This weekend we celebrate our national independence. These are the days we lift up and give thanks for our freedom . . . and we do enjoy incredible freedoms. We’ re free to believe, to worship, to travel, to speak, to go and do, largely as we please. As a nation, we’ re not without faults (no country ever has been), and yet it’ s hard to imagine a more privileged time or place in which to live. We’ ve got good reason to give thanks for blessings beyond number . . . good reason to give thanks for freedoms most other generations wouldn’ t even dream possible.
And yet . . . and yet . . . ironically, I don’ t know too many people who look very free at all if freedom is defined as a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky, carefree existence. More than freedom I know a lot of people filled with anxiety.1 The older I get the more I feel it myself. Sometimes I think grey hair has a direct connection to worry. The more I worry the greyer I get. As a family man I worry about Melissa, Marshall and Eliza are they safe, are they healthy, do they have what they need? As a priest I worry about our church how is the staff doing, have we welcomed the newcomer, did we do enough for the homeless, what are we going to do about our need for more space? As a Christian I worry about my responsibilities as Christ’ s disciple am I working hard enough to be the person God wants me to be, have I really forgiven my enemies, can I ever love others the way I love myself? The truth of the matter is I live in the freest nation on earth but sometimes I don’ t feel very free. As an American I enjoy liberties others only dream about but I don’ t always feel free, rather I sometimes feel burdened, weighed down, trapped. Sometimes I feel the opposite of free.
The irony for us who are Christians as well as Americans is that while we give thanks for all our freedoms as Americans and honor those who have made these freedoms possible, we realize deep in our guts that what makes America free won’ t free our souls or our spirits.
What we need is freedom from ourselves. Freedom from the burdens we carry, freedom from the anxieties, the worries, the mistakes, the struggles of being alive. St. Paul says as much in our lesson this morning from Romans. In a passage of surprising vulnerability Paul confesses to the fledgling church in Rome, I find it to be a law that when I do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? And a little earlier in this same chapter he says, I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Here Paul expresses so perfectly this lack of freedom I am talking about. He knows what he needs to do to be faithful to God, he knows the kind of person he is supposed to be but no matter how hard he tries he often fails to do the right thing or to be the right kind of person. As much as he might wish otherwise, Paul is not free to be the person he wants to be. He is not free from the things he continually does wrong. He is not free from his fears, his doubts. Instead he calls himself a captive, a captive of the human condition who is trapped in a world where worry, anxiety and sin are a part of living that none of us can escape.
Sometime ago, I had a conversation with a young man in college who really wanted to challenge me. We ran into one another one Saturday night at a wedding reception. I had just performed the service so I was all dressed up in my suit and clerical collar. After introducing himself and thanking me for a nice service he said rather nonchalantly I am not much of a church goer myself. I used to go but I just can’ t do it anymore. I think the church is too full of hypocrites. I imagine he thought I would immediately go into a defense of the church at this point and so he was a little surprised when I took a sip of my beer and said You’ re right. But he recovered himself nicely and said, It’ s crazy, everybody sitting in there on Sunday saying one thing in church and then doing something else as soon as the service is over. Again I tried not to bite and said, Yeah, that’ s pretty much the way it goes for a lot of us. Now I could tell that he was getting a frustrated with me because our conversation was not going as he imagined. So he added, Well, then what’ s the point of going to church when you have a room full of liars who will never change. I think he thought the word liar would really get my goat but I kept my cool. I realized that there was a time not so many years ago when I was very much like him. Maybe there is no point, I said, but most of us don’ t go to church because we think we are so good. We are there because we think God is so good good enough to love us and die for us even when we can’ t be good enough. (I am sure I wasn’ t quite that elegant at the time but you have to allow me a little poetic license.) And then I went on to say something like, Believe it or not God’ s love for the hypocrite, the liar, the thief, the adulterer, whatever that love is why I go to church, that love changes lives and makes us better than we really are. You ought to come and join us sometime . . . we even have room for the self-righteous. OK, I didn’ t really say that last line, but I thought it.
Jesus said, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. We live in the freest country on earth but for those of us who feel that pit in our stomachs, who know that ache in our hearts, who wrestle with the person we should be but aren’ t the real, true and deepest freedom comes not from the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution but from a God who loves, forgives and redeems us in spite of ourselves. Only Christ can free us from us, from our lives of doubt and worry, stress and anxiety, from our lives of sin. Come to me Jesus says all you hypocrites, liars and cheats, and if you are willing to trust me with your life then you will find rest. Take my yoke Jesus says, tie yourself to me so that like two animals harnessed together I can help make the heaviest burdens possible to bear.
There’ s an old story about a little boy who was out in a field with his father. His father was clearing rocks as he prepared a field for planting. The little boy so wanted to help his father, so he took stone after stone and carried then out of the field. Finally he came to a stone that wouldn’ t budge. He pushed and pulled. He got a stick and tried to pry it from the ground. But try as he might, it just wouldn’ t move. So he went to his father and apologized, but he just couldn’ t move that one rock. The dad looked at his son and said, So, son, did you use all you’ re strength? And the boy assured him he did. But when the father said, No you didn’ t, I know you didn’ t use all your strength the little boy was visibly hurt that his father did not believe him. Then his dad said, No you didn’ t use all you’ re strength . . . you didn’ t use me. And then together the two went and pried the rock from the ground. [p]
So it is that our gospel invites us. . . not to freedom . . . but into a yoke. To be a part of the one who would carry the burden with us. It’ s a yoke that frees us from that which has held us captive our own sin, our own anxiety, our own worries. Jesus invites us into a yoke that frees us to share the burden. And as great as our freedoms as Americans are . . . they pale in comparison to what it means to be yoked to that which truly sets us free. 2
On this 4th of July weekend I give thanks for our country and her proud heritage. I give thanks for the vision and courage of the men and women who had enough faith to believe that a country built on democracy and freedom could actually prosper and thrive in this world. Two hundred and twenty-nine years ago the people of this land launched a grand experiment that continues to this day. It is an experiment that may well last far into the future if we are honest with ourselves and humble about the ways in which we use our wealth and our power. But our ultimate freedom lies not in our passports but in our baptisms. For it is when we are marked as Christ’ s own forever that we are freed – not from the tyranny of kings and empires but from the tyranny of sin and death.
1 The Rev. Peter Wiley.
2 The Rev. Peter Wiley