Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:57-62
Thank you for your welcome! I’m honored to be in your midst. I’ve been told that “Chugiak” is an Athabaskan word meaning “place of many places.” Others have said that its Athabaskan origin is uncertain. What does that mean? A local real estate ad suggests that it means the gorgeous varied landscape of pristine waters and majestic mountains. Chugiak certainly is that. Someone suggested to me that it meant “a place where people from many different places meet.” That has possibilities. Whatever it meant originally, I’m glad to be here with you in this “place of many places.”
You might have seen the question under the sermon title about whether John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin would have been in church for worship on today. The short answer is “yes,” “no,” and “maybe”. We’ll come back to the question in a few minutes.
Freedom is a messy business. It is altogether neater if you have a law that covers every conceivable human decision, or if you have someone in authority who just tells you what you have to do in every situation. Paul discovered just how messy freedom could be in the church he started at Galatia. Freedom is at the heart of the good news about Jesus. In Christ we are free from living under the dictates of a law created and interpreted over a thousand years. The intricacies of observing all the details of this law had become a heavy burden on people. The alternative in Christ was to live by faith and in faithfulness to God according to the teachings and example set by Jesus.
At the church in Galatia there were folks that took Paul’s words about freedom in two opposite directions. First, there were those who feared that the new freedom meant that people wouldn’t be following the old ways, so they wanted to keep the old law as a requirement for believers. They thought everybody should do the same thing. Second, there were those who thought that since they were now free from the law they could do anything they liked.
To say that Paul was dismayed at these two different factions in the church is a considerable understatement. He knew that true freedom also meant responsibility, something both factions had failed to understand. His response to both factions was blunt. Those who wanted to re-institute the law, he said, were cut off from Christ and had “fallen away from grace.” (5:4) Those who wanted to use freedom as an excuse for self-indulgence would “not inherit the kingdom of God.” (5:21) “The only thing that counts,” he said to both groups, “is faith working through love.” And then he listed the characteristics of those who are led by the Spirit of Christ, those who exercise freedom with responsibility: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (5:22) That, he said, is to use the messy gift of freedom responsibly.
There is good reason to believe that those 56 patriots, who gathered in Philadelphia 231 years ago this Wednesday and signed a piece of paper that put a price on all their heads, understood that freedom was both messy and precious. When you try to imagine the core leadership of that Continental Congress, without whom the Declaration of Independence might not have been written and approved unanimously by the delegations from the thirteen colonies, what names come to mind? I know that we and historians could debate this for a long time without consensus, but I suspect few would leave out these three: John Adams from Massachusetts; Thomas Jefferson from Virginia; and Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania. Would you agree?
This takes us back to the question I asked at the outset—Would these three patriots have been in church on Sundays before Independence Day celebrations? There is much made of “the faith of our founding fathers” that is much more a myth of how some folks wish it had been than how it actually was. In an email that might have turned up on your computer, the claim was made that 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of “established churches.” As you get to know me, you will find that it makes me uneasy when I see history being misconstrued and used as propaganda. In truth, there was such a diversity of faith perspectives among the “founding fathers” and “founding mothers,” some despaired of ever agreeing on the status of religion in the new country. Because the three giants I mentioned represent this diversity, I thought it perhaps useful that we inquire into their religious perspectives and what they contributed to the nation that came into being on July 4th, 1776.
John Adams and Abigail, his wife and best counselor, were devout Christians and independent thinkers who saw no conflict between church and state. John was one of the most sensible and powerful forces at the Continental Congress; it was John Adams that persuaded Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, and Adams who persuaded the Congress to allow Jefferson to do it. Adams became the second president of the United States. John was in church at least once on Sundays and often two or three times. His and Abigail’s own church was a Congregational Church in the Puritan tradition in Massachusetts. Adams was committed to the principle of everyone’s having the freedom to worship as they chose, but felt it was everyone’s duty to worship. There really had to be a crisis for the Adams’ not to be in church on Sunday. I think we would be safe in saying that the Adams family would have been in church on Sundays before the celebration of Independence Day.
Unlike Adams, Thomas Jefferson would not likely have attended church on the Sunday before July 4th any more than he attended any other Sundays. Jefferson was the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the third president of the United States. Those who put religious labels on would consider Jefferson a Deist, those who believe that God created the world and then left it to run on the laws God had created. As suspicious as he was of the unchecked power of government, and he was, Jefferson was even more suspicious of the power of unchecked religion to coerce others. He knew well the history of the intolerance of churches that were “established” or identified with the state in Europe and he feared for what might happen in America. He wanted a high “wall of separation” between church and state so that neither infringed on the responsibilities of the other. In 1817 when Congress passed the Elementary School Act, Jefferson insisted on this provision: "No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination." Given this founding father’s deep suspicions of organized religion, I think we can safely conclude that he would not have been in worship on Sundays.
Benjamin Franklin was more casual about faith than Adams but not nearly as wary of it as Jefferson. Franklin’s creed was simple: serve God by serving others. What distinguished Franklin from Adams and Jefferson was his “good-natured religious tolerance.” Franklin was not a member of any church but supported them all. In his hometown of Philadelphia whenever a new church was to be built he would give to their building funds. It is little wonder that on July 4th, 1788 when Franklin was seriously ill, two years before his death, and couldn’t get out, the clergy of the city of Philadelphia including a Jewish Rabbi paraded arm in arm right under his window, a first not only for Philadelphia but perhaps a first in the history of Christianity.
Franklin biographer, Walter Isaacson, concludes that Franklin’s “good-natured religious tolerance was in fact no small advance for civilization in the eighteenth century. It was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, more indispensable than that of the most profound theologians of the era… In a world that was then (as, alas, it still is now) bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, [Franklin] helped to create a new type of nation that could draw strength from its religious pluralism. As Garry Wills argued in his book Under God, this ‘more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth.’”
I think that it was the passions of these founding fathers and mothers—John and Abigail Adams’ passion for God; Jefferson’s passion for a “high wall” of separation between church and state; and Franklin’s passion for good-natured tolerance—that laid a good foundation for our country. The heritage we can claim and celebrate from our “founding fathers and mothers” is diversity and tolerance. If it is true that the meaning of Chugiak—a place of many places—is a place where all kinds of people can gather without fear of rejection and exclusion because of their beliefs, then it will be a place where we exercise freedom with responsibility. We will, in Paul's words, be loving others as we love ourselves. Aren’t you glad that you made it to worship today, that you have the freedom to do so, and that you have not compromised the freedom of those who chose to go other places of worship, or stay at home?
 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003) p. 491.