Yesterday was the homecoming & memorial day service for Liberty UMC. Below is the script from which I shared.

Scripture text – 2 Corinthians 3:16-17

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

I sat down and read a lot about the history of Liberty UMC this week and have found myself chuckling at some stories, scratching my head at others, wondering about some of the missing details, and weeping tears of empathy at those confessing deep pain and loss. In a world of brokenness like ours, any story worth telling will be filled with the message of redemption that is brought through pain.

But one story that stands out in particular is the story of the roof of the church catching on fire one cold Sunday in March of 1928 when Liberty was a wooden building. The details of how certain people went to great lengths to keep the fire and damage to a minimum are awe-inspiring in some parts and kind of comical at others. But I thought the closing reflection of the story said it well…

“Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, ‘Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large’.”

Well, as I look out over this crowd I just might say, “Maybe we should have a homecoming & memorial day every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large!” I really am not interested in setting the roof on fire.

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

Have you ever just paused and thought about the name of this church? It’s really a great name. Liberty. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “liberty”?

I asked this question to F.W. and H.P., two of our most faithful members who are now home-bound or at the nursing home. Before sharing a story or two about their experience at the church, they both said the same word came to mind when they hear “liberty” and that word is freedom.

In fact freedom is the word that is used in most English translations of our passage this morning: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…”

But what else comes to mind when you hear the word “liberty”? Perhaps the infamous Liberty Bell. What is the distinguishing mark of the Liberty Bell?

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

The crack in it, right? Of course, that mark can serve as a good reminder that what is required for liberty, or freedom, comes at a great cost and often leaves its scars. Even the resurrected body of Jesus still had the scars from the nails in his hands and feet as well as from the spear in his side.

Or maybe you’re a wordsmith and famous lines containing “liberty” are more likely to stand out. Like famous statement by Patrick Henry? “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Or perhaps what is found in the Declaration of Independence? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other sounds or images of “liberty” come to mind for those of us living in the U.S.? Probably the Statue of Liberty. She really is a fine statue, but have you ever considered the irony, the contradiction, in the title? Think about it. A statue is something that is permanent, something fixed, something that is not living, that is, something that is not really “free” yet the word “liberty” itself means freedom. But as I pondered the apparent contradiction of that term, “Statue of Liberty” my mind was taken to some words offered by John Wesley.

Wesley wrote a collection of prayers for individuals, families, and children for morning and evening, each day of the week. His Thursday evening prayer for families begins this way: “O LORD our GOD, thy glory is above all our thoughts, and thy mercy is over all thy works. We are still living monuments of thy mercy; for you have not cut us off in our sins, but still give us a good hope, and strong consolation through grace. You have sent thy only Son into the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish in his sins, but have everlasting life.”

I like that. We are “…living monuments of God’s mercy…” or to put another way, “…living monuments of liberty…” I looked out over our cemetery this week and saw all the monuments identifying who is buried by each one. The stones and their engravings are there for our remembrance, that we may recall the faithfulness of God in the lives of our forefathers and foremothers. That is, we remember that God is faithful to bring liberty, or freedom, to God’s children. And as I looked over those monuments of God’s mercy, I realized that the act of remembering our past is an extremely important task for we who seek to follow Christ. Consider that in establishing the meal of the new covenant, Jesus said, “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.” Remembrance is a necessary act for Christians. For if we look or move toward the future without acknowledging God’s faithfulness in the past (and present), then we would be performing an exercise of futility.

This day, we remember and celebrate the liberty that God has wrought in the great work of our redemption in Christ. Liberty is at the heart of Jesus’ mission statement. In Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke (4:16ff.), he is reading from Isaiah in worship in the synagogue and he applies this statement to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” That would be a great vision for a church, wouldn’t it? “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…”

Hobart & Hazel Hargis were one of four couples who had been married for over 50 years when a history of Liberty UMC was written in 1984 for the Bicentennial celebration of when the Methodist Episcopal Church was established, which was in 1784. For the bicentennial, each couple that had been married over 50 years was asked several questions about their married lives, what advice they would pass onto younger couples, etc. They were also asked what their biggest crisis was over the course of their marriage. To this question, Hobart & Hazel responded that theirs was the long illness of their baby and being able to finally hear its cry.

I’m unsure of exactly the nature of that illness as there were no further details of the story in what I read, but it sounds to me like the type of longing expectation to be fulfilled like one who has been captive to be set at liberty. Ever had a nightmare where you’re trying to cry for help but have no voice? Then when you wake up, there is this great sigh of relief…you’re free. This baby’s voice and health was seemingly held captive, but after a long struggle, was set free. That’s an image of liberty.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” More recently, we’ve had people join the church in the past few years who in the past were held captive in various ways: by addictions, by debt, by guilt. And they have found a home in liberty, both in this church that bears the name and in the glorious liberty of knowing the freedom in Christ from being held in bondage.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” I look out over this congregation and I see living monuments of God’s mercy and Christ’s great act of liberty. I see the Spirit of the Lord, that is the Spirit of Christ, and Paul says wherever that Spirit is, there is liberty. And we have been set at liberty, that is, we have been set free to join Christ’s great mission “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” If God has been faithful thus far, imagine what greater things God has in store if we will but live into this mission of proclaiming liberty to the captives.

"...my chains fell off..." (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

“…my chains fell off…” (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

I close with an image of liberty that I have found quite powerful. My favorite hymn by Charles Wesley is ‘And Can It Be That I Should Gain’ which is #363 in our hymnal. It is filled with some of the greatest language describing God’s free(ing) grace. Verse 4 has long been my favorite and it goes like this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

We had been locked in a dungeon, bound in darkness and sin. But when we allow Christ to shed light to pierce the darkness and to break those chains that have held us in bondage, then we will know what liberty truly means as we will be free to follow this Christ who has set us free.

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Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”