Sermon For Sunday, July 8, 2012

2 Corinthians 12:5-10

“The Freedom That Comes In Vulnerability”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Liberation

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear this sermon, click HERE:  120708SermonPodcast

To watch a video of Pastor Allen preaching this sermon, click HERE:  http://youtu.be/0dy_zht5E_c

Thinking about our nation’s celebration of Independence Day this past week has lifted up on of the questions of the faith that seems to perplex so-called “believers” and “non-believers” alike.  “Do I need God?”  More specifically perplexing, I think, is the question, “Do I need God’s power of freedom and liberation?”  In a culture that idolizes the wealthiest, the most famous, and the most powerful and that has tamed the power of the atom, it seems a fair question.  What powers could the Divine have that we aren’t already masters of?

Well, if there’s any topic that the Holy Bible addresses fully, it’s the theme of freedom.  From the epic story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land to the liberation Jesus brought to so many from the bondage of disease, torment, and helplessness, the Bible is all about freedom.

Over 200 years ago this nation both fought and thought its way out of the tyranny of the oppressive rule of the British.  It is hard for American citizens today to take seriously the need for freedom when it seems we’ve been basking in it for centuries.

But is America really free?

In 2008, the New York Times reported, for the first time in our nation’s history, more than one in one hundred American adults was behind bars.  In the previous year 1.6 million people were in prison and another 723,000 people were in local jails.  And incarceration rates for Hispanic adults was one in thirty-six and African American adults it was a shocking one in 15. (1)  And as of 2009 America had the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 743 out of 100,000 of our citizens behind bars.  (2) It is a little more difficult to proclaim our freedom when so many of us are in prison.

Is America really free?

The U.S. Center for Disease Control reported that in 2010 diabetes affected 25.8 million people, which is 8.3% of the United States population.  Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. (3) Diabetes is becoming more common in the United States. From 1980 through 2010, the number of Americans with diagnosed diabetes has more than tripled (from 5.6 million to 20.9 million) (4)  Freedom seems a little less complete when so many of our sisters and brothers are threatened with such a debilitating illness.

Is America really free?

The lifestyle of almost every American is heavily dependent upon the availability of energy.  In 2008 the United States consumed 23 percent of the world’s petroleum, 57 percent of which was imported.  Petroleum is a limited energy source.  The use of fossil fuels, both petroleum and coal, contributes to Global Warming and poses serious threats to the health and well being of humans and the environment. (5)  The bells of freedom don’t seem to ring quite so clearly when our chosen lifestyle is so vulnerable.

And I could go on with any number of other stories and images of bondage, dependence, and captivity to which Americans, and indeed so many people throughout the world, are beholden.  From drug addictions and smoking, to depression and materialism, our freedoms go only so far.

So, to answer the question, “Do we really need God?” we must answer: “We sure need something or someone more powerful than us to free us from the bondage we experience!”  We need a power greater than ourselves, our sisters and brothers in recovery acknowledge, and that greater power is what can lead us out of slavery into a true and uncompromised liberation.

But if our experience with the great freedom movements of history, whether it be the Exodus out of Egypt, the Independence of American from England, or the Civil Rights movement of the 20th Century, we must acknowledge that just simply changing the physical and legal circumstances isn’t enough.  The Hebrew children began complaining about their freedom and idolizing the captivity they had just left almost the moment the waters of the Red Sea calmed down.  American may be more in bondage now than ever before, just not to European royalty who wear funny wigs.  We have laws on the books that prohibit discrimination, and yet we are just as, if not more, racially segregated than ever before.  Oh, those movements for freedom are incredibly important, just not ultimate.  We must change something deeper, something more substantial, something that really gets at the heart of liberation and freedom: we must change our hearts.

In a beautiful article I read online this week (6), writer Christian de la Huerta ways that “To be truly free means learning how to keep our hearts open.”  He says freedom means “knowing that we are greater than our bodies, our thoughts and our emotions, greater than our DNA, our addictions, traumas and conditioning, greater than our perceptions and the circumstances of our lives.”  That’s a pretty tall order.  The kind of freedom de la Huerta talks about – and I’ve made copies of his entire article for you – is a kind of freedom that demands us to give up our obsession with that which is comfortable, easy, and superficially gratifying.  [To read this article in its entirety, click HERE:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-de-la-huerta/freedom_b_1644625.html ]

It’s the kind of freedom Jesus lived and Paul preached.

This kind of freedom doesn’t begin with the desire for more power, but actually give up power in order to free others from bondage, and thereby freeing ourselves.  This kind of liberation begins and ends in admitting our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, that we are ultimately “powerless” over the things that control our lives.  Freedom is simply God’s gift of grace in which we find our strength, and not in anything that we are or do.  Oh, we try to create or manufacture strength and power – but self-manufactured strength more often than not, become the most destructive force.

Rather, this kind of freedom allows us the grace to ask other’s to help us, and to know that we must let go of our grasping and holding on.  The words from the musical “Anyone Can Whistle” by Stephen Sondheim say it well: “Maybe you can show me how to let go, lower my guard, to be free.” [To hear this song click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncyo8EUUCVE ]

Each one of us as individuals must assess how to understand and incorporate this sense of weakness, vulnerability, and openness if we are to ever be freed from those things that enslave us.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, we must accept that which the world sees as the “thorn in our flesh,” our Achilles heel, our “buttons,” our soft spots.  Now, we can either let our “thorns in the flesh” tie us in place, and they will if we let them, or we can allow them to prod us to move past them, deal with them, so that they are not what defines who we are.  And by acknowledging our so-called weaknesses, and not just believing, but expecting God to work through them, the fullness of our life here on earth opens up.  Sometimes our “thorn in the flesh” is exactly what Christ needs to use in order to connect us with those whom he has called for us to reach.

And to make this more pointed and personal, just last week we commissioned a new class of leaders here at Franklin Circle Christian Church.  As Paul new well, when one is called to leadership, one becomes the target of expectations as well as disappointments.  And leaders are most often expected to bring liberation to the people through the kind of power that the world shows, strength, glory, and wealth.  Paul was criticized for not showing leadership power in the same manner as his “rival” religious leaders.  He chose to push the argument to the opposite direction.  If I don’t look like a body builder, or a TV evangelist, fine.  God chose different gifts, ones which were not the kind one “boasts” in, to work through Paul.  And by any account, Paul’s ministry was successful.

Paul clearly and forthrightly acknowledges his weakness, but doesn’t wallow in them.  He, rather, challenges us to understand true strength versus perceived or demonstrative strength.  Paul sees the big picture and knows the true measure of success.  The proof is in the pudding, or, to put it in Jesus words, “By your fruits you shall know them.” (Matt. 7:20)  And the truly greatest people in history knew this fact well.  The non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are perfect examples of power made real through weakness.

Beloved, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the state of the world right now, even in – especially in – this superpower we know and love as the United States of America, to see that we need God.  We need a power greater than ourselves to free us from all that binds us and holds us back from being all that we were created to be.  We need liberation and freedom like never before.  But grasping onto power, clinging to strength as defined by the world, will be the very last thing that will bring us the freedom we need, want, and hope for.  In the greatest irony of life, we must give up, let go, hand over power in order to receive the greater power, in Christ and in God, that brings true freedom.

And then we can proclaim the great mystery of faith:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

Free at last, free at last.  Thank God almighty, I’m free at last!

Amen.

(1)            “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says,” by Adam Liptak, February 28, 2008; http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28cnd-prison.html?_r=1

(2)            International Centre for Prison Studies (18 Mar 2010). “Prison Brief – Highest to Lowest Rates”. World Prison Brief. London: King’s College London School of Law. Archived from the original on 25 March 2011. Retrieved 25 March 2011.

(3)            Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes fact sheet: national estimates and general information on diabetes and prediabetes in the United States, 2011. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011.  http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/pdf/ndfs_2011.pdf

(4)            http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/prev/national/figpersons.htm

(5)            “Oil Dependence Is A Dangerous Habit,” by Rebecca Lefton and Daniel J. Weiss, January 13, 2010, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/01/oil_imports_security.html

(6)            “Let’s Get Free,” by Christian de la Huerta, posted 07/03/2012, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-de-la-huerta/freedom_b_1644625.html

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