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II Chronicles 36.22-23

Galatians 5.1, 13-14

James 1.22-25; 2.12-13

The Other Side of Liberty

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

For the first time in fifty years, a high school student took a freedom of speech case before the Supreme Court, and won.  When Brandi Levy, a member of the JV cheerleading team learned she did not make the varsity squad in Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy School District four years ago, she posted a colorful and expletive-laden photo on Snapchat. The school district took a dim view of her post and dismissed her from the team entirely.  But this week the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that her post, which was not made on school grounds, was protected speech and the school was wrong to punish her.  And while you and I might not care for the language she used, the First Amendment protects both the speech we like and the speech we don’t.

I think it is a happy coincidence that so many of the Supreme Court’s major decisions are handed down in the week leading up to the Fourth of July, because our celebration of independence is founded on the Declaration of Independence, and in its wake, the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  We may not agree with every decision that gets handed down.  I was pretty disappointed when the court upheld Arizona’s voting right restrictions, which disproportionately targets Black, Latino and Native American voters.  It called to mind Frederick Douglas’ historic 1852 Independence Day speech he titled, “What, to the Slave, is The Fourth of July,” where he lamented that the freedoms the day is purported to celebrate were not shared among the entire populace, and represented a mockery for black Americans.  Douglas  said,

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.  The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.  The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.  This Fourth July is yours, not mine.”

Not everyone knows what it is like to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and it remains true in today’s America as it was in Douglas’ more than 150 years ago.

          “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians; “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  The apostle is writing about the two sides of liberty:  the freedom that makes us free in Christ at the same time binds us to one another in love.  Freedom does not exist in a vacuum, Paul insists, it is not a kind of free-standing liberty that countenances only itself.  Rather, because human beings live in relationship – in relationship with each other, and in relationship with God in Jesus Christ - my freedom does not begin and end with me, it also has something to do with you.  It is a duality that is reflected in the twin notions of freedom from and freedom for.  For example, the Bill of Rights prescribes freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from self-incrimination, freedom from being subject to cruel and unusual punishment; while the scriptures proclaim freedom from the law and freedom from sin and death.  The other side of this is freedom for:  the freedom for worship, freedom for the bearing of arms, freedom for a speedy and public trial; and our faith provides for the freedom for service, freedom for compassion and mercy, freedom for love.  Freedom from and freedom for:  these are not opposites, they are complements, and the reality is that we cannot have one without the other.  They are two faces of the same coin, and while we may prefer one side to the other – I may lament the freedom of speech Q-Anon enjoys, but it is a freedom that protects my own rights as well – the two sides create a necessary balance.

          If we want to be free from something, we need also to be free for something, and on this both the nation’s founding documents and the Bible agree.  For example, to be free from want is also to be free to help someone in need, and it is neither right nor fair to enjoy one without engaging in the other.  To secure freedom of choice is to allow others to choose freely as well.  To enjoy freedom of worship is also to respect not only those who worship differently, but also those who choose not to worship at all.  We may not always be in agreement with the obverse side of freedom, with the other side of liberty, but we must insist on it if our own freedoms are to remain secure.  This juxtaposition of rights is what George Bernard Shaw meant when he wrote that “Liberty means responsibility.  That is why most [people] dread it.” 

Years ago, NPR commentator Ian Scholl did a piece on the nature of liberty, and used a small replica of the Statue of Liberty as an illustration.  He spoke about the welcome she represents to the immigrant, about her steady gaze out to the edge of the horizon, about the fact she has stood for more than a hundred years, both in the same spot and for the same principles, that she is a model of much that is right about America.  He then turned the model upside down and read the label that said, “Made in China.”  Sometimes we are surprised by what we find on the other side of liberty.  The other side of liberty is responsibility.  The other side of liberty is affording others the same rights we expect for ourselves.  The other side of liberty is to live in captivity to one another by being free in Christ.

          The letter of James articulates the idea in a delightfully Orwellian turn of phrase in the passage we heard this morning:  James writes about the “law of liberty,” a way of suggesting that freedom obligates us, that with the liberty we enjoy in Jesus Christ comes the duty to respond in gratitude:  “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but does who act… will be blessed in [your] doing.  So speak and act as those who are judged by the law of liberty.”  James is suggesting that freedom – true freedom – binds us to God in gratitude, and to each other in love.

          The final two verses of the Old Testament book of II Chronicles are likely unfamiliar to us, but to Jewish ears they are the clarion of liberation.   For nearly one hundred years, the Hebrew people had been forced out of their Jerusalem homeland and exiled to Babylon, the result of a series of deportations in 597, 587 and 583 BCE.  They were held in captivity by the Babylonians, forbidden to return, until Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians near the turn of that century, and permitted the Jews to return home.  The brevity of the two verses we heard this morning belie their gravity:  they describe the Edict of Cyrus, and not only did the Persian king release the Hebrews, he also helped them rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.  And it is telling that, in the moment of their liberation, they bound themselves immediately to their God and their temple.  Once more, the two sides of liberty:  they were free from captivity; which made them free for worship and devotion.

          There was an article in the Boston Globe a few years ago about the perdurance of the phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  As much as you and I remember these words as central to the Declaration of Independence, originally they were as much an afterthought as anything, until they were seized upon by a Congregational minister, the Rev. Lemuel Haynes.  The UCC likes to boast about the many “firsts” our denomination bears in the ecclesiastical world:  the Rev. Lemuel Haynes was the first African American ordained to Christian ministry, and it is because of his appropriation of the phrase in his sermons against slavery, in the 1770s and ’80s, that the idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has become such a cherished ideal for Americans of all stripes.  Nearly a century before Frederick Douglas, the Rev. Haynes recognized that our freedom from the tyranny of the crown was both compromised and devalued by the captivity of American slaves.  If we are to expect to live in liberty, Haynes insisted, then we are required to extend that liberty to all.  “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.”  In this instance, the church and the state agree, that freedom and equality for all people, not just for some, not just for the privileged or the majority or the powerful, constitutes the other side of liberty.  “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but, through love, becomes servants to one another.

          Happy 4th of July, everyone!

          Let us pray.

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