Acts 16:1634; Psalm 97; John 17:2026
With so many Californians here for California State Day, I think I should go on and admit it—for most of us Easterners, there’s always been something exotic about you. It has always seemed to me that there is a secret, inner Californian in most of us—you know, that part of us that imagines just kicking off the shackles, jumping in the Volkswagen camper, and heading out to the land of beautiful landscapes and the laid-back lifestyle.
Those of us who were shaped by the Sixties thought of California as the epitome of what it means to be free. We imagined everyone out there with flowers in their hair, we hummed the old song “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas. We listened to the Beach Boys in their falsetto voices wishing that all their girlfriends could be California girls. And then there was the peace movement, the free love movement, and Berkeley, with several hundred movements all going on at once. California was the place where you had the freedom to live just about any way you wanted to, nothing holding you back, nothing tying you down.
Now let me reassure my California friends. I know you’re not like that, or at least you aren’t any more. And I know that was only one very small part of the truth about California, with its remarkable dynamism and multi-ethnic culture. I also know that when I finally spent some real time in California, the reality there was a lot more complex—the hours spent on the freeways, the sky-high cost of buying a house, the need for alarm systems for protection, the racial and ethnic tension. Not so free after all.
Freedom is the American dream. Young Huck Finn, and just about every other hero of American literature, wanted to light out for the West away from all the claims of civil society, so they could really be free.
We Americans love that word, freedom. We might argue about the Iraq War or abortion or global warming, but we all care about our freedom—freedom to live where we want, freedom to choose our lifestyle, freedom of the press, freedom of religion. Patrick Henry was ready to die for it: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
I’m on the board of a university where the faculty is insistent on the right of academic freedom—to say and write whatever they want without any oversight. Then some members of the board will argue back that what they really want is freedom from accountability for the quality of their teaching. Freedom is a contested word.
Aren’t you impressed by all the technological breakthroughs to give us more freedom and flexibility? Cell phones now let us be in touch 24/7, as they say. You can stand on a street in Des Moines and talk to your daughter in Capetown. Treos and Blackberries give us the freedom to read email anytime, day or night. But now we’re so free to stay in touch that we’re becoming addicted to checking for calls and emails every five minutes, and we’re beginning to discover that bosses are expecting employees to answer emails night and day. That’s freedom?
We insist on the freedom to bear arms. And that ends up making us the most dangerous developed nation in the world. The Virginia Tech tragedy was made possible by nearly unhindered freedom to buy a handgun. There are 90 guns for every 100 people in the U.S., compared with 46 for Switzerland, and 39 for Iraq. Our homicide rate is 19 times higher than that of 35 other high income nations combined. Freedom, we call that.
And maybe nowhere is our freedom more roundly celebrated than in our consumer culture. Our civic life has become a mall of nearly limitless choices. Writer Barry Schwartz, author The Paradox of Choice, describes going into a supermarket and finding 285 brands of cookies, 40 toothpastes, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals. He says he wanted a new pair of jeans and asked the saleswoman for a pair in his size and she asked, “Do you want slim fit, relaxed fit, easy fit, boot cut or straight leg, button fly or zipper fly, stonewashed, acid washed, distressed, or unwashed?” And the irony of all the choices, Schwartz says, is that studies show they make us not more happy but less. We agonize, then we choose, and then we begin to think we made the wrong choice. Ah, freedom!
Freedom for us seems to mean that I have the right to go aggressively after whatever I want, as long as I don’t get in the way of you getting what you want. It all seems to be about our wants, and that is causing problems.
Have you noticed how hard it is becoming for people to make commitments? Western Europe seems to be giving up on the institution of marriage; the number is dropping sharply every year. The same goes for having children. And it’s happening here in the U.S. too. Many people no longer want to be tied down. Half of marriages end in divorce. We want to be able to change our mind, to get a new model, trade up—in our relationships as well as in our house, car, or job. We want our freedom.
The freedom we seem to want is the freedom to go anywhere, to buy, to consume, to follow our feelings without constraint. And strangely, that way of life seems to be making us more driven, more anxious, burdened with more debt. It leads to raising over-programmed, anxious youngsters spending their high school careers worrying about what college they will go to so that they can then have the freedom to choose. People call the urban East Coast the white-knuckle corridor. And that’s freedom?
That was quite an adventure story we heard in our first lesson today. Paul and Silas are making their way to church when they encounter a slave girl. She happened to have the gift of fortune-telling, and so her owners were making a bundle from her as she read palms and predicted the future. She seems to have been mentally unstable, and took to following Paul and Silas around harassing them. So Paul casts out the demon that possessed her.
Good news all around, you would say. Except for the fact that the owners of the girl were furious, because they just lost their quickest way in to making a lot of money.
So all of a sudden Paul and Silas are behind bars, with chains around their wrists and their legs in the stocks. So much for their freedom. But instead of being defeated, Paul and Silas seem amazingly alive. They are praying and singing hymns to God right there in the jail cell. Now that’s strange—people who have had their freedom taken away seem more alive and free than ever.
If you want to read something remarkable, go home this afternoon and read Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. You can do it in thirty minutes. He wrote it sitting in a Roman prison, and it’s about the most joyful letter you’ll ever encounter. “Rejoice!” he says, “And again I say rejoice! Have no worry about anything…” And later he says, “I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Now that’s freedom. The freest man you’ll ever encounter is sitting in filthy prison, trusting God, hopeful, confident. So who is free and who is in prison? Freedom seems to have more to do with what is inside you than what’s outside you.
I remember a few years ago talking to a lawyer in his late thirties. He was smart, hardworking, making his way to the top in a major Chicago law firm. We fell into a long conversation at a cocktail party and I asked him how he liked his work. “Frankly,” he said, “I find it pretty boring. Well, in fact, very boring. There’s not much that I’m doing that I really care about.”
“Have you thought about doing something else?” I asked. “No, I really can’t,” he said. “I guess you could say I’ve got golden handcuffs. I’m supporting a family, and I’m making too much to step out now. I think I’ve got to just ride it out to retirement. A lot of my friends feel the same way.” Who is free, and who isn’t?
Think about Nelson Mandela sitting in that prison cell for 28 years on Robben Island, while the government of South Africa was frantically trying to figure out how to hold onto power and maintain apartheid. They sent secret negotiators to the prison to meet with Mandela to try to work a deal. Sitting in that cell, doing exactly what he believed was right, Mandela was the freest man in South Africa.
Think about the great Beethoven, writing all his greatest music as a deaf man. The worst of constraints seemed to make him more free.
Some of the freest people I know are living with the greatest limits. A close friend lived for a decade in a wheelchair before she died at a young age. She seemed only to grow more radiant, more alive, more full of gratitude for her life, and she and her husband said that those ten years after she lost the use of her legs were the best years of their married life. Prisons can become places to sing.
What if the heart of being human isn’t the freedom to do what I feel like, but the freedom to be the open, generous human being God has made me to be? And what if I can only become that by making commitments and promises and accepting limits that bind me to a way of life that matters? What if our Prayer Book is right when it says that in God’s service we find “perfect freedom?”
Well, as it turns out, Paul and Silas don’t have much time in the prison. An earthquake hits, the prison shakes, and the door of their cell flies open. The jailer is horrified and is about to kill himself when Paul and Silas stop him. And then the jailer utters those piercing words, “What must I do to be saved?” Which is to say, what must I do to be free?
And the answer they give him is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It sounds like an order—accept a set of beliefs and you’ll somehow be saved. But that misses the point. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says that the word “believe” comes from the same root as “beloved,” which means to give your heart away. Believe and belove—both are about giving ourselves to something or someone we love. Too much of Christian faith through the centuries has made it sound as if the heart of Christian faith is accepting a set of propositions about God or Jesus, and if we do, we will go to heaven. Of course it matters what we believe, but what saves, what makes us free, is love—discovering God’s love for us, and binding ourselves in baptismal vows and commitments and practices of faith to live that way.
The secret of real freedom, of being saved from the prisons of self-absorption and drivenness and fear, is to entrust our hearts to the One who is completely free. “If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
You want to be free? Give your heart to that love. Learn to live his way. Take on the practices of a disciple. Sometimes there will be an earthquake and you’ll find your prison door swinging open with you stepping into a new life. Sometimes you’ll find yourself singing even behind bars.
And you want an America that is genuinely free? Then help it to reclaim what freedom meant to our Founders—not this freedom from responsibility, freedom for greed and self-indulgence, but freedom for building a just and hopeful society for everyone.
Here’s one more song from the sixties for you. It’s a country song by Kris Kristofferson about a man who has left everything he had, including his wife and children, and gone to drift his way through his life. But along the way, he has been gone through enough chaos and trouble, so that now he has decided it’s time to go home. And the refrain he sings goes this way:
I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain,
Taking any comfort that I can,
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains,
Lying in your loving arms again.
Freedom is a strange thing. We’ll never find it by chasing after our next desire. My sense is that our society has been too long in the wind, too long in the rain. And what we most need is the freedom that comes with the promises and commitments that can make us whole—promises to God, to each other, to our world. That’s the path to real freedom.
“If you continue in my word, you truly are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”