June 30, 2019: "True Freedom"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 30, 2019
Galatians 5:1, 13-16, 19-25
(names have been changed in this story for privacy purposes)
Thomas was a member of Blawenburg Reformed Church just outside of Princeton, NJ, where I served as organist during my final year in seminary. Thomas was never on time for anything and on the rare occasion that he was on time, folks would ask him if he was OK. Every single Sunday, from my perch on the organ bench in the balcony, I could see Thomas out of the corner of my eye slip into one of the middle pews after the first verse of the opening hymn. He was well put-together, bright and always wearing a big smile, and though he was late to worship each week, he was usually the last person to leave because he visited with everyone after worship. Thomas was about my parent’s age and after retiring from a life in the academy, and because he never married and didn’t have any family to speak of, he devoted himself to the church. He served on every committee, he mowed the church lawn occasionally, he would preach sometimes when the pastor was out of town, and he even scared me half to death one Saturday while I was practicing for Sunday worship because he just popped in to the sanctuary unannounced to change some light bulbs he noticed were burned out.
One day in the Fall of 2011, Bob, the pastor of the church, and I were in his office planning worship when Thomas called. Thomas asked if Pastor Bob and I had time to visit him at his home. I thought it was a little strange that he asked for both of us. Sure, I was coming to the end of my initial pastoral training, but I was the church’s organist. Nevertheless, he asked for both of us and we scheduled a time to about a week later. The day we visited Thomas was one of the most beautifully cool and peaceful fall days I can ever remember. Thomas lived in an enormous, old farmhouse, the type you might see in a Civil War documentary. As we made our way up the winding driveway, I could see Thomas sitting on the wrap-around porch, sipping on a big cup of coffee. Getting out of the car, Thomas greeted us and welcomed us in and we sat down in the front room of the house. It was one of those rooms that your grandparents had that you only used on holidays and every other day of the year the furniture was covered with clear plastic.
Our conversation started with the usual pleasantries. Thomas asked me about school; he asked Pastor Bob about his wife and about the church. After a little while of this, Thomas’ characteristic brightness and smile faded. He looked at us and said, “Pastors”—and I’ll never forget that because that was the first time someone had ever called me ‘pastor’—he said, “Pastors, I’ve asked to visit with you because I’m ready to plan my funeral.” Now, this was not entirely out of the ordinary—pastors do this all the time. In fact, I encourage people to plan their funerals as a way to think about what our faith has to say about death. Pastor Bob asked Thomas why this was something he wanted to do now, and Thomas shared with us that he had just been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of lymphoma. The doctors had told Thomas that he maybe had a year or so left.
But what came next was a real shocker. Thomas told me and Pastor Bob that after consulting with his doctors and the doctors who his doctors referred him to and some friends and former colleagues, Thomas had decided that he was not going to undergo any form of treatment. Thomas was a brilliant man and I know he had spent days, maybe even weeks, digging into the research about the diagnoses and the treatments and outcomes for someone in his position. I’m sure he had read about the side-effects and risks of treatment. He decided that extensive chemotherapy, gene therapy, hospital stays, and all the pain was not for him. Instead, he had made the decision to live the remainder of his days with palliative care and the things that would keep him most comfortable.
That day, Pastor Bob and I worked with Thomas to plan his funeral and he told us was proud of it. We promised Thomas that one or both of us would come to see him at least every other week as he walked the path to the end of his life. Thomas kept coming to church, almost every Sunday for about four months, slipping in after the first verse of the opening hymn as usual. Then, as the disease began to worsen, Thomas could not leave the house. We took communion to him and we always tried to take him a plate after church luncheons, though I’m not sure he ever ate it. Pastor Bob and I kept good on our promise—sometimes we visited together, sometimes separate. When I would visit Thomas on my own, we always talked music—the great composers, the greatest pieces of music ever written, even the types of music we didn’t like. It was a beautiful time.
In our last visit with Thomas, Pastor Bob asked Thomas what brought him the most joy in life. Thomas said, “I have had so much love.” Pastor Bob and I both smiled. Pastor Bob said, “Yes, there are so many who love you and are grateful to you.” “That’s right,’ Thomas said, ‘but what I mean is that I’ve been given so many people to love. Teaching, going to church, all of my hobbies and interests—every place I’ve gone, God has placed people in my life for me to love.” I was just blown away—so often we think about how much love comes at us in life and not necessarily how much love flows from us. In those final months, without the constraints and side-effects of treatment, Thomas had time to think about what had made his life so good—it was not the love he received, but the love he had given.
The last thing Thomas said to us that day is crystal-clear in my mind. Looking at us both, Thomas said, “These past few months have been great because I’ve been able to focus on what made my life great and not on what I can do to make my life longer. I’ve felt free.” Thomas was free. He was free to celebrate and relish in and be grateful for all the things that made his life good because of the decision he had made about treatment. And Thomas was truly free, probably the freest person I’ve yet to meet, and just a few days later he was gone. We gathered for Thomas’ funeral on another amazingly beautiful day, though this time it was in the Spring. To honor the man we had all come to love and admire, the service began outside with words from Scripture and prayers. Then, with all the windows of the church open, I ripped into the opening hymn, and the congregation processed in to the sanctuary after the first verse.
Thomas showed me many truths in the final months of his life. A significant truth Thomas showed me was that bondage comes in many forms. For Thomas, bondage was not the disease that was ravaged his body, but the treatments that would also ravage his body and maybe give him just a little more time than he already had. The other significant truth that Thomas showed me is that, in this life, we can be truly free. Thomas’ freedom in the final months of his life came from forgoing treatment for the lymphoma. But Thomas’ freedom also came in how he spent the time he had left after deciding to forgo treatment. Thomas could have shut himself away from the world for those final months, lamenting his condition, waiting for the last day to come. Instead, he chose to use his freedom for gratitude. Thomas chose to spend his final days and weeks and months reflecting on all the love he had given away and how, by God’s grace, he never went anywhere or met anyone by accident. Stepping away from the bondage of cancer treatment led Thomas into the freedom of gratitude, and Thomas was fully alive when he died.
In the passage we’ve heard today from Galatians, Paul says in no uncertain terms that freedom is for love, that true freedom only comes to us when we love our neighbors as ourselves. Freedom in Christ is not a free-for-all. Freedom in Christ is not permission to do whatever we want or please. Freedom in Christ is an honest and willing devotion to others through acts of love. The Galatians didn’t get that. They thought their freedom as meant as a free-for-all, so they didn’t whatever they wanted. This included, among other things, debating about circumcision and clothing and preaching the gospel. It probably wouldn’t have become such a big problem if the debates had just stayed as debates, but as we are so prone to do, the Galatians took these debates and used them as weapons against each other. The Galatians pushed people out. The Galatians stained the reputation of the Gospel. The Galatians, other than perhaps gathering each week for worship, looked and acted no different than anyone else.
But Paul’s message is quite clear: you have been set free for freedom. Stop the debates, stop the fighting, let go of what hurt you in the past, forgive the wrongs done to you—you have been set free by Christ, now start living like it. Start living like it by using your freedom not to debate and divide and hurt one another—use your freedom to love your neighbor as yourself. Then, you will be truly free.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul’s message about freedom echoes down to us today through ages. We have been set free by Christ. We have been plucked out of the hands of sin and evil, and, as the psalmist said in our Call to Worship today, God has drawn boundary lines for us in pleasant places. We are no longer judged by how well or how poorly we follow the Law. We are no longer bound by the markers of outward appearance, gender, race, nationally, or birth—no longer Jew, Greek, slave, free, male or female. Our debts to God have been paid. We have been set free. But are we living like it? Are you experiencing the freedom of Christ or is something holding you back? Are you free, or are you locked away in the prison of self-righteousness, anger, resentment, or fear? Are you free, or are you holding on to the hurts of the past as if holding on to them will make them go away? Are you free, or are you waiting for the pound of flesh you think you deserve from the person who hurt you? Are you free, or are you hiding back in the darkness, afraid of what the light might show?
Here is the truth: we are all free in Christ, but there is so much that holds us back. All of us have a need to forgive, someone and something. All of us have a need to acknowledge that we have hurts in need of God’s healing; all of us need to acknowledge that we’ve hurt one another and turn that over to God’s healing also. All of us have a grudge that we’re holding onto, and maybe its been so long that we forgot what its about—let it go. All of us have questions about life, about God, about faith, about the world we live in—it is our duty as a Christian community to honor the questions and and not turn them away as weakness or shaky faith. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but when Jesus yelled out, “It is finished,” he blew the past away and propelled us into God’s glorious future. All of us have a tremendous amount of work to do loving and serving and worshipping and building a better world with God, but that’s just the thing…we don’t need to be afraid, God is with us.
Make today the day. Make today the day that you put the bondage behind you so that you can step out into the marvelous light of God. Make today the forgiving day. Make today the grudge-giving-up day. Make today the healing day. Make today the day you decide that you are going to be truly free in Christ, and then step into that freedom. Step into that freedom, the freedom that spirited my friend Thomas away into the eternal and loving arms of God, the freedom that will pour God’s abundant and transformative life on you until your cup runneth over. Pray for it, work for it, take a hold of it and never let it go. Then use it to break someone else out of the prison so that they can also be truly free. For freedom Christ has set us free. Thanks be to God! Amen.