A Freedom Movement
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
April 29, 2018 Fifth Sunday of Easter
I John 4; John 15:1-8
The passage we just heard in the Gospel of John is like so many others in that book, full of spiritual wisdom expressed in a beautiful metaphor that is tragically tainted by offensive exclusivity.
We are hearing the echo of deep wounds and grief suffered by a freedom movement.
Here is what seems to have happened to the community of early Christians who followed the disciple John. The earliest church was made up of faithful members of Jewish synagogues. They did not want to be a separate religion, they wanted to share with their fellow Jews the joyous good news that the Messiah had arrived and shown a new, more God-like way to live.
Apparently their enthusiastic beliefs upset people and caused a conflict. They could not convince the majority to follow Christ and were asked or ordered to leave the synagogue.
As a result, they became militant, insisting that Jesus was the only way to God, and that Jews were the enemy, and that anyone who didn’t conform to their beliefs would be damned. This was their wounds and their fears talking.
Friday after watching the film about Nelson Mandela we were speculating how free South Africa could so quickly have become marred by corruption. One possible answer is that they have not yet healed from decades of dehumanizing apartheid.
South Africa is a mix of beautiful ideals and wounded, fearful hearts, and sometimes South Africa is able to act out of its light and sometimes it acts out of its shadow side.
People struggle for freedom because they have suffered under oppression. Many oppressive forces are at work in the world today. All you have to do is listen to the news with your heart open and you will feel fear or take wounds. We should expect ourselves and our leaders to be damaged. How can we not be?
Our first task in every freedom struggle needs to be
to heal and free ourselves so that we can act with courage and virtue.
Jesus understood that we would need forgiveness. Forgiveness liberates the one who is forgiven and even more the one who does the forgiving. It frees us from guilt and resentment, it frees us from fear of blame and punishment, and it opens our wounds to healing.
Nelson Mandela and his fellow leaders understood this and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They brought to light acts of torture and sadistic murder. They helped both the perpetrators and the survivors come to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation through restorative justice. Tutu’s book about the process is entitled No Future Without Forgiveness. That title says it all.
We need to forgive John’s community so we can move beyond its painful acting out and appreciate the extraordinary contributions of its writings. “God is love,” the first letter of John says, “and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” It says, “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” It says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” It says, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
The Gospel passage gives us a metaphor for this. The force of love we call God stretches through all time and space like a vine. Jesus is a manifestation of that force, a human being who is fully identified with the God who is love, and we are all branches of that same vine.
Yet we can choose to be in the vine or not in the vine—in the Tao or not in the Tao. We can be connected to our source, flowing with the force of love and life and light, or we can cut ourselves off.
We were born to be the fruit-bearing branches of the one vine that we all are, the vine of love and life and light. We need to free ourselves from the wounds and fears and craving and clinging that cut us off and make us lose sight of our place in God’s vine. That is why we are part of a never-ending freedom struggle.
Nelson Mandela could not have done what he did if he had not found that path to inner freedom. I was struck by the contrast between Winnie and Nelson Mandela’s responses to their oppression and prison time. It reminded me of Star Wars, where there are two sides to the Force, the life creating, unifying power and the dark side of the Force that divides and destroys.
Winnie Mandela chose to draw on the power of hate—her hate of the white oppressors. Who can blame her, after all she suffered? It made her strong and charismatic. The freedom movement benefited tremendously from her leadership, but she could take it only so far. She could not free her people from their fear and wounds and hate as long as she was acting out of her own. She could not have formed a nation that was truly one.
In the film Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela was sitting in secret negotiations with a few officials of the apartheid government while he was still a prisoner. They were expressing their fear that black South Africans would take revenge if they gained power. Mandela admitted that he wanted revenge, but he said he wanted something else more. He wanted to live free of fear and hate. He saw the hell that the white South Africans were imprisoned in because of their fear and hate of the blacks. He was determined to create a different future that could free them all.
Mandela grew through his suffering to a higher, Christ-like developmental level. He saw the oneness of all races, and how their freedom was inextricably bound together—no one race could be truly free without all being free. He saw one vine with branches of different colors and genders and sexual orientations and other differences that all needed to be included in the beloved community.
The film Invictus shows President Mandela walking into the meeting of the new South African sports leadership and telling them that their unanimous vote to abolish white South Africa’s beloved rugby tradition was wrong and should be reversed. Mandela was the only one in that large meeting who could see that black South Africa needed to forgive their former oppressors in order to be free, and only if they were free of their hatred could they do the right thing for the nation. The right thing, Mandela saw, was not only to let the white South Africans keep the rugby tradition, but to support it whole heartedly and make it important to all racial groups, white, black, colored and Indian.
The sports leaders were not as enlightened as Mandela, but when we meet people who are truly free, the power of the Spirit flowing through them can change our hearts. Mandela persuaded the majority, the vote was reversed, and largely by the power of his vision and spirit South African rugby went on to unify the nation in an extraordinary way.
Christ calls us to be part of that same freedom movement. We are living in a dangerously divided world, full of wounds and fears, hatred and violence. What can we do?
One thing is to work out our own liberation with diligence. We need to free ourselves from whatever holds us back from sharing our gifts with courageous love.
Another is to think of ourselves as being part of a movement, to own that truth as core to our self-identity. We are part of a movement if we follow Christ because Christ came to establish God’s realm of love on earth. We are part of a movement if we abide in love and love abides in us, because love knows that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We need to see that we truly are a movement, and we are one. Our place is with one another. Together we can work miracles.
And then we need to look at what our time and place requires and what we feel called to do. We have a Future Directions Study Group in this congregation that is trying to discern this. You will be hearing more about it soon.
We are going to sing two American freedom songs this morning from the anti-slavery abolitionist movement before the Civil War that call us to free ourselves to act for freedom. They are both by the poet, editor and activist James Russell Lowell. The first one is “Men, Whose Boast It Is.” It is full of male language that Lowell would certainly not use if he were writing today, but otherwise it could not be more relevant or stirring. It calls us to take the kind of risks that Nelson Mandela did. It insists that we are indeed part of a freedom movement.
Let us pray together in silence inviting the Spirit to free us more completely and show us how we can help free others…