A few weeks ago was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King delivering his speech ‘I have a dream.’ The speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, was a defining moment in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. The ‘I have a dream’ speech had so powerful an impact that one commentator wrote, ‘With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jnr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who shaped modern America.’
The speech’s power must, to a large extent, be put down to King’s wonderful oratory. King was able to find the right words for the right occasion – a real gift. But it wasn’t only presentation that mattered. From beginning to end, the speech focussed on a topic which speaks to the hearts, not just of the racially oppressed whom he was specifically addressing, but a topic which, oppressed or not, people always want to hear. He was talking about freedom and liberation. Drawing heavily on stories of freedom and liberation from the Bible, he concluded his speech with words from an African-American Spiritual, hoping and praying that these words would soon express the reality of the black population in the USA:
Free at last. Free at last.
Thank God we are free at last.
Sophie, Simon and Stephen, freedom and liberation, releasing people from the bonds that prevent them from growing into their full humanity for which God created them, lie at the heart of the Christian faith and are a particular responsibility of the priesthood into which you are being ordained this afternoon. But freedom and liberation are not just issues for Christians, they are also issues with which all humanity struggles and so when we talk, think and pray about freedom and liberation, we need to be aware not just of our congregations, not just of our parishes but of the wider world which, in different ways, will be addressing the same concerns. I would like to highlight 3 areas where freedom and liberation, concerns which are deep in the heart of God, impinge upon the ministry of the priest/presbyter.
First, in the Gospel we heard these words:
Jesus breathed on his disciples, and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
These words are picked up in the Declaration which I shall be reading in a few minutes with this sentence:
Formed by the word, priests are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
Put all this alongside the first reading from Isaiah, which is taken up by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, where Isaiah speaks of his role, as prophet, in terms of freedom and liberation :
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners.
These are reminders that your role is not to hold back or restrict like some kind of ecclesiastical gaoler, no, your role is to live and declare the freedom that comes from a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. All of us, at some level or other, are held back and trapped, perhaps by our attitudes, perhaps by our past, maybe by a relationship, maybe by our stubbornness, perhaps by material poverty, perhaps by material wealth, but your role is to say that it doesn’t have to be like this….you say it to others and you say it to yourself. Freedom and liberation.
There is a lot of talk about the need for freedom today, freedom to make my own choice, freedom to make my own life. What it is important to remember is that to be truly free, we need to be truly committed to something or someone outside of ourselves. Freedom without commitment is not liberating but it is enslaving, enslaving to the passing fads of the day.
The great novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was married to John Bayley. After she died following her struggle with Alzheimer’s, John Bayley wrote a very moving memoire of his relationship with his wife and he used the fascinating phrase, ‘We grew closer and closer apart.’ The deeper their relationship, the freer they became. That is true about marriage: the deeper our relationship, the more liberated we become. St. Augustine says something similar about his relationship with God when he wrote in a famous prayer ‘the service of God is perfect freedom.’ If a relationship is not right, people may consider themselves trapped, restrained and fearful: a healthy relationship has within it delight, freedom and unimagined possibilities. It is your role to be at the heart of the freedom and liberation that God brings, point it out and minister it to others. It is also your role to challenge anything that brings slavery and entrapment, anything that prevents people from growing to their full God-given potential. That is what lies behind St. John’s words of retaining sins.
Now to my second point. The pastoral ministry you exercise is also about freedom and liberation which is why it is important to be alert to that link between faith in Jesus Christ and justice. Not long ago I visited our two link dioceses in Tanzania – and we have much to learn from our link dioceses. While Tanzania is a peaceful country it is, by and large, a very poor country. One of the bishops of I met spoke of his pastoral concern for and ministry to the poor. But he is quite clear that the reason why they are so poor is that the country’s considerable resources are not distributed in a just way and so, while he is supporting the poor, he is raising the question of justice. The people need both pastoral support and justice.
There is the danger that if we only address the pastoral need, that we unwittingly help keep in place an unjust system. That is true around the world and it is true in our communities as well. As we address a pastoral issue, we must ask the justice question. It may be that there is no justice question, it may be that a person simply needs pastoral love and support for a trauma through which they are passing. In the words of that reading from Isaiah, their wounds need binding up. But the justice question is too easily ignored. One role of the ordained person is that, at a time when many people are demanding their rights, to discern issues of justice, especially for those who have no voice in society. Rights and justice are not the same. We are reminded by our brothers and sisters in our link dioceses that in our pastoral encounters, we need to ask the justice question.
Finally, probably the deepest and most significant way that freedom and liberation impinge upon your ministry is focussed in these words which I shall be saying in a few moments:
Priests are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the Word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Leading the people in worship, presiding at the Eucharist, preaching: getting the worship right is one of the most important tasks of the ordained person. Worship isn’t simply about what we do in our churches. Worship at its best liberates worshippers to live their Christian commitment in the world so that they can bring good news, bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners. It is through worship that our relationship with the loving God is shaped and deepened. In worship we learn deep within us, that we are not, ultimately, in the grip of the powers of this world…..of course, we need to work with them, but they are not our ultimate authority.
Worship is a form of witness. Anglicans in the diocese of Harare, another of our links, were prevented for a number of years from worshipping in their own church buildings. The police tear-gassed, beat and forced them out of their buildings. But they continued to worship under trees, in marquees and on street corners showing no violence to those who were oppressing them. The result was that more and more were drawn to the church and when they were finally allowed back into their buildings, many of their buildings were too small to accommodate them. We don’t face these problems – maybe it would help us if we did! – but the worship we lead as ministers of the church will have a far deeper effect than we could possibly imagine.
Free at last. Free at last.
Thank God we are free at last.
Sophie, Simon and Stephen, we pray today that the freedom and liberation which are at the heart of your calling as priests may be at the heart of your lives and ministries.
Readings: Isaiah 61.1-3;II Corinthians 5.17-6.2; John 20.19-23
St. Botolph’s, Chevening. 14th September, 2013.
Second image: St. Botolph’s, Chevening – Ian Capper