by Rev. Scott D. Summerville
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:1, 13-14
That was the message of the apostle Paul to the Gentile Christians in Galatia. It is a call to freedom. At the same time, it is a challenge, because Paul realizes that freedom, once given, can be abused. He declares that true freedom is the freedom to serve:
“Do not use your freedom is an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants of one another.” Powerful words.
When Mary Ellen and I left Brooklyn sixteen years ago I had been visiting a boy at Rikers Island Prison. He was still a teenager, but he had gotten himself into deep trouble. I do not need to tell you how heavy was my heart when I would pass through the layers of security to enter that prison and look into the face of a boy I had known since early childhood, a dear child who could easily have been anyone of our children here, or one of my own children. After we left Brooklyn, I learned that he had eventually served a reduced sentence due to his age and lack of a prior criminal record, and that he was out of prison. I also learned one of the members of the church assisted him to get a job.
That was last news I had of him until yesterday when I happened to hear from a member of the Methodist Church in Brooklyn where we served, and I asked about him. I was amazed at the answer: “He is getting his PhD in biology.” Two images flashed into my mind: being inside Rikers Island, looking into the face of a lost child, thinking of his horrified and grieving family, thinking of the victims of the crime he participated in, grieving for the senselessness and waste of it all, wondering whether some long sentence awaited him and what on earth would happen to him after that. There was a horrible, nearly hopeless feeling, seeing this child I had seen grow up, now in that dreadful place.
The second image the flashed into my mind was that of a young man in academic garb springing across the stage of some university to receive from the hand of the president – that sheepskin identifying him as “Doctor,” and having the colorful sash signifying his accomplishment placed over his shoulders, with his family looking on.
It is hard to imagine a starker contrast than those images. I felt so thrilled and delighted at this news, so happy for him and for his family. He got a chance at freedom, and with the pushing and prodding and help of others, he was able to use that freedom for good. It is hard to calculate the difference, not only for him and his family, but for society by virtue of this opportunity for freedom and the way he embraced it. Imagine the cost to society, to say nothing of the human cost, for every person who sits in a prison cell who could be contributing to society, some even as PhD’s in biology.
It is a powerful question that Paul declares: You are free. You are free!
But how will you use your freedom?
There are countless millions of our sisters and brothers upon this planet Earth who are struggling and aching for the most basic of freedoms – the freedom to speak without fear, the freedom to worship without persecution, the freedom to vote, the freedom to petition their government – or even the freedom to drink a clean cup of water.
We are one of the few United Methodist Churches in the world who trace our origins back to before the American War of Independence. The Methodist gatherings that founded this church took place in 1771. This congregation was born along with the birth of freedom for these United States. This building in which we worship was born the year that the Civil War of these United States was concluded, giving a new birth of freedom to millions of enslaved persons. Our history is interwoven with struggles for freedom.
The struggle for human rights is an ongoing part of our history:
The war of independence,
the struggles for the abolition of slavery,
the struggle for the rights of workers to organize,
the struggle for women to secure political rights,
the struggle for women to be able to compete on equal terms with men in the workplace, the Armed Forces,
outer space, in any other place they want to go,
the struggle for African-Americans to achieve equal rights under the law,
the struggle against poverty that falls so brutally and unfairly upon the heads of children and persons of color,
the struggle for women’s reproductive rights,
the struggle for access to healthcare for all,
the struggle for the rights and indignity of immigrants,
the struggle battle against human trafficking that literally enslaves untold numbers of human beings, including children,
the struggle for full equality for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities to live in safety, to marry the person of their choosing, and to work without discrimination,
the movement to end mass incarceration and the use of solitary confinement in our prisons.
There are so many interlocking struggles for human dignity and human rights; there is much unfinished business in the cause of justice and equality in our own nation and beyond our borders.
To be an effective advocate for justice and change in any of these dimensions of human freedom is something none of us can do alone. We need to find and support those groups and organizations that are working for justice and human rights and commit ourselves to these causes with our checkbooks, with our social media contacts, and by direct action.
None of us can take up every part of this struggle, but if we take up none of it, in this age in which the issue of human rights is so central to the future of the world, then who are we?
In his first sermon Jesus quoted from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And then he sat down – short sermon! (Luke 4)
Scripture proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That is the challenge to the church and to each of us: find your place in this great cause, and take a stand.
As Christians when we take a stand for the rights of others and for our own rights, we bring an important perspective to the table. We realize that each human being has rights and dignity, and that ideologies and systems that deprive people of their rights need to be challenged and resisted. We also realize that a human being can have every conceivable right and privilege: the freedom to think, to speak, to vote, to run for office, to marry, to have children, to choose one’s career and place of work – a human being can have every possible right that society can bestow upon the individual – yet not be free. We know that there is a kind of freedom that cannot be bestowed by society; it can only be claimed by the individual soul.
I am reminded of that every Sunday morning as I drive through the church parking lot, where there is not a single available parking space, because of the hundreds of people who have come here to seek freedom from addiction.
Time after time we hear of the tragic deaths of our celebrities, at the pinnacle of privilege and personal liberty, who die by their enslavement to drugs and alcohol.
You can be the freest person on the face of the planet when it comes to your political rights, and yet be a prisoner of fear, anger, addiction, or greed. We can be imprisoned and relationships that are harmful, but we cannot find a way out. We can be the prisoners of our own thoughts.
As Christians we understand that human beings are social and political beings; we are also spiritual beings. We are spiritual beings who need spiritual food, spiritual community and spiritual support in order to live our lives in freedom. We know that there are freedoms that are achieved by human struggle and sacrifice, and there is a freedom that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore,
and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but through love become servants to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Grace and peace to you.