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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 7/4

Psalm 66 seems like it is appropriate for the Fourth of July. It’s a psalm of praise, of which there are a lot, but what makes this one a little bit different is that while most psalms of praise are individual in nature, this one is communal as collectively the community celebrates the deeds of God done on their behalf, kind of like how with parades and fireworks and the like we collectively celebrate the deeds of our founding fathers done on our behalf.

For the people of Israel there were many deeds of God for which they could have offered praise (as in their world view, God’s hand was involved in everything that happened) but the deed that they characteristically thought about was the exodus event when the people, led by Moses, left Pharaoh’s Egypt, one of the highlights of that event being the crossing the Red Sea. So the psalmist says, “Come now and see the works of God, how awesome are God’s deeds toward all people. God turned the sea into dry land so that they went through the water on foot.” For the people of Israel, this was the event that first came to mind when they thought about the deeds of God. This was the event that defined who they were.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare our remembrance of independence being declared on this day with how they remembered this Old Testament event. Just as there was more to the exodus than crossing the Red Sea, there was more to our birth as a nation than the signing of the Declaration of Independence; there are other things we could celebrate. But in the mind of a community or a nation, certain events become symbolic of even greater things and that’s how both of these events function.

What could be different is how God’s role is understood in our Fourth of July celebration. For the people of Israel there was no question that it was the hand of God that delivered them and brought them to freedom. These days I’m not sure that we view God’s involvement in history quite the same way they did; some people might but it’s not necessarily the collective mindset. Every nation wants to think that God is on their side, so it’s not like we remove God from the equation, but I think we place more confidence in having the biggest army and the most powerful weapons than we do in having God on our side.

What’s interesting though, as many of you know, is that this wasn’t the case in the American Revolution. We didn’t have the biggest army and the most powerful weapons; quite the contrary as that would describe the British. On paper it was a total mismatch. I managed to get through college without ever taking a history course, but I’ve read a lot in the intervening years and it doesn’t take a genius or a professional historian to conclude that the United States had no business winning that war; virtually everything favored England. George Washington himself called the victory “almost a miracle” and in my opinion he may have understated it as I think you could take the word “almost” out of that statement. And it’s not just in that unlikely victory that one might see the hand of God at work. During the ensuing years especially up to and through the War of 1812, there were many points when it all could have come undone due to internal and external conflicts; but it didn’t, and here we are 234 years later.

A long held and cherished belief for many Americans is that this country is special, that it does play a special role, that it does stand for and represent certain values to the rest of the world, freedom probably being at the top of that list of values. For some of us, the unlikeliness of the colonists’ victory over the most powerful military force in the world along with the survival of the nation in the ensuing years can be seen as evidence of God at work in our history, and also evidence of the fact that God has perhaps ordained a special role for this country.

My point this morning is not really to argue that one way or the other, but if it is true that the formation of this country can be counted among God’s deeds of power, the psalm today is even more appropriate because following the opening words of praise regarding deliverance there is testimony to the fact that it hadn’t all been smooth sailing since then: “For you, O God have tested us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid heavy burdens on our backs.”

While the psalmist acknowledges and praises God’s involvement in bringing the people to freedom, he also makes it clear that there were still problems. There were a multitude of issues and conflicts that threatened their survival, there were temptations and of course that is the case in the history of any nation. There are those high points that become national holidays but that’s never the whole story. There will always be issues that become challenges and it would take someone far more knowledgeable than me to get into all of that relative to United States history (and a lot more time) but for this country, oddly enough, I think one of the things that can become a challenge is the idea of freedom itself. As I mentioned earlier, freedom is probably the value we cherish the most and it is perhaps our greatest blessing, but how we understand that freedom and the temptations we have to misuse that freedom can also wind up being our greatest challenge.

Freedom does have a theological component to it and thinking about freedom theologically can be something of a guide as we consider political freedom because. This might be especially true for Lutherans. One of Martin Luther’s most famous statements comes from his treatise titled “The Freedom of a Christian.” He said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to no one. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Perfectly free, subject to no one; perfectly dutiful, subject to all. The seemingly contradictory nature of those two statements didn’t bother Luther and that’s good, because I think that in their contradiction the two statements sum up Christian freedom quite well.

For Luther, freedom started with Christ. We are free because of what Jesus has done for us. We are free from sin, in the sense that we are free from guilt and the judgment we deserve because of sin. We are free from the idea that we have to do something to earn our way, to earn our forgiveness, free from thinking that it’s all about us. For Luther it also meant freedom from the hierarchy of the church, particularly in the church telling you that you must do certain things in order to be made right before God. A Christian is perfectly free, subject to no one. But then, that freedom from has to lead to the freedom for question; freedom for what?. In the text we had last week from Galatians, Paul put it well when he said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” He goes on to say, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to There is a definite sense from Paul and from Luther that the answer to the freedom for question is that Christian freedom is for service. It’s not freedom from, so that you do whatever you want, it’s not a license for anything goes; it’s freedom from that leads to freedom for the love and care for others. It is quite clear that Christian freedom is not for self indulgence but must always take the well being of the neighbor into account and then we have to remember that for Jesus the neighborhood was pretty large and a wide variety of people lived there.

On July 4th, 1776, the colonists declared freedom from England. Ever since then we have tried to figure out what that freedom represents, what that freedom is for, starting with the freedoms that were listed in the Bill of Rights. But kind of like scripture, even those freedoms are subject to interpretation; the words sound good and simple on paper but what do they mean when applied to specific cases that come up. It’s not always clear and that’s why there is a Supreme Court but the latest round of confirmation hearings represent the most recent evidence that the freedom for question is still out there and that there isn’t unanimity on the answer to the question.

From a faith perspective, as we consider the freedom for question, we have to go back to Luther and Paul and Jesus. If the formation of this country does represent one of God’s deeds of power and if because of that there is a special role for this country to play in the world, if we believe that God is a player in our history, then we have to take the biblical understanding of the role of freedom into account, we have to look at God’s will and God’s intent, especially when it challenges us, as we determine how to exercise our freedom.

For the people of Israel, the freedom from slavery in Egypt that they celebrate in today’s psalm meant freedom for living according to the ways of the Lord which were often in contradiction with the ways of other people; they had a special role to play, a role that would make them a blessing to others. For 21st century Americans, if indeed we too have a special role to play, things really haven’t changed a whole lot. It still means accepting the challenge of living according to the ways of the Lord so that we too are a blessing to others.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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