(read Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11)
Our New York license plates read: Empire State. Not a very memorable slogan if you ask me. But then again, many other state license plates aren’t that impressive either. Iowa reads: corn state. Nebraska: beef state. And Idaho: famous potato. As if the most important thing we could say about the great lands that we live are what sort of produce grows best there.
There are more interesting state plates. For example, Arkansas reads: The Land of Opportunity. (Who knew?!) Alaska is the Last Frontier. (Wonderfully true, especially if you’ve seen, Into the Wild). The District of Columbia makes a political statement, which is fitting: Taxation without Representation.
But the #1 license plate slogan in the United States comes from New Hampshire, where on the back of every car, it reads: Live Free or Die.
Nothing is as important to human beings as living free. Freedom is a person’s natural born right. In fact, our country was founded upon this very principle. As the Declaration of Independence declares, “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.” Liberty here is a synonym for freedom, (probably chosen because two L words in a row have a nicer ring to them then an L and an F word: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as opposed to, Life, Freedom and the pursuit of Happiness).
But the meaning is the same. Each person has been created by God, and each person deserves to live that life. No one should threaten it or be able to take it away. Not only do we each own our own lives, but we deserve to live them freely, how we choose, and to pursue happiness freely, in the ways we want. These are our rights, and they always will be.
The Judeo-Christian faith also stresses the importance of freedom: the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; our freedom from sin and death through Jesus Christ; our free will to choose good or evil; the freedom given to our spirits by God’s Spirit.
The definition of freedom is: the condition of being free of restraints; the capacity to exercise choice; free will (http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/freedom).
When we think of freedom, we tend to think of what Thomas Merton called, “choice freedom.” (Thomas Merton was a brilliant Catholic Monk and practitioner of Zen Buddhism). Choice freedom means that we can do what we want, go where we want, say what we want, buy what we want, etc.
Do you remember the feeling of being a teenager when you really began to have some choice freedom? Getting to go to your friends after school without a note to your teacher or permission from your parents, getting a job if you wanted, taking out the car and driving wherever.
For me, one of the most amazing moments was when I realized that I could go to T.G.I Fridays and get a bowl of cheese broccoli soup if I wanted to. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but you have to realize that I was the youngest child of three by six and eight years. Plus, my dad always had a pretty big say in what we did. Even though we did sometimes go to Fridays, it was never enough for me.
This whole situation affected me so much that by the time I was 18, and Brian Horba came to my house on a Friday night to pick me up, all I wanted to do was go shopping at Old Navy, followed by a bowl of cheese broccoli soup at Friday’s. I can still remember the night like it was yesterday. I was so excited, so alive, so free. (The fact that Brian Horba was one of the cutest boys in school didn’t hurt either).
Jason, who is not only my boyfriend, but also a sergeant in the New York National Guard and an Iraq war veteran, says that one of the main reasons he joined the Army at the age of 17 was because it was the first real decision that he could make for himself. The recruiters came to his high school, rounded up the boys, and told them what an honor it was to serve their country. The told them about the training, how they would get to shoot guns and fly in helicopters. They told the boys they would travel and make money at the same time. The government would even pay for them to go to college. And all they had to do was sign some sheets of paper.
Jason couldn’t believe that he was finally able to make such a substantial choice, a decision that mattered, that would affect the rest of his life. He said, “Heck, yeah! Where do I sign?”
From early on in life, most of us consider saying “yes” the ultimate freedom. Afterall, rules/restraints are made to be broken. Our parents have had us under their control as long as we’ve known, and we can’t wait to make choices for ourselves. When the opportunity arises, we want to be able to take advantage of it. First, it’s choosing the boy or girl we want to dance with or go on a date with, then it’s choosing the man or woman we want to marry. First, it’s deciding when to become sexually active, then it’s deciding when to have a baby. First, it’s choosing what sort of student you will be and if you will go to college, then its deciding how you will earn money to support yourself and your family.
Each and every day is determined by our choice freedom. Our very lives are determined by what we say “yes” to, AND what we say “no” to. I think one of the great dangers in life is conceiving of freedom predominantly in terms of saying “yes.” Only about half the time is the best choice saying “yes,” the other half, the best choice is in saying “no.” There is actually great freedom in saying “no.”
Let’s look at today’s scripture readings. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are enjoying living in the Garden of Eden. It’s paradise. They have whatever they want; they can say “yes” to everything, except one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree they are told to say “no” too.
Then, the serpent comes and convinces Eve that it is foolish not to eat the fruit on that tree “You will not die if you eat from it,” the serpent says. “Just the opposite! Your life will be greater than ever if you eat that fruit, for you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
What is the choice towards freedom in this situation? If the very definition of freedom is “being free of restraints,” it was seem that to be free of restraints here would be to say “yes” to the apple!
Or is it?
We know what happens. Right after Adam and Eve eat the apple, their lives change and for the worse. They immediately become self-conscious and ashamed, which they never were before, and then, God kicks them out of the garden. As the story goes, all of humankind is forever covered in sin because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
True freedom is not just bucking the system or disobeying God or parents or government or religious authority or society or whatever. True freedom is doing what’s best for your soul, and for the soul’s of others. Sometimes, what is best for our lives requires us to say “no.”
One of the things that makes so many people unhappy these days is having too much to do or being in situations where they are doing something that they don’t like doing, doing something they resent. Why don’t we say “no?”
It is true that there are often responsibilities that we have, but if something is really hurting your life and bringing you down, don’t you deserve to get away from it? Isn’t that where you’re freedom would be?
And what about decisions regarding sex and drinking and drugs. These are not only teenage issues. Adults are faced with them also, and many of us never learned to make them well in the first place. Is freedom always saying “yes” to these things? One really bad hangover will tell you it’s not. Wisdom and experience have taught us otherwise.
What about eating a cheeseburger and French fries every day? I’ve heard people say, “I can eat whatever I want to.” They think that this is freedom. But if you keep getting fatter every year or are diagnosed with heart disease, wouldn’t actual freedom be not eating those thing? In this situation, true freedom is not getting to eat whatever you want, but not eating the things that will kill you. True freedom is choosing life over death.
When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he is tempted to say “yes” to the offers of the devil, but his successful rejection of evil is in saying “no.”
This Lent, you are all encouraged to take on a spiritual discipline, and I suggest you make a choice towards freedom, a choice that will awaken the person God wants you to be. This may mean saying “yes” to reading Scripture, praying, going to church or it may mean saying “no” to gossip, violence or some negative thought or behavior. Get creative when you pick the way you will observe Lent, but choose something that really will set you free.
Ultimately, freedom is not always either a “yes” or a “no” answer, but freedom is about following the Spirit of God and making choices that are life-giving to our own spirits.
2 Corinthians says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17). There is freedom when we are one with the Lord. We feel truly alive and happy when our spirits are in harmony with God’s Spirit.
Thomas Merton says that even greater than having choice freedom in life is spontaneity freedom. Spontaneity freedom is living from our truest selves, living from the divine image deep in our souls. Instead of thinking and acting by following the status quo or from our learned behaviors, old habits, and preconceived notions, spontaneity freedom is making every choice, taking every breath, saying every word, doing every action from your transformed and enlightened spirit.
Thomas Merton says in his book, The New Man:
Freedom of choice is not, itself, the perfection of liberty. But it helps us take our first step toward freedom or slavery, spontaneity or compulsion. The free man is the one whose choices have given him the power to stand on his own feet and determine his own life according to the higher light and spirit that are in him. The slave, in the spiritual order, is the man whose choices have destroyed all spontaneity in him and have delivered him over, bound hand and foot, to his own compulsions, idiosyncrasies and illusions, so that he never does what he really wants to do, but only what he has to do.
First, we must learn to make the choices that will help to nurture our spirits and awaken our best selves, the children God created us to be. Through this process, we are transformed. We begin living from a place of true freedom, where our spirits are alive, full and bright in the world.
How many of you live by your spirit? How many of you know the difference between when you are living by your spirit versus by your lower self? By the end of Lent, by Easter, I hope you all know that answer. That as Christ is released from slavery to sin and death, you too will be released. That as Christ comes alive again, you too will come alive and be set free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17). “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17).
And the Spirit of the Lord is in you!