For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. -- I Corinthians 7
I believe it only took me about half-a-dozen sermons at the start of my work as a preacher before I realized how grateful I was for the unprecedented religious freedom this country affords us Christians. Not just for Christians, of course, is this independence. Religious freedom for all: however wise or wacky, similar or strange they seem to us. (We should note, however, that plenty of folk deem us rather wacky as well. Did you hear that Apostles' Creed? We profess some strange and wonderful news ourselves.) I desire religious liberty for all my neighbors in other faiths because I am likewise grateful that it is secured for all Christians.
My own conviction is this: As a follower of Jesus, I have at stake in maintaining and defending that freedom for everyone. I hold to this, not because I want or need this country to be “Christian” in some vague, rubber-stamp sort of way, but because I am grateful for the uninhibited space to follow Jesus in the specific and deliberate way of discipleship.
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Think about what a gift we have been given as disciples of Jesus, in this country and in this era of history:
It is Sunday morning again. For us: not just another weekend for leisure or the ramp-up to another week of work. It is the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day! We have gathered at our normal spot for word and sacrament. We are doing our thing.
And guess what?
No one has barred the door.
No one is checking our papers.
No one is censoring our speech.
No one is threatening us with bodily harm.
The lights are still on.
The doors are still open.
The Book is still on the Pulpit.
The Table stands ready for our next Meal.
What a gift.
Yet it is not so for many of our brothers and sisters around the world.
Do remember our guest preacher last summer, on the Sunday of the New Wilmington Mission Conference? Rev. N______, a spirited pastor from Zimbabwe. He told us the tale of how their church building was burned down ... 3 times ... by members the government!
The hardest decision many of us faced today was: REGULAR or DECAF? For me: Which bow-tie to don?
These 75 minutes together, in this space
Right here, right now
That we are gathered here, uninhibited
This is an extraordinary gift.
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It occurs to me that this nation’s birthday is a day for Christian communions to ask a fundamental stewardship question:
We are free. Thanks be to God. Now what? To borrow the old query of Francis Shaeffer: "Christian, how then shall we live?"
The early church teaches us through Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7: In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, remain there with God.
you find yourselves
Whether the winds of culture blow for you or against you, “remain there with God.” Follow Jesus Christ, and be secured by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In effect, Paul’s counsel is something on the order of: "Christian, bloom where you are planted."
And the terra firma of our ministry is America.
The test of our appropriation of such remarkable religious liberty is not in our unqualified or unfettered devotion to the state, but rather it is proven in our greater, deeper, wider devotion as the Baptized to Jesus and his way. Let us neither push this way of life on others in monstrous hegemony, nor surrender this way of life to others in embarrassed inclusivity. Neither stance honors the Lord of all lands.
As stewards of this particular space and time we must ask: For what other purpose exists religious liberty than for greater commitment to the one whose way we have found ourselves called to follow? This one whose grace secures us, whose power sustains us, and whose example directs us.
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The challenge that comes with independence is to maintain responsibility once the control of others is cast off. We might consider ordinary examples.
Will the teenager be responsible for the car once mom and dad are no longer visible in the rear-view mirror? Will the college student learn to manage self once the family of origin is not downstairs waiting every morning, with a nucleus of direction?
More widely, will a nation practice self-control once it is free from the political jurisdiction of a king and queen? Will a society seek the common good and practice restraint as technology offers more and more “freedom"? Just because now we can, should we?
And so by way of these analogies ...
Will Christians in this land continue to grow in discipleship and be stewards of so great a religious liberty when the prevailing culture provides little substantial pushback? For at least two hundred years now, it has remained socially acceptable in this country to be a Christian, at least in a privatized, devotional form.
How are we doing with that independence? What is the measure of our devotion? And better:
How am I doing with this independence? What is the measure of my devotion amid such freedom?
After all, we would not want such unprecedented religious liberty to foster in us over time a tepid resignation. Consider the Presbyterian congregation in New Orleans that nurtured my father to Christian faith. In 1950, it had within its walls some 1200 persons. Last year it was 15 ... all of whom had been there in 1950. (There's nothing wrong with being an older Presbyterian, unless of course you are all alone in the sanctuary.) This year the number is zero, as the presbytery has dissolved the church. True: This is not every congregation’s story. But it is more common than we like to admit. Too often, we have withered in an easy climate.
This is where the counsel of Jesus in Luke 12 proves so timely for us. Keep your shirts on; keep the lights on! Be alert! Be ready! Be poised for action! Pretend you are servants in a great household of riches. Would it not be wise to stay poised for the master’s return? to be ready to respond to his presence among you?
Let the delay of his return breed in you attentive perseverance, like disciples; not sleepy passivity, like consumers. After all, we would not want the gift of religious liberty to be, in a sad irony, our final undoing.
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Neither, however, would we want such bountiful freedom to seduce us into worshipping the sovereign state we inhabit over the risen Son whose Spirit inhibits us.
I like what Senator Byrd of West Virginia was often quoted saying o fellow members of the chamber in the heat of bipartisan debate: "Listen, I value you a great deal as a colleague, but I value the Senate even more." It seems to me that the Christian communion can mimic a similar posture with regard to this great country and proper devotion: We love this country a great deal, but we love the God who has met us in Jesus Christ even more. Not that the two always have to be in conflict with one another. But as objects of our devotion and worship, neither are they the same.
Is that posture not the earliest and best seed of religious liberty in this country? That a land and a document that would afford me such tremendous religious independence would not itself expect to be worshipped for that freedom. From the vantage point of these waters, America is, at its best, a blessed means to a more blessed end. And for the baptized, surely that greater end is to love the Lord our God with all that we have, all that we are; to love our neighbor as we would our selves.
I am Christian first and an American second, in large part because I know that one need not be an American in order to be a Christian. Rev. N_____ and his congregation, but several of a million examples. They have much to teach us about what Augustine called "ordered loves."
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It is the purpose of the Christian gospel to announce the news that, at the end of each day and at the end of my life,
that which secures my ultimate liberty
that which sets me free from all powers and principalities
that which affords the ultimate blanket of protection
is in fact no continent or nation or document
—-even the best of these, prone to decay and death.
In fact, my true life is not found in a THING or a PLACE,
or among a certain PEOPLE,
but in a PERSON
the one who taught
the one who died
the one who rose
the one who is alive
Therein I find my life, liberty, and blessedness. It is the God behind, before, and in this Jesus who deserves my ultimate devotion, the way a servant is devoted to a master. I celebrate a strange and wonderful bit of news: Once I was free, but now I am slave!
It turns out, then, to be a Christian in this land and in this time is a situation of blessed irony:
I am free as an American, to be a slave to Jesus.
Thanks be to God.