O God, Set us Free For Freedom

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Today is National Scout Sunday, and we'll be honoring scouts and those who work with them in a special prayer, a bit later on. Today is also Different Sermon Day. We're going to play a game called "Raise your hand if . . . ." Have you played this game before? If you haven't, don't worry. It's easy to learn. Are you ready? Here we go. Let's start with the future:

Raise your hand if you know what's happening here next Sunday. The Annual Meeting of All Saints' Parish will begin at 9 a.m. "sharp" in the Great Hall. The 8 o'clock service will be start a half-hour earlier, at 7:30 am. The two 10:30 services will be combined into one 11:00 a.m. service in the Historic Church. We'll have two times for fellowship and 90 minutes for our meeting. That's not enough time for everything we might want to discuss or do, but we will cover the basics: how things are going at All Saints', financially and otherwise, as well as elect vestry members. We'll also hear about some exciting plans and get a "peek" at our new website. Leaving the future, let's go into the past for awhile:

Raise your hand if you know how old this church is. Is it older than I am? (I turned sixty-two this week.) All Saints' is two hundred and sixty-nine years old this year. Older than the city of Frederick. Older than the Diocese of Maryland. Older than dirt, we used to say when I was a boy.

Raise your hand if you know what's been happening this week in Egypt. Almost thirty years ago the Prime Minister of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. Sadat had won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1978 for his work during the Camp David Agreement, negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, announced on Tuesday that neither he nor his son would be a candidate in the presidential elections this fall. Many Egyptians say that's not soon enough. Hundreds of thousands have continued to pack Tahrir, or Liberation, Square in Cairo this week, demanding Mubarak leave now. This morning, an orderly transition seems to be happening.

But this has been a real revolution in Egypt, filled with excitement and danger. Women are coming out of their houses for the first time. "I feel I am born again," said an eighty-year-old woman. A man who cannot walk, due to double amputations, said, "I still have my hands. God willing, I will keep fighting" (from "We Are All Egyptians," The New York Times, February 4, 2011).

Journalists, human rights demonstrators, foreigners and others have been feeling unsafe. There has been violence and some loss of life, but not nearly as much as we might expect. And while we might also have expected some group to claim victory in this uprising, there seem to be no official revolution leaders. And yet, one Egyptian put it this way: "Suddenly, we are all human beings."

Raise your hand if you know what happened 146 years ago this week. February 1, 1865, was the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and insuring freedom for all citizens of these United States. The year before I was born, a bill was signed making February 1 National Freedom Day. But just because slavery was legally abolished nearly 150 years ago . . . just because a day of national freedom was established over 60 years ago . . . just because laws get passed and proclamations are made does not mean that all discrimination is over, that we are fully free.

Raise your hand if you know what happened almost fifty years ago. In the spring of 1961, after sit-ins in lunch counters had spread from Greensboro, North Carolina, to more than 50 cities over the previous year, seven blacks and six whites, the first "Freedom Riders," left together on a bus from Washington, D.C. Freedom Riders were those White Americans and African Americans who rode buses together throughout southern states, challenging local laws and customs that enforced segregation. Within months all the passengers on interstate buses and trains were free to sit wherever they wanted. Signs saying "Whites only" and "colored" came down. Separate water fountains, restrooms and restaurants began to disappear. The signs so many Civil Rights protesters carried later on – "I AM a man" – had their beginning in these peaceful protests.

This new-found freedom in our country for African Americans was not without cost. Journalists were attacked, and their cameras destroyed. Beatings, cross-burnings and lynchings are all part of our recent past. Many Freedom Riders were beaten, some brutally, only to have ambulances refuse to take the wounded to area hospitals. Yet for those of us who stayed at home and for all of us, marchers and riders were the inspiration behind the Civil Rights movement.

"Raise your hand if you know what the Holocaust is." That line comes from a movie made a few years ago called "Freedom Writers," a true story about a teacher in Los Angeles who taught her high school language arts class, filled with students of many different ethnic backgrounds, how to find freedom by writing down their own stories in their personal journals. Erin Gruwell taught them about the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era, and she taught them about the Holocaust during World War II. But on the day she first mentioned it, only one student knew what the Holocaust was – and he was white.

Raise your hand if you've ever been shot at. When Gruwell discovered her students had never even heard of the Holocaust, she realized she needed to ask them about something they surely knew. Every single student in her class had been shot at – except the white student. Later she had them play another game called "The Line Game." "Stand on the line if you've lost a friend to gang violence," she said. "One friend. Or two. Or three. Or four or more." The majority of the class was still standing on the line. "Now," she said, "speak their names." Dozens of names flowed from their lips, as if they were in church.

Raise your hand if you've ever been called a name or hurt in any way. For more than thirty years we've had a Baptismal Covenant in the Episcopal Church. It contains five questions we've never been asked in previous Prayer Books. The last two questions are, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" What's the answer to those questions? I will, with God's help (p. 305). But if we really want to be instruments of peace, justice, dignity and love, if we really want to see Christ in everyone, if we really want to stop calling people names, silently or out loud, if we really want to stop hurting other people, how much help do we think we're going to need? And who will help us? "Then you shall call . . . and the Lord will answer, ‘Here I am'" (from today's lesson, Isaiah 58).

"Set us free," our collect or prayer for the day begins. "Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins." It's easy to look at Egypt and find the bondage of sin over there, with "those people." How much harder it is for us to look in here, inside ourselves, to find the bondage, the control, the power that sin can still have over us, every day. Our Prayer Book also tells us, in the Catechism or Outline of Faith, that sin has power over us "because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God (and others) is distorted" (p. 849). We lose our freedom when our relationships aren't free. Because for us, it's always all about free, right relationships – starting with being in a right relationship with God.

The children of Israel wanted to know what freedom was. But they resisted the very thing they desired. They knew they needed to give God glory and worth, but they wanted their worship, their sacrifices to God, their fasts to look good – on the surface. Why don't you see us fasting, God? God, of course, wants something deeper, something more from them – and from us. "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ?"(Isaiah 58:6) The Israelites had been oppressed, but they forgot their oppression and their liberation. They reverted to their old, familiar ways – worshiping idols, faithlessly fasting. We do this, too.

Those who were listening to Jesus during his "Sermon on the Mount" wanted to know what freedom was. Why else listen to a long sermon? They wanted to worship God in spirit and in truth, but they had Pharisees and scribes as their models. And while the scribes and Pharisees wanted to do the right thing – with their public displays of piety, observing traditions, strictly adhering to the letter of the law – their ways were just too self-righteous for Jesus.

Jesus taught the crowd that day, up there on the mountain, about righteousness. He's teaching us, too. God's righteousness, fulfilled for us in Jesus, flows from a free, right relationship with God and then, in turn, with one another. True righteousness is about doing the right thing with and for God's people. "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). You will never be free from sin. You will never be truly free and right with God.

Raise your hand if you know what freedom is. It's about being free enough to be myself, like the people of Egypt wanted to be. It's about being free enough to speak the truth in love, like the Freedom Writers did. It's about being free enough to do the God things in my life, like Jesus. But do you and I really know what freedom is? Even when we think we know what freedom is, we may not know quite what to do about it. Which leads me to the last round of the "raise your hand" game:

Raise your hand if you know what you plan to do today about freedom.

This week an Egyptian woman said this about freedom: "I'm fighting for my freedom. For the right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice" (Noha al-Ustas, "Arab World Faces Its Uncertain Future", New York Times, February 3, 2011). What about you and me? Will we fight today, where necessary, to express ourselves? To end the oppression and injustice, for ourselves and for others? Will we take our Baptismal Covenant seriously?

Oh, freedom, oh, freedom, Lord; oh, freedom over me!

And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord and be free.