Independence Day

by DeeDee Baldwin
Zechariah 9: 9-10
July 3, 2005

Tomorrow is Independence Day. And I don’t mean the day Will Smith saves the world from aliens. Anyway, right now it’s Tom Cruise trying to save the world from aliens. Tomorrow is America’s Independence Day, the day we break out the barbecue sauce, wear red, white, and blue T-shirts, and watch fireworks. July 4 is one of the few dates we didn’t sweat to remember for our history tests.

You know the names connected to July 4. Thomas Jefferson. John Adams. John Hancock. Benjamin Franklin. You know the stories connected to July 4. How John Hancock signed his name in enormous letters so that King George wouldn’t miss it. How Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died exactly 50 years later, on the fourth of July. How many of the signers, while declaring that all men are created equal, owned slaves – including Thomas Jefferson.

Maybe for some people, Independence Day could be January 1, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, saying that “all persons held as slaves… are, and henceforward shall be free.”

For other people, maybe August 18 is Independence Day. That’s the day American women were granted the right to vote in 1920.

What about August 28, 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his own “Declaration of Independence” in Washington, D.C.? “When we let freedom ring,” he said, “when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

When all of God’s children join hands and sing together. When will that happen? Is our Independence Day something that hasn’t even happened yet?

The world celebrates many Independence Days throughout the year. The end of apartheid in South Africa, the liberation of Jews from concentration camps in Europe.

When is your Independence Day? If you could have a barbecue picnic and set off fireworks on your day, what would it be? Maybe the day you graduated from high school or college. Maybe the day you decided to quit smoking. Maybe the day you first became a Christian. Maybe for Christians, Easter morning is the day for barbecue and fireworks, so to speak.

Almost all of the feast days in Jewish history were celebrated in remembrance of some freedom. There is Passover, when God freed the people from slavery in Egypt. There is Purim, when God used Esther and Mordecai to free his people from a death sentence. There is Hanukkah, when God’s people won back the temple, cleansed and rededicated it, and enjoyed freedom from the oppressors who had invaded Israel.

Every 50 years, freedom came in the year of Jubilee, when people were liberated from debts and slavery. One of the main types of offerings conducted in the tabernacle and temple was the free will offering.

Freedom has always been one of the central themes of Christianity, and it was a cornerstone of Christ’s message. There is literal freedom, of course, such as Paul’s escape from prison. There is physical freedom, from blindness and leprosy and demons. But there is also freedom of heart and mind.

Just as Adam and Eve were given the freedom to choose between good and evil, so God has always given us the freedom to choose him. God loved us enough to give us the freedom to reject him. In doing so, God also had to allow the possibility of evil. Freedom comes at a cost. As the popular bumper sticker says, “Freedom is not free.”

And our freedom from sin was not free – Jesus paid the price of it. He signed our Declaration of Independence, and his resurrection left a much bigger signature on it than feisty old John Hancock could have scribbled.

In C.S. Lewis’ book Perelandra, a man named Ransom visits another world, a world that is unfallen. He meets a sinless woman and wonders at first how she can have freedom when she never disobeys God. She tells him: “I thought that I was carried in the will of Him I love, but now I see that I walk with it. I thought that the good things He sent me drew me into them as the waves lift the islands; but now I see that it is I who plunge into them with my own legs and arms, as when we go swimming.”

Ransom comes to realize that the woman does have a choice, even in a sinless world, because she chooses to obey. And because she always obeys God, she is happier, more content, and more free than he can ever be.

Not only does God offer us freedom, but he expects us to do the same for others. Isaiah 42:6-7 says: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness… to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

The Independence Day of July 4, 1776 started a war. But men like Martin Luther King in America and Mahatma Ghandi in India sought freedom through peace, and that is the way intended by God.

“Non-violence is the first article of my faith,” Ghandi wrote. “I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” Ghandi believed that a victory attained through violence and bloodshed was no victory at all.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Zechariah 9:10 in today’s scripture reading says, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Peace has never been a popular concept in America. While declaring our own freedom, we stole it from Native Americans and Africans. We fought each other in the Civil War over freedom and who could govern it. Two years ago, we invaded a country and killed thousands upon thousands of their civilians. Our given reasons? Peace and freedom.

Ghandi said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave a sermon on a small hill by the Sea of Galilee. Despite the popular image of him standing at the top of the hill, he would have been standing closer to the bottom, speaking up to the crowd so that his voice would carry like a natural ampitheater. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

Would you put your John Hancock to that?

This is Christian Citizenship Sunday. It’s been kind of hard lately to figure out what role a Christian citizen has in this country. How do we find a balance between respecting the separation of church and state, while still allowing our convictions to guide us? How do we talk about freedom while our country imprisons and tortures people in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib? How do we talk about forgiveness in a world of frivolous lawsuits and the death penalty? How do we talk about peace while guns and violence, not to mention the war in Iraq, have such a grip on the nation’s consciousness?

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions, but I think Martin Luther King did. So I’m going to close by quoting his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on December 10, 1964. Amazingly – and sadly – his words are still relevant today.

    Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts… Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

    If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. (…)

    I [have] an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.

    I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

    I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

    I believe that even amid today’s motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

    I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

Dr. King closed by saying,

    “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”

Happy Independence Day!

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