FOURTH OF JULY SERMON
(preached on Sunday July 1, 2018)
The Rev. Robert Crouch
Community Presbyterian Church
Pismo Beach, CA
Every year as our nation’s Fourth of July holiday approaches we hear the word freedom used a lot by pastors, politicians and journalists. We read editorials and columns about freedom on the internet, as well as in newspapers and magazines. There are countless podcasts which will ruminate and reflect on the meaning of freedom for our lives today.
We sings songs and hymns this morning which celebrate freedom—music which inspires us to never give up pursuing the ideals they convey so poetically and boldly. Freedom, like its twin, justice, is never a gift or reality that we can take for granted.
Martin Luther King Jr. often said: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, [freedom] must be demanded by the oppressed.
Friends, that’s why thousands of Americans participated in the “Families Belong Together” rallies around our nation yesterday. Dr. King’s view of freedom was influenced by his faith in Jesus who held up the central role of freedom in his ministry.
In fact, Jesus, quoting the prophet Isaiah, words from our First Lesson, said in his very first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth: “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 to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
Friends, One individual who gave expression to the American ideal of freedom, and religious freedom in particular, was Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the third president himself had very clear ideas on his role in history. And the theme of freedom was his highest priority and guiding vision. He laid down that his tombstone should record three achievements:
Author of the Declaration of American Independence; [Author of the] Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; And Father of the University of Virginia.
In the Declaration of Independence we hear a phrase that conveys the essence of what freedom means in our nation. Said Jefferson: “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.”
Friends, Jefferson’s words make it crystal clear that our nation is ever in need of a new birth of freedom. Why? Because that idea, that founding principle, which Thomas Jefferson held up for us remains an ideal and not a practical reality for millions of Americans.
And as Dr. King reminded the nation constantly: “Until we are all free—none of us is free.”
Thus we need a new birth of freedom today from people and institutions which derail the ability of all people to experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Further, we can’t all be free if our nation’s Supreme Court promotes now, and in the future, discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or country of origin.
Sadly, religion remains a great tool for furthering injustice.
We need a new birth of freedom, in 2018, away from arrogant and narrow- minded attitudes and opinions based on fear, distortion and lies.
We need a new birth of freedom this Fourth of July away from the attitude that paints refugees as criminals.
A new birth of freedom in which our nation’s people are more excited by the idea of building bridges which unite us rather than walls and cages which divide us.
A new birth of freedom from the view that all Muslims want to kill us and all Jews want to rip us off.
A new birth of freedom that respects and protects the right of a woman to make personal decisions regarding her health care free of government intervention.
A new birth of freedom from the sinful use of the Bible to promote narrow partisan political ends in which people are mocked and threatened.
How important is our freedom? Abraham Lincoln once said “freedom is the last, best hope of man.” And I think he said that, in part, because a person who is truly free has the possibility of becoming all that he or she can be.
I believe that freedom, at its most fundamental root level, is what being an American is all about:
--the freedom to express our views,
--to be guided by our conscience,
--the freedom to choose how and where we will live our lives.
But with freedom comes responsibility—we must continually educate ourselves so we don’t contribute to the oppression of others. People down through the centuries have felt that freedom is worth risking their lives for—both through serving courageously in the military, fighting in wars and in risking their lives as refugees to come here on ships seeking freedom and opportunity.
One of the most important freedoms, for us in the church, indeed, for all Americans, is the freedom of Religion made possible by the existence of the basic constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. The freedom to worship the God of your choosing, or not to worship at all, is one of the foundational ideas that makes this country great.
Indeed, our Presbyterian denomination has been a champion of the separation of church and state for centuries.
We believe no one religion, including our own Christian religion, should be established as the official religion of our nation. That is not a liberal or socialist opinion—it was the view of many of our most illustrious and respected founding fathers.
George Washington once said:
“In the Enlightened Age and in this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.”
John Adams, a Presbyterian, and ancestor of mine once wrote:
“When all men of all religions ...shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power...We may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
And finally, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state’s greatest advocate was none other than Thomas Jefferson. At the founding of this great nation—God called Jefferson to articulate and defend a new birth of religious freedom.
Presbyterian minister and author, John Buchanon, speaking of Jefferson’s strong and influential views on this matter writes: “When the thirteen British colonies in 1776 fought for their independence and then went about the difficult task of creating a form of government and writing a constitution that would bring together, in one nation, thirteen independent colonies, the first right it guaranteed was freedom of religion.
They declared: ‘There will be no established church or privileged religion here.’
“Thomas Jefferson and his colleague James Madison came up with the idea that in a democratic state with a religiously diverse citizenry, the only way forward was to guarantee religious freedom for all.
“Jefferson was convinced that democracy rests on that basic liberty.”
Our calling as followers of Jesus Christ living in this great nation which strives for liberty and justice for all, includes doing all we can to help insure that we are true to our founders’ vision of religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and diversity.
Still, it is my duty as an ordained Presbyterian minister, as it is yours as a member of the church, to keep in mind that our ultimate allegiance in life is not to a flag, a constitution, or to any nation, but to God. We love our country, we respect the flag, we are guided by the words in the constitution—but our allegiance is first to God. And God has challenged us all, through Christ, to “speak the truth in love”—to confront and oppose, nonviolently, all laws or actions by individuals or the church or civil authorities--which we believe to be an affront to God and to our consciences. As our Presbyterian Constitution says: “God alone is Lord of the Conscience.”
Now if we are true to our call from God to “speak the truth in Iove” and eagerly confront the injustices that appear in our nation—We likely will at times grow weary and discouraged. We might even find ourselves at times on the verge of giving in or giving up. I know some of us have had that feeling from time to time these days.
Yet we can take heart in knowing that many great leaders have felt weary and discouraged themselves as they endured dark times in their pursuit of freedom and justice for all.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. champion of the civil rights movement, determined to help our nation experience a new birth of freedom from racism and segregation often sat alone late at night, weary and discouraged, wondering if anything he was doing or saying was really making a difference. In King’s experience, for every step forward there were three back—a bombing, a death threat, a phone call from a liberal white pastor preferring job security over the risk of taking a stand.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, champion of racial justice, working for a new birth of freedom in South Africa, had days where he felt that Apartheid was just too strong of a system to overcome. He would grow weary and discouraged. He would pray: “How long, O Lord? How long?”
Yet both of these leaders did something which helped them keep the faith amidst the darkness. Something we too must do in the “living of these days.”
They turned to prayer in order to pick themselves up each day and continue the struggle for freedom, and human dignity.
Yes, prayer enabled Dr. King to move from darkness to light and to say words which can bless us, as we journey, said King:
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope…
“We must never succumb to the temptation of bitterness…[realizing that] social change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle…”
Said Rev. Dr. King:
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Desmond Tutu often said: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance…”
Said Bishop Tutu:
“I certainly know that I would not be able to survive if it were not for the fact that I am being upheld by the prayers of so many people.”
Friends, without a central place for prayer in our life, we, who dream of
a nation where all men and women are created equal, will likely remain angry, bitter, discouraged, and living on the edge of hope. Prayer can take us from darkness to light.
Yet prayer must be more than a ritual that we do in church—prayer needs to be a part of our daily lives if we are to have the stamina to be instruments of God’s peace and justice in the world.
Prayer is that daily spiritual discipline which enables us to acknowledge and celebrate that there is a power greater than our own in the universe—a power of love which can embolden, empower, encourage and inspire us to keep the faith.
If we open our hearts and minds to God through persistent prayer we will be like that fearless and determined widow in Jesus’ parable who refused to take no for an answer from that unjust judge.
As we heard in our Second lesson, she stubbornly persisted in her attempts to receive the justice, the vindication, she felt she was due. We must be as stubborn and persistent in our pursuit of freedom and justice for all today. And we must be persistent in prayer if we are to help our nation experience a new birth of freedom.
I close this Freedom Sunday sermon with a few selected words from a classic poem by Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes is noted as having been a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s. He is regarded as one of the most visible, well-connected, and widely published African American poets, novelists, and playwrights of his day. He was one of the few Black poets who was able to support himself solely on his writing career.
“Make America Great Again?” No, I prefer Langston Hughes’ sentiment expressed in his poem: “Let America be America Again.”
Here in this poem we hear the kind of courage and persistence that we saw in the widow before her judge. A persistence and honesty that is the character trait of true faith and patriotism.
Langston Hughes writes:
“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
“Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme that any man be crushed by one above.
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe. O, let America be America again-the land that never has been yet--and yet must be--the land where every [one] is free… O, yes, say it plain,
America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”