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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 30, 2013

 Freedom’s Call

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-18

 

             “Free at last; free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  So cried Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 before a gathered crowd estimated at over 250,000.  Watching it on television from the White House, President John F. Kennedy turned off the television set and turned to his brother Bobby, our nation’s Attorney General, and said, “Damn, he’s good!”  It would prove to be one of the most important speeches ever given in American history.  Drawing from the patriotic song, My Country ’Tis of Thee, four times King said, “Let freedom ring…” in the speech, ending with the line, “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.”  It was a cry for justice in this land for people of all races, but it was just as much a plea for freedom for a people King referred to in his speech fifty years ago as the American Negro – freedom to sit in any seat on the bus, freedom to use any public restroom, freedom to drink from any water fountain, freedom to live in any neighborhood or to attend any school.  And this cry for freedom was, of course, a cry sounded at the very start of our nation’s history, which is why King’s cry echoed so loudly and deeply.

             On July 1, 1776, as the Declaration of Independence, a proclamation of freedom, was read before the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia, John Adams rose: “Before God, I believe the hour has come.  My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it.  All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope in this life, I am now ready to stake upon it.  And I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration.  It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment.  Independence now, and Independence forever!”  He might as well have said, “Freedom now, and Freedom forever.”

             Of course, no one ever thought about human freedom any more profoundly than the Apostle Paul.  In writing to the Galatians, Paul said, “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to any yoke of slavery.”  Then in verse 13 he reminds us all that we “were called to freedom.”  But for Paul, Christian freedom is not unrestrained permission to do whatever one pleases.  Paul reminds the Galatians: “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence….”  The word Paul uses for “self-indulgence” is the Greek word σάρξ (sarx), which can also be translated “flesh.”  It was a kind of shorthand for Paul for self-centered, self-serving living as opposed to God-centered living.  Paul says the way of freedom is found paradoxically in becoming servants or slaves one to another, because the whole law of God is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

             To live for yourself is to become slave to your own desires, your own appetites, the worst kind of human bondage, Paul argues.  Love of others and love of God is the only way to find freedom in Christ.  Freedom to love and serve in the manner of Jesus is God’s intention, God’s will, for humankind.  Freedom, real freedom, is the freedom to love and to serve God.  It is the only real freedom human beings will ever know – to love and serve anything less is human bondage for Paul.  That is why Paul draws the distinction in Galatians 5 between self-centered, self-indulgent living (living according to the flesh) and God-centered living, or living according to the Spirit.

             I met recently with some very gifted colleagues in ministry for a couple of days in Atlanta.  One of the most talented Presbyterian ministers I know grew up a preacher’s kid.  All his life he had a love-hate relationship with his father.  He spent years in therapy talking about how much his preacher-father had hurt him, how hard he had tried to please him, and how resentful of his impossible-to-please father he was.  Finally one day, his therapist said to my friend, “You can keep talking about this if you need to, but you need to know how boring it is to listen to it!”  My friend realized in that moment that he had become a slave to the feelings toward his father he could not let go of – and all he could talk about was himself.  Freedom for my gifted friend meant letting go of all the hurt and anger and resentment and forgetting himself, to begin to serve Jesus.  That is how he found the freedom to love and serve, to unlock his gifts.

             Freedom in Christ is not just “freedom from,” though freedom always includes “freedom from.”  King knew America needed to offer “freedom from” unjust laws and practices towards America’s blacks.  Washington, Adams and Jefferson knew that the colonies needed “freedom from” British oppression, from “taxation without representation.”  But freedom in Christ is not just reactionary.  Paul needed “freedom from” the law’s misuse.  But ultimately the freedom Paul found in Christ was “freedom for,” the freedom to live for Christ, to serve Christ and finally to die for Christ, as He died for us.  “For me, to live is Christ; to die is gain,” said Paul to the Philippians.

             Christian freedom always takes the shape of service to something larger than the self.  For Elisha, it meant taking on the mantle of his mentor, Elijah.  When Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken up,” Elisha could have asked for anything.  He is free to respond as he will.  “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.”  “You have asked a hard thing,” says Elijah.  For spirit is something only God can give.  But Elisha asks for what only a man who is truly free would ask for: a gift or a spirit with which he can serve God more faithfully.

             Our nation’s greatest President never went to high school or college.  Abraham Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare, and the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.  He was not educated widely, but his education ran deep as an autodidact.  More than anything else as he became President, Lincoln wished to be faithful to those Founding Fathers of this land, and freedom for Lincoln meant walking a tightrope, doing everything in his power to preserve the Union bequeathed to him by our Founders.

             Freedom has never been found in doing whatever you want.  It will always be found only in doing what it is that God requires of you.  You are only free in living the life God intends for you, and becoming the person God put it in you to be.  God forces no one, for love does not compel.  God’s service, therefore, is always a thing of perfect freedom.

             I am reading David Halberstam’s October 1964.  Halberstam, who began his career as a sports reporter for The Tennessean, writes of the 1964 baseball season and World Series, and the end of the New York Yankee dynasty that stretched from 1949 to 1964.  (A dynasty that ended in part because the Yankees were so slow to embrace black athletes.)  One of the most interesting figures in the story is Lou Brock, the Hall of Fame baseball player for the Saint Louis Cardinals who came to them in June through one of the most infamous trades in baseball history: Lou Brock, a struggling twenty-four-year-old outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, for Ernie Broglio, an accomplished major league starter.  Everyone thought the Cubs got the best of the deal.  Brock was born to a sharecropper family in Arkansas.  He never knew his father.  He went to Southern University on an athletic scholarship and majored in math.  He had great speed and power, but he struggled to find his way in the major leagues.  But the Cubs never gave Brock the freedom to excel.  Halberstam writes, “Unfortunately, the endless parade of Chicago coaches were unable to create an atmosphere in which so ambitious a young man could relax.  There were too many people in charge, too many different people telling Brock different things – to choke up, to swing all out, to pull the ball, to hit to the opposite field, to hit the ball down and beat out infield hits, to relax, to play harder.”

             Saint Louis fans and players thought the Cardinals had made a huge mistake in trading for Brock.  Then he arrived with the Cardinals in June, and his manager, Johnny Keane, called Brock over and said to him, “We’ve seen you hit the ball and we know you have power.  Be as natural as you can.  We’ve also seen how fast you are.  Well, go for steals as it strikes you as right.  You make the call.”

             That was all.  For Brock, it was a stunning moment.  His manager believed in his ability, and gave him the freedom to be himself.  That freedom turned Lou Brock into a superstar.  Up to then with the Cubs, he was a .260 hitter.  For the rest of that 1964 championship season, Brock hit .348.  In the words of Halberstam, “Brock came alive as a Cardinal.”  He got over three thousand hits in his Hall of Fame career, the fifteenth player ever to reach that number.  And he broke Ty Cobb’s lifetime and season records for stolen bases.  All because he was given the freedom to be himself, and to use his God-given gifts.

             You have been given that freedom as well.  “For freedom Christ has set you free.  Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to any yoke of slavery.”  It is freedom’s call, to live the life God holds in His heart for you.

                                                                                     Amen.

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