Before sitting down and committing these words to paper (or, rather, to pixels), I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to you this July.
The first, of course, is “hello!” I’m used to sending out a mini-sermon once a week, and this is the first time that I will be doing it once a month, instead. As you may have been missing your weekly update from me, I have just as equally been missing you, even though it means that I am now able to be in the Florence Church Office once a week and in the Community with you all in exchange.
My second thought is a thought of great trepidation. As a Congregationalist Minister I strive to be a politics free zone. Short of getting a neon sign to directly point at my face and in bright pink declare, “NO POLITICS HERE,” I do my utmost to keep it squeaky clean in the pulpit. This might seem odd to those who don’t know the history of Congregationalism—or for those who drive through Northampton and see churches with PRIDE flags and political signs out front—and that’s okay.
The rundown of the reasoning is that every person is accountable only to themselves and God—and that includes politics. I, as your minister, am a no-fly zone. I may have voted in the 2020 election, but I will keep you guessing who my candidate of choice was. You may think you know, but do you really? And that’s how it should be. I’m a slate wiped clean. I’ll never tell you how to think. I’ll never give a political speech from the pulpit. And I’ll be first in line to help with a bake sale for nearly any good cause, doing anything but actual baking (trust me on this, your taste buds will thank me).
This brings me back to the feeling of great trepidation. Patriotism, the American Flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, Love of Country have—in some parts of the country—become a bit controversial. Normally this time of year I would choose an aspect of American history and weave it together with faith and how religion was tied up in that history… but now I pause.
Now I second guess my internal politics meter and wonder if “Love of Country” has become too political. And, yet, I sit here and I don’t think it has.
I sit here as a woman—and I have the freedom to be a minister, something that’s not possible in all denominations, in all countries, in all religions around the world. Five hundred years ago, in early Renaissance England, ‘lady preachers’ were burnt at the stake for simply giving a sermon in public on the streets of London. I know some of you still might find it a novelty to have a young 30-something woman as your minister—I am, after all, very different from my predecessor—but I have the freedom that would not otherwise be afforded to me.
And many of the freedoms I enjoy are in a large part because of the country I love so much. This is the nation my grandfather, Rev. Henry G. Wyman, served as a private on D-Day 77 years ago. This is the country my other grandfather, Jim Blackburn, served in Korea and later in the Navy at the Pentagon.
However, when I think here and think of the freedom, what we have gained, what we still need to work on (because everything is always a work-in-progress) we need to not just think of the freedom froms—the freedom from hunger, disease, war, and poverty. We can never fully escape such things. One can argue it is part of the human condition.
But we also have a freedom for—a freedom for happiness. A freedom for gratitude. A freedom for love. Our nation was founded on the idea of freedom and freedom, as a concept, is limitless. If anyone tells you otherwise, it is only because they themselves are trying to limit a concept that itself has no boundaries.
Part of this limitless freedom—this freedom for, and not just freedom from—is a freedom for worshipping freely. The Founders when they first came to these shores were seeking (here it is) religious freedom. Part of how the original colonies got their shapes, is that they were boundaries of religious denominations. For instance, Maryland (or Mary-land) was founded by Catholics who venerated Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Rhode Island was a place where outcasts from the Massachusetts Bay Colony were exiled. It doesn’t hold fast and true for every colony, but it was a factor.
The idea of having the right to worship freely is so intrinsically American, I honestly don’t think the one can be separated from another. You could see this link in American thought during the Covid-crisis when some congregations, across the country, refused to close despite state mandated orders. It was heartbreaking and absolutely tragic from both sides of the question. However, Americans have always believed in their freedom to worship and in one way or another, we Americans always manage to do it. We even utilized technology to the greatest extent over the pandemic and churches, including Florence Congregational, took to YouTube and live platforms including Zoom and FaceBook. We believed in our freedom to worship, and so we gathered—albeit virtually—and we worshipped together even though physical space separated us.
And with our freedom we come round, once again, to our National Day of Independence.
A foreign diplomat once offered this Fourth of July toast to the United States on Independence Day: “Let me congratulate you on the second greatest date in history.” Almost immediately, there were mumbles throughout the embassy hall. What kind of diplomatic gaffe was this? Did the diplomat imply that HIS country’s national holiday was greater than America’s? People were at best confused, at worst insulted. Perceiving the cause for the problem, the diplomat noted that the greatest date in history is “December 25, for had there been no Christmas, there would never have been a fourth of July.”
It’s an interesting thought and one that I don’t think we often ponder. Without Christ, without Christianity, we would not have had the great exodus to these shores, and so would never have had a United States of America.
How convenient to forget our roots, our heritage, our founding. How easily to ignore that freedom from is meaningless unless it also means freedom for. How simple. And how tragic. We can only declare independence from what is wrong if we declare dependence on what is right. We can only pledge abstinence from evil if we pledge allegiance to what is good. We can only be counted for truth if we separate ourselves from falsehood. So did they realize in 1620, in 1776, in 1787. May we not forget that today, in 2021, having secured freedom to worship our God and the ability to once again congregate now that the Pandemic is coming to its conclusion—may we not forget our freedom to worship not so much in our own way, but in the way God has led us.
God Bless you this Independence Day. May you feel the full limitlessness of the freedom God has offered you.