This weekend our nation is celebrating our 235th birthday. It is quite impressive that it was 235 years ago that the Continental Congress announced in the Declaration of Independence that the thirteen American colonies were now free, independent states. As you know, the declaration was written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, as a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2nd to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. The Declaration is best known for the second line which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This sentence has been called one of the best-known sentences in the English language and the most potent and consequential words in American history. These words did in fact change the course of history.
Another powerful part of the Declaration is the conclusion which states, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” And so it was that we boldly claimed our freedom as a country and as a people. It is truly a privilege to live in “the land of the free.” This freedom was not achieved with ease overnight. It has been a continuous struggle to bring to fruition the full measure of freedom captured in the powerful words of the Declaration. Through the struggles, we have flourished and we have grown in the promotion and protection of freedom for all. Today, we can proudly claim that we live in a country where we enjoy more freedom than almost any other country in the world.
In that case, how is it that so many of us do not fully experience freedom?
We know that there is more to freedom than politics. There is more to freedom than prosperity. There is more to freedom than the ability to make our own
choices and take our own actions. We cannot acknowledge our freedom without also acknowledging our limitations, limitations set by others and by ourselves. We are free to embrace life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but we hold ourselves back from fulfillment with fear and anxiety. The neighbor who is too afraid to invite guests over for fear they will judge their home decorating choices comes to mind. Or the parents whose child did not make the elite sports team and feel consumed with disappointment and anxiety that they and their child are not good enough in the eyes of the community. Free but trapped by worry about the opinions of others. How often do you find your concerns for what others will think limiting your freedom, stopping you from truly saying what you are thinking or doing what you would most like to do? It happens all the time. How can you fully pursue happiness if you are always pursuing what others have set forth as the right version of happiness? This censoring can be beneficial so that everyone acts appropriately in social situations but it can also be debilitating if you cannot move past it to be who you are and to follow your passions and dreams.
I think that young adults are most often affected by limitations put on them from the expectations of others. There are many who wish to pursue one thing but feel pressured to match the status and standard of living of their parents. They are convinced to follow courses of study and career paths that their hearts are not drawn to but that they have been told are right for them and for their financial success. When they choose careers based on what others want for them instead of what they are most interested and gifted in, they do not feel free and they do not feel fulfilled. It is a difficult line to walk between being practical and being passionate. You do not want to go too far in either direction.
Can you recognize the places in your own lives where you have been bound by others and where you may not have explored the freedom you longed to explore?
When we think about the limits to personal freedom, we should look not only at the limits we feel that others put on us, but there are also the limits we put on ourselves because we are holding too tightly to our past. All of us have regrets. All of us have made mistakes. There are some that we carry with us, unable to let go of, unable to forgive. Maybe it’s a betrayal of a friend. Maybe it’s a bad business deal. Maybe it’s a divorce or the loss of a house or a job. These things can chip away at our self esteem, at our sense of worth. They can stop us from living fully in the present because a part of us is still bound to our past, caught up in wondering how things could have gone differently. Sometimes it is not the mistakes that we have made that hold us back but the wrongs that others have done to us. Insults linger in our minds. Broken relationships pull at our hearts. We are haunted by the “what ifs?” of life. We are burdened by anger and regret. The anger and regret can become so familiar to us that we don’t know what we would do if we didn’t feel that way. It becomes part of our every day lives and
we stop seeing how much damage it is doing. We are not free to live fully in the present when part of us is tied to pain in our past.
How do we free ourselves from the wrongs we have caused and that others have caused us? We know the answer. It is just that it is easier said than done. Forgiveness. We have to forgive ourselves for not living up to our own expectations, for being less than perfect. We need to forgive ourselves for the times we tried and failed or even failed to try. If we hold onto our past in this way, we are holding on to bitterness, shame, and guilt. This stops us from fully experiencing joy in the present moment. Jesus also told us that if we want forgiveness for ourselves, then we need to be willing to forgive others. If we do not, it will only make us bitter and hard-hearted. It does us no good to hold onto a grudge against ourselves or against another. But forgiveness is hard.
On a personal level, I know how hard it is to forgive. Almost two years ago I got married here at KUC. In preparation for the ceremony I asked my best friend and roommate from Divinity School who is not an ordained minister if she would be part of the ceremony, and she agreed. A few weeks before the wedding she called and said that something had come up at work and she could no longer make it. I was furious and so disappointed. I thought that my wedding should be more important than a work conflict. Instead of telling her how I felt and forgiving her, I stopped speaking to her. I have not spoken to her since that phone call. I miss her and her friendship. I find myself wondering, what good is this anger towards her doing? Why am I still punishing her and myself for this? I have resolved to let this go and to reach out to her. I am not fully free when this is weighing me down, and it is time to make things right. I feel hurt by her and it is hard to forgive her for missing such a special event in my life, but I know that she did have a significant reason and I am not living a perfect life. I hope that others will be gentle and forgiving with the mistakes and pain that I cause, and so I myself must be willing to be gentle and forgiving. I also recognize that some relationships have been damaged beyond repair, but even if the relationship will not remain, forgiveness can still play a role in healing each person separately. We are not fully free without forgiveness.
When we experience forgiveness for ourselves, for others and from others we experience true freedom. We are not held back by fear, guilt, shame, regret and anger. Those emotions take up too much space in our hearts and do not allow enough room for love. God does not want us burdened so heavily. God offers us the light yoke of living in love and forgiveness. As it says in the gospel passage this morning “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. This is one of the most familiar and loved passages . In this passage when Jesus speaks of his yoke, scholar David Holwerda tells us that a yoke “both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a
possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke…” (The Lectionary Commentary). He writes, “Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it.” Do you want your yoke to be the bitterness of past pain and regret or the lightness of forgiveness and love?
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, says, “Jesus offers us a comforting promise to which many of us turn when our burdens seem impossible to bear…a lighter yoke, lighter because it yokes us with one who is greater than we are, and with whose strong help we can bear any burden (“The Open Yoke” in The Seeds of Heaven). What are the burdens you are carrying that hold you back from freedom and forgiveness? Can you open your heart today and remove those blocks to grace and freedom so that your life can be transformed by forgiveness? I invite you to take a few moments and to really think about this. Please reflect on where you are holding onto pain and regret, where you have trouble letting go. When you have thought of what you might need to forgive yourself or forgive another for, I hope that you might go to God in prayer and ask to be free to live fully in the present, unburdened by the past mistakes and pain. Ask God to help you start fresh and live today as a new day without anything holding you back from being who you are and pursuing the happiness it is your right to pursue. On this Fourth of July, I hope you embrace not only the freedom of our country but also your spiritual freedom.
Blessings and Amen.