13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law…. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-18, 22-25, NRSV)
I am one of those people who just loves the 4th of July. Every year as the 4th rolls around, I can’t help but think back to the days of my childhood and the feelings of pure joy that grew within me as the late days of June passed, one after the other. Continuously counting the days till school would be out, it seemed like summer would never begin. The nuns, sweltering from the heat in their overdone habits, were grouchier than ever, giving us one test after the other, and ceaselessly threatening all kinds of dire consequences if we didn’t behave. And unlike other teachers, the nuns meant it.
The day of release finally came! And of course, within days of school closing, the greatest of freedom days, the 4th of July, arrived with all its pageantry. To me, the 4th was the official proclamation of freedom and the beginning of the lazy, hazy days of summer. Iced tea, barbeques, warm, breezy nights, fireworks, staying out past dark--oh, true freedom! It never tasted so sweet! My friends and I joyously celebrated this freedom, as the doors swung wide on the enchanted days of summer.
Another reason I loved the time so much was because my parents were always especially joyous around this holiday. My parents had both served in World War II. I now understand that freedom has a special, reverential meaning when viewed through the eyes of those who directly paid the price for that freedom.
We kids were always fascinated with my mother’s war stories, can you imagine, a woman in the army?? My mother primarily worked in stateside hospitals, while my father fought his way through the horror of war-torn Europe, eventually ending up at the ultimate of horrors, the Battle of the Bulge. Need I tell you, he never spoke to us of his wartime experiences.
But my mother was a true and outspoken patriot. One of my most cherished memories of the depth of her patriotic vigor dates back to September 24, 2015. I remember the date well because it was just ten days before my mother died. I was visiting at her home in North Carolina with my siblings, as we all knew her time was near.
On that date, a Thursday it was, my mother and I were so happy to be nestled together on the couch, as we awaited the historic events of the day. Pope Francis II, who was visiting the United States for the very first time, was about make the first-ever papal address to a Joint Session of Congress. My mother and I were glued to the TV!
After what seemed like hours, the time for the Pope’s momentous address finally came. Until the day that I die, I will remember the opening line of his speech, delivered with incredible passion and love. In his beautiful accent and in his most humble way, the Pope began: “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The crowd went wild! I heard my mother gasp, and when I turned to her, she had tears running down her face, as she quietly repeated his words, saying, “Yes, yes, the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It seemed to me that she had absorbed the Pope’s words as if they were spoken directly to her, as a confirmation of an essential, absolute truth which she had held all her life. A life which was quickly fading away. Thank you, Pope Francis. And thank you God, for I believe those were the last tears my brave mother ever shed.
I’m not sure if I really heard much more of the Pope’s speech that day since I was so moved by my mother’s passionate response. I have since read the speech in its entirety, and I was and am greatly impressed by the Pope’s prophetic witness. Citing Abraham Lincoln’s call for “a new birth of freedom,” the Pope emphasized again and again that building a future of freedom requires a love of the common good combined with cooperation in a spirit of solidarity. Over and over, the Pope urged the people and the Congressional leaders of the United States to stand up for, and to live by, its cherished values, in order to further seek freedom for all of God’s children.
Today’s Scripture reading, a letter of Paul to the church in Galatia, also deals with questions of freedom for God’s children. Prior to writing this letter, Paul had been successful in converting many Jewish Galatians to Christianity. This letter was written to address questions that arose later, since apparently some of the converts were insisting that certain ceremonial practices of the Old Testament, most notably, circumcision, were still required in the New Testament Church.
Paul responded strongly, providing an eloquent witness to the essential New Testament truth that Christians are justified solely by faith in Jesus Christ--by nothing less and nothing more. This concept, of course, is very familiar to those of us who sit here this morning, as it became the rallying cry of Martin Luther’s Reformation some 1500 years later. In fact, Luther was so influenced by Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that he often referred to it as “my epistle.”
In his letter, Paul acknowledged that while respect for law is generally a laudable goal, in light of the miraculous birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the law was no longer the ultimate determinant of how believers were to live and move and have their being. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” says Paul, and a sustained freedom will result only by living life in accordance with the teachings of the Greatest Rabbi, Jesus Christ himself. And, Jesus has taught us that the primary way to use our freedom properly is by loving our God, loving ourselves and loving our neighbor as ourselves. For in Christ Jesus, says Paul, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is true faith expressing itself through love, in accordance with the Greatest Commandment.
In preparing for today’s sermon, I again read the Pope’s message to the United States Congress--the message that so affected my mother. I was especially struck by the currency of the Pope’s message as well as its congruence with Paul’s voice in our reading today. Thus, in addressing the American political leaders, many of whom still hold office today, the Pope stated:
“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not [generally] fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that most of you also descended from immigrants. When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must…resolve to live as nobly and as justly as possible…
Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?
We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. …In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
(Washington Post, Official Transcript of Pope Paul Speech to Congress, 9/25/15)
No matter what our political leanings, if we wish to deservedly bear the vaulted title of “Christian,” we must be willing to persistently ask ourselves: What are the true guiding principles of my life?, To whom do I belong,? Am I truly committed to living the Greatest Commandment more deeply? Who is my neighbor? Am I willing to compassionately enter into solidarity with all who suffer?
Compassion lies at the heart of our prayer, compassion for ourselves, and our fellow human beings. But let us not underestimate how hard it is to actually be compassionate. The wonderful spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, explains that compassion is very hard because it requires an inner resolve to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken, And, truth be told, this is not our usual, spontaneous response to suffering --any form of suffering. And this is so whether we are considering the unbearable pain of the current refugees at our door, the disappointment of our spouse in not getting a well-deserved promotion, the loneliness of our aging parents, the searing grief of the bereaved, or the deep pain of our children when abandoned by those they previously called friends.
No, others’ pain is not comfortable to deal with, especially when there is no quick fix available. We know this from our own lives and we certainly see it in the lives of others, especially those of limited resources. What we usually desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it or demanding that someone else should certainly deal with it. Yet, Nouwen teaches us, those who can sit with other suffering human beings, literally or figuratively, not knowing what to say or do, yet steadfastly keeping watch, can bring new life into a suffering heart. Compassion is being with--physically when possible, prayerfully and soulfully otherwise. Nouwen further states: “Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears of grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship.” (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart).
So, as we go forth today, ready to celebrate both our summer holiday freedom and our Christ-derived true freedom, let us always be grateful that we do, in fact, live in the home of the free of the land of the brave. Let us also resolve to be in graced and prayerful solidarity with those brothers and sisters in Christ, who also seek freedom. AMEN.