The following text was the foundation for a sermon I preached at my church (the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut) the Sunday before the 2018 Fourth of July holiday. I touch on numerous topics, but the central one is freedom. I share my perspective on how freedom’s very nature is interconnected with servitude, along with examples of how various spiritual traditions teach this beautifully paradoxical idea. The text is slightly different from the actual sermon delivery, but the larger sentiments and themes remain the same.
An edited version of this piece was published in the anthology One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking LIberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets. I encourage you to purchase and read this book in its entirety.
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you, oh God,
Our rock and our redeemer.
Good morning dear friends. My name is Gabriela, and I am a deacon here at First Church of Christ in Middletown. I am honored to be delivering today’s sermon in Julia’s stead as she enjoys some vacation. A special welcome to all of you who are new with us today as we begin our community worship.
This year, in part due to national and world events but also given that we are currently hosting community summer worship and inviting new friends into our space, First Church has chosen the theme of Radical Hospitality as a focus for our sermons this month. We as a church are constantly seeking to create an evermore welcoming and safer space for all individuals, and we wish to reflect on how we could do that even better within and beyond the walls of this sanctuary
So for the next month, you’ll be hearing reflections on this theme that touch on different topics. For today, given that the fourth of July holiday is approaching, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on the notion of freedom and how it intersects with this theme of radical hospitality and inclusivity. Because, really, what do we actually mean when we say “I am free,” or that we live in “the land of the free”? We use the term often, but I don’t think we are often invited to reflect deeply on what we mean by freedom. Especially in times of political and social unrest, I think it is vital to reflect deeply on its meaning because, depending on how we understand the term, our lives and our society shift radically, including who is safe and welcome in it.
So let’s, as a church, get our intellectual hands dirty and unpack this idea of freedom for a bit. I propose that we start with some basics: a definition. If you are anything like me when you are struggling to define a concept, the first thing you do is go to Google — which is exactly what I did for this sermon. According to my search, Google defines freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”. Please raise your hand if this is roughly the definition of freedom you were taught.
Right. For many of us, it’s the definition we were taught, and I would argue it’s what most Americans believe freedom to be. While I believe our nation’s passion for freedom is one of its beautiful strengths, I would like to reflect on what I perceive to be some troubling flaws in this definition that our larger society embraces with regards to freedom. I would then like to offer an alternative vision of freedom that is not so centered on personal power but rather is centered on an understanding of freedom that is far more expansive and wholistic.
Part of my skepticism towards a conception of freedom as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” is that it negates some basic facts of life, including the fact that none of us, even if social circumstances permit it, can ever do whatever we want whenever we want, because none of us is in full control of our circumstances. Every single human being, even the most privileged, has restraints on their circumstances beyond their control. One could even argue that it is inherently human to live within these restraints. Otherwise, we would be God; but we aren’t. Can I get an “Amen” to that?
So how can freedom, then, be possible in our human reality of living within limitations? If we stick with Google’s definition of freedom, it’s inherently impossible, because it would be a negation of terms. But if we look towards spiritual texts and how they explain freedom, we hear a different story. A story where limitations are not barriers to freedom but precisely that which defines the path to freedom. I know this might sound a bit nonsensical, so let me give an example.
As you may know, the first, critical steps towards freedom from addiction in 12 Step programs is first: the acceptance of one’s own powerlessness over the addiction; second: the belief in a power greater than oneself; and finally: a full surrender to this Higher Power’s plan and an abandonment of one’s own self-will. I don’t think it’s often appreciated just how radical and revolutionary these steps are in a time and place where we often hear “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” But self-will has never freed an addict from addiction. Rather, freedom from addiction is achieved by forsaking one’s own willfulness and limiting oneself to following, through discernment and action, a plan presented to us by a Power greater than ourselves. We might not always like this plan from Higher Source and we might not always want to do it. But to be free from addiction, an addict has no choice but to limit themselves in this way. Such limitations are not barriers to freedom, but precisely that which permit true liberation from the horrific plight of addiction.
There is something very powerful in 12 Step programs that everyone—not just recovering addicts and their loved ones—can benefit from. While we might not be addicted to a substance, just about every one of us is incredibly and perhaps unhealthily attached to our opinions, our expectations, and our desires. The 12 Steps programs offer a model for achieving true liberation from that which binds us to suffering, whatever it is: admit we cannot control that to which we are attached; trust in a higher power’s ability to offer a solution to the situation; and following that power’s guidance without hesitation.
Amazingly enough, this model of liberation is reflected in many faith traditions, including Christianity. Consider, for instance, a beautifully poetic and seemingly contradictory statement in 1 Peter 2:16, which we heard earlier today: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
There is a lot going on in this one sentence, so let me repeat it: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.”
Notice how being free here is not the opposite of being a servant; nor does freedom equate to doing whatever one wants. Rather, we are told that in order to live as free people we must be servants of God — a God who is Love — and to limit our actions to those that are aligned with God’s goodness.
Do you see how the Bible is, in typical fashion, turning everything on its head? To be free, I must enslave myself to God and put limits on my actions. I can choose not to enslave myself to God and do whatever I want, but then I would not be free. I find it to be beautifully paradoxical, and it is my conviction that there is a deeper truth hiding here that Jesus is encouraging us to see and embrace — one that does not pit freedom against servitude but rather brings the two together. Rather than seek out the ability to do whatever we want, we are being told that yielding to our role in God’s plan for us (which does not include playing God) and limiting ourselves to do what God wants (rather than simply what we want) is where true freedom resides.
Such profound teachings are present in spiritual texts beyond the Bible, such as the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam. As Christians living in an era of rampant Islamophobia, I think it is important that we remember that these two faiths are sisters who share common spiritual blood, and whose teachings are complimentary. Like Christianity, Islam is described by many as a path towards liberation through communion with God. But get this (and this might prove useful for a trivia game, so listen closely): the very word Islam, while denoting a religious path towards freedom, actually means “submission” in Arabic. So here again, we see the false binary between freedom and submission being toyed with and ultimately broken in Islamic teachings, similarly to Jesus’.
The Qur’an is not speaking here of submission as an abusive relationship between an authority figure and a subservient being. Rather, “submission” is meant to denote the state of being that all of creation is already and forever in as part of the realm of God. Similarly to the Bible, the Qur’an beautifully emphasizes that we are ultimately at the mercy of whatever fate the God of Love has planned for us. To accept this position of our relative powerlessness in the face of God’s will is seen not a sign of weakness in Islam, but rather a way of being that is in perfect resonance with God, offering us true freedom by opening us up to God’s guidance and loving care.
In Christianity, Islam, 12 Step Programs, and many other spiritual paths, we are told again and again that to find true freedom, we must surrender our own will and align ourselves to God’s to the best of our abilities. But when we as a society focus on freedom as simply being able to do whatever we want without hindrance or restraint, we think it’s all about us, rather than about all of us. We start to view anything that limits or challenges us as a threat that must be eliminated. This leads to defensiveness of our so-called freedom that can even result in mortal harm. Such an individualistic notion of freedom leads to laws like a “zero tolerance” policy at our border that offers no love for immigrants and refugees. It leads to a Muslim ban because we perceive difference as dangerous. It leads to the destruction of sacred Native land for the sake of oil. It leads to the disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown people so that white folks can enjoy their “freedom” more comfortably.
This kind of false freedom closes us in behind walls of fear and defensiveness. But true freedom through servitude and alignment with the God of Love opens us up and keeps us on a path that is healing for ourselves and others. The path to true freedom reminds us of all of our connection to each other and to God, in whose image we are all made. When we reject the false belief that freedom is based on limited resources that mustn’t be shared with others and chose instead to trust that there is an abundance of divine love to go around, radical hospitality and inclusivity become possible and heal the wounds of the world.
Freedom for ourselves and our communities is not about achieving the power to do whatever we want. Rather, freedom is the task of diligently staying a course whose North Star is Love. It is not so much our ability to choose that grants us freedom but our decision to choose, over and over, to follow God’s will for us that allows us to achieve true liberation and become a truly welcoming and transformative presence in the world. For the freedom offered through God’s plan for us is far greater, more benevolent, and more loving than any other type of freedom.
May each of us and our whole community be a source of refuge and love for all of God’s creation, and may we find radical liberation through the grace of God, our only true source of freedom.
Let it be so. Amen.