So tomorrow it's July, and summer is really here. We've got all the sun we need, and plenty of heat. School's out, and so are the bathing suits and the barbeque grills and the baseball mitts. It's the beginning of July, and on Thursday the fourth we'll celebrate our freedom once again with flags and fireworks and flaming frankfurters. It's a good time, the beginning of summer, the beginning of July, time to take some time off, let go, enjoy your freedom. That’s what the fourth of July is about, right? Freedom? Glory…. GLORY Halleluia!
We had some bagels left over from a program at the parish the other day, and as I was about to throw them out, I had another idea. I walked over to the East River looking for some hungry birds. In years past, this first week of July was the week my sister and her family rented a house at the Jersey shore, and it was always fun to feed the seagulls and the terns at the beach. At the beach the most beautiful birds are the terns—black hooded heads, white bodies, gray wings, and they spend their day gracefully and gloriously soaring the skies, scanning the shores for any food that the sea will offer up to them, or for any fool priest who comes bearing gifts of extra bagels.
I didn’t see any terns but there were seagulls trolling in the sky above the East River, and I watched them fly for a while, marveling at their real, physical freedom, not bound even by the gravity of the earth. Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew who lost his freedom as a prisoner on Devil’s island in a vicious wave of anti-semitism, spoke of the birds he saw soaring in the air above his prison as “glorious”. Many years later he realized they had only been seagulls…no matter, they will always be glorious birds. To be able to fly, wherever, whenever, above sea and shore---to be able to escape from all earthly bothers, what freedom that would be! Haven’t we all dreamt of flying above it all, like a bird? And watching these New York birds, on the river I wondered, is it glorious freedom that I want? Is that what we all want, deep down--to be completely free?
When I unpacked my stash of bagel pieces and held them up in the air, I suddenly had a flock of birds beating their wings in the air just above my head. They were so close I could look into their hungry eyes, feel the wind from furious fluttering feathers. They would call out to me-- in bird talk—"I want some", "me, me!", "ooo, ooo, over here!". A dozen open beaks, hovering inches from my face. I tried to toss bagel bites to every one, but they kept coming, one after another, and soon I was out of stock. I walked away from the riverbank, but they landed nearby, standing at a respectful distance, kind of nonchalant, not even looking in my direction. They would have followed me anywhere, and did, for a while. They were hungry, and I had something to feed to them. Perhaps they were not so free after all.
A guy on a bicycle passed by, and it was decorated with rainbow streamers and flags, and his wild head of hair was also rainbow-striped, and he had a speaker that was playing John Legend’s song Glory. One day, when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours. One day, when the war is won, when it’s all said and done we’ll cry glory, oh glory.
When bicycle guy went by, everyone just had to smile.
243 years ago the founding Fathers of this baby nation sought freedom-- to act, speak, or believe as one wants without hindrance or restraint. As we again celebrate that vision on July 4th, don’t we also have to recognize how we have fallen short in granting that freedom to all our sisters and brothers? John Legend’s song was written for the film Selma, which was about the voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr, but its lyrics speak to the hunger for freedom of so many others in our country and in the world.
Jesus came walking along the shore and found people weighted down from the wants and worries and work of their lives. Imagine the burdens they endured—much harsher than ours, no? The miserable shelter, the scarcity of food, the devastating illnesses, the oppression of religious and civil authorities. Surely as they worked the angry seas for a meal of fish, there were moments when they looked at the birds who hovered above them, and dreamt of their own getaway to a much better place, more glorious place. One day, when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours.
There was something about Jesus. Just being around him gave them a feeling of relief. And he offered a better life: to soar with angels into a kingdom of heavenly freedom. He promised real freedom and real glory, but to fly, really fly, you've got to let go of everything that holds you to the ground. And there were many who really really wanted what Jesus offered, but they just couldn’t let go and spread their wings.
What is it that holds you captive? What keeps you from flying with Him into glory? Are you enslaved by your addictions to your phone, your food, your gossip, your drugs of choice? Are you captive to your work, your career, your profession? Has your pursuit of success trumped compassion, generosity, and kindness in your life? Are you enslaved to pleasure at the expense of genuine human relationships? Have you been imprisoned by fear of change in your life, have you avoided risk even if it promises new life?
"Come after me," Jesus said to the man who wanted first to bury his father. No, now, Jesus said. Come away with me now to proclaim the kingdom of God. There was and is no half-flying with Jesus, and you've got to free yourself from what you've chosen to keep you captive. That's when the miracle happens. In freedom with Jesus, we soar above all our worries, wants and work.
The foxes have their lairs and the birds of the sky have their nests, but all of us followers of the Son of Man seeking the way into heaven need to be prepared to be uncomfortable…like those marchers in Selma, like our LGBTQ sisters and brothers all over the world.
If we truly want to follow Jesus and love like Him, we need to let go of everything that doesn’t matter, even at the cost of some suffering. One day, when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours. One day, when the war is won, when it’s all said and done we’ll cry glory, oh glory.