Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, July 8

Hi all--I'm back from vacation and ready to roll.

Here's today's sermon, based on John 8:31-36 and the Garth Brooks song, "We Shall Be Free." (THrough July and August, we'll be doing sermons that take a critical look at pop music.)

First, I want to let you know I’m really excited about our summer worship series at our church. One thing we’ll be doing is listening to songs together–not Christian songs, but pop songs, songs you hear outside the church, songs that segments of our culture know and love.

Now, why would I do this? Is it just because I can’t resist trying something new? No, not really. But before I tell you why we’re going to do this, I’m going to tell you some reasons why we’re not doing it.

First, we’re not doing it because I love all of these songs. When I hear Garth Brooks sing this song, it’s not like I have a religious experience because everything in the song is so true and so right and it’s just perfect so I have to share all the lessons I learned from Garth Brooks with everybody here at church. But we’re also not doing this because I hate all these songs. I’m not playing you this music so that I can pick it apart and tell you everything that’s wrong with it and why you should really only listen to songs in your hymnbook.

I thought this would be a good sermon series because we need to be able to think critically about the music we listen to and the entertainment we choose. We live in a culture where entertainment is so incredibly available–entertainment is a part of our lives all the time, sometimes whether we want it to be or not. How often do you get in your car and not have the radio on? And if you don’t have the radio on, you probably have a CD in the CD player (or a tape in the tape player, in the case of my noble 1993 Oldsmobile). How often do you go through a whole day without turning on your television? How could you possibly not know that this is the summer of Spider-man 3? Even if you never go to movies, most of you knew that. We live in a world where not only are there many, many entertainment choices, but there is almost no escape from entertainment! We will entertain you, whether you like it or nont!

And so what should Christians be like in a culture like this? What does it mean to be the body of Christ in this world at this time? Well, I think one of the things we really have to be aware of is that all of the entertainment that swirls around us has messages. The entertainment that we put in our heads has a profound impact on what seems normal to us, what seems right and what seems wrong. For example, take Sesame Street. I’m convinced that part of the reason that my generation of Americans has less (at least overt) racism than some previous generations is because, growing up, we watched little kids of all different races playing together. It seemed normal to me and I think seems even more normal to kids who are younger. When I was in high school, I sang a duet with an African-American boy. We sang it at the local elementary school, where my youngest brother was in kindergarten. He was all excited that his big brother was coming to the assembly and singing a duet; but he said that a lot of his friends weren’t sure which one his brother was–the white one or the brown one.

But entertainment can cut both ways. Previous generations were also taught by the entertainment of their generation that other groups of people were inherently inferior to northern Europeans. Fortunately, we have less TV like that today. But it is important to see that entertainment is a powerful force that can shape the way we think. And it continues to shape the way we think today; those who create entertainment continue to have biases and reflect them in the entertainment they create. And if we’re not careful, their beliefs can become our beliefs without us even noticing it.

And so it is an extremely important task for us as Christians to be able to think critically about entertainment. If you really want to follow Jesus in your life, it is important that you are able to see when something you watch or listen to is asking you to go down a different road, to follow a different master. Some people will say that if a song or a movie is telling you to follow a different master, that you should cut it out of your life completely. I don’t think that’s true, because I don’t think you could ever separate from the world completely enough to avoid all of those messages. But I think it’s very important that we Christians are able to look at a song or a movie or a TV show and be able to see where it has the potential to push us away from following Jesus if we let it.

And because this is such an important thing for us Christians to be able to do, as a pastor I want to help you to do it. That’s why I am preaching this sermon series–because I want to provide a good example for you as you seek to follow Jesus. Thinking about entertainment is an important thing for all of us and I want to show you how I do it, to be a good example. I want to show you how I think about the entertainment I let into my mind so you may get some ideas for how to think about the entertainment you put into your mind.

And so we come to this song by Garth Brooks. This song has been extremely popular since it was released (probably 15 years ago now). It is a song about freedom. I think it’s kind of a refreshing song, really; I’ve always kind of liked it–never my favorite, but I’ve always liked it. I find it refreshing because it is honest.

Around this time of year, there is a lot of talk about freedom. We thank God for having a free country, and we talk a lot about how grateful we are to be free. Now of course in many ways that’s true: we do enjoy freedoms that many people around the world do not enjoy. We probably take more freedoms for granted than many others could even dream of having. But what this song says is, “We shall be free.” Not “We are free,” but “we shall be free.” In other words, there’s a whole lot of changes that still have to come before we are truly free. A lot of children need to be fed before we’re truly free. A lot of people need to have freedom of speech before we’re truly free. A lot of people need to have shelter over their heads before we’re truly free. A lot of people need to have freedom of worship before we can be truly free. A lot of pollution has to be cleaned up before we can be truly free. The song is honest in a way that most of us are not honest, at least around the 4th of July: the song says honestly that we aren’t free yet, at least not completely.

And that’s very true. It was Martin Luther King who most famously pointed out that everybody’s freedom is intertwined. I cannot be free as long as you are not free. Because if you are not free, I can’t encounter you as an equal; I may not get to know you at all. As long as there is injustice harming one person, injustice harms everybody. In that sense, we are all bound together. And so as long as there is suffering, as long as there are children crying for crusts of bread, we will not be truly free.

And yet there is something in this song that unsettles me, that makes me a little bit nervous. I had trouble defining it, trouble understanding what it really was, but I think I have my finger on it a little bit better now. I think the song is confused about what true freedom really is. What do I mean by that? Well, I think there are two visions about what freedom is in this song, and I’m not sure the two visions get along. On the one hand, you have this very profound vision about nobody being left behind, everybody having enough, everybody walking hand in hand. But on the other hand, you have this vision of, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose, when this world’s big enough for all different views, when we all can worship from our own kind of pews, we shall be free.” Now that’s a very different vision of what freedom is–it’s more about protecting personal choice. In this vision of freedom, freedom is about making sure that everyone can live life as they see fit–loving, worshiping, and thinking exactly as they want to.

Do you see the two different visions? One is about everybody having enough and everybody being united; the other is about everybody being allowed to do what they want to do. Now here’s the catch, here’s why I think the song is confused: if everyone is allowed to do what they want to do, do they naturally do things like building shelters for everybody in the world? Do they naturally live environmentally sensitive lives? Do they naturally feed those people around the world who are starving? No! Generally, if people get to do whatever they want, they choose to do selfish things! Not always, but usually.

If you need proof of this, look at this fact: America is the richest country in the world, and if we wanted to, we could solve or at least put real dents in world hunger. But is this what America is known for in the modern political world? Not really. Mostly, America is known for being a nation in love with its consumer goods; so in love with them in fact that our nation is going deeper in debt than we ever have before and saving less than at anytime since the Depression to keep getting the creature comforts that we like. And some people even suspect that the real reason we are at war in Iraq is that we want to protect our sources of oil, the oil we need to enjoy life the way we want to enjoy it. Now I don’t think that’s why we’re there, but the perception around the world is that we are so in love with our consumer goods that we’re willing to go to war to protect them.

Think about it this way–suppose you were to hand me $1000 on the way out of church today. (Now, if anyone wants to do this actually, that’s fine with me.) And you said, “Pastor, I just appreciate you and I want you to have this to spend any way you want. I won’t even ask, I just want you to have some money to do whatever you want with.” Now I’ve got to tell you, even after preaching this sermon today, my first thought would not be the AIDS orphans of Africa. I would think in my head about how much that big-screen TV was, the one I don’t even bother to look at because I know I can’t afford. I would think about putting some money toward a new car. If you caught me on a really bad day, I might even be thinking about how I could hide this money from Jill so that I could totally just spend it on me without her knowing. If you said, “Do whatever you want” and you promised me that there would be no accountability, that no one would know except for me, then I’m not sure what I’d do but I’m guessing it wouldn’t benefit anyone but me.

In the early twentieth century, theologians thought this way. There was this belief that humans are essentially good creatures; there was a belief in the innate goodness of human nature. There was this belief that science was going to cure diseases and feed the hungry. There was this belief that humans were going to usher in the kingdom of God, make heaven on earth by using the powerful tools of science to do amazing things.

What happened to that dream, you ask? Well, two World Wars had a lot to do with it. Science proved to be a powerful tool, but the goodness of human nature was not so reliable. When people started to harness the power of science, they created mustard gas and atomic bombs. After watching the Christian nation of Germany fall hook, line, and sinker for Hitler and exterminate 6 million Jews and others, it was hard to believe that people were essentially good. It’s hard to believe in the goodness of human nature when you recognize that more people died in armed conflict in the twentieth century than did the previous nineteen combined. As people got more power, they didn’t do things like create utopias; they just killed each other off faster. If we are going to recognize this profound vision of true freedom, of everyone having enough, it has to start somewhere else than saying, “everyone has to be free to do what they want.” That is not a recipe for creating a truly free world.

The book of Judges is one of the most terrifying books in the Bible. Strange things happen in Judges. A man named Jephthah vows to the Lord that he will sacrifice the next person he sees if God will give him victory in battle; and the next person he sees is his daughter, and so he kills her. A man and a woman came to a town, and stayed in someone’s home. The people of the town, described as a perverse lot, knock on the door and demand that the male guest be sent out to be sexually assaulted. The host says, “No” but then sends out his own daughter and the concubine, both of whom were raped until they died. It is a scary book, with terrifying stories.

And the last verse of the book of Judges, as if to sum up all the terrible words, are this: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The freedom to do what we want all too often leads us down paths of destruction. For us to be truly free, for us to live out that vision of freedom where everyone has enough, that demands more than just being allowed to do what we want and letting others do whatever they want. The best that can give us co-existence; it can never give us freedom.

This is what Jesus is talking about in John 8. He says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The disciples don’t understand, and so Jesus explains, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” For example, if you give me that $1000, and I hide it and keep it to myself and steal down to Circuit City in the dead of night and buy that big-screen TV, I might think I am exercising my freedom. I might think, “I’m free...and I’m going to take this money and do what I want to do with it!” I might think I am exercising my freedom–but in reality, I am demonstrating that I am enslaved. Deep down, I might know that the best thing I could do with that money would be to give it away, to the poor, to those in need; but I would be so enslaved to my own wants and desires that I would get the TV anyway. That’s not freedom; that’s slavery!

But following Jesus, continuing in his word, means that we are gradually learning about true freedom. We are finding out that true freedom does not consist of getting whatever we want, but of learning to change our wants to look more like what Jesus wants. True freedom doesn’t come from buying that big-screen TV no matter what anyone thinks; true freedom comes from being able to look that big-screen TV in the eye and saying, “I don’t need you!” and even more deeply “I don’t want you! Instead, I want that money to mean something to what God is doing in the world!” That is freedom.

I highly doubt that there will be a day on this earth when no one is hungry, no one is needy, and no one is persecuted. With God, of course, all things are possible, so I suppose it could happen; but I’m just pessimistic enough that I’m not holding my breath. But we are promised that that will happen somewhere beyond this world. We are promised that in heaven that every tear will be dry, and that we will feast on the marriage supper of the lamb and be given a new home, a heavenly city, with the beautiful poetic images of streets of gold, the city gates made of a single pearl each, and the city walls bedecked with jewels of all kinds. How can this happen? How could this great future ever be true? Because it is equally true that in that day “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Everyone–all our friends, all our enemies, everyone–will acknowledge that truth in that day.

And then, when all know the truth, then we shall be free.