Romans 6:12-18, 20-25
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 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? 17 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, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Message begins with video of Richie Havens singing "Freedom/Motherless Child"
I spent the summer after high school graduation in a town on the Jersey Shore. I had seen posters around town for a 3-day music and arts festival, and I would have liked to go but I didn’t have the $12 admission fee, or any way to get to upstate New York where the event was being held. By the evening of the first day of the event, the tv news was beginning to tell the story of an unprecedented event - a folk rock festival that had attracted so many people the traffic closed the New York State Thruway! On August 13, 1969, 400,000 people descended on Max Yazgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York and created an event that has never been successfully repeated. The music was supposed to start at a certain time, but the artists were being held up by the traffic jams. Richie Havens was finally convinced to go on stage without his back up band, just him and his guitar. The band members joined him on stage as they arrived. Almost 3 hours later, he had run out of things to play but the crowd wouldn’t let him leave the stage. So he improvised, and wrote a new song on the spot, building it around the well known spiritual, “Motherless Child”. That song, “Freedom”, became an anthem to the Woodstock generation - which is not an actual thing with dates and such. It’s more like a cultural sub-group of the Baby Boomers.
The freedom of the Woodstock generation was not the kind of freedom that Paul speaks of in his letter to the churches in Rome. We saw it as freedom from rules, freedom from doing things the way our parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to the Dark Ages had done things. We saw it as freedom from the restrictions of social mores and freedom to do things the way we wanted to. There were new art forms and new musical forms and new fashions and new attitudes. “If it feels good, do it!” we said. We wanted to tear down the establishment and make something entirely new. We didn’t know what we wanted to replace the establishment with, but we knew we wanted to be rid of it. We rejected religion as we knew it and went seeking spirituality in different ways. We were Jesus Freaks and Hari Krishnas and New Agers and Spiritual Not Religious. We thought everything old was bad, and everything new was good. And this, Freedom, was our song. It resonated so strongly because we really did feel like motherless children, like rudderless boats, alone, a long way from home. We embraced our freedom to be ourselves, and our freedom imprisoned us.
In a way, the freedom of the Woodstock generation was one of the kinds of freedom Paul speaks of - freedom from righteousness, which is to say, slavery to sin. Some of us grew out of it rather quickly. Some of us took longer, like 20 years or so. Some haven’t yet. But for those of us who did, eventually, find our way back into the light, as it were, we have discovered true freedom, the freedom that comes with God’s grace, and obedience to God’s desires.
Paul’s question was deadly serious. If we are no longer under the Law, does that mean we are free to sin? To do anything we want to do? No. When adherence to the Law of Moses ceased to be a requirement for new Christians, this became an important conversation. Just because you are not required to obey all the rules about diet and sacrifice and circumcision, to name a few, that does not mean that you get to do whatever you like. You may eat whatever you like, yes. But you must share your food with those who have none, because that is how to love your neighbor. You don’t have to make all the sacrifices listed in Torah, or go through all the cleansing rituals required after childbirth and after you are healed of skin ailments and so on, but you also don’t get to go participate in the rituals at pagan temples, no matter how much fun they might be. You aren’t held to the rules about marriage and concubinage and divorce and such, but you are expected to behave with sexual morality, being faithful to your spouse, and not just sleeping around with whomever. Just because the old laws are no longer binding on you, that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you like. Because now you must be obedient to God, and not to your own desires. Now you must dedicate yourself to loving your neighbor, and that is a whole lot harder than just saying, “I love everybody!” and handing them a flower.
Paul said, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.” We did not understand what that meant, that the wages of sin is death. We thought it meant literal death, and frankly, we liked what James Dean had said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.” Some of us, like me, eventually learned that the death Paul speaks of is not death of the body, but death of the soul. On the day that I realized there was nothing inside me anymore, that I was filled with emptiness, that my freedom had enslaved me to a life of pain and torment and emptiness, that is the day I decided to change my life. Sometime later, after I had begun making the changes, I began to welcome God back into my life. I became willing to submit my will to God’s will. And that is when I began to be truly free, in the way Paul speaks of freedom. I still love this “Freedom/Motherless Child” song, but today i understand freedom in a totally different way, and I no longer feel like a motherless child.
On this Freedom and Democracy Sunday, when we are encouraged to mediate on the freedoms we have as persons living in the United States, let us also meditate on the freedoms we have as Christians, as people obedient to the will of God. Let us celebrate God’s unfailing goodness, and forgiveness, and God’s great and awesome power. Let us go out from this place celebrating our freedoms, both as citizens of this mighty nation, and as citizens of God’s kingdom on earth, loving all our neighbors as God loves us.