Of Liberty, Christian and American

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Do you know those words?  I suspect you recall, as I did, two lines a little more than halfway through the poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  The entire poem is the “New Colossus,” penned by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in 1883.  Lazarus wrote and donated the sonnet to a fundraiser for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which would be dedicated along with the statue itself three years later, in 1886.  “New Colossus” is now inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of that same pedestal.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (11:16-19, 25-30), Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  At Rite I Eucharists, we read those words each week.  Liturgically they are called, in fact, the “comfortable words,” and they do, indeed, provide us comfort.

Jesus’ words are strikingly like those of Emma Lazarus’ poem, and there is serendipity—or Providence—in their convergence on Independence Day weekend.  During this time of year when Americans tend to become preoccupied with the relationship of our nationhood to our faith, the similarity of these sentiments bears further consideration.  What do Jesus’ words mean?  And what mean the words of the “New Colossus?”

Jesus’ invitation of holy comfort and rest come at the end of a longer speech, which actually begins not with solace but with indictment.  Jesus is speaking to people who want to be spoon-fed salvation.  He reminds them that he and John the Baptist have each come proclaiming God, John in ominous and austere tones, and Jesus himself in joy.  But neither message has made a dent in today’s audience.  They have responded neither to carrot nor stick.  Jesus compares the gathered crowd to children, saying, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.  Then we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

Why hasn’t this crowd responded to the Gospel?  Well, both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ message have included a required commitment to God, a dedication to a transformed way of life, and that’s more than the people want to hear.  They want comfort without struggle.  They want rest without exertion.  They want new life, but they want to keep their old ways of living, too.  They’re like us, in other words.

But there is no way around the commitment if we want to receive the comfort.  Jesus, today’s Gospel says, is the very Wisdom of God.  More than a wise teacher, Jesus is God’s heart and mind, and the words of Jesus are the truth of God.  And that spoken truth is that receiving the refuge and rest of God’s love necessarily includes taking on the burden, shackling ourselves with the yoke of commitment to God.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The irony, of course, is that God’s very yoke is liberty!  To take on the burden of God’s Gospel is also to cast off the heavy weights, like anvils on the shoulders, with which we trudge through the world.  We, like the crowd, have walked through the world with those weights for so long, we’ve come to mistake our slumped shoulders for good posture.  Our anxiety, self-doubt, striving, loathing, fear: God has nothing to do with these.  They are worldly burdens, not burdens God casts upon us.  But we come to define ourselves by them.  They become the crutches on which we prop ourselves, and heavy as they are we can scarcely imagine being without them.

Even so, Jesus calls out God’s truth, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It is the yoke of liberty from anxiety, from self-doubt, from loathing, from fear.  It is the yoke of love, under which we learn to love and accept ourselves, and under which we extend grace and dignity to those around us.  Do you see how this liberty requires commitment?  Do you see the yoke involved in doing these things, in self-acceptance and love of neighbor?

That is what Jesus’ words mean this morning.  What of Emma Lazarus’ words?  Well, there is more discretion there.  Hers are not the words of God’s Wisdom, and so their truth is malleable.  Each generation must define what is meant by our nation’s liberty.  Each generation must decide for what Lady Liberty stands.

Liberty today tends, in our common consciousness, to stand for freedom from all constraints, freedom from any and all fetters placed upon us.  We believe we enjoy the most liberty when we are free to do whatever, whenever, and however we choose.  I’ll admit that this is a kind of liberty, to be sure, but it is the kind St. Augustine calls libertas minor, or small freedom.  Our desire that others leave us be and not tell us what we must do is rooted in our anxiety and our fear.  It is nothing more, Augustine suggests, than the kind of liberty shared by wild animals.

Jonathan Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Jonathan Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

And, as any careful student of our nation’s founding generation knows, it is not the liberty they had in mind, nor is it the liberty transparently embodied in the original meaning of Emma Lazarus’ words at the Statue of Liberty.  St. Augustine also speaks of libertas major, the big freedom, which is the uniquely human liberty freely to submit oneself to an ideal—to a spirit—to give oneself over to something larger than one’s own animal instincts, wants, and needs.  It is the liberty that includes a yoke: a commitment to subsume one’s own individual freedoms in favor of a cause that is of greater value than one’s personal concerns.  The founding generation didn’t say to their brothers and sisters, “Leave me alone; I’m free and you can’t tell me what to do!”  They gave of their intellects, their fortunes, their comfort, and often their very lives in support of the big freedom, for the conviction that this is a new land in a New World, for the ideal that all here are of worth, and all merit human dignity and care.

In that way Emma Lazarus’ words really are very like the words of Jesus.  And, it turns out, the ideals behind her sonnet are akin to the Wisdom of God.  What is American liberty, according to the inscription at the Statue of Liberty?

American liberty is not, ultimately, the demand that no one tell me what to do.  American liberty is, ultimately, the freedom to cast off the weight of what the Old World says is true about me, about my worth and my place in society.  It is to shed those anxieties and fears.  And, American liberty is to commit myself, body and soul, to the embrace of the hurting, the tempest-tossed, the discarded, that they, too, might taste the liberty I enjoy, that their lives, too, might then be committed to the liberty of all.

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New YorkA few months ago I received a mass email (as I do every year) that encouraged everyone who attended a public high school graduation this spring spontaneously to stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer.  Such would, the email’s author claimed, demonstrate that we are a religious people, a Christian nation at heart.  I don’t buy it.  I love the Lord’s Prayer.  Indeed, I suspect I pray it more often than most.  But rather than demonstrating that a gymnasium or stadium-full of people merely know the words, I’m more interested in us taking on the yoke, of laboring to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that all are given this day their daily bread, that the kingdom of liberty and love is realized as fully as possible on this side of the veil.

Still, on this weekend of the nation’s two hundred thirty-eighth birthday, the Statue of Liberty stands as faithful sentry in New York Harbor, as guardian of all we hold, as a nation, to be true.  She, with mild eyes and liberty’s flame, rises above those words that embody the very best of what we hope and intend to be as a nation.  She stands for freedom, freedom for the dignity of all people, liberty for the tempest-tossed and the lonely.  She is a beacon for this freedom.  I pray we will be, too.  Happy birthday.

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