Happy fourth of July! Obviously today is the day we celebrate our independence as a nation, so I’ve been thinking about freedom this week. Perhaps this isn’t as true for other generations, but for many people of my age at least, there was a critical moment in which there was a shift in our understanding of the meaning of freedom. It was in 1995 - coincidentally, the year of my graduation from high school - and our concept of freedom was forever altered as we watched Mel Gibson paint his face a historically inaccurate but very dramatic blue, and give his unlikely army a pep talk ending with this phrase: “They may take our lives, but they will never take our FREEDOM!!!!!!”
Yes, oddly enough, it was the movie “Braveheart” that made some of us realize that freedom was not just something that people could die for, which we had been taught anyway by grandparents and American history classes. We came to understand that there is something about freedom that was bigger than death - something about true freedom that even death could not take away.
Of course, what I and some of my peers learned from Braveheart, I suppose others have been learning over the last couple of thousand years from Jesus.
In today’s passage from Luke, we find Jesus giving a “pep talk” of his own, not to warriors about to charge into battle, but to a rag-tag group of followers he was sending out in pairs as ambassadors of sorts to the surrounding villages. Go, armed simply with the message of peace. Bring nothing - no, money, no food rations, no extra clothing, not even shoes. Rely on the hospitality of strangers. There will be a risk that you will be unwelcome - a likelihood, in fact, and this is what you should do if - or rather when - it happens. By the way, you will be like lambs in the middle of a hungry wolf pack. For a pep talk, this is not terribly peppy.
And yet, the seventy disciples go out, and when they return, they are not full of stories of being chased out of town, or running out of food, or of the horrible rejection they’ve received. They return with joy, with stories of the healings they had done, with jubilation at the things they had been able to accomplish. And Jesus confirms for them that they have authority even over snakes and scorpions - which I don’t think means just the literal creatures of the ground, but rather anything that might strike out to harm them. They have authority even over all the power of the enemy. They have freedom to go, to preach, to rely on the hospitality of strangers, to live and travel without worry, and it is a freedom that even all the powers of death can not take away from them.
I think that one of the compelling things about Braveheart was that image of Mel Gibson and the cinematic Scotsmen charging across a field, knowing some of them were going to die, expecting death, even - and yet this was the moment in which they were least afraid. There’s something of that same feeling, I think, in the disciples at this moment - in this group of random people picked up here and there as they were drawn by the call of Jesus, who were in most other moments completely confused by the things that he said - when they headed off in pairs to preach a message they were just beginning to understand, in expectation of danger to themselves. And yet, this is the moment in which they are most certain. This is the moment in which they are least afraid.
As Americans, we like to talk a lot about freedom. We sing songs about it and create holidays to celebrate it. We have it written into the founding documents of our nation: freedom of expression, assembly, religion, the freedom to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and unfair trial, etc. All very important freedoms to have, all worth standing up for.
One of the things we don’t talk so much about, however, is freedom from fear. In fact, it might be suggested that we have built a load of multimillion-dollar industries around our fear. Think about the number of businesses who create products and services that protect us from one thing or another: pharmaceutical companies that preserve us from pain and illness, companies that fill food with preservatives so that it doesn’t make us ill, other companies that make “all natural” food that won’t kill us with preservatives, auto manufacturers who make our cars as impervious to impact as possible, alarm systems and security companies to protect our stuff, data storage and anti-virus services to protect our information, research agencies that tell us which water bottles are safe to drink from and which will give us cancer. I can’t begin to think of the number of companies who currently sell products that protect our children, with everything from baby gates and bicycle helmets to tracking devices and security cameras.
The appealing thing about all of these products and services is that they do, in some ways, keep us healthier and safer, which is a positive thing. But they also depend on people being fearful of all the things that might harm them. Although there are many things to be celebrated about this country, our government, as well, has been known at various points in history to depend on and take advantage of the fear of the American people, and there have been times when we have traded in that precious freedom we talk about so much, giving up civil liberties for ourselves or others, in order to preserve a sense of safety, whether it be from communist, terrorist, or immigrant.
This kind of freedom only goes so far. It might give us a longer life, but trap us in a lifetime of fear of our own mortality. It might allow us to pursue all the success and possessions we want, but in exchange for daily anxiety about keeping up with our neighbors, maintaining our reputations, and protecting our assets. This might be the American dream, I guess, but to me it doesn’t sound much like freedom.
Now, I’m not saying that we have to give away everything we have and become itinerant to be faithful - although according to some accounts, Jesus might disagree. I’m not saying that we should never be concerned for our own safety or the safety of others - although there is a part of Bible that tells us that we need never worry about what we will eat, or drink or wear, or what will come tomorrow. We all have to work out what those things mean for ourselves, individually and in community, and it would be a mistake and a terrible hypocrisy for me to tell you what to do. But I am saying that maybe we should take a little closer look at what freedom really means, and that we might get some insight into that from the kind of freedom Jesus offers the disciples.
No purse, no bag, no sandals...freedom from money and the obsession that it can be, freedom from possessions and the need to carry the burden of them, or protect them.
Say first, “Peace to this house...” Freedom from violence or the fear of it.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide...freedom from the mindless busyness of traveling here and there in pursuit of a better offer, freedom from worrying about whether basic needs will be met.
Even the dust that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you...freedom from being crushed by someone’s dislike or ruled by their opinion.
Authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you...freedom from fear of harm, freedom even from fear of death.
The kinds of freedoms we have in this country are valuable and important, and people have died to defend them and continue to do so. And yet, they are not the same as the freedom that Christ offers us - which is not only the knowledge that some things are worth dying for, but the assurance that ultimately, even death itself cannot overcome us. The Braveheart vision of freedom, by the way, also falls short of true freedom. It’s a freedom based on violence, on the idea that by killing the people who are doing wrong we can escape from fear. But the way of human beings is that violence generally doesn’t cause peace, it causes more violence, and violence in turn causes fear, which takes away freedom. Christ’s way of freedom is one of peace: of going to the stranger without a sword or even a staff in hand, of welcoming relationship and collaboration, of receiving rejection by simply shaking off the dust of your feet and moving on.
Christ’s freedom enables us to make decisions about the way we live that are not based on worry about what others will think about us or do to us, but rather on what is the best choice: for those we love, for other people we encounter, for the whole of creation, and for ourselves. True freedom has no need to fear injury or rejection, because it does not need to fear even death itself.
I know we don’t quote the Heidelberg Catechism around here much, but it is one of the confessions that the Reformed Church holds to, and as I think about freedom on this 4th of July, I’m particularly drawn to question and answer #1: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. Today we celebrate the nation in which we live, and the tremendous opportunities we are given by living in it. But we also recognize that above that allegiance, we are citizens in the kingdom of God come near - and in that belonging we find true freedom.