A Sermon Preached Online on
The Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020
With the People of The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
The Two Berlins
In the gospel reading today we read of how the priests and Levites from Jerusalem wanted to know just who John the Baptist thought he was. There were a little confused about his identity. Was he the Messiah? No. Was he Elijah? No. Are you the prophet? No.
This is a more recent story about a confusion of identity, involving Winston Churchill.
This occurred in the spring of 1944 – I should say February or March. What happened actually was this.
Mrs Churchill said to Winston:”Irving Berlin is in town, he has been very generous to us” – he’d given a large sum of money to – a war charity, I don’t know which, with which she was connected. “If you meet him, do tell him we are very pleased with him.”
Mr Churchill said,”I want him to come to lunch.”
She said, No, no, no, I did not mean that. I mean, if you meet him in the Churchill Club, just pat him on the shoulder and say we are very grateful to him.”
“I want him to come to lunch,” he said, but she couldn’t understand why.
Well, Irving Berlin sat next to Winston Churchill, who said to him, “Mr Berlin, what is the most important piece of work you have done for us lately, in your opinion?“
Poor Berlin obviously couldn’t quite make out what this man had said. After some hesitation,”I don’t know, it should be A White Christmas, I guess.”
And Winston said, “Are you an American?“- there was this thick American accent.
Berlin said, “What? Why? Why? Yes.”
Then Winston again turned to Mr Berlin and he said, “Do you think Roosevelt will be re-elected this year?“
Irving said, “Well, in the past I have voted for him myself, this year I am not so sure.”
At this point Mr Churchill became rather gloomy, he couldn’t understand who he was dealing with. He still thought it was me (Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford Don who was working during the war in the British Embassy in Washington, and writing perceptive reports on American politics that the Prime Minister eagerly read). Obviously my despatches were quite coherent, but he obviously had an idiot before him.
Finally Winston said, “Mr Berlin, when do you think the European War is going to end?“
Berlin said, “Sir, I shall never forget this moment. When I go back to my own country I shall tell my children and my children’s children that in the spring of 1944 the Prime Minister of Great Britain asked me when the European War was going to end.“
Winston was very displeased about this: he really more or less lost his temper, got up – lunch was over.
Poor Irving Berlin went off to the Savoy, where he was sharing rooms with Sir Alexander Korda, and he said to Korda,
[Eventually somebody explained that there were two Berlins – Irving Berlin the songwriter, and Isaiah Berlin the Oxford don and political philosopher). Winston immediately went to a Cabinet meeting, after lunch, told them the story with the greatest pleasure.
Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty
Isaiah Berlin, (later Sir Isaiah Berlin) who told this story on Desert Island Discs and many other occasions, may be less popular than Irving Berlin and White Christmas, but he is very well known among philosophers and political scientists. He wrote an essay in 1958 describing two kinds of freedom, positive liberty and negative liberty. Now, freedoms are guaranteed in a number of ways – from time immemorial by English common law, in the past century by international law, and enshrined in constitutions, such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and the Bill of Rights in the USA. Here in Greece they are governed by the European Convention on Human Rights and enshrined in the Constitution.
Negative liberty is expressed in restrictions on governments, forbidding them from encroaching on the liberty of individual. Positive liberty is the freedom to do things as individuals and collectives, things which one might want to do but need not.
Thus, among the “freedoms from” there are:
- freedom from torture;
- freedom from discrimination according to sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status;
- freedom from slavery; and
- freedom from detainment of imprisonment, except when accused according to due process of law and convicted in fair trials.
Among the “freedoms to” are:
- the freedom of religion – to have a particular faith and to be able to practice it, or none at all;
- the freedom to marry;
- the freedom of expression; and
- the freedom to associate and assemble, including the freedom to form trade unions;
Freedom for Isaiah and John the Baptist
In this morning’s readings we hear from the Book of Isaiah – the original one, not Isaiah Berlin:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
For Isaiah the freedom is quite literal – freedom from being a conquered people, transported and treated as slaves, by the waters of Babylon. It is a freedom to return to Jerusalem and Judea, to rebuild the Temple and the walls of the city. It is good news that heals broken hearts, shows God’s favour, forces those who have done wrong to deal with the consequences of their actions, and comforts those who have done wrong.
And, of course, as you no doubt remember, in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 4, in what is portrayed as Jesus’s first day on the job, Jesus reads this passage in the synagogue in Nazareth, and then delivers a one line sermon: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus is called to heal and to proclaim liberty to the people who are suffering, and to cast out the evil that besets us.
John the Baptist also proclaimed a message of freedom. By repentance and baptism people were freed from their sins. By doing so in the wilderness, by the river Jordan, he was proclaiming a freedom from the compromised religious hierarchy in Jerusalem. He did this, we are told, to prepare the way of the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit, Jesus.
Now, if the removal of sin is accomplished through repentance and baptism, we might see this as a “freedom from” – a freedom from sin. The baptism with the Holy Spirit, which as Anglicans we hold may be coincident with Christian baptism, but may also happen apart from it – this baptism is more like a “freedom to”, so that we might do the things that God calls us to do.
There is a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, the second collect in Morning Prayer, that starts:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom . . .
The idea that God’s service – working for God – is perfect freedom, is one of those parodoxical ideas. We are freed from sin so that we might truly serve God. But we do not do it by compulsion, but gladly, by choice, knowing that this is what we have been called to do.
As Christians we are called to be like Christ, proclaiming liberty, healing the sick, and casting out all the evil around us. We do this by upholding the dignity of every human being. And so, in practical terms:
- We care for the sick, the infirm, the housebound, the elderly, and call for equitable care for everybody, and the resources to do it.
- We seek to empower young people and marginalized persons through education and skills training.
- We provide tools and capital to the impoverished so that individuals and communities can create wealth and development.
- We provide assistance and refuge for those fleeing wars and natural disasters.
- We speak truth to power, not seeking to replace those in power, but to challenge them to rule for the common good, and not merely a sector of the population, or for the one percent.
- We challenge abuses around the world – the imprisonment and enslavement of of Uyghers in western China; the discrimination against the Rohinga in Myanmar; the genocide and attempts at assimilation of Indigenous peoples; the attempts to crush democracy in Thailand, Belarus, Turkey, and Hong Kong; and the racism we know exists here and in our home countries.
We have hope, light in the midst of darkness, that God will make all things right, that the darkness will not overcome the light, that the arc of history tends towards justice and righteousness, and that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is but the beginning of God’s recreation of a new heaven and a new earth. As citizens of New Jerusalem, who know that we have been freed from sin and are free to serve God, our hymn is that of Isaiah:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.