September 24, 2017
Last week found me writing one sermon for two different congregations. The first is you, my Sunday morning Trinity Cathedral regulars. The second will be a Wednesday afternoon service at the Wrightsville Prison, for men who in faith are preparing for a return to life out here. Their program is called “Pathway to Freedom.”
I am not sure yet how I’ll describe you to them. I might start with: “It’s a pretty fancy looking place. I grew up there.”
An obvious question is who am I to preach to men in prison. I know almost nothing of the life. I have been in quite a few jails and prisons for one reason or another, but at day’s end, I was always free to leave. That makes for a wider than normal distance between pulpit and pews. But ministry differences of some size are always present. I am not sick or dying at the moment, but I try to minister to those who are. I haven’t lost a wife or child, but at funerals I preach to those who have. Deep down, the problem in preaching is not the differences between minister and people as much as it is the gap between minister and God. It is God’s word that we’re supposed to preach, but who am I to speak for him? According to scripture, even that difference is no excuse. We have to try.
At first, I assumed I would be writing two sermons: one for you and one for them. Then I read the passages appointed for this morning and knew I was writing one sermon and the title was: “Pathway to Freedom.”
In Exodus, that is the path from Egypt to the promised land, after four centuries of slavery. Moses leads the way. Israel is on a wilderness road longer and harder than the people had anticipated. They hated slavery, but right now they enjoy freedom even less. Better to have died back there as slaves on full stomachs, some grumbled, than out here on poor rations in woods full of chiggers and snakes. This may have been where the saying started: “Be careful what you pray for.”
More than other nations, ours values freedom. Political freedom: we elect our leaders who make our laws. Religious freedom: we can take or leave it, and practice as we choose. Economic freedom: we buy and sell services and goods at market prices. Freedom of speech: we can say, write and publish what we think or feel. We guard these freedoms as the rule, putting the burden of proof on claims for plausible limits and exceptions. I love this about our country. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “the theory of our government is universal freedom.”
And yet: days or years go by when it seems that we aren’t free at all. I think back to one of the least-favorite years of my life, ninth grade, which I spent in boarding school up east. That sounds fancy, doesn’t it? It was fancy like this: up at 6:00, make your bed and sweep the floor; breakfast at seven, coat and tie, be on time—or else. At 7:30 do your chores and you’ll be checked. 8:00 o’clock report for class and don’t forget your homework. And so on until lights out at 10:00.
I had a poster on my dormitory wall of Nina Simone. My big sister gave me the poster to try to fool the older kids into thinking I was cool. It didn’t work. My favorite song of Nina’s is “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”
The joke on my ninth grade self is that now that I’m free and sixty-two my days are longer with a stricter dress code and a lot more homework. Grown-ups, can I get an amen?
What is freedom? Beneath politics, economics, and religion: what is the essence of it? Walker Percy was a young doctor who as an intern caught tuberculosis from a corpse. By law, he was sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium in New York state. Chances were he’d die there. He lost some freedom to protect the public health. It was there that he became a Christian; but before that, it was there in confinement that he came to believe in freedom, the essence of it, and discovered he had had it all along—and still had it now. Years later he said it was like finding gold.
Imagine being born with gold-tinted corneas and undertaking a life-long search for gold. You’d never find it. What was my discovery? That I could act. I was free to act . . . to turn right or turn left or sit down on the culvert.
Many people do not believe we have this power. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s Calvinist father didn’t. Lincoln was taught growing up that God’s will overpowers ours. Whether we are saints or sinners is up to God. He was also taught that saints go to heaven and sinners go to hell. To Lincoln, it didn’t seem right that God would punish someone for doing something God had made him do, so Lincoln turned away from the religion he’d been raised with and started a lifelong search for better answers to his deepest questions.
For a while, he believed in what he called the “doctrine of necessity.” By that, he meant that we are governed by our natural drives and passions. This was his father’s Calvinism, but with God now replaced by nature. Looking at southern slave owners, Lincoln could see that they enjoyed the benefits of the political and economic freedoms that they denied to the people that they owned—but deep down, Lincoln thought, they were slaves too: mastered by their own self-interest and desire.
People often think of following our own interest and desire as freedom, but Lincoln didn’t. He agreed with the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, it is not until we begin to do what we believe we ought to do, as opposed to what we want to do, that we are free. Freedom is power to make a choice, even against our own interest and desire.
We can turn Kant’s thought around. It means that from the moment that I begin to do what I believe I ought to do, I am free. Beneath economics, politics, and the bill of rights, we are free deep down.
In scripture, when St. Paul writes “for freedom Christ has made us free” he means free, deep down.
Our reading today is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison while awaiting trial. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, he tells the people of a church outside. Unlike Abraham Lincoln’s father, Paul believes that it is God who gives us the power to choose our path. We have the power to go left, right or fold our arms and sit down. Our lives are at stake in these choices. Salvation and destruction both are possibilities.
Salvation isn’t economic or political, primarily. For Israel escaping Egypt, it was both, and far be it from me to suggest that such concerns are not important in salvation. In the kingdom of God the deepest truths flower at the surface. But salvation for Paul means saved beneath prison, politics and passion. The prisoner Paul feels free in ways his jailors could only wish that they knew how to.
Lincoln was obviously right in thinking that all of us to some extent are prisoners to necessity. I think that as life went on he softened his doctrine as he moved closer to faith. Our interests, needs and passions don’t enslave us, he now felt—but like walls and fences they do hem us in.
Take fear, for example. Fear is a fact of life. Thomas Aquinas taught that all fear arises from love. We have something that we cherish—health, money, freedom, a wife, a child—that we are afraid to lose. Our greatest fear, according to Aquinas, is of death. By our very nature we shrink from death and wish life to last, he said. How we wish that we could feel that we are free from death.
A strange, true fact of ancient history is that in Paul and the apostles this natural fear of death was clearly disempowered. Paul is matter of fact about it. To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. In Christ, living and dying are two turns within the compass of salvation. Christ’s resurrection had destroyed destruction.
There was a famous man last century who lived with Kant’s freedom in Paul’s faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his name. He was a German pastor in the 1930’s. Fearing the Nazis, he accepted a teaching job in the United States. No sooner had he got here, he decided to return to Germany and accept the consequences whatever they might be. Back home, he saved the lives of Jews. He joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested and sent to prison. Freely, Bonhoeffer had given up his freedom.
In prison, he composed a poem: “Stations on the Road to Freedom.” He names four stations in this order: discipline, action, suffering, and death.
Discipline is the strength we need for freedom. Bonhoeffer writes: “If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and senses… lest your passions and longings lead you away from the path you should follow.” Do you hear that? Discipline is Bonhoeffer’s answer to Lincoln’s youthful doctrine.
Action shifts our choices out of neutral into gear: He writes: “Freedom comes through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing.” Bonhoeffer’s deeds had landed him a prison allied planes were bombing almost daily.
About suffering in prison he writes this: “A change is come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound. In helplessness now you see your action is ended.” By now, there were very few choices left for him to make. This gave him a surprising, deep down acceptance of his bondage that was in its own way freeing. Confined and awaiting execution, he reports: “You sigh in relief and rest contented . . . your cause committing to stronger hands . . . Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom; then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.
He knows that death is coming soon. Like Paul he welcomes it. “A feast,” he calls it. To death, he writes:
Come now thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded, so that at last we may see that which remains here hidden. Freedom, how long have we sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.
A few months after he wrote that a guard came to take him out to hang him. “Prisoner Bonhoeffer,” he said, “this is the end.” “Yes, the end,” Bonhoeffer said, “and for me the beginning of life.”
For it is written:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. . . to bring release to the captives . . . sight to the blind . . . to let the oppressed go free.