Being set free

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A homily offered at the Celebration of the Life of Tony Barnes (1938-2013), All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church on April 16, 2013.

Today, in Washington, DC, as most of you know, it is Emancipation Day.  It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln signed an act that enabled freedom for some.  It would be January of 1863 before freedom would become a possibility for more. 

Emancipation Day, if we think about it, is actually a great day for a funeral.  Or rather, it’s a great day for the celebration of a life.  “Emancipation” comes from the Latin meaning to take by the hand and move over, and so the word has to do with freedom—freedom from one thing, so that one can choose another.  Movement from grasping the things of this world, and reaching for the next.  In Christian terms, that’s what we name today—we name emancipation—of God’s bringing us out of bondage into freedom, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Tony is free.  He’s free from pain and disease, from discomfort and worry.  He’s also free from the past—with its regrets, mistakes, and failures.  And he’s freed into a new place of light, and life, and laughter.  A place of forgiveness—for himself and for others.  A place of endless possibility and promise.

At Easter, God freed Jesus Christ from the tomb and raised him up to new life.  He freed Jesus from death and in so doing, frees us from death and sin and any death-dealing force that would seek to do us in or take us under.

And we, all of us, probably need to be freed from something. 

Even as we pray for victims of the bombings in Boston, and ask ourselves, “Why?” we also can pray at some level for freedom from fear.  While my tendency and yours might be to gather those we love up close, lock the door and hide under the bed, God calls us to live without fear.  To life with faith.  And we are freed for love.

Whenever someone dies, Tony or someone else, it’s a natural tendency for us to replay conversations, to revisit old wrongs, to remember old hurts and pains.  A natural part of grieving is to air some of that, to let the light on it, so that it can heal.  Grief offers us freedom. God invites us to put in his hands all regrets and resentments.  God frees us to forgive.

Whatever death-dealing force you may be up against, God invites us close to receive the power of the Resurrection, a power to lift up, to change, to renew, and to breathe new life into us and into our world.  God seeks to set us free.

Since the 8th century, the church has prayed about freedom at the time of death using particular words and prayers.  One of the greatest of these (Profisciscere) has shown up in various forms in prayers books, anthems, sermons, and writings.

The prayer is said in the presence of the beloved, “Set out, Christian soul, from this world.” The prayer goes on to invoke the whole company that journeys with the soul departing… the Holy Trinity, the saints known and unknown—the famous saints, St. Timothy, St. Mary and all the rest, as well as the saints we have known and loved—the aunts and uncles, the grandparents and friends—it’s whole parade of joy and laughter and fun.  And then, in this great, historic prayer, there’s the longest part that’s all about freedom:

Set free, Lord, the soul of your servant from all dangers..
Set free, Lord, the soul of your servant, as you set free Noah from the flood,
Set free, Lord, the soul of your servant, as you set free Abraham through faith and trustfulness…
… as you set free Isaac and Rebecca,
… as you set free Jonah from the belly of the whale,
… David from the hand of Saul,
… even Goliath from all his bonds,
… as you set free Susanna from false witness, … and on and on it goes. 

It is the will and way of God to set us free.   But it doesn’t always happen immediately. We name freedom and proclaim it today, but it might take some time.  Emancipation Day was “a” beginning.  The Emancipation Proclamation was another beginning. The Civil Rights Act was another, and in our own lives and circumstances, freedom continues to unfold.

Easter began with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it continues in our hearts and in our lives. “The strife is over; the battle done.  The victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun:  Alleluia!”

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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