Title: "With Liberty and Love for All"
Pastor: Dr. William S. Barnes
Scripture: Galatians 5:13-15
This week the United States Supreme Court issued divided judgments on displays of the Ten Commandments in two states. They ruled that the displays in two courthouses in Kentucky violated the intent of the so-called "establishment" clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, but that the monument on the State Capitol grounds in Austin, Texas did not. As you might assume, neither the White House, nor the ACLU was pleased with both decisions.
With all of the red state/blue state talk these days and an increasingly polarized political environment, it seems like we have lost the spirit of national unity that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I went back to the text of the Declaration this week and was impressed by the tone of its opening paragraph.
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Did you hear the words? The "unanimous declaration" and "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." It seems to me that we have precious little unanimity these days and almost no decency of respect for what differing opinions we share. The Pledge of Allegiance concludes: "with liberty and justice for all." As Americans we do a pretty fair job of ensuring justice for all, but for about the last decade or so, we have been moving in directions what would make us believe that we should be saying "with liberty and judgment for all." What I see is a disturbing and often frightening tendency to use narrowly defined Judeo-Christian moral values as a way to judge, alienate, and cast suspicion on those who do not share the same interpretation of those values. Liberty and justice has become liberty and judgment oftentimes devoid of decent respect to the opinions and values of others.
I suppose that is why I hear Paul's warning to the Galatians in such a different way these days. He is writing about the grace-filled gift of freedom which has been given to us in Christ. This gift is not constrained by any particular political reality. Christian freedom has been undiminished and undeterred in every form of government humans could conceive: in monarchies, dictatorships, and republics. Through socialism, communism, and democracy. No human form of political governance can take away one's freedom in Christ. Even Christian slaves in Paul's time were free in Christ, if nowhere else. But the dramatic birth of democratic freedom in the last 230 years has given new meaning to a larger understanding of what it means to be free in Christ.
Paul writes that we were called to freedom, but that we are not to let our freedom become an opportunity for self-indulgence, but instead we are to use it to make ourselves slaves—sacrificial servants—to one another through love. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves and be careful that we do not bite and devour each other, lest we be consumed by each other. I think that is exactly what is happening in America today.
Many persons, including many of our leaders in both political parties, are using their freedom in self-centered ways, biting and devouring those who disagree with them. And the great tragedy is that many are doing so in the name of God. You have probably seen the bumper sticker that says that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but to hear some people talk and invoke the name of God, you might not think that is true. It happens on both sides of the congressional aisle. You would be amazed at the number of persons who just assume that I am in total agreement with the political positions of evangelical Republicans just because I am a minister. But liberal Democrats are sometimes just as surprised that I do not claim agreement with all of their positions. I would guess that same thing is true for many of you. Perhaps you even find yourself afraid to state what you think about an issue because you fear some kind of negative judgment that begins with the question, "How as a Christian can you think that way?" As if there is only one way for "Christian" believers to think.
Again I go back to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said, "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity." As Paul wrote, "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Jesus said that there are two great commandments on which turn all the Law and Prophets: "Love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself." That is what is essential, dear brothers and sisters: love for God and for each other. Everything else is non-essential, like where the Ten Commandments are displayed, and how we use stem cells, and whom we appoint to the Supreme Court. The essential defining attribute of our life in freedom is meant to be love: self-sacrifical, grace-filled, forgiving, understanding, accepting love.
We have a whole lot of liberty and justice for all. We have way too much liberty and judgment for all. What we desperately need, before we consume ourselves as a nation is more liberty and love for all.