The Freedom We Claim for Ourselves, We Gladly Grant to Others

The Freedom We Claim for Ourselves, We Gladly Grant to Others

Bond of Union: The Freedom We Claim for Ourselves, We Gladly Grant to Others

On this weekend before Independence Day, I want to talk about some parallels between our national freedom and the deep freedoms we talk about in the Christian faith. 

Freedom from.

The first thing we think about with freedom is what we are free from. We fought the Revolutionary War with the British and won our freedom from being ruled by an unaccountable monarch.

The Christian faith also talks about what we are free from. Because we are forgiven and loved unconditionally, we are free from shame and guilt and feelings of worthlessness. Because we are already loved and accepted as we are we are free from having to prove ourselves or to be jealous of someone else. The Apostle Paul talks at length in the Bible about how Christ sets us free from legalistic religion because salvation is based on faith not how well we followed the rules. We are free from worrying about what happens after we die because we believe that no matter what is next, God’s got us. We are free from fear because no matter what happens, God is with us and will see us through.

Sometimes when we get into trouble, or find ourselves anxious and living small, it’s because we don’t realize how free we are. We act as if we are still bound to the ways of sin and death.

I think of that great line from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption. The character Red, played by Morgan Freeman reflects on life in prison.  “These walls are kind of funny. First, you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.” Like the inmates who become dependent on the walls of their confinement, we too can become dependent on the walls we build around ourselves—walls of unworthiness and the need to prove ourselves. We have a tendency to be free but act as if we are still imprisoned. What good is it to swing open the prison door but to remain in our cells?

Maybe you keep returning to your cell even though the door is open and you can walk out any time you like, but you prefer the old patterns and what is familiar. Freedom is hard because you have to take responsibility for your own decisions and life. I’m free! Now what? It’s easy to return to patterns of greed and selfishness and cynicism and holding grudges and seeking revenge on those who have hurt us. We act as if we are in prison but it’s one we create for ourselves.

Have you returned to yours? Do you hole up there? It’s up to you. You can walk out any time you want. Maybe now is the moment. Make it now. Make it now.

Freedom for. 

The second component of freedom is to say what we are free for. Yes, we are free from British rule, but we are also free for organizing ourselves in a way that pursues the common good and preserves the individual freedoms for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Similarly, in our faith we say not only are we free from bondage to sin and death, we are also free for love, for following where the Spirit leads us, we are free to find our purpose, to be helpful. You are free for joy, for love, for living with an open heart, for doing good in the world.

The national social contract is similar to our Bond of Union.

As a free nation, the founders set the Constitution a document that establishes how we will govern ourselves with democratic principles, setting a system of checks and balances. It establishes our values of equal protection and justice for all. Our system is based on a social contract where we agree to participate in the rights and duties of citizenship. So, we vote, pay our taxes, serve on juries, obey the law, and don’t impugn on the rights of others.

As a congregation, we have a constitution that establishes us as a democratic organization. We are not ruled over by a denomination or a pastor. We figure out what is right for us as a congregation. And we have a document, The Bond of Union, that functions as our social contract, our agreement of who we are together as a church. We recite it whenever a new member joins and we read it every month at our Board members.

An expression of diversity in an age of uniformity.

It’s a marvelous document, originally written in the 1930’s (in the early years of Rev. Milton Gabrielson’s pastorate) and slightly revised over the years to have more inclusive language. Maybe some of you were in a company that had a vision or mission statement. It’s kind of like that. It pre-dates language of mission statements and goes back to a time when churches articulated what was important to them in Bond of Union statements.

I love ours. It’s what drew both Pastor Susie and me to Bay Shore Church, and many others also. I’d like for us to take a few moments to reflect on what it says and its implications for our life together as a congregation.

Common loyalty to Jesus Christ. 

The first thing to highlight is the language about being bound to a common loyalty to Jesus Christ. No matter how much we may disagree about things, we have this in common, and it is enough. What is important isn’t adherence to some creed or specific set of beliefs. Most churches have litmus tests to see if you really belong. They say you must believe in a literal virgin birth, that everything in the Bible happened exactly as it is written, original sin and the lists go on and on. Some churches say you must tithe to belong, and mega-churches have gone on to require you to show you pay stub to prove that you are giving at least 10%.

Our church avoids all of that by saying following Jesus is what is important. If you are trying to follow the way of Jesus, his teachings and example that’s what we care about. The rest is up to you as your conscience sees fit.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

The second thing to highlight about our Bond of Union is what is says we believe God requires of us: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. This is a quote from the prophet Micah. (Some of the older New Testament translations say “do justly” and that is where our Bond of Union got that clunky verbiage.)

It’s a way of putting some meat on the bones of what Jesus defined as the two great commandments of loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself. The context of the passage is that God was upset that the people of Israel worshipped and had lovely music but it didn’t translate into doing anything about the social inequalities and disenfranchisement of marginalized people in their midst.

God abhors fluffy worship.

A predominant theme of Micah and the other prophets says all of our worship and praise, bells and smells, music and prayers offend God if it does not translate into doing what you can to address the systemic issues that lead to suffering. It wasn’t enough to give charity to those in need. They said fix the system that keeps people poor and marginalized.

The Bond of Union reiterates that in the last line by saying we unite for the worship of God and the service of humanity. They are two sides of the same coin.

A humble walk does not impose itself.

So, we are called to be do justice, practice kindness, and walk humbly with God. That is we recognize we are all on a spiritual journey through life. To me, walking humbly implies that we don’t impose our religion on others. I think some of the recent headlines about requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments and teaching the Bible in public schools is not exactly modeling a humble walk. What is the Hindu kid supposed to do with the first commandment, “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other God’s before me?” It’s saying to kids not to worship the gods of their religion. Not only that, all those idols in your homes and houses of worship are a violation of the commandments. Is that what we want to convey in our humble walk? I have lots of other issues with this stuff, but this sermon isn’t about that. So let’s move on.

Freedom of interpretation for us and each other.

The third thing about our Bond of Union is for me what is at its heart. The third sentence. We cherish for each person the fullest liberty in the interpretation of truth, and we gladly grant others the freedom we claim for ourselves.

I find it marvelous that at a time when all of culture was pushing for uniformity that Bay Shore celebrated diversity. We are all life-long learners and we can learn from others. Like the elephant blindfolded people were touching on various parts of the elephant, so too do we have our unique experiences and grasp at larger truths.

Bay Shore Church’s DNA is to respect and honor each other with none of the condemnation and disrespect that other churches love to dish out if you don’t fall in line with everyone else–especially the clergy. I love the two words in that sentence, cherish and gladly. Cherish: we place it as a core value, not something we give lip service to. Gladly? That’s hard when someone spouts off the polar opposite of your interpretation. Only by embracing the value of diversity can you go from begrudgingly to gladly.

Should we address justice issues?

So, with this respect for individual opinion, does that mean we should always keep things light and fluffy because we don’t want anyone to get upset if they disagree? People have said we shouldn’t have any labels or positions on anything someone might find controversial. Is that what the Bond of Union means? How can we say anything relevant to our times if we avoid controversial when our culture wars make everything controversial?

If we avoid controversial issues completely, how can we fulfill our call to do justice? We are always on this balancing act of respecting each other and learning from each other. I believe we are mature enough to disagree without being disagreeable and find what it means for us as a congregation to discern in a democratic process how we will stand up for those in need.

As much harm as Christianity has done through the years, there are also times when the church got it right and led the abolitionist movement against slavery and segregation and women’s rights.

An Open and Affirming congregation. 

Some have wondered if our Bond of Union means we shouldn’t press toward becoming an Open and Affirming congregation. The reason we are pursuing this is because it’s a justice issue. There are hurting people who need to know that this is a safe space. Yes, this is a safe space for the LGBTQ community and it has been for a long time. But the LGBTQ community and allies don’t necessarily know that without an official ONA designation. There are churches that deny people every week from full participation in their congregations.

How are they to know that Bay Shore isn’t one of them? It’s a justice issue. Why single out the LGBTQ community to let them know everyone is welcome? Because they are singled out by most churches in the country for exclusion.

Have you ever been in an environment where you weren’t sure you were entirely welcome? Maybe you wandered into a neighborhood where you didn’t feel safe, or attended a party where you felt like the odd one out. ONA is a way of signaling you are safe here.

Growing up in Iowa they had “Blue Star Houses.” They were homes that displayed a blue star to let children know that they could go there for help if they were being bullied or threatened or abused. Folks in these homes were background checked and trained. I read the story of one woman who ran to a blue star home to escape getting kidnapped. She said the woman took her in, called 911 and gave her chocolate chip cookies, saving her. ONA is like being a blue star church for the LGBTQ community. It’s a sign that says we are a safe place and no one here is going to give you the side-eye or mistreat you because of who you are. It’s a justice issue because so many people are facing injustice.

If we can’t do that, what are we doing? What are we? What does doing justice mean? God abhors worship lite that doesn’t address the inequalities and injustices of the community.

It seems to me Bay Shore Community Congregational Church has always seen itself as a safe place for all people. The freedoms we enjoy we gladly grant to others. It’s what has made this church such a gem to our community in what is now our 100th year of ministry. So, this year let the fireworks, and picnics and parties and reflective moments help us celebrate our national freedoms, let them do double duty and help you celebrate our spiritual freedoms as well. Amen.