Sermon: For What Have We Been Set Free?
Those of you lucky enough to have taken a class formerly known as “civics,” or who were paying particular attention in your American history or literature classes, might recall what was at one point the most famous sermon in American history: John Winthrop’s City on a Hill. Winthrop, who served as the first governor of the colony of Massachusetts and was the most politically influential of the Pilgrims, voiced in a powerful way the desire of the puritan settlers of New England that their new colony would be a “city set upon a hill,” a light to the nations, a new Jerusalem.
In calling themselves “Pilgrims,” theses early American settlers saw their endeavor in crossing the Atlantic and establishing this new colony as essentially religious. “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,” Winthrop says, “when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us” (https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/colliding-cultures/john-winthrop-dreams-of-a-city-on-a-hill-1630/).
Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrims saw themselves as a new people of Israel, a new chosen people. I’ve always found that choice of imagery odd. You see, if you know much of the story of the people of the Old Testament, you know that it is frequently not a flattering comparison. God’s chosen people frequently strays. In fact, they spend much more time in the Old Testament rebelling against God than being faithful to Him. We hear the Lord speaking to the prophet Ezekiel today describe the Israelites as, “rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.”
The Founding Fathers were perhaps aware of this irony when they signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, almost 150 years after Winthrop’s City on a Hill sermon. They were a lot less positive about the future prospects of the new nation. “Washington lost his faith in America’s political system above all because of the rise of partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was too weak, Adams because he believed that the people lacked civic virtue, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions laid bare by the spread of slavery.” (https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691210230/fears-of-a-setting-sun)
The most pessimistic of all, and the one most important for us today, is John Adams. “Our Constitution,” he wrote, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
While the Founders’ pessimism seems to have been misplaced for many years after the founding of America, as it flourished and become the most powerful and prosperous nation ever known to mankind, today their concerns seem prescient. Washington’s concerns over partisanship seem tame compared to today’s partisan politics, regional divides are rapidly becoming far deeper than Jefferson could have feared, and the lack of public virtue noted by Adams is very tame in comparison with the sort of public displays of vice that are encouraged by today’s society. Only Hamilton’s concern that the federal government is too weak seems to be out of place.
The founders of the American Republic bequeathed a legacy of freedom to us – a nation unlike any ever known in the history of the world. If we have misused that bequest of freedom, it is because we do not understand well what it means to be free. We usually conceive of freedom as being free from something, from some sort of restraint. Freedom, to most of us, means the ability to do what we want, when we want, without anyone constraining us.
But this is not the sort of freedom for which the Founding Fathers set up the government of the United States or for which our forefathers (like my fifth great grandfather) fought in the War of Independence. The freedom that was the goal of the American founders was not freedom from constraint but freedom for – the ability to live virtuously and uprightly, the freedom to worship according to a free conscience, to govern ourselves because a foreign power did not have our authentic best interests in mind, but rather his own economic advantage.
This is precisely why the founding fathers held that in order to be free, a people must be virtuous, moral, and even religious. As Patrick Henry stated, “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue … It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” A people that is not moral will not use their freedom for the good.
Living freedom for instead of freedom from sometimes means accepting what seem to be constraints because they actually help us be more free. In order to excel in athletic competition, the athlete must know and respect the rules of the game. The discipline of practicing even when she doesn’t feel like doing so makes her more free because it helps her to achieve excellence. A group of sociologists once noted that when children play on a playground next to a school building, if there is no fence, they tend to stay close to the building. But when they erected a fence, the children actually used more of the space to run and play. The fence would seem to constrain them, but it actually made them more free because what from one angle looks like a limit actually provides the safety in which their freedom can be enjoyed and flourish. A people that is virtuous and moral through the effects of true religion, then, is able fully to enjoy the freedom we have because we are not being enslaved by the vices that come through the abuse of freedom.
There is a popular myth that the Founding Fathers were deists who did not really believe in organized religion. While this may be true in a couple of individual cases, it is, on the whole, a misreading of the situation. They were opposed to the imposition of a state religion (such as the state-sponsored Anglicanism of Great Britain). They were not trying to create a freedom from exposure to any religious practice or teaching.
The pursuit of freedom as freedom from constraint has led to the phenomenon of expressive individualism. This ideology, which has taken powerful hold in contemporary society, sees the “self [as] not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment” (https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-anthropology-of-expressive-individualism/). That is, modern men and women determine their own identities by analyzing their own emotions, rather than by learning about their identity through their relationships with others and by learning from the world around them. This means that the person who has discovered her own identity derives meaning in life from expressing that identity that she has chosen for herself and requires that the world validate that identity. Any refusal to validate that identity by reference to objective facts on the part of others is then interpreted as violence because it violates the only sacred reality left in the world: my determination of who I am.
The result of this dominant cultural attitude is that we are no longer free to be excellent: We are merely free to express ourselves. This is why, in the popular conception, anyone who disagrees with my assessment of my identity is not someone to be engaged in respectful discourse but must be removed from acceptable public debate. Their ideas, in violating my sense of my identity, are now beyond the pale.
We can certainly bemoan the manifestation of this attitude in others, but before we do so, we should take a look inside ourselves. This is the cultural air we breathe and it has infected our lungs too. Every time that we choose not to listen, not to engage, to assume we know what someone else will say, we become part of the culture that says that my freedom is about my right not to offended or challenged. If you walk away today thinking, “Yeah, Father is right, society is really off track!” you heard me wrong.
St. Paul tells us today, “power is made perfect in weakness … when I am weak, then I am strong.” Before we preach to the world, we have to start by looking at ourselves and recognizing our own weaknesses. We will never bring the light of truth to the world if we don’t see the ways that we too have internalized the false freedom of the world. Conversion has to begin with us.
But we can’t just start with ourselves. By our Baptism, we are priests, prophets, and kings. People like to quote St. Francis of Assisi as saying, “Preach always and if necessary, use words.” Here’s the thing: St. Francis never said that, and St. Francis would never say that. St. Francis spoke frequently of the love that God had shown him and how he had been converted by that love, encouraging others also to make major changes to their lives in order to follow the Lord.
This call to be a prophet that we have from our baptism will not be easy to fulfill. “A prophet is not without honor,” the Lord tells us today, “except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” Living our prophetic vocation to call the world to true freedom will not make us popular. But we should remember again the Lord’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The humble witness who is still working on his own conversion is the one who stands a chance at being credible to the world.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). The freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom for true excellence, the excellence that can only be achieved by a moral and virtuous life under the guidance of true religion. As we celebrate the freedom we strove for at our nation’s founding 245 years ago today, we ask God to bless our nation with true freedom: the freedom not to determine our own identities and paths and rebel against Him, but the freedom for true moral and virtuous excellence that can serve as a beacon of hope to the world.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Evangelist Parish, Goshen
XIV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI