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Free, Not Free

Updated: Jan 29


a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

July 2, 2023

Matthew 10:37-42 (NRSV)

37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous, 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

What is something you want to be free from? Ok, what is something you want to be free FOR, in other words free to do? Freedom is a funny word isn’t it. Like a lot of things it sounds wonderful until you get into the details. What you want to be free FOR might be exactly what I want to be free FROM. The concept of freedom today has become an incredibly dangerous and yet equally desirable thing. The reality is that most of us could say we are “free, but not free.”

You are free to carry a gun just about anywhere without any checks or limits in our state as of today. You are free, but not free to murder anyone you choose. Unless you claim you somehow felt threatened and then you can “stand you ground,” and fire away at me. Free, not free? You are free to get pregnant if you are biologically able, but if your life is in danger you are not free to end your nonviable pregnancy even if it might mean your death. Free, not free? You get my drift? Yeah, I know, there he goes being all political again. For me all these things are directly related to how I understand faith.

This is the Sunday before our great national celebration of “independence” which we have wildly confused with “freedom.” We will parade, and picnic, and proudly light our fireworks. But we will spend little time reflecting on what “independence” meant to those who acted to make this nation a separate body from Great Britain almost 250 years ago. We will loudly claim and demand our “freedom” to do or not do many things, but we often forget that freedom from, freedom for and independence as a nation are very different things. So, this morning I want to reflect on what it means to be “free, not free” living in the land of independence, freedom, fireworks, and the general craziness of these times. I want to try to do it in connection with these strange verses we read a few moments ago from our Scriptures.

You see, I define all freedom not by my any partisan political or governmental definition. I try to define my freedom by my faith. Many people today do it the other way around. They define their freedom and then proclaim their faith in whatever supports their partisan political definitions of freedom as “Christian.” It is always interesting to read the Apostle Paul’s definition of freedom in light of that. Basically he said he is as free as any person of faith can be, but he willingly chooses to limit his freedom in any way that might harm or hinder the faith of his siblings in faith. Not a standard many people apply today.

The Scripture this morning doesn’t talk much about freedom, but it defines a lot of values related to that pretty sharply. And uncomfortably. I mean, come on Jesus, really? First, we have a rather upsetting proverb on “family values,” and not the “family values” a certain sector of the religious and political types began proclaiming a few years back. “Anyone who doesn’t love me more than father or mother or son or daughter isn’t worthy of me?” What is that? Does Jesus need some hugs? Is he feeling short on affirmation? Then, even tougher – anyone who doesn’t take up their cross and follow me isn’t worthy? Of course, we all know Jesus means “our cross” is like putting up with our seasonal allergies, right? Nothing too radical! I mean surely Jesus doesn’t expect us to stand up against Rome and Caesar’s injustices or Herod and the Pharisees perverting our religion, just because that’s what got Jesus his cross, right?

Then he talks about all that “welcoming” stuff. Of course, we have that all down, right? We ARE the welcoming church. But maybe we still have some blind spots to ways we aren’t welcoming as we could be. Always room to grow, right? That whole cup of cold water – well we offer the table for communion to anyone and everyone and we top that off with lunch! Kudos to us! We do better than a cup of cold water! So, what is the message to us today as we celebrate our freedom and independence?

A bit of background might be in order here. Remember that these words, all the Gospels, were written almost 2 generations after Jesus walked the earth with the original disciples. In the meantime, much had changed in their world, and for those who followed Jesus. They had gone from being a persecuted Jewish sect that worshiped secretly in houses and caves and things, to a clearly separate religion, worshiping mostly in the open, although there was still persecution. A certain level of customary practices had evolved.

Many who had once been Jews had indeed been separated from father or mother or sons and daughters because of their faith that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Savior, the Christ prophesied by their ancestral faith. Others had been Gentiles, non-Jewish, perhaps worshipers of the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods, or non-believers in any deity. But they had come to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as a unique and distinct link to the one, real God. We know that this separated families.

One example of the “customary practices” that had evolved was that there were traveling preachers and self-proclaimed “prophets” who would preach to these small gatherings of Jesus – believers. The church needed a standard to clarify whose preaching and prophecies were legit, or “kosher” if you will forgive the stealing of the term, and whose words were not trustworthy. This is some of what these words address this morning. Churches had to decide if this or that particular preacher or prophet was one worth listening to, or just another snake-oil salesman looking to mislead a congregation.

Our challenge, your challenge is the same. We are free to worship whomever or whatever we choose. I am free to say whatever I want to say, to the point you decide whether to continue to listen to me or offer me this time to stand before you and say these things. That is what you will do after this worship when you vote on whether I shall be called as your “Settled Pastor.” By the way, I will warn you I consider myself to be the most unsettled Settled Pastor you could call. I find faith is often a challenging and unsettling experience. I find trying to lift your faith, trying to encourage your freedom to live faithfully, a very unsettling calling. But I trust you hear my words in that context.

I do not say things just because I want to. The most controversial things I say I only say after much thought, prayer, and wrestling with the God I believe in. I am free to get up here and say anything in one sense. In another sense I am not free to say anything that I don’t believe honors God. To do so would be to violate my own integrity. Those are unsettling terms in many ways, but at the same time I am deeply honored to believe that, in this day and age, anyone would listen to anyone natter on for 15-20 minutes about anything, let alone about things like “truth,” “faith,” and “God.”

You must decide if what I say sounds authentic. You must decide if the reasoning I give fits the God you know, the Christ you trust. I must decide if the word I want to speak is for my own benefit or truly lifts up concepts and directions for life that are faithful to the Christ I know, and the God I trust. So there we are. Free, not free? If I haven’t fully bored you to sleep by this far too philosophical reflection on the Scripture and freedom, let me try to bring this home before you decide to vote no to this unsettled, Settled Pastor.

Perhaps the words of the Gospel remind us that the big questions get answered in the everyday little questions we answer. That always begins with the way we welcome and show hospitality to the “other.” As a congregation we have a wild and dangerous commitment to welcoming others that many churches feel are too “other” to welcome as they are. I’m not just talking about people who are LGBTQ+. I am saying, for example, we strive to welcome those who believe differently without having to insist they change their beliefs for us to accept them. What we do is we just keep sharing what we believe and let you choose. If our freedom to welcome anyone upsets others then are they really free, or not free? If their freedom to reject us were to cause us to stop proclaiming the love of Christ we know are we free or not free?

We say everyone is free to come to this table and share in its blessings with us. Many say only some are free to come to their table. We say it isn’t our table or their table but the table of Jesus Christ, who ate with sinners, broke bread with those who would deny him and betray him. They were welcome. Are we not free to welcome everyone to come and eat with Jesus? Are we free or not free?

Here's what it comes down to for me. There are many prophets and preachers and everyday “Christians” who want to take away my freedom in the name of their own freedom. I have considered Paul’s words about freedom in my decision. I have chosen to allow them to be free to not be free. I will continue to be free to take up the cross of Christ which sets ALL people free. I will continue to proclaim the table of Christ is free to ALL people. I will continue to give a cup of cold water and a welcome to ALL people I can, because I will not let someone else who is NOT free steal my freedom. I am free from fear of those who want to steal real freedom. I will not use my freedom to be less welcoming. I will use my freedom to learn how to be more welcoming. I will use my freedom to love others more, not less. That’s one thing I have settled. AMEN.

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