(John 8: 21-33)
As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the sound of those helicopters.
It was the summer of 1989, and I was with a group of Wake Forest students, touring Japan and China. Today was our last day in China. Earlier that day we toured the Great Wall, meant to be the highlight of our trip. I snagged one of the rocks for a souvenir; it’s in my office! That night we were leaving an acrobatics show, heading back to our hotel to wind down from the day. And that’s when we heard and saw those helicopters. Military, roaring over our heads, heading in the direction of Tiananmen Square.
Even before we entered the country two weeks before, we knew what was going on. Student protest in Tiananmen Square, the ideological center of Communist China, had been raging for weeks. Up until our last night in Japan, we weren’t sure if Wake Forest was going to let us go. An alternate trip to Korea was in the works. And then on that last night, we got the green light. Things appeared to be “stable.”
But things didn’t seem too stable when those helicopters flew over us.
We made our way back to the hotel and turned on the television – because even in 1989, long before 24-hour news networks, we expected live coverage of “breaking news.” Alas, in a country where the government controlled all modes of communication, on the night when hundreds of Chinese government soldiers would kill thousands of peacefully-protesting Chinese university students, all we found on the TV were reports on that year’s crop harvest.
As dusk settled over this warm June day, the street outside our hotel became overrun with Chinese university students, making their way to the Square on bicycle and foot, a mere ten minutes down the road. They wore black bands around their heads and arms, a symbol of solidarity and defiance in pursuit of basic freedoms they were willing to die for. Some stopped and talked to us. They knew they were very likely heading to their death.
Try to get some sleep, our professors told us. We did – sort of. At 7am we had a group meeting, where we learned that the tour bus that had accompanied us throughout our trip, the tour bus that was supposed to take us to the airport that morning, was currently burning in the Square, hijacked by students and used as a barricade in a futile attempt to keep the tanks out. In a stroke of luck, our professors managed to round up four taxi drivers to take us to the airport in minivans. But we’d have to go in two groups. So the ladies went first and the guys waited in the hotel lobby. Women and children first, y’all. It was that kind of thing.
Time dragged on. And on. Long periods of silence. No cell phones in 1989 to receive updates on the other half of the group. An occasional attempt at a joke to lighten the mood. A few chuckles. Then more silence. Time dragged on.
Eventually the vans returned and had us on our way. Somehow I wound up riding shotgun in one of them. We were heading away from the Square, but the chaos was happening sporadically all over the city. Large groups of Chinese citizens gathering at every street corner, trying to find out what was happening, because the crop reports on television weren’t cutting it. It was a mess, it was chaotic.
Never before in my life had I been as elated to see a group of women as I did when we arrived at the airport! We were rushed through customs, got on our plane, taxied down the runway, and soon were air bound. A loud shout of joy and relief erupted when the captain told us we were out of Chinese airspace. Later we would learn that, an hour after we left, the Beijing airport completely shut down for over a week. We literally got out in the nick of time.
Twenty-five years ago this past June 4th, and I can still recount the events like they were yesterday. It is something that has categorically changed me. My eyes have been opened to see the struggles of people around the world who are not afforded some of the basic freedoms we here in this country take for granted.
FREEDOM. It is a deeply powerful and nuanced word, isn’t it? In many ways it’s a paradox that we in a “free country” have to come to terms with every day. Freedom affords us the possibility of what some call the “American Dream;” to make a living for ourselves, to get married, start a family, buy a home. It’s because of freedom that we in this country have the opportunity to work hard and reap the benefits of that hard work.
But freedom can also be a double-edged sword as well, right? That’s because freedom doesn’t always translate into the “American Dream” for everyone. There are gaps in the system. Freedom means having choices – and people don’t always make the best choice. Freedom to bear arms means that some abuse that freedom and wind up causing horrific acts of violence. Freedom of speech has left our Facebook timelines and TV stations gunked with stuff the majority of us don’t care to see or hear.
Then there’s the current political football being kicked around in state government chambers and, just this past week, in our supreme court known as “religious freedom.” The idea hearkens back to our country’s founding, and people who left a place where they were told how to worship and practice their faith by an oppressive patriarchy. It was freedom from religion – an oppressive, state-supported religion – that they sought. But what’s interesting about our country’s current foray into “religious freedom” is that it’s something else entirely – not freedom from religion as much as freedom to inject religion into some of the basic interactions and relationships that undergird the bedrock of society – interactions and relationships, incidentally, that are not inherently religious in nature. This is not at all what our forefathers and foremothers envisioned – in fact, it’s precisely the thing they were trying to get away from.
See how tricky freedom can get?
Which is why I think it’s good, two days after our country’s Independence Day, that we look at what the gospels tell us about freedom. As people of faith, we know that our freedom doesn’t come from any government or court or state law. It comes from Christ. And in the scripture that Turner’s shared earlier, the writer John draws a definitive connection between freedom and another important concept – TRUTH: And you will know the truth, John says, and the truth will set you free.
So how exactly does that happen? How does this “truth” make us free – and, more importantly, free from what and for what? That’s the real question, now isn’t it? When we come to the person of Jesus Christ, we are faced with a whole different notion of freedom. His was not a freedom to do whatever he wanted, but in fact a freedom to fully submit to the will of God – as the apostle Paul would later put it in Philippians, “obedient unto death.” Hmm. Does that really sound like freedom to our 21st century Western ears? Being free to be servants? Being free to be obedient, even unto death? Where, pray tell, is the freedom in that?
Imagine with me, if you will, a father and son, flying a kite at the beach on a breezy summer day. The wind is strong, and as the kite rises up in the air it seems to grow smaller and smaller as it tugs against the string. The harder the wind blows, the tighter the string gets, the higher the kite goes. The beautiful science of flying a kite!
Suddenly, though, there is a sickening snap. Immediately they feel the tension in the twine they’re holding disappear. They look up and, to their dismay, they see the kite flailing about, all topsy-turvy, eventually floating lifelessly down to the ground. Bummer.
You know what’s interesting about that kite, though? That kite was most free when it was held in tow by that twine, the tension pulling at it, puffing up its fabric and making it rise higher and higher in the air. It was the tension that helped it to be free. And when that string broke and the tension was gone, its ascent was over. It was lifeless and it fell to the ground.
Here’s the truth about freedom, and freedom in Christ, my friends – it is not the absence of restraints that makes us free. In fact, it is that very absence that engulfs us in the chaos that swirls around us, that tosses us all about.
For all the talk around July 4th about freedom, for all the political wrangling over religious freedom and freedom from this and from that, how telling it is that, at the very heart of our faith, there is no real freedom unless one is tied to, tensioned with, grounded in God. We are free not because we live in this country, wonderful country that it is. We are free not because we drive our own car or live in our own home or work at our own job. We are free because we are FREED TO BE – freed to be followers of Christ, freed to be people who devote our lives to the One who gives us life, freed to live and worship and serve among our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith and even out of the faith. And we are also FREED FROM: freed from relying on our own devices that inevitably get us nowhere, freed from always trying to do things on our own, freed from feeling that the only way to be free is to snap the kite string.
There is great joy in that kind of freedom! But there is also a burden that comes with it. It is a burden that I felt way back in that minivan in Beijing in 1989, trying to make our way to the airport. At one point, while we were stopped briefly at an intersection, a young Chinese man ran over to our van and opened the large passenger side door. He stuck his head inside and pleaded in perfect English, “Go tell the world what you’ve seen here! Tell them everything! Please!” And he slammed the door shut and ran off.
I’ll never forget that – and not just what he said, but the way he said it. Urgent. Do it now. He had placed a huge burden on us; the burden of freedom. The burden of telling a story. The burden of seeking the truth so it could set everyone free.
You know what burden freedom in Christ comes with? It comes with the burden of sharing the story of God’s grace and love, and then living it out. It means loving one another even when that love may not returned. It means seeking justice and standing up for and speaking on behalf of the marginalized in our society, even when it may be easier to just do nothing. Freedom in Christ means doing what is right not because we may be rewarded for it, but because we might, just might, be ridiculed for it. Freedom in Christ means seeking the welfare of all people, no matter nationality or creed, political party or religious beliefs. As the great Nelson Mandela once put it, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
I’ve been sharing my Tiananmen Square story for years now – casual conversations when the topic happens to come up. And I’m always intrigued most of all by the response I get when I try to have this conversation with someone from China. Because it’s obvious in most cases that they don’t want to talk about it. Some even deny that the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 ever happened.
Except for a few months ago, at a lunch we had in our Fellowship Hall after worship. I was sitting at a table with the mother of one of our newest church members. Andy Tong and his mom moved to Charlotte from China a few years ago. Lucy and I got to talking about China, and I mentioned my experience. And you know what she did? She smiled at me and told me that she had been in the Square just the day before – June 3, 1989. She was one of those university students engaging in peaceful protests in pursuit of greater freedom. The day before hundreds would kill thousands, she went back to her dorm to rest for a couple of days before returning. And we just looked at each other, because we both were thinking the same thing: had she decided to stay, we would not be sitting at this lunch table together.
I am grateful for the freedom that saved her life and the freedom that got me home. I am grateful for the freedom that helps kites fly. I am grateful for the paradoxical, double-edged sword that is freedom in this great country. But most of all, I’m grateful for freedom in Christ – and yes, even the burden that comes with it. Obedient unto death, freedom to serve. Seeking the truth – because that, my friends, is what really makes us free.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.