Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Freedom

In the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, there's a special display for a rickety, homemade aluminum kayak.


This tiny, makeshift boat seems oddly out of place. All around are displays for impressive Navy vessels and artifacts from significant battles on the sea. But a bronze plaque tells museum visitors the story behind this kayak's heroic makers.

In 1966, this tiny kayak brought freedom to two people. An auto mechanic named Laureano and his wife Consuelo decided that they could no longer live under the oppression of Cuba's totalitarian regime. They spent months collecting scrap metal. They pieced together a boat just barely big enough for two small people. Then Laureano jury-rigged a small lawn mower engine on the back of the kayak. After months of planning the time finally arrived for their escape. It was a moonless September night. They sat back to back. They brought with them only the swimming suits they were wearing and they set out in the treacherous Straits of Florida. They had only enough water and food for a couple of days. They floated in open water for over 70 hours! Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard found and rescued the couple. They made it just south of Alligator Reef Lighthouse in the Florida Keys. Was it worth the risk to find freedom? Laureano thought so. Years later, he said:
When one has grown up in liberty, [you] realize it is important to have [freedom]. We lived in the enormous prison, which is Cuba, where one's life is not worth one crumb. Where one goes out into the street and does not know whether or not one will return to one's home, because the political police can arrest you without any warning and put you in prison. Before this could happen to us, we thought that going into the ocean, and risking death or being eaten by sharks, is a million times better than to stay suffering under [political oppression].
What a great story about freedom! Now, this is just the kind of story you would expect to hear on a weekend like this, right? It’s the Fourth of July! All around this country, we have gathered around BBQ pits, we've shot fireworks, and the reason we do all of these things is because of stories like this one. Because of Laureano and Consuelo and the millions like them. America offers freedom to the world and it is right for us to celebrate the blessings that come from freedom. We should thank God this weekend for the freedoms we enjoy in this country of ours. Here is the real irony, though, whether we realize it or not, Americans may be some of the most “un-free” people in the world.

Listen to this story about another group of people who believed they were free, but were really slaves…
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-36, NRSV)
Maybe, as Americans, we can understand the response of these Jews better than most. How would you react if someone walked up to you today and said, “If you will just do these things, then you can be free!”? You would probably respond, “But, I'm already free, I’m an American! Why would I do anything special to earn something I already possess?” That is exactly how these Jews felt when Jesus started talking about freedom. They thought He was offering them something they already possessed. They were free, they knew the Truth, and they were free children of God because they were also children of Abraham! Because they were born into the Jewish family, they assumed they were free. Because we were born American, we assume we are free. But Jesus message to them is the same as His message to us. We may not realize it, but we are slaves. We may not have a cruel master watching over us in the hot summer sun of Mississippi, we may not have a prison guard making sure we stay behind the bars of our cell, but we are prisoners and slaves.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans sheds some light on this discussion for us:
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15-23, NRSV)
We are all slaves to something! We just need to decide who our master is going to be! If sin has been your master for a long time, it may not be easy to choose a new one.

Not long ago, an interesting thing happened in Kingman, Texas. A man who robbed a bank 10 years ago was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary. He decided he liked prison life so much he committed another crime, just so he could return! Danny Villegas walked inside a Federal Credit Union in Florida and told the teller he was robbing her. Then he added: "You might as well call the police right now." Villegas then sat down on a couch in the lobby and waited for police to arrive. As amazing as it may sound, here was a guy more comfortable with prison than he was with freedom! Doesn't that sound ridiculous! Who would actually choose prison over freedom?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet and dramatist said: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” I have heard some people criticize preachers of this generation because we do not talk about “sin” enough. “They just talk about love and grace, they just talk about how to build strong marriages and raise good children, they rarely talk anymore about sin, because preaching about sin is not as popular as talking about God’s love.” You know, I don't think we can ever hear enough about God’s love. Jesus sure talked a lot about it. But I'll say this, Jesus also talked an awful lot about sin, and the reason I think Jesus spent so much time preaching about sin is because that is what separates us from God’s love.

Church, sin separates us from God. You cannot be trapped in sin and at the same time have a strong, deep relationship with God. The two are incompatible. John tells us in his letters…
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and we do not do what is true… (I John 1:5-6, NRSV)
Does that mean you have to be perfect? No. No one is perfect. Everyone messes up. Everyone sins. But there is a difference in sinning and walking in darkness. Walking in darkness is a lifestyle of sin. It is deliberately walking away from God toward our own sinful passions and desires. It is choosing sin over God.

Church, there are people inside and outside of these walls who are walking in darkness. Some of us are walking in the darkness of pornography; we go again and again to that master, allowing that master to dictate the movements of our lives. Some of us are walking in the darkness of adultery; we go again and again to that master, allowing that master to dictate the movements of our lives. Some of us are walking in the darkness of hatred and resentment; we go again and again to that master, allowing that master to dictate the movements of our lives.

If you are a slave to sin, you cannot walk with God. If you are telling yourself you can, John says: “You are lying to yourself.”

But, folks, you do not have to be slaves to sin anymore…

Let me confess something to you this morning. I have been a slave. There have been times in my life when I thought my identity centered around being the best. When I was finishing up my coursework at LCU, I began looking at graduate schools. I didn't go about that process like some others may have gone about it. I didn't consider the proximity of schools to family. I didn't consider which city would be the best environment for my new family. I went to publications looking for the answer to one question: Which school is the best? US News and World Report rates graduate schools in various areas. I went to the top of that list and thought, “I want to go there.” I talked to people in the field: “What is the best school out there?” At the end of the day, I chose Emory University in Atlanta, because it was considered the best. For some reason I thought who I was would be determined by where I went to school.

I followed much the same process a few years later. When I decided to pursue a PhD, I researched schools and found the top rated American church history program in the country. Without considering many other factors, I took my family across the country to Nashville, Tennessee. When I decided to move to Nashville, I remembered that Woodmont Hills Church of Christ was in that city. I’d known about that congregation for years, Rubel Shelly was there! I knew at once where I wanted to work. Why? Because in my mind, I was convinced I had to have the best. I had come to believe my identity was tied to such things. And before we moved back to Lubbock, I heard that Rodney Plunkett was leaving Broadway Church of Christ. Broadway Church of Christ! At one time, this place was the largest Church of Christ in the world! I considered the possibility of working at a place like that. I remembered the names of the preachers who had filled that pulpit in years past, Norvel Young! Bill Banowsky! Joe Barnett! The thought of adding my name to that list really excited me, because in my mind, Broadway was the best! Family, somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that I was first and foremost an academic. I convinced myself that my value was found in attending the very best schools. I convinced myself that my identity was found in having the best credentials! Church, at other times, I convinced myself that I was first and foremost a preacher. I convinced myself that my value was found in being at the very best place, I convinced myself that my identity was found in the most influential pulpits.

I was a slave to achievement and success and recognition. I still struggle with those masters. I still love to be the best. I know that I give the impression sometimes of letting criticism and critique roll right off my back, but those of us who are slaves to achievement and recognition can attest, critique really stings! It can consume us. My slavery compromised my relationship with my kids. It compromised my relationship with my wife, and it compromised my relationship with God. Through some very painful life experiences, I learned that I was wrong. I am not first and foremost and academic. I am not first and foremost a preacher. I am not first a foremost a father. I am not first and foremost a husband. I am first and foremost a child of God.

Did you hear the story about the extremely fortunate prisoner? The Republican Party mistakenly invited an Ohio prisoner to a $2,500-a-plate fundraising dinner in Washington with President Bush. The invitation and a letter from Vice President Cheney were sent to Robert Kirkpatrick. He was at the Belmont Correctional Institution in eastern Ohio. Kirkpatrick, 35, was sentenced to nearly three years for drug possession and attempted escape. When asked how he would respond to the invitation, he said, "I'm going to tell him that I'd be happy to attend, but he's going to have to pull some strings to get me there."

Do you know what Jesus’ words in John 6 really mean for us? They mean that we've been invited to the greatest banquet in the history of the world. Yeah, we are prisoners; we are slaves, all of us! But someone much more powerful than the President of the United States has pulled some strings to get us in! Now that is the kind of freedom worth celebrating!

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