“What Do We Celebrate—and When?

July 3, 2016



Galatians 3:23-29; 5:1


It’s Independence Day Weekend—the Fourth of July from Friday to Monday!

What do we celebrate—and when?

Here in Iowa City the jazz began on the streets on Friday afternoon. We brought it inside this morning, but there’s more outdoors the rest of the day today. And there are fireworks tonight.

The traditionalists over in Coralville, however, will offer the fireworks on the Fourth—when they should be!

Or should they?

In 1776 John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that the day “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Of course, the day he was referring to was July 2, the date the Second Continental Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence, rather than the date, two days later when they approved the wording of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Adams would have had the fireworks last night.

And then there were those who thought that there might be less reason to celebrate than Adams suggested.

In March of 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to John: “by the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” While Jefferson would memorably write, “All Men are created equal,” Abigail Adams warned: “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” She concluded: “That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute.”

The tyranny of King George was thrown off, but not the tyranny of Men.

In most parts of this growing new nation, women would wait until 1920 to be able to vote.

As was often the case, Iowa, was a little more progressive:

In 1870 a women's suffrage bill passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Iowa legislature for the first time. But when the legislature met the next time—in 1872—the amendment didn’t pass. This happened several times over the next 50 years. It seems that a lot of people believed that women with the vote would favor restricting or even eliminating saloons or other places where beer, wine and alcoholic drinks were sold. While Congregationalists, along with Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, generally favored women’s suffrage, it was often because those who favored prohibiting saloons favored giving women the vote.

What do we celebrate—and when?

With the memory that women had no voice or representation in the new nation, Independence Day also calls us to recognize and confess that what has been called “America’s original sin,” slavery, endured through and well past the Continental Congress and the War for Independence. In a speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass famously said asked: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass called the church into account saying, “The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in its connection with its ability to abolish slavery.” He quoted the Presbyterian theologian, Albert Barnes, who said, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it,” and issued this challenge: “Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday School, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery, and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds, and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.”

What do we celebrate—and when?

When the Civil War ended, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas. Juneteenth Independence Day marks that announcement and more generally the end of slavery in the Confederate South.

Juneteenth is a state holiday or a recognized day in Texas, Iowa and 40 other states. This year there were celebrations in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines, among other places. But we didn’t recognize the day here, did we? We didn’t celebrate that the combined forces of abolitionists in churches and the Union Army did scatter the whole slavery system of “crime and blood” to the wind, did we?

Independence, freedom, equality come slowly, with struggle, with opposition.

We should be marking those occasions in the life of our nation that make all of us better off, celebrating the freedom we have, moving toward greater freedom for all.

And this is where our ongoing reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps us.

The biblical story of the Hebrew people is a story of being set free from slavery, and it is the Jewish follower of the risen Christ, Paul, who, of all people, celebrates and promotes freedom. Concluding his defense of his ministry to the Christians in Galatia, Paul exclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” For Paul, this freedom is not so much a human right—as Jefferson and others claimed—as it is a gift from God. It may or may not include social or political freedom. As the German theologian Hans Kung said, “The illusion of freedom is to do what I want. The reality of freedom is to want what Almighty God does.”

Reflecting on this, one person said: “The point is this: Paul understands that all human beings are both free in some sense and enslaved in some way. The question is from what or whom are you free and to what or whom are you enslaved? Paul says that our enslavement needs to be to love alone.”

Paul not only tells the Galatians what he thinks, he reminds them about their baptism. And in so doing he reminds us about our own baptism and all that it implies.

He quotes part of the act of baptism: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In those words we are given a vision of God’s new creation.

Paul is especially interested in the abolition of the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The separateness that his opponents wanted to maintain has been bridged—they are one new people in God.

He also writes of the negation of social and class distinctions. In the new community of the church slave and free are equals, brothers and sisters. Certainly history has shown us that such equality has an “already/not yet” tension in it—remember Frederick Douglass’s scathing indictment of the church in America. But here is the beginning of a new equality based on freedom in Christ.

And Paul adds, “there is no longer male and female”—that is no longer is gender a standard for exclusion. God’s new creation brings a new reality.

In baptism we are a new people, part of a new community of freedom. Perhaps every time we gather at the baptismal font, we should be shooting off fireworks, celebrating the free gift of our equality and freedom in Christ.

In our congregation and in our own lives we are set free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can question old ways and try new paths, finding freedom to seek the good, a freedom that, if it is limited, it is limited only by our love for God and our love for one another.

This is the freedom for which Christ set us free—the freedom to love one another as we have been loved, the freedom to choose instead the way of kindness, generosity, and faithfulness.

Freedom is meant to express itself in love.

Our freedom is grounded in the crucified and risen Christ.[i] It is the freedom of the spirit that seeks out the freedom of the whole person—body, mind, and soul. And it is a freedom that seeks out the freedom of all people.

It seems fitting, then that on this weekend when we celebrate freedom, we are also invited to be nourished with bread and cup at the Lord’s Table. At this table we are reminded of the great freedom in which the life of Jesus was broken and poured out for us and for all people—so that we might be fully alive in our love for others. At this table we receive the freedom of the spirit that comes from forgiveness and Christ’s presence with us

From this table of freedom we are sent out again into our ordinary days. From this table we are sent to live in the extraordinary freedom of the gospel.

So let us celebrate freedom whenever it arrives, let us celebrate independence wherever it is found, let us celebrate equality whenever we can, in whatever ways we can: with jazz, with words, with dance, with fireworks.

Let us celebrate our nation’s independence, the end of slavery, the right to vote, the growing equality of all people regardless of sexual orientation. Let us celebrate in various ways on various days.

And each day, in all that we do, let us celebrate the freedom that we have in Christ, the freedom that allows us to pursue all other freedoms and to work to make them possible for all people.

[i] Page: 7
Ebeling, The Truth of the Gospel, pg. 243