he liked. He kept circling back to Rebekah and me, who were in the back. Rebekah was paddling, but because the wind and currents were so strong, she was losing ground no matter how hard she paddled. The guide offered to hook her up to his kayak. She kept refusing his help until it became clear she wasn’t progressing. When she swallowed her pride and allowed him to hook her kayak to his, they had a delightful ride & conversation across the bay.
Following the Way of Jesus is arduous. Sometimes we get caught in currents moving us in the opposite direction of the way we want to go. Trusting God is humbling. It was tough for Rebekah to let go of her independence in that kayak & her YOUNGER sisters were the first to tease her. The guide was her advocate, saying: “She resisted, but I insisted.”
Friends, would you rather spin in a circle of proud self-reliance or hook up to your Creator for the journey of a lifetime? It’s unrealistic to fight ocean currents of evil without our kayaks hooked up to Jesus Christ. In him is real freedom, not to mention the adventure of a lifetime! Once connected to Jesus…real freedom is contagious and compelling. Will you join me in experiencing this good news? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Let us pray.