Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Let My People Go

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Abraham Lincoln MemorialMoses spoke the Word of God to power and led his people out of slavery.  Seven times in the book of Exodus in the Bible Moses goes to the king of Egypt, Pharaoh, and shares God’s command to free the people of Israel, the last time saying,

“This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: How long will you refuse to submit to me? Let my people go, so they can worship me.” – Exodus 10

The message was a political message.  The messenger was a prophet and a law maker, a judge and a pastor of the people.

“Let my people go, so they can worship me.”

Stirred by the joy of salvation and the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ, John Wesley, the founder of what became the Methodist Church, revolutionized both society and the church of his day by proposing that Christianity was not just a religion to be believed, but was a religion to be lived with enthusiasm and joy together in community with other believers as Christ intended.  Wesley rejected the monastic and mystical definitions of holiness and instead proclaimed that,

“Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” – John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739 

Wesley proposed that love and joy are at the very heart of the Christian gospel,

“God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart. … He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’, and ‘overflowing his soul with peace and joy.'” – John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist, 1742.

And Wesley didn’t stop there.  In Wesley’s view, the gospel was more than just words, greater than just philosophy or theology, and more meaningful and authentic than any other driving force in the human experience — the gospel of Jesus Christ gave life and so salvation in such completeness and power that it could overcome the flaws and imperfections of human character and so achieve great social goods in community and society more broadly.  Unlike so many teachers and preachers of his day, who spoke of holiness by seeking separation from the world, Wesley challenged his followers to embrace and engage the world and so change it by walking as Christ walked, among all people of whatever origin or social standing to bring them the good news and actual impact of salvation in Christ Jesus.

“Do not confine your conversation to gentle and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do. But I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord, or any of his Apostles. My dear friend, let you and I walk as he walked … I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward on their way to heaven.” – John Wesley, Letter to ‘A Member of the Society, February 7, 1776

This persistent call to walk in the footsteps of Christ not just in matters of religion, but more broadly in all matters of life was revolutionary in its effect, causing scripture to grow beyond the bounds of church walls and theological tomes, out of the pulpit and into the common life considerations of justice, equality, prosperity, health, success, well being, and, yes, even law.

Wesley’s final letter from his deathbed was written to William Wilberforce, seeking to encourage him in his work in parliament to end slavery,

“I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” – John Wesley to William Wilberforce, February 4, 1791

Like Moses before him, Wesley saw clearly the moral leadership commanded and required of those who seek to walk in the footsteps of Christ.

“Let my people go, so they can worship me.”

Following his conversion as an Evangelical Christian in 1785, William Wilberforce came into contact with Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton and in 1787 was enlisted by them into the movement to abolish slavery because of his new found faith.  Wilberforce soon became one of the leading English abolitionists ultimately leading the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and then continuing to press the issue until the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery across almost all of the British Empire around the world even as his health was starting to fail and he was forced to resign his seat in parliament before it was finally passed into law.  In fact, Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that this sweeping legislation was assured to pass in Parliament.  Wilberforce’s faith had seen its purpose realized in the destruction of one of the greatest human evils in history.

“Let my people go, so they can worship me.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia as Michael Luther King, Jr. after his father, but following a trip to Berlin for a Baptist conference the elder King renamed himself and his son Martin Luther King in honor of Martin Luther, the great Christian reformer who had stood against kings and popes to restore the Bible to the people of the church. Martin Luther King, Jr followed in the steps of his father as a Baptist minister and became a civil-rights activist famous for his advocacy and effective use of non-violent civil disobedience to forward his belief in justice and equality for all based upon his Christian faith.

Dr. King is certainly one of the greatest religious reformers in modern history, having had a seismic level of impact on race relations in the United States and around the world based on his faith in God. As the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference his preaching, activism, and inspirational speeches played a central role in ending the legal segregation of people by race in the United States, and was pivotal in driving the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among many other honors, but was assassinated April 4,1968 at his motel in Memphis, the night before a planned demonstration supporting the rights of garbage workers.

“Let my people go, so they can worship me.”

Following his death in 1968, congress passed into law U.S. Code § 508 – Special rules with respect to section 501(c)(3) organizations which went into effect October 9, 1969 and entrenched in law a new restriction on the freedom of speech for all churches, pastors, and religious leaders – a restriction that would have silenced Wesley on the matters of slavery and King on the matters of segregation, race relations, and equal rights.  A restriction which sought to ensure that King would be the last great political reformer to change the world and its government from a pulpit, at least in the United States, because it imposed the restrictions on speech found in U.S. Code § 501 – Exemption from tax on corporations, certain trusts, etc. on all churches whether they filed for 501(c)(3) exemption or not.

So, the question is, who do you want to participate in the moral conversation and the leadership of our collective conscience as a people and a nation?  Who do you want speaking the truth of God’s Word to power and defending the core values which have established freedom and justice for so many for so long?  Why would you seek to support a law that would silence the likes of Wesley and King or prevent the prophets and evangelists of today from having a voice in the moral fabric of our laws and the spiritual foundation of our society?

“Let my people go, so they can worship me.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than just a theoretical or historical text.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than words on a page or stories from long ago and far away.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a philosophy or a world view.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is a living, passionate, persistent, unrelenting, and dedicated expression and pursuit of God’s grace, God’s will, God’s purpose, and God’s love that does not rest until all people have experienced the blessings, the peace, the joy, and the fulfillment of the actual freedom that comes with an actual relationship with God.

“Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.'” – John 8

Isn’t it time we gave the church, the pastors, the preachers, and the prophets back their voice?  Isn’t it time that they enjoyed the same freedom of speech that every other citizen and every other corporation in the United States already enjoys?  Isn’t it time that we repeal the laws that would silence the gospel and preclude it from the halls of leadership for our people and for our nation?  Isn’t it time that we once again empower the voice of those who would speak truth to power and stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. looking up the mall to the Washington Monument and beyond and with passion, with grace, with faith, and with commitment speak the eternal truth of the Word of God as it relates to our country today?  Isn’t it time that we had another who could walk in the footsteps of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Isn’t it time that we let them speak?

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the March on Washington DC for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

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