Joe Neville

Psalm 124

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30




Yield to Freedom


To tell you the bare bones truth, I’ve never taken the 25-cent ride on the Staten Island ferry to see that beautiful gift from France.  But there is no questioning, ferry ride or not, the subtle yet strong  message of that beautiful lady of the harbor, the mother of all exiles, looking neither bored nor tired, but carrying high her lighted torch of liberty and welcome for all to see.  She was and is a beautiful sight for everyone--whether your family has been here for generations or if you just arrived yesterday.  No American, not even those of us whose ancestors were dragged here via the middle passage, can glide past her without pausing to cherish again her simple truth:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. (Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus)

Every Fourth of July we celebrate Independence Day.  We light sparklers in the backyard, watch the fireworks around various harbors in this country, eat hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato salad, and drink a little light or dark bubbly if it's hot outside.  Very few of us in this room think about life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, because most of us have it.

But what about those who do not breathe the air of freedom in our land?  How about those who are born hungry and homeless and stay hungry and homeless?  What about all the quiet and easily forgotten children for whom today the poverty rate is considerably higher than the general population?  And what about those who have freedom on their lips, but high profits on their minds; those who benefit from their freedom, but are enslaved by their desire for more and more wealth?  A recent study published in the New York Times declared that the rich, are indeed, getting richer, and the poor are staying poor and are becoming a larger class all the time.  Robert Reich, professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University," said "A society too sharply divided between its winners and losers, loses its moral authority.

We read of WorldCom’s CEO, Bernard Ebbers who orchestrated the $11 billion accounting fraud that sank WorldCom three years ago.  We remember AT&T shedding 40,000 workers, while its CEO received a pay package of $16 million.  In 1994, the former CEO of Scott paper, Albert Dunlap, cut 11,000 jobs and earned about $100 million in salary and stock benefits.  We read, with some amazement, this past week, about HealthSouth Corp. founder and CEO Richard Scrushy walking away from 36 counts of fraud, after all five former CFOs pleaded guilty and testifying that he led the scheme to inflate earning by $2.7 billion.  After the verdicts were read Scrushy said, “I’m going to go to a church and pray.  I’m going to be with my family.  Thank God for this.”  Along with Enron, these folks have become synonymous with fraud.

The growing disparity in wealth and opportunity for obtaining wealth in this country shreds the social contract upon which this nation was founded.  The principle that all people were created equal, with equal opportunity and equal access, was far more than a nice idea for our Founding Fathers; it was a hallowed precept, a strong belief, a radical hope for all people who came to this country.  The original draft for the Declaration of Independence begins this way, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable . . ."

As people of faith we can help change the face of things, by insisting that the moral judgment and equal opportunity which are embedded in the fabric of our history become relevant again.  We can begin by bringing ethics to the forefront of politics and by renewing our own commitment to the three abiding values of our Christian tradition--now abide these three, faith, hope and charity.

This morning's New Testament text implores us to come to Jesus and take up his yoke, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."  We wouldn’t normally think of a yoke as a symbol of liberation, but to the wearer, it is just that.  A yoke is designed to place on the neck of a beast of burden, usually an ox, so that its strength and energy may be harnessed for plowing a field or pulling a wagon.  When an ox is fitted to its own yoke, the yoke is more comfortable or easy on the neck, so that the animal's energy and strength are directed right into the harness; its burden then is lightened and made easier to bear.

If we are to live in these times and bear witness to the living, liberating God we love, our yoke must be harnessed about the neck of Christ.  Jesus is calling for a complete surrender of spirit, a turning away from greed and power and a turning toward new freedom based on justice and love.  This is an invitation, a welcoming home, a freeing liberation:

Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.

Our country and her people need a spiritual restoration and a renewal of faith in our relationship to each other in community.  George Gallup, in a poll conducted to determine the spiritual needs of Americans today, challenges churches and synagogues to work toward closing the gap between belief and practice.  He comments that we need to turn professed faith into a lived-out faith which reflects the life and values of our faith stance.  What is called for are not new committees, new strategies, or position papers on evangelism; we need nothing less than changed hearts and transformed practices.

Thanks to the religious freedom which is ours in the United States, we are able to make choices about our future and what our future will hold. These choices, I believe, apply fundamentally at the religious level.  Will we choose to harness our yoke to the living Christ or will we choose the substitute gods who live and thrive all around us? Money, greed, fame, drugs?  Blaming the "other" no matter who that other may be--whether it be Asian Americans or the Jews or blacks or gays and lesbians or women or immigrants?

Our beloved Bill Coffin, whose ministry spans from Yale, to Riverside Church in NY, to the rooms where issues of peace and war were heatedly debated, reminds us that God is calling all hearts out for review, and the reviews are not terrific.  But we have been given a living hope of liberty, not only a statue in the harbor, but a liberating hope through the life of Jesus Christ.  And if Christ is God's love in person on this earth, then church can be God's love organized on earth.

William Willimon writes that "life's greatest burden is not having too much to do, but in having nothing worthwhile to do."  How do you want to spend your life?   As we discuss our upcoming capital campaign, as we discern what our ministry should be in word and practice, as we think and reach out to our brothers and sisters outside of this community, I ask, how do you want to spend your life?

"Come unto me" is an invitation to surrender our freedom--from selfishness to sharing; from maintaining walls that divide to creating whole communities based on justice, love and cooperation; from hoarding our possessions to healing the breach between us; from hopeless bewilderment to wonderful hope in believing in God's grace and each other.

"Come unto me" is an invitation to a great feast.  It will not be a fourth of July extravaganza--all the dark or light bubbly you can drink, all the knockwursts you can eat--but it will be a feast where the hungry are fed and everyone is welcome at the table.  There will be no division of race, class, or sexual orientation.  It will be a feast where rich and poor find themselves laughing and crying together and sharing the wealth of the Table as one.

"Come unto me." This is the feast of plenty, plenty of love and enough justice for all; the spirit of compassion will reign.  Let this table help this nation realize and enrich its understanding of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  By God's grace, may we become Christ's people.  Amen.