"Freedom Is A By-Product"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/24/1998

I Kings 19:1-4, 11-13; Galatians 3:23-29

     Memorial Day offers us the opportunity to reflect on our understanding of freedom. While most of us believe we know what freedom is, we would be challenged if we tried to define it. What is freedom? Freedom is not something we can perceive with our five senses. We could not, for example, get several buckets of it to examine. We cannot put freedom under the microscope. Freedom is not even something that we can give away. As a result, freedom is often confused and associated with the very things that can easily confine us.

     I was interested in listening to the couple who recently held the 180 million dollar lottery ticket. Shirley and Frank were reflecting on how they were going to give a lot of their winnings away. Shirley said, "We are going to give some of the money to our children. We are going to give some to our grandchildren." Most of us would do the same. Notice, however, the underlying belief that having an abundance of money will give loved ones a freedom they might not otherwise have.

     Whether wealth produces freedom or not, does not depend on an abundance of money. It depends on the spirit of the people having it. So, we will see what happens to grandchildren once they realize the implications of being millionaires. Think of the struggles that they will not have to experience! Some of us believe that an absence of struggle is a perfect place to be. Is it?

     Getting instant wealth could be like cutting some of the fibers of the butterfly's cocoon in order to hasten its freedom. What gives the butterfly the power of flight is the strength given to its wings as it struggles for its own freedom. Anything hastening that process would forever prevent the butterfly from having freedom. Even people who have worked hard for their money have realized that wealth does not guarantee freedom.

     Bill Gates, the wealthiest person in the world, can go few places and feel that he is free. Recently while going to a speaking engagement in Belgium, someone threw a pie in his face. Mick Jagger, the lead singer in the Rolling Stones said recently, "You strive all of your life to become economically independent and a popular musician and when you succeed, you discover that you cannot go anywhere without being mobbed by people wanting your autograph or who just want to stand in front of you in some emotional frenzy and scream. All of this makes for a very lonely existence."

     Our belief that freedom can be given to us by anything is an admission of how little we understand it. Some of us wake up every morning to all the opportunities our society freely extends and become mystified how people willingly enslave themselves to alcohol, drugs, lives of crime, infidelity in their relationships and on and on. They are not free; they are people finally being tyrannized by what they have slowly cultivated over a long period of time.

     We look for explanations of why increasing numbers of children are angry and want to express that anger through violence. It seems that every week a new episode surfaces somewhere in our country. America can only offer an environment where freedom can exist, but, like having wealth, that environment will not guarantee to anyone that they will experience it.

     In this morning's lesson, the Apostle Paul is suggesting that freedom is totally a matter of spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, "Before the time of faith, the Law kept us prisoners until this coming faith was revealed. The Law was in charge of us until Christ came." Then the first verse of Chapter 5 says this, "Freedom is what we have -- Christ has set us free." How does Christ do that? The answer is that when we have the loving spirit that discipleship brings, nothing can hold us prisoner.

     The Law defined what righteous people looked like and how they should behave. Prior to Jesus' teaching about the spirit, the central issue for people was learning what God wanted under the Law and then doing it. Being a success in the "eyes of God" was interpreted as being a matter of training and discipline. Jesus taught and demonstrated that freedom was determined by the spirit of our living, behavior that is much different from a life that mirrored what the Law required.

     Freedom, then, becomes a by-product of the spirit. Freedom is what we experience when our main focus in life is love, that wondrous energy that radiates from us. Can anger hold us prisoner when we are busy being kind? Can not having a lot of money hold us prisoner when what we have money cannot buy? Can loneliness ever immobilize us when we are busy extending ourselves to others? Many people still do not get it!

     On Memorial Day we celebrate freedom and those who have died protecting it. Yet, all this country can ever do is provide the environment where freedom exists. In that environment we are free to be a victim. In that environment we can feel that we have been "messed up by the system," passed over for a promotion, unfairly singled out by police radar for speeding when we were clearly speeding within a group of cars. We are free to think, "Why did the officer zero in on just me?"

     In America we can talk about racial prejudice, about glass ceilings, and about handicapping traumas in our childhood as reasons why we are not being successful in life. The truth is that the environment does not care. The United States of America does not care about what any of us thinks about our lives. The country itself does not have that ability.

     Let us bring this understanding closer to where we live. What is St. Matthew's United Methodist Church? Is it Dick Stetler, Patti Smith, Shirley Bickel or Isaac Borocz? Is it what the Administrative Board wants to do? Is it what the Finance Committee decides to do? Does the Council on Ministries really "wear the pants" at St. Matthew's? No! St. Matthew's is merely an environment. It is a culture that all of us create when caring, support and love is the mission statement that governs everything we do together. We are the Body of Christ.

     St. Matthew's does not care what anyone thinks about it. The reason it does not care is that St. Matthew's does not have the capacity to think. Our church is not something that exists apart from us. Just like the United States, St. Matthew's is merely an environment in which each one of us is free to feel loved or unloved. Our response is something we create. People who want St. Matthew's to do something for them are just as uninformed about freedom as those who expect our country to provide for their every need.

     Every church in every generation has always heard various people say, "I don't know anyone!" "No one visits me." "All they do is ask for money." "I could miss 15 Sundays in a row and no one would notice." If anyone dared to miss 15 weeks in a row at their job without telling anyone why, he or she would be fired with no questions asked. The expectations people frequently have of the church is what has created the double standard.

     Jesus brought an awareness that we were created to love, not become sponges that absorb love from everyone else. St. Matthew's is an environment where people can say, "I want to meet more people! I want to make a difference; THEREFORE, I will say ‘yes' to working with the Missions Committee. I will work in the nursery during church. I will work with Warm Nights. I will help with the Shelter Committee. I will serve on the Altar Guild. I will join the theater troupe. I will be a Greeter or a Lay Reader on Sunday mornings." There cannot be any "I feel ignored" feelings when we are serving, extending ourselves and creating the very culture that communicates "We are the Body of Christ." As a result freedom happens.

     Freedom is a by-product of our spirit. The environment reflects the spirit of all of us. The issue is not that we will ever be without flaws, short-comings and failures. There will always be such things. Every environment has short-comings, but the environment also has the ability to adjust because that is what love does -- love adjusts, it accommodates and it brings healing.

     Consider, for example, how our society works. Our culture in America is based on everyone doing their part to make the rewards of freedom visible. When we buy a box of Raisin Bran cereal, we do not have to wonder if there really are raisins inside. When we turn on a light switch, we do not have to wonder if the people at BGE or Pepco are still on the job.

     When we fill our car with gasoline, we know that an entire network of people are working in refineries, in storage facilities and driving delivery trucks just to make that purchase possible. As a result we experience freedom. Our collective resolve reminds us, "When each of us extends ourselves, we experience the environment such mutual serving creates." Freedom is a by-product of what we do together.

     And when the system breaks down and fails to work, people adjust and go to work on the problem. Just this week one of our major satellites shut down silencing millions of pagers on which the flow of business has come to depend. Immediately, people went to work on the problem solving it in less that 24 hours. That is what freedom provides all of us.

     The fabulous quality of this freedom is that it has the potential to touch everyone in every culture. There is no idea more timely as nations are already experiencing a global economy. In our own life time we have seen a dramatic shift in how nations are choosing to deal with each other. Yes, the process seems painstakingly slow, but there can be no comparison when we understand how nations have dealt with each other over the last 10,000 years.

     Listen how nearly 2,000 years ago Paul described this freedom. Paul wrote, "So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus." A loving spirit always sets us free. There can be no differences when love radiates from us. Love does not consider differences as barriers.

     The reason why Paul expressed himself so passionately about the Law is that it separated, discriminated against, and created a caste system. The Law told people what they could eat, how to prepare food, whom they could marry, how much they must give to God and on and on. The Law produced the Pharisees who tried to live perfect lives under the Law. But they could not extend themselves to Samaritans, to Romans, or anyone who was deemed "unclean." The Law did not guarantee freedom because freedom is a by-product of spirit.

     Jesus brought us the awareness of how the environment of freedom could be created. To experience it, we have to extend ourselves to each other in service. As long as some people allow themselves to be held prisoner by the tyranny of wanting, needing and taking what is not theirs, they will never experience the freedom that they seek.

     Why do we think people build biological weapons, bomb government buildings, send pipe bombs in the mail, form anti-government paramilitary groups, or enter cafeterias and shoot guns at innocent people? Their spirits are tyrannized by fear, hatred, bitterness, and frustration. They are not free. They are slaves to anger and have chosen to destroy rather than contribute.

     Jesus Christ brought the answer. Freedom is totally a matter of spirit. We need to celebrate it. Praise God for it. We need to make freedom so incredibly beautiful that no one would want to destroy it. Jesus taught us that freedom is a by-product of the spirit we achieve by living together as a community. Let us be grateful to God. Let us remain humbled by those who lost their lives trying to preserve the environment that allows freedom to exist. It is worth preserving.


     Eternal God, as our lives continue to evolve, how wonderful it is to have Jesus as our guide and friend. Our remembrance of his teachings has helped to correct our thinking. His call to discipleship has spared us from decisions that would have imprisoned us. His compassion for others has inspired us to become his hands and feet. His acceptance of sinners has enabled us to understand how he loves each one of us. His forgiveness has taught us the nature of true freedom. As we greet each new day, may we understand that it is we who have made our lives complicated. Enable us to approach each experience without fear, thus allowing you to bring through us what has the potential to heal and bring peace to others. May our discipleship become more visible every day. Amen.


     Thank you God for being so generous with your spirit. You have given us the capacity to experience freedom. We have also learned that the price for that freedom is for each of us to extend ourselves in service to others.

     Your Son once taught us to love one another and for years we did not appear to know how to translate that thought. We wanted constantly to link love with an emotional response. Yet when we learned to care even for people we did not know, freedom was the result.

     Now, we have developed a society whose fabric is linked to nearly every profession. Some of us build roads. Some of us cut hair. Some of us stock shelves in grocery stores. Some of us are bankers, real estate brokers, insurance agents and health providers. By contributing something that others need, most of us have understood the higher wisdom of "love one another."

     Thank you for all the personal struggles that have helped us overcome our reliance on selfish impulses and desires. May all of us continue to be an inspiration for those who have not yet discovered your will for all of us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .