Fourth of July Homily to be delivered at Interfaith Faith & Freedom Shabbat at Temple Adath Israel:
FREEDOM’S NOT “FREE”
Faith & freedom homily July 4,2008
Not long ago, I watched a film called Aviator, about the life of Howard Hughes. I had always known how enigmatic, eccentric and…filthy rich he was, but I never realized how incredibly innovative he was as well. Sadly, his intelligence and creativity gave way gradually to his mental illness, an undiagnosed and untreated form of OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. His later life can only be described as tragic.
In some ways, we are like Howard Hughes. No, we don’t woo movie stars and we wonder how we can afford a tank of gas when he could have afforded a refinery! But like him, we have both the capacity for brilliance and courage alongside the human tendency toward ennui and passivity.
But what does this have to do with Fourth of July, or with our purpose in coming together.. a celebration of freedom and of faith?
It’s simple: what we think about when we contemplate Independence Day are these things: Liberty; patriotism; America; and Freedom. And what we, who call ourselves people of faith, must do together is to ask ourselves what our responsibilities are on this day and in these matters.
It is as if, for the last, say, eight years, we have been living in a dream – a bad dream, the kind of dream in which you try but fail to get somewhere or find something, or say something, or call for help. Your efforts are thwarted again and again. You feel helpless and hopeless, and wake up in a cold sweat.
It is as if we have suffered, these past years, from a vast mental “illness” of sorts, that has distorted our vision; dulled our reason; and eviscerated our courage. It is as if all of us, progressive and conservative alike, have been duped, divided, deceived, and deluded. HH was the quintessential American entrepreneur, the epitome of the American spirit. But he succumbed to something seemingly bigger and more demonic than he could manage: mental illness.
It’s no wonder some have resorted to cynicism and despair. We all know people who, like the very innovative George Carlin, say that there really is no hope. We know now that George Carlin, and Howard Hughes for that matter, were also victims of drug addiction. But their cases are different from ours only in degree, not in design. We too dull our senses of being disconnected and disenfranchised, if not with drugs then with TV, Internet, food, and things.
There is a sense in which, like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, would cry: What has been is what shall be. What has gone on is what shall go on. And there is nothing new under the sun. But, PT reminds us, the answer to Preacher is also in the text. He points to Isaiah: Thus says the Lord/ who made a way through the sea/ A path through the mighty waters/ Remember not the former things/ Neither consider the things of old/ Behold, I am doing a new thing/ Even now it is springing to light/ Do you not perceive it? (43:16, 18-18) I am doing a new thing.
Howard Hughes, after months, years, of giving into his illusions and obsessions, pulls himself out of his self-imposed exile, cleans himself up, and makes an appearance at a Senate hearing in order to defend his reputation. One can see, in the film, the extraordinary courage and will it requires for him to do this. Experts in the disease say that had it been 20 or 30 years later, medication as well as self-discipline techniques could have given Hughes the resources to manage his illness and live free of his agony.
To me, this was the most poignant part of the story, and I believe that it is a poignant part of our story as well. Some of us have tried and tried in numerous ways to respond, to resist, even to revolt against what we see as 8 years of infringement upon democracy, upon freedom, and upon collective well-being. We have picketed, prayed, fasted, and festivalled. We have sat through hours of lectures and panel discussions and read mountains of editorials, if only to reassure ourselves that we are not alone in our sense of alarm and deep chagrin. For certain, some of us have been more persistent and focused than others. The numbers of those who have resorted to resignation, indifference, or distraction have not been small.
But those of us who consider ourselves part of the faith community must remember this: it is our obligation to both endeavor and to hope. We are obligated by our covenants and our promises to believe that the possibility of something new, something even beyond our control, may present itself at any moment. There is no legitimate faith that does not contain a core of renewal, reconciliation, revival, or rebirth. No one articulates this more clearly than the theologian Paul Tillich:
The new being is born in us, just when we least believe in it. It appears in remote corners of our souls which we have neglected… It shows a way where there was no way before… The birth of the new is just as surprising in history. It may appear in some dark corner of our world. It may appear in a social group where it was least expected. It may appear in the depth of a national catastrophe… The new in history always comes when people least believe in it. .. when no way out is seen. The first thing about the new is that we cannot force it and cannot calculate it. All we can do is be ready for it.
All we can do is be ready for it. That does not diminish our responsibility to act. But it does underscore that our faith requires more than action. It requires contemplation, discipline, and commitment. That is the way in which we, as members of covenanted communities of faith as well as of interfaith movements, can best be ready when the Eternal says, Behold, I am doing a new thing.
Then we will know what to do. We must be ready; and we must do a new thing, as well.We see these glimmers of the new in such unexpected places. For example, the hundreds of Facebook youth who have all changed their middle names to Hussein in support of Barack Obama. Not unlike the non-Jewish citizens of Bozeman, MT, who in 1993 lit menorahs in their windows all over town to support marginalized Jews, these young people are a source of hope and a light. They are reminding us of how we can respond creatively and courageously. Behold, they are doing a new thing.
Tillich: The saving power of the new is the power of the Eternal (which T. says is love).. It remains new so long as the Eternal shines through it. Love is the power of the new within every (person) and in all history. It is working even today toward a new creation.
May it be so. Amen.