A New Birth of Freedom
John 1: 51
January 18, 2008
Robert Allan Hill
Our gospel today can best be heard from the last sentence, wherein the clearly clairvoyant Johannine Jesus belittles Nathaniel’s marvel at him by acclaiming divine freedom, historic change, and a horizon of hope. Divine freedom: you will see the heavens opened. Change in history: you will see the angels of God ascending and descending. A horizon of hope: you will see the Son of Man.
God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.
The nature and dimensions of freedom are very much on our minds this week. Others from other spaces will want to continue to explore more fully the political, social, and economic features of this freedom. We have though, first, another job to do. It is the job of preaching. It is our task to name freedom. In that sense it is a theological job, though preaching is more than theological reflection. It is our confession that Jesus means freedom.
The other morning I took my daughter and grandchildren to the Aquarium. With you I celebrate this cultural gift, and make common cause with their fine work in opening the world to wonder. Surely there are many fine places to spend an hour or two in our fair city. Is there a single one, though, that will pierce your soul and spirit with a sense of the creative power, natural wonder, and physical freedom of the world in which we live? I challenge to stand in front of the Pacific Rim tank, with fish of a hundred colors and shapes, and not be overtaken, in wonder, by the power of freedom set loose in the universe.
It is our conviction that the God who makes allowance for being, who calls us and all into being, is the God of freedom. Freedom on Sinai. Freedom on the Mount of Olives. Freedom on the way to Emmaus. Freedom itself set free. Freedom evolves.
Does your God, your apperception of God, make space for evolution?
Your patent or latent view of God makes every sort of difference.
If as the Scripture says, “God is love”, then human freedom is real...Freedom is the absolutely necessary precondition of love. (W S Coffin, Credo, 27).
Our incoming President made a fine speech last year about race. He did so to clarify his own thinking, and our thinking about his thinking, with regard race. This was widely known and acclaimed. But to do so he had to clarify his own thinking and our thinking about thinking, with regard to a form of religious thinking. To date, to my knowledge, no one has fully appreciated the theological depths and dimensions of his March 18, 2008 address. As we come to the inaugural, perhaps we could pause to appreciate his theological insight, all the more choice since it is offered by a lay person.
Obama that day said ‘No’ to Jeremiah Wright, in terms like these: unlike others, unlike another generation, we do not believe that our fate and our future are irrevocable chained to our tragic past. He offered his view, that change can happen, real change, which is real hard, over time, in real time, can really happen. He explicitly rejected a harsh, providential, divine determinism or damnation for a country that certainly has known its share of sin. He stepped aside from the litany of sin and atonement, and stepped toward the liturgy of confession and pardon. That is a layman’s theological statement about divine and human freedom. Life is not purpose driven, for ill or good. Life is not divinely ordered and directed, in the small or in the large. Life is not found in the rigid orthodoxies neither of fundamentalism nor of radicalism, neither in the Biblicist fundamentalism of a Rick Warren nor in the Liberationist radicalism of a Jeremiah Wright (produced by his teacher and mine, James Cone.)
I have yet to see a single serious writer, preacher or journalist identify the ironic similarity, the congruent similarity, the family resemblance of Warren and Wright. One is from the far right and one is from the far left. Nonetheless, they offer the same religious perspective. (In what I say I do not criticize them. They are good people. They do good work. Though I profoundly disagree with them and adamantly oppose them, I acknowledge their desire to know and do the right and the true and the good. I too fell in love early on with Karl Barth, so I know from inside the powerful pull of their perspective). Yet here is the irony. While they differ completely in politics, Warren and Wright offer the same religious perspective: The Bible is the sole Word of God, either in personal purpose (Warren) or in cultural judgment (Wright); God is known in providence, whether from the Law (Warren) or from the Prophets (Wright); it is God, not we ourselves, who makes all change, whether from the right (Warren) or from the left (Wright); the human being is left to submit (Warren) or rebel (Wright), finally doubly predestined as Augustine finally had to admit before Pelagius; history is tragedy, fore (Warren) and aft (Wright); freedom is an illusion (Warren) or a presumption (Wright). (You will note that this is not a very cheery world view J).
Both Wright and Warren are indebted, theologically, to Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and the Neo-Orthodoxy against which Howard Thurman and others have unsuccessfully, but rightly, preached for fifty years. Thurman was 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Warren is Barth from the front, and Wright is Barth from the back. But from front or back, it is still Barth. They both have taken seriously the first of Niebuhr’s grave points, about the tragic sense of life, and they both have neglected utterly Niebuhr’s second, his concluding sermon, that there is in the human being a divine freedom, a capacity for a spiritual discipline against resentment, and so an open future, a divine\human heteronomy. Both radically and fundamentally minimize the capacity of the human being to change, and the potential for human society to improve. They both radically and fundamentally mute freedom, whether for a new post-Biblical freedom for gays to find their place in society or for a new post-radical shared leadership of many hues in the cause of racial justice. They both (and quite successfully to this date) define American Christianity over against the liberal tradition. And, so far, they have won the day.
What astounds me, still, is that the theological insight of Obama’s race speech has had no attention. Against a purposey providentialism (Warren), against a denunciatory determinism (Wright), Obama affirmed freedom on March 18, 2008:
But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
Embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
The problem with radicalism and the problem with fundamentalism is the same problem: they see the future only from the past. “The sun also rises and the sun also sets. What has been is what will be. What has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” They see what they expect to see. And so they chain us, with all due sense of purpose, from right or left, to what has been. And so they chain us, with all due citation, from right or left, of the Bible, to what has been. Here is the key line: The profound mistake is that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.
In thrilling mystery this morning the Gospel denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past! In the same way, this week’s inaugural denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past!
John’s gospel exudes freedom. For John Jesus means freedom. With freedom, scary thought, things can change, either for the better, or for the worse.
At a wedding this weekend, guests from New York chose to spend Saturday at the Kennedy museum. I said a silent thanks that they had chosen that spot this weekend. It is a place that says, ‘I believe America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor’ (JFK).
You remember, I expect, a time when the utter misery of others at last permeated your spirit, and you seethed with an angry hunger for change. You drove by the South Bronx, safe on the highway, riding in a new car, and looked down on the city and saw PS 131, with 6 year olds coming out, and you thought, “How do we do this? How do we let this happen?” Or you had to stop at the emergency room in a small town hospital—a toothache, a broken limb—and you looked around and for the first time the hidden poor of the land were real. You served in the dining center or suited in the storehouse or read books in the daycare. You heard Marion Wright Edelman, really heard her, when she said that 20% of our American children are raised in poverty. You saw something, of all places, on television, and it made you weep. You read an article about children hurt, wounded, killed, in the fog of war, as they took shelter in a school house. You crossed the border into Tijuana and all those brown little faces and browner little hands reaching for coins sent a chill through you on a sunny, hot day. Your club offered a day of service and you ended up, not on the sunny side, but on the slummy side of the street.
God loves: especially those left out. With the divine gift of freedom there comes the chance for change.
In two fine novels, Gilead and Home, over the past several years, Marilynn Robinson has given you a sympathetic reading of determinism (fundamental or radical), which, ultimately, though cautiously, she rejects. Here is the climax of Home:
Her second book places the apparently damned Jack in earshot of a young woman who has married an old preacher:
“Just stay for a minute”, she said, and Jack sat back in his chair and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself. Then she looked up at him and said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change’…Jack said, very gently, ‘Why thank you, Mrs. Ames. That’s all I wanted to know’. (p 228)
Given the darkness, confusion and corruption of our time, it is more than tempting to turn a cynical eye and ear upon the earth.
The thrilling mystery of our gospel today, though, argues otherwise. The community that composed the Gospel of John knew a rare kind of freedom. Theirs was not only a freedom of religion, but also a freedom from religion. So, in this mysterious verse, the writer acclaims openness, even to the heavens; he pronounces motion, even among and between angels and men; he pulls forth what strangely for him is the highest title of Jesus, the Son of Man. An open heaven is a symbol of divine freedom given as human freedom. The Jacob’s ladder of ascent and descent is a symbol of power to move, to change. The heightened title, Jesus a divine figure, is a symbol of hope that will not let go.
On Christmas Day we stood outside Trinity church after a fine morning service. Hope was in the air. What the Aquarium is to freedom, what the Kennedy museum is to change, the churches of our community are to hope. They are living, speaking symbols of hope.
When you are tempted to lose hope that their might be liberty and justice for all, I hope you will think of the family just now about to set up housekeeping at the White House.
When you are tempted to lose hope that our education or medical provisions can be fair or just, I hope you will remember that one teacher who touched you, that one doctor who helped you.
When you are tempted to lose hope that peace might ever come between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, I hope you will remember that other peace, hard wrought, has come, in other places. I give you Ireland. I give you South Africa.
When you are tempted to lose hope that a durable economy might evolve wherein those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little, I hope you will remember the Hudson River voice of a crippled President, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.
When you are tempted to lose hope that the voice and place of women, world-wide, might ever be sustained, I hope you will remember Susan B Anthony, ‘failure is impossible’.
When you are tempted to lose hope that the world can work, I hope you will remember Jesus’ thrilling mystery, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ For just as freedom leads to change and change leads to hope, so also hope brings change and change brings freedom.
We enter a time in which there is the possibility of a new birth of freedom.
It was not a pretty June morning on which Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of this morning’s sermon title. It was not on a beach, in Hawaii or Florida that he spoke. It was not in the peaceful backwaters of a decade of progress and plenty. It was not after a long and easy life. It was not out of quiet reflection is a monk’s peaceful cell.
Lincoln spoke over the graves of thousands. He spoke in the roaring November wind. He spoke on the corn stubble of a Pennsylvania field. He spoke as a leader who might be losing a war. He spoke as a man more acquainted with sorrow and defeat than perhaps any other person of his time, or any time. He was our greatest leader, and a pretty fair lay theologian himself. In a couple of years he would himself be dead.
We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.