She has stood just off the southern tip of Manhattan, at that point where the Hudson and East Rivers meet to begin their final journey to the Atlantic Ocean, for the past 130 years now, beckoning those from distant shores – like a moth drawn to a flame – to a new life, a new dream, a new future. Images of the Statue of Liberty, the lady in the harbor, are beginning to fill the airwaves as we find ourselves now in that intermediate period of late-June/early-July patriotism, with Flag Day having been celebrated just 12 days ago, and the celebration of the 240th anniversary of the founding of this great nation of ours just 8 days away. At the pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty are written these familiar words:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those words of welcome have invited wave upon wave of immigrants from every country in the world for the last 130 years. And still they come today… from all corners of the globe, through gateways like New York and Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle, El Paso and Detroit and Dayton… in search of the American dream… in search of freedom. They come seeking freedom from persecution, freedom from poverty, freedom from a dead-end life with no hope of ever being able to break that cycle of despair back home. But they have come here not just seeking freedom from things they hope to leave behind. They come here as well for another kind of freedom… the freedom to dream, the freedom to start over, the freedom to breathe the fresh air of liberty, of possibility, of endless promise.
Freedom, however (contrary to the minds of many in the United States, especially as we draw close to the 4th of July), is not something we invented in Philadelphia, PA in 1776. “For freedom,” St. Paul tells us in the opening words of today’s letter to the Galatians… “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”
It’s such a simple phrase, that it passes by almost unnoticed. And yet, in those seven little words lies the key… the key to becoming the people God is calling us to become. “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” And like those words carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty – and carved into the hearts of the millions of people who passed beneath her torch – the freedom offered to us by Christ is both a freedom “from”, and a freedom “to”. In Christ we have been offered freedom from hopelessness, freedom from fear, freedom from isolation, freedom from a sense that we are doomed to nothing else than a miserable existence on this speck of dirt floating through space for just a flash of cosmic time.
And at the same time, we have been offered a freedom “to” as well… a freedom to live in community with one another and with God; a freedom to hope that in God all things are being made new; a freedom to share with God in the transformation of all creation.
But like any gift, this gift of freedom with which we have been so richly blessed is only really ours when we take it, and unwrap it, and hold it close to our hearts, and allow it to change us in ways we might never have thought possible.
And here’s the hard part… just like the kind of freedom which we enjoy here in America, the freedom which comes through Christ is not free. With freedom comes a price tag. This morning’s gospel lesson recounts a troubling episode in Jesus’ ministry when not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions Jesus invites people to follow him. And in each case, Jesus counts the cost of that invitation: “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head; let the dead bury their own dead; no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In this new life of freedom, Jesus seems to say, there is no assurance about what lies ahead, there is no comfort in an easy journey, there is no guarantee that you are going to be happy every step of the way. The only promise is that you will never be alone.
Earlier this month, my niece Staci celebrated her 22nd birthday. She is the youngest daughter of my younger sister, Susan. Like many parents today, Susan and her husband raised their three daughters from their earliest days, trying to instill in those girls a sense of confidence and competence from their earliest days. And so I can remember those kids, from the moment that they were old enough to begin making their own decisions, being given choices rather than ultimatums from their parents. And so, for instance, when they were getting dressed in the morning, Susan would say, “You can choose… would you like to wear red socks or blue socks?” And at the dinner table she would say, “You can choose… would you like one spoonful of vegetables on your plate, or two?” And rather than arguing about whether they ought to be heading off to bed, she would simply say, “You can choose… would you like to go to bed at 8:00 or at 8:15?”
In fact, this pattern became so engrained in those girls that my now-22 year old niece, when she was only two, was once in the shopping cart at the local grocery store with my sister, when Susan was standing in the breakfast food aisle trying to decide which box of cereal to buy. And without missing a beat, in her squeaky little two-year old voice, Staci called out, “You can choose!” It’s one of those stories which, over the years, has simply become part of the family lore.
Without meaning to overly simplify life, Staci’s words still ring in my ears today. You can choose… and I can choose… and we can choose… a life of slavery or a life of freedom. Each comes with a promise, and each comes with a cost. With slavery comes the promise of certainty, and with slavery comes the cost of a dead-end road from which there is no escape. With freedom comes the promise of new life. And with freedom comes the cost of not knowing where that new life is going to lead us.
As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July in another week… and as we prepare to welcome a new rector here at St. Mary’s later this summer… I invite you to keep in mind not only the freedom which we enjoy by virtue of our citizenship in this country. I invite you, as well, to reflect on a different kind of freedom we enjoy through a different kind of citizenship… a freedom to walk hand-in-hand with one another and hand-in-hand with God… in the words of our opening prayer: “to be joined together in unity of spirit.” For God has invited us to share in good and holy work. And God has given us a choice as well. I hope that you will choose well. “For freedom, Christ has made us free.”