There’s an old freedom song from the 60s we used to sing. Sometimes, still, I hear it today. When I read todays passage from Luke’s gospel, that old song bubbled right up in my mind.
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,
Turn me round, turn me ‘round.
Ain't gonna let nobody, turn me ‘round.
I'm gonna keep on a walkin', keep on a talkin',
Walkin' into freedom land.
Those were heady days when we thought America was on the verge of a new birth of freedom. Working in Los Angeles, our church was right smack dab in the middle of that birthing. The Pico Union Neighborhood was alive with bustle and we had our eyes on the prize. If you wanted slacker Christianity, if you wanted your ease in Zion, there would be no rest for you here. Yes, you had to let go of the old stuff. Let go of old attitudes. Let go of old priorities. Our parents couldn’t understand why we would ever want to work in such a vermin, such a gang, such a poverty infected neighborhood. All who worked at our church had some version of that discussion with parents. Yet we kept on marchin, kept on talking all the way into a new freedom land.
And because that congregation in very real ways worked to live up to both the mandate and the promise of the gospel, it was a most joyful place. Most every Sunday church would conclude with the music group and choir rocking out to that song from the musical “Hair.” “Let the sun shine in, let the sun shine in, the sun shine in.” And off we’d all go, energized and focused for another week. And we made a difference.
I can still remember that old Latina who one evening a week taught some of the neighborhood girls cooking. Many of these girls came from homes where mothers were sometimes working two and three jobs just to keep it together. So, we taught cooking. But that wise old Latina taught much more than cooking. She held out the promise of a future for these girls. If nothing else, they picked up the message that their whole existence didn’t depend on any boyfriend. These girls held the future of being women of promise. You want to be a teacher? You want to be a nurse or a doctor? You want to be a sheriff? Follow your dream. The last thing you need right now is to have some parasite boyfriend get you pregnant and then disappear. You need to graduate. You need education.
That is the same singlemindedness Jesus urges in today’s gospel reading.
My wife thinks I sometimes exaggerate, blow up a story for dramatic effect. Yeah, I can sympathize with poor Joe Biden. Sometimes the story gets away from those of us who make our living with our mouths.
But we don’t hold a candle to Jesus on this account. He was the master of hyperbole, exaggeration for dramatic effect. As we move through the long green season of the church year, more and more the lessons focus on the “Cost of Discipleship.” “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Tough stuff indeed.
This is an echo of the summons from Deuteronomy. As the community of faith gathered at the Jordan River, about to enter the so-called Promised Land, they were instructed by Moses, “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life…that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God…” Choose life. Stay in school. Get your education. Graduate. Become that doctor, that teacher.
This stark choice is front and center in the two antithetical life modalities the writer lays out in the first Psalm. “Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scoffers…They are like trees planted by streams of water.” “It is not so with the wicked, they are like chaff which the wind blows away.” Choose this day, life or death. Keep your eyes on the prize. Marching into Freedom Land.
Talk about a sharp morality tale! The ways of healthy religion are the ways that lead to life abundant. They lead to a life worth living. And they require a conscious choice. A decision. A decision for a life of sisterhood, brotherhood. A life where all are invited to the table.
The ways of the world are not the ways of the Gospel. Au contraire, Gordon Gekko, greed is NOT good. Do not leave your chances to the Snake. With the Snake, there’s absolutely no future for any Garden of Eden. The way of the Snake is paved-over cities choked with pollution and rates of childhood asthma that are stratospheric. Greed is definitely NOT good. Ask the homeless family living in a tent on Wilshire Blvd. who couldn’t make the last increase in rent.
We all, each and every day, have a choice set before us. The ways of life and the ways of death. Each and every day America stands before the same fateful choice. Will we learn to live together as brothers and sisters? Or will we perish as fools – and take the planet with us?
The ways of Jesus’ gospel require self-transcendence. As the kids would say, “Get over yourself.” Survival is not an individual project. It is a “we” project.
The other morning, I heard our back doorbell ring. There was my neighbor Sue with some disturbing news. She was there to inform me that I had a dead rat out on our side lawn. I made a facile quip as to which political party this rat might have belonged to before recalling a book I am currently reading, Love Your Enemies.
This is the sort of book I would normally pass over with hardly a second glance. But as how I had mentioned several Sundays ago from the pulpit that this Jesus stuff was a pretty difficult challenge – like loving your enemies – I thought I should at least pick it up and see what Mr. Brooks had to say.
Then I noted on the back cover that it had been given a promo by a couple of folks I respected: David Axelrod and Deepak Chopra. What I discovered was a book which, if put into practice, could help heal our national conversation across the political divide. This approach seemed to be an echo of what Jesus had in mind. It could be a choice for life over evil and death. I picked it up and kept reading. The author got me with a story, and what a story!
He begins the book by relating an event at a Trump rally. The usual battle lines were drawn up. On one side, the folks with the red MAGA hats and on the other, a group from Black Lives Matter.
As the two sides traded insults and curses the situation grew more combustible. Hawk Newsome had recently arrived nursing an injury from Charlottesville, Virginia. A white supremist had thrown a brick which had hit him in the face. Hawk and his team were ready for battle. He approached the Trump supporters with the same distain he had held for those white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. The Trump supporters responded in kind.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The leader of the Trump rally, Tommy Hodges, invited Hawk Newsome onto the stage. “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out.” Tommy added, that Hawk shouldn’t be concerned with whether the Trump supporters agreed or disagreed with his message, “It’s the fact that you have a right to have the message.”
As Hawk accepted the invitation and mounted the stage with no little trepidation, he flashed back to what a little old white lady had told him as he had been prepared to throw a rock in Charlottesville, “Your mouth is your most powerful weapon. You don’t need anything but that.” As a Christian, Hawk said a brief, silent prayer as he took the mic. In that moment a voice in his heart told him to just let them know who he was.
“My name is Hawk Newsome. I am the president of Black Lives Matter New York. I am an American.”
He had the crowd’s attention, and he continued. “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broken in your country, you can mobilize to fix it,” he said.
To his utter surprise, the crowd burst into applause. Emboldened, he said, “So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter? Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television and nothing happened. We need to address that.”
“That was a criminal,” someone yelled, as boos started emanating from the crowd.
Hawk pressed on. “We’re not anti-cop.”
“Yes you are!” someone yelled.
“We’re anti-bad cop,” Hawk countered. “we say if a cop is bad, he needs to get fired like a bad plumber, like a bad lawyer, like a bad…politician.”
At this the crowd began cheering again.
These days, there’s nothing political ralliers hate more than bad politicians.
“I said that I am an American. Secondly, I am a Christian,” Hawk said, once again connecting with his audience. “We don’t want handouts. We don’t want anything that’s yours. We want our God-given right to freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Then someone shouted, “All lives matter!”
“You’re right, my brother, you’re right. You are so right,” Hawk said. “All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say black lives matter.”
As Hawk prepared to step off the stage, his two minutes over, he left the crowd with one passing thought, “Listen, I want to leave you with this, and I’m gone. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.”
The crowd roared.
To the amazement of many, including Hawk himself, he was mobbed by well-wishers who embraced him. A member of a four-thousand-man militia upon noticing that Hawk had cut himself took out a medical aid packet and began bandaging up his finger. Another fellow from a group called Bikers for Trump approached Hawk and told him, “Your speech was amazing. I’d be honored if you meet my son.” The biker introduced his son Jacob and asked Hawk to pick up the boy so they could have a picture together. 
Yes, it cost Hawk something. Some in his group called him a “KKK-loving Trump supporter.” Another said what he did was treasonous. It costs us all something, it might cost us to give up what Arthur Brooks calls our “addiction to hate.” But, oh, the benefit! The video of the event on social media has had over fifty-seven million views. Look at it yourself. What does Democracy look like? This is what Democracy looks like. What does the Gospel look like? You got it!
Keep on marching. Keep on talking. Marching on to Freedom Land. No turning back here!
This Jesus stuff is tough. But it is redemptive. Choose Life, indeed! Now, before you think I’ve gotten all sappy and am ignoring the real values that do, in fact, matter – yes stay strong and hold fast to those values – AND…and, we can also have political discourse that doesn’t demonize and is not contemptuous of the opponent.
Yes, lets struggle together. Let us fight it out at the ballot box and in public hearings. But as Hawk said, let’s remember that if we are to make America great, we will have to do it together. It’s a “we” project.
And should we get a bit raucous and rambunctious, let’s pray God sends us the stern John Bercow, Speaker of the British House of Commons, crying above the bedlam, “Ohduhr, Ohduhr. Ohduhr.” You can see it all on YouTube. Marvelous to behold.
If our nation pursues the path of respect, of truth, of decency, of fairness, we will have chosen life. Might that sacred Tree of Liberty be planted by an ever-flowing stream of righteousness. Choose life and goodness.
Now, in the past it was said that the Tree of Liberty was watered by the blood of the patriots and tyrants. I say, let the Tree of Liberty be watered by the deeds of the righteous. Let it be watered by the faithfulness of all those who have kept their eyes on the prize. Let it be watered by a vision of unity where all are invited to the feast. All of us — walking into Freedom Land.
Those wonderful women in our midst working to prepare a food pantry – they’re taking us all by the hand. Walking into Freedom Land. The faithful who prepare each Sunday, week after week, that our worship might be an act of praise and recommitment – they’re taking us all by the hand – walking into Freedom Land.
Yes, those folks who put their pledge without fail into the collection plate. They keep the promise alive that St. Francis might remain a bold expression of God’s gracious will and abundance here in this little corner of San Bernardino. Yes, indeed – they’re taking us all by the hand — Walking into Freedom Land.
The faithful six who month after month make the trip into Los Angeles to be a part of the diocesan Episcopal Enterprise Academy, dreaming the vision of a House of Hope – San Bernardino – they’re taking us all by the hand — Walking into Freedom Land.
our motto at St. Francis ever be: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on
your journey of faith, there’s a place for you here. Come right in. Sit right down. ‘Cause… ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around. Turn us around. Turn us around. Aint
gonna let nobody turn us around. Keep on
walkin’. Keep on talkin’. Walkin’ into Freedom Land. Amen.
 Arthur Brooks, Love Your Enemies (New York: Broadside Books, 2019).
 Ibid, 5-6.
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21;
Proper 18, Year C, September 8, 2019
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney