The Price of Freedom

(Preached on July 3, 2010; text: Gal. 5:13-25)

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. And over the course of this weekend, according to Forbes magazine, Americans will spend “$3 billion on holiday weekend parties, food, entertainment and travel.” $600 million of that will be spent on fireworks. $111 million on charcoal and another $94 million on lighter fluid.

And why? It seems we’re not too sure about that. I watched a video yesterday of some interviews of people on the street. They were clueless about the reason for the holiday. When the interviewer suggested that it was when Christopher Columbus discovered America, they didn’t bat an eye. When he suggested that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had signed the Declaration of Independence in Tombstone, Arizona, they didn’t question him.

It was, of course, in July 1776, that the founding fathers of this nation, assembled in Philadelphia in the Second Continental Congress, voted a resolution declaring that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States” They voted for independence on July 2, and two days later they adopted Thomas Jefferson’s explanation of the reasons for that separation, the Declaration of Independence. It begins with these words:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But on that summer day in 1776 the declaration was merely wishful thinking. Enemy troops still walked our streets. A tyrant king still demanded obedience. Congress was forced to flee to Baltimore a few months later.  It would be over a year and a half before another nation, France, would recognize our independence, and pledge herself to assisting us in the war effort. And that war would rage until the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781—five years, three months, and fifteen days after the ratification of the Declaration—at a cost of 50,000 wounded and killed American soldiers.

Freedom was declared with a word—but it was paid for in blood.

And it seems that the price is never fully paid. Each generation must stand in vigil to assert and defend that freedom anew; each generation must pay the price in the blood of its young men.

On our way to Atlanta for General Conference we stopped in New Orleans, and went to the National World War II museum. They have a new movie, produced by Tom Hanks, that tells the story. The movie begins with a number: 60,000,000. That’s the total of people who died in World War 2—soldiers serving in Allied and Axis armies, as well as civilians.

I fear we have forgotten.

We have considered the stories passé and irrelevant. And many veterans have been reticent to speak of what they saw and what they did for fear that we could not comprehend.

John Bradley was one such veteran. He was a well-loved undertaker in a small town in Wisconsin. He had served in WW2, came back to the town he was born in, married his childhood sweetheart, and had eight children. I knew a member of the Houston International Church who was from the same town, who remembered John Bradley as a kind, gentle man, a pillar of the community.

John Bradley died in January 1994. In the days after his death, John’s son, James, began to rummage through some boxes he found in his dad’s office.

He found a letter that his father had mailed from the island of Iwo Jima on February 26, 1945. Three days before he wrote that letter John Bradley had been one of six men who had been photographed raising an American flag over Mt. Suribachi.  The picture would become famous–but John Bradley didn’t know that when he wrote the letter.

James describes that letter from his dad:

The carefree, reassuring style of his sentences offers no hint of the hell he had just been through. He managed to sound as though he were on a rugged but enjoyable Boy Scout hike: “I’d give my left arm for a good shower and a clean shave. I have a 6 day beard. Haven’t had any soap or water since I hit the beach. I never knew I could go without food, water or sleep for three days but I know now, it can be done.”

And then, almost as an aside, he wrote: “You know all about our battle out here. I was with the victorious [Easy Company] who reached the top of Mt. Suribachi first. I had a little to do with raising the American flag and it was the happiest moment of my life.”

This was a surprise for James. He knew that his father was one of those who raised the flag—but his dad never spoke of it as a happy moment. He rarely spoke of it at all.

His dad was the last survivor, living for fifteen years after the last of his buddies had died—and over the years he would get calls from reporters who wanted to squeeze his memories from him. The kids were instructed to say he was fishing in Canada.

When the kids would ask their dad about it, he would only say, “The real heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”

What happened, he wondered, to change his father’s outlook? What happened to that kid who wrote in such a carefree way about the battle and the raising of the flag, describing it as “the happiest moment of my life”?

James also wondered about the other boys in the photo. Who were they? What were they like? How did they feel that day?

And he set out on a journey, to learn all he could about each of them. It led him to climb Mt. Suribachi, and to write a book, Flags of Our Fathers, which Clint Eastwood made into a movie.

James learned that the others in the photo were Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Rene Gagnon. Harlon Block was a Seventh-day Adventist from Weslaco, Texas. He died in the next weeks of battle on Iwo Jima, as did Sousley and Strank.

In the course of his research James learned of the scars that the survivors carried for years afterward—and of images that haunted his father’s dreams. Secrets that his father had confided to a few only.

To James he would only say, “The real heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”

One of those who didn’t come back was John’s best friend, Ralph Ignatowski. Iggy. They were together when John, a Navy corpsman, or medic, ran to help a wounded Marine. A Japanese soldier charged him with a bayonet—John shot him and finished his work. Then he went on to help another Marine. And another. When he came back, Iggy was gone—he had vanished into thin air without a trace. They found him several days later … he had been captured, and tortured and horribly mutilated by the Japanese over the course of three days, before he died. John Bradley had to cut him down and prepare his friend’s body for shipment home. He struggled to retain his composure as he sought to restore some dignity to his friend, so that his mother would not know all that had been done to him. And those images stayed with him, and haunted him … only after his death did his son, James, learn that this was what lay behind his silence.

“The real heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”

James said, “I will take my dad’s word for it. They just did what anybody would have done, and they were not heroes. Not heroes. They were boys of common virtue. Called to duty. Brothers and sons. Friends and neighbors. And fathers. It’s as simple as that.”

And those brothers and sons, friends and neighbors and fathers … these simple men … were willing to pay the price. The price of freedom.

We remembered those fallen a little over a month ago on Memorial Day. That is our annual tribute as a nation to those who paid the price for our civil freedom.

Today, as we gather in this place of worship, we reflect not merely on the freedom we enjoy as Americans but on that greater freedom we cherish as Christians, and we must consider the price that was paid for it—and we lift our eyes to another hill, whereupon was raised a standard of another kind. We lift our eyes to Mount Calvary, whereon was raised an old rugged cross, where the Son of God shed his most precious blood—the price paid that we might have freedom from sin and freedom from death and freedom from the law’s condemnation.

God was willing to pay the price, because God loves freedom.

We forget that sometimes.

We sometimes picture God as an absolute ruler, an emperor, a king—those are the titles we call him by—and we see ourselves as his servants, his subjects. Like the members of some other religions, we imagine at times that our whole duty is one of submission to God’s demands, acceptance of his inscrutable ways, obeisance before his majesty and blind obedience to his commands, no matter how irrational they may appear.

But the God of the Bible is a God who loves freedom. And he loves freedom, because he is love. And love requires freedom, to be love. It cannot be forced. It cannot be coerced. It cannot be gotten by manipulation or fear or pleading. Only a free being can choose to turn toward another, and open their heart, and give it away in that unconditional self-surrender that is love.

God created us out of love, and thereby blessed us with freedom. He put a test in the Garden for our first parents—not as a game, but to demonstrate that they had a choice. The tree gave them an opportunity to show their love for him, and to give it to him, freely.

And when they used their freedom to turn away from him—he let them. Even though he could foresee the consequences, even though he knew the price that would be paid in sin and misery, in the deaths of billions of their children over the millennia, and in the suffering of the whole of creation—he let them do it. Because love must be free.

He looked on them with pity, and with compassion, and when they ran and hid, he came looking for them, and clothed them, and promised them that this was not the end of the story; that he would send a redeemer, who would bruise the serpent’s head, who would destroy death and give life, who would bring forgiveness and healing.

And when the fullness of time had come, he sent his Son. And his son took our frail form, burdened with the inherited traits and weaknesses of generations of feeble ancestors, and he let his children lead him by a rope, and beat him with whips and rods, and nail his hands and feet to a cross, and crown his sacred brow with a crown of thorns. This was the debt we owed to sin—this was the price that must be paid for us to be free of its clutches and its curse.

And he paid it, in love. Freely. Without compulsion. Without necessity. Without hesitation.

And by doing so, he showed us, and he showed countless myriads of intelligent beings throughout the universe that truly, that, as Ellen White writes in Patriarchs and Prophets, “God is love. His nature, his law, is love. …. Every manifestation of creative power is an expression of infinite love.”

There was one who came to dispute that description of God. The covering cherub, the angel who stood closest to the Father, began to insinuate to his fellow creatures that God was not like that at all. He grew jealous and spiteful and imagined in his darkening mind that God was grasping and fearful and hateful—all the things that he was becoming. He accused God of tyranny. And he accused God of imposing a law that was unjust. And he dared God to let men take a step toward independence—and, then, gloating over their fall, this accuser, this former light bearer, Lucifer, who now brought only darkness, this serpent, this snake in the grass, this liar, said that God could not forgive, lest his law now be rendered meaningless.

But God did not answer in anger. He did not reply with reasoned arguments.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Behold now, the cross, standing before you as the banner of love. Behold the figure on the cross, the one who paid the price. Behold the one who gave everything for you.

You have a choice now. And it is a free one. It is not coerced. It cannot be coerced. Because God does not coerce. He invites you, freely, to come. To choose life. To choose him. To choose freedom.

Yes, freedom. That is what God promises in Christ. Not slavery. Not a life of drudgery. Not a life of fear. Not a life in which we constantly worry over whether we are doing the right thing, or eating the right thing, or walking the right way, or talking the right way. That’s the point of our reading from Galatians. God calls you in Jesus Christ to be free.

Paul had to say it because some people had another agenda. Instead of setting people free, they made the Christian life seem like another form of slavery. They set up their own rules and regulations and dared to judge one another by how well they abided by that version of what a Christian must look and act like. We probably all know some folks like that. We call it “legalism.” We call it “fanaticism.” We call it “judgmentalism.” It’s been around since the very beginning of Christianity.

Paul had preached justification by faith alone, but when he left town, some other folks came around who thought they were better than Paul, and they told the Galatians, “You need to follow our rules now, if you want to be a real Christian.” And Paul heard about it, and he wrote to them, and he declared emphatically, NO. You are no one’s servant. You are no longer a slave. You have been set free—free to live and to laugh and to love.

We’re afraid of that. We think of all the things that people can do in the name of freedom. We think of all the ways they might hurt themselves or hurt someone else or embarrass us—and we draw lines and erect walls and define limits to their freedom.

Yes, freedom can be abused. Yes, in the name of freedom, we can do the wrong things. Yes, we can hurt ourselves and others. But that’s what happens when you have freedom. You can choose to do things that are not right.

Paul says, Don’t do that, though. Don’t use your freedom in that way. Don’t use your freedom to benefit yourself, don’t use freedom to excuse your sin.

Use your freedom to love others. Use your freedom to serve others. Use your freedom to speak well of others. Use your freedom to expand the freedom of others. Use your freedom to live by the Spirit, and to follow his pathway—a path of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s not an easy path. I can attest to that. I am often lacking in patience. I can say harsh things. I can lose my self-control. And I often have to say, “I’m sorry,” to those I’ve hurt or offended. But what I don’t do, what I can’t say, is that it doesn’t matter. Or that I have freedom in Christ to do so. I can’t in the name of Christ justify those things. Because Christ calls us to be free of them. To let them go. To walk with him.

And that walk is a journey. He’s taking us from here to his Father’s kingdom, and we get there step by step, day by day. We’re not there yet. But we can be on the road. And when we are on the road with him, the past is forgiven. The destiny is certain. And he is there every step of the way.

But he doesn’t force us to join him. He doesn’t force us to go on this journey. Nor does he keep any away. He says instead, “Come.” Join me. Turn your back on the past. Walk with me.