Sunday Sermon from The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on May 3, 2015.

This message was given by Rev. J Michael Solberg and references Acts 16:19-34.

“A Real Religious Freedom Restoration Act”
(Acts 16:16-34)

            A few weeks ago, political leaders in Indiana created quite a controversy. The Indiana legislature passed, and the governor signed, a bill call the Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill was celebrated by some and quickly criticized by others. It was not surprising that religious conservatives strongly supported the bill. Half the people who attended the governor’s signing ceremony represented political groups that strongly advocate for conservative religious concerns. It was also not surprising that the Disciples of Christ, just about a sister denomination to our own United Church of Christ, strongly condemned the bill. The national offices of the Disciples of Christ are in Indianapolis, so they “had a dog in that fight” you might say. What I think surprised the Indiana legislature and governor, though, was the response of the business community. Immediately after passage of the law, several large corporations based in Indianapolis criticized the law and demanded it be abolished or changed. The NCAA, with its offices in Indianapolis, and loathe to get involved in broad political affairs – even the NCAA criticized the law, saying “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.”

The practical issue, of course, was what the law could mean for treatment of gay and lesbian people in Indiana. I’m not a lawyer, and am probably missing some of the legal nuance here, but in a legally unprecedented move, the law basically gave businesses, not just individuals, religious freedom protections, and it allowed businesses to cite religious belief as a defense of discrimination if the business was sued by a private individual, not only if the business was being imposed on by the government. The long and short of it is that many people feared the law would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian people because the owners of the business don’t approve of homosexuality. If you look at the backgrounds of the people who were standing with the governor when he signed the bill, it is pretty clear that that was exactly the intent. Stated as a social liberal might put it, it tried to legalize discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Stated as a religious conservative might put it, it tried to give business owners the right to follow their religious beliefs in the way they run their business.

I hope you are not surprised to hear that I think the Indiana law was a terrible idea. I am not being partisan here – siding with Democrats over Republicans. Plenty of the criticism of the law came from mainstream Republicans, and indeed, largely because of the uproar from their own side, the Republican dominated legislature and governor very quickly passed a change to the law that specifically forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

While I may disappoint some on the liberal side of things in how I choose to address these issues, particularly in that I don’t address them very often, I strongly believe that gay and lesbian people are no different than straight people in the eyes of God, that the church should fully welcome and affirm them, and that the more we can do to support and protect their equality in the eyes of the law the better.

Even with all that introduction, however, that is not really what this sermon is about. I think there is something even more basic and subtle involved in this Indiana law, something that probably challenges us more deeply as Christians today than the possible practical effects of that Indiana law.

The law was called a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Now this might sound strange at first, but I get worried when the government tries to take on the role of actively protecting my religious freedom. I am perfectly grateful for the first amendment to the constitution, but I think we think we Christians often get confused about the real meaning of the word “freedom.” And indeed, that confusion makes it really difficult for us to live faithfully as Christians in the world today.

You see, from the perspective of the Christian faith, there is nothing government can do to guarantee or violate our freedom of religion. In the deepest and most important sense of the word, we are free because of Jesus Christ. We are free because God has forgiven us, and begun the renewal of creation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are free because we have chosen to submit ourselves to the will and way of God in the world.

In the modern world, we have this idea that being “free” means to be able to do whatever you want, whenever you want. No constraints, no restrictions. Just plain freedom. Freedom is defined primarily as freedom from – freedom from constraints, freedom from restrictions, freedom from limits placed on you by others, including the government. But that is, ultimately, such a limited view of freedom. The reality is that we all serve some master, even if that master is our very own self. We think that’s what freedom is, being the ruler of our own lives.

But, of course, Christianity has always maintained something quite different. We are not the rulers of our own lives. In the words of First Corinthians “…you are not your own. For you were bought with a price.” We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We are, in the Biblical language, “in Christ,” which means that his priorities, his commitments, his values are our priorities, commitments and values. And, here’s the key thing, this is exactly what gives us real freedom. In him, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

We find real freedom in binding ourselves to Jesus, in taking on his priorities, commitments and values. In this sense, the only meaningful religious freedom restoration act is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But let’s talk about the practical implications of this, and let’s start with the practical implications for Paul as we see things play out in today’s scripture readings. Paul offends some businessmen because he puts the well-being of a young girl over their desire to make money. The businessmen drag him into court, and they claim that “He is telling us to do things we Romans are not allowed to do.” Apparently putting people before profits goes against the interests of the Roman Empire, so Paul is stripped, beaten, thrown in jail, and bound in chains. And then comes this line: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God, while the other prisoners listened.”

Now, the word “freedom” is not used here, but clearly the message is that because what Paul is doing is right, because it is what he is called to do as a follower of Christ, being beaten, thrown in jail, and bound in chains is no limitation on his freedom. He sits there worshiping God just as freely as can be. Elsewhere, Paul says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” And “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free…so serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, when you are loving your neighbor, as Paul showed love by healing the young girl, that’s when you are free, and that’s the real source of freedom.

In this story from Acts, Paul’s freedom even takes physical form, as an earthquake comes and breaks off his chains and opens the doors of his jail cell. But as proof that the status of his freedom has nothing to do with chains and jails, he doesn’t walk away. He was free before the earthquake, and he’s free after the earthquake, because his freedom comes from being a servant of Christ, not from the actions of the government.

And that ties this story back to Indiana’s religious freedom restoration act. No matter what the government says or does, we are free to act according to the will and way of Jesus. I completely disagree with you, but if, in your understanding of the Christian faith, you don’t want to serve gay and lesbian people in your business, don’t. But you have to be willing to suffer the consequences for that conviction, and see that you are still free. If you truly have your deepest freedom in Jesus Christ, then you may to have shut down your business if the government, rightly, doesn’t want you to discriminate against people. If you are free in Jesus Christ, then you are free whether the government supports your convictions or not. You can’t rely on the government to make your convictions free and easy to follow, because if the government is what makes you free, then you no longer find your freedom in the will and way of Jesus Christ.

I think I can make this a little clearer with a story from own life. In May of 1990 I was ordained, and at age 26 was a brand new solo pastor in my first church. In August of 1990 the First Gulf War began. At one of our governing council meetings a couple months later, someone suggested that the church should make care packages to send to the troops fighting in Iraq. They didn’t want to make a big statement about the war, but just wanted to support the soldiers, who were likely going through a difficult time.   I said I thought that was a great idea, as long as we sent care packages to all the troops fighting in Iraq, both U.S. troops, and Iraqi troops. If we didn’t want to make a big statement about the war, but just wanted to support those going through a difficult time, surely care packages would be helpful on both sides.

“But we can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“You can’t help the enemy,” someone said.

And I simply said, “How are we ever going to teach our children what it means to follow Jesus Christ, who taught us to love our enemies, if we don’t send care packages to both sides in this war?”

We ended up not sending care packages to either side. And I think that is because we were not really free.

But if we had been truly free, Christianly free, if we had been faithful to the religious freedom restoration that was given to us in Jesus Christ, I really think we would have found a way to send care packages to both sides, and live with whatever the consequences would have been.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

You can see a list of all available UCH sermons online at: http://Hinsdale.Church/podcast