“Let freedom ring!” At the end of his historic speech, “I Have a Dream,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shouted. “Let freedom ring!” The speech sparked a light of justice in numerous people’s hearts and led them to a fight for freedom from long-standing segregation and discrimination. From that day, our society has walked a long way to keep everyone’s unalienable right of freedom. But today, in this so-called land of liberty, are we actually free? Are we truly free?
We are not free from the powers of the world that delimit our freedom. We are not free from the powers that aggravate discrimination and bigotry in our society. We are not free from the powers that tear immigrant families apart by federal raids, indefinite detentions, and deportations. We are not free from the powers of biased media that control our perspectives. We are not free from the powers that retain basic necessaries of human life like food, medical service, and education, from being more accessible and affordable. We are not free from the irresponsible powers that don’t care about lurking danger of gun violence and environmental crisis. We are not free from the powers that gain benefits from putting crushing weight of financial burdens on people’s back. How are we actually free from this inescapable web of the worldly powers? I don’t think we are free enough to live the way God created us to be. And it looks like we still need to walk another long way to seek true freedom as it is endowed by God.
But to us, although we are bound up in the web, here comes the good news of God. The Bible clearly testifies that God is the giver of freedom. Indeed, the work of God’s grace, at its core, is to set God’s people free from all the powers of the world. God is the God of Exoduswho raised Moses and led God’s people out of the slavery in Egypt. The Song of Moses in the book of Exodus praises the God who saved God’s people by leading them through the Red Sea, and defeated the Pharaoh’s chariots and army by exercising a great miracle. Moses sings, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:1-2).
The psalmist acclaims God as the God of liberationwho delivered the captives from the oppressive rules of the Empire. The psalmist praises God on the historic day when the Israelites finally returned to their homeland from the long exile: (3) “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:1-2).
Jesus also reveals that God is the God of deliverancewho breaks the bondages to evil powers, the powers of sin and death. Jesus, at the very beginning of his mission in this world, proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The God of Exodus, the God of liberation, and the God of deliverance… the Bible affirms that our God is the Chain Breaker who gives us freedom, the freedom from all worldly powers that try to bind us. Do you believe this?
Through history, Christians firmly upheld this truth and courageously strived for their freedom with their faith. And the stories of freedom in the Bible became their own testimonies in their lived experiences. Today, we want to remember especially those who fought for freedom on this American soil even before the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They are African-American slaves. Their songs, which we call spirituals, are the direct testimonies to their strong faith in God, the God who is the giver of freedom.
Our Voices of Praise choir beautifully sang two spirituals already, “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water.” And as our closing hymn, we’re going to sing “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” one of the songs that enrich our polyphony of grace. Historians find the origin of these three spirituals from the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret routes and safe houses for runaway African-American slaves. It was established in the early to mid-19th century, and used by fugitive slaves as a way to escape into free states in the North and Canada with the aid of abolitionists.
New Jersey was also an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad and proudly, many Methodist churches served as important stations on the trail.
On this treacherous road to freedom, the slaves faithfully remembered the stories in Exodus, identified their experience with that of the Hebrew slaves, and on this railroad, they sang, “Go Down Moses,” and “Wade in the Water.” It is known that one of the renowned abolitionists, Harriet Tubman, used these songs like some secrete codes. For example, she sang “Wade in the Water” when she needed to notice the escaping slaves to get off the trail and walk into the water to make sure that the dogs of slavecatchers lose their trail. On their perilous pilgrimage to the promised land, they asked Jesus to walk with them. “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” In face of life-threatening moments, they yearned for God’s care and protection from the bottom of their heart. “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; in my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” And in the middle of troubles and gut-wrenching sorrows, in the middle of doubts and fears, the slaves kept moving on and sang, “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” To freedom, taking one step at a time, they made their honest and faithful plea for deliverance to the God of the Hebrew slaves, to the God of the captives, and to the God of the oppressed.
Today, we are also walking our own ways to freedom. For sure, our path may not be as life-threating or desperate as African-American slaves’ Underground Railroad. But as we sing these spirituals, don’t we feel the melodies and lyrics still touching our souls? Don’t we feel the faith that they expressed still resonating deeply in our hearts? Why? It’s because we are not also free from the worldly powers that always try to seize us. It’s because our battle for freedom still continues in different forms. It’s because we still have different burdens to carry, yokes to bear, and fears to encounter. It’s because our ways can turn into stony trails and rocky railroads at any given moment. Yes, it’s because we are the ones who need to keep the faith in our God of Exodus, our God of liberation, and our God of deliverance all along our pilgrim journeys. Yes, we are the ones who seriously need Jesus to walk with us in our trials and in our troubles.
Who is our God? The Bible testifies clearly that our God is the Chain Breaker. The grace of our God always sets us free from all the bondages to the spiritual forces of wickedness and to the evil powers of this world. Let us accept this gift of freedom through our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us to be unbound, to walk with us through our homebound journey of faith. So let us walk with Jesus Christ our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and carrying one another’s burden as he did on the cross, until we may “join hands and sing in the words of the old African-American spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Amen.