It’s one of the most iconic songs in US history. As soon as that snare snaps with the strong 80’s reverb, that high keyboard comes in, you can almost feel the patriotism in the room rise as Bruce Springsteen sings, Born in the USA.
One of the most iconic songs in the US. And perhaps the most misunderstood song in US history. Politicians walk onto the stage to this song, folks across the political spectrum raise their fists, pumping to the beat celebrating this great nation.
Even Would-Be President Ronald Reagan, referenced The Boss in a 1984 campaign speech, mistaking the song as an American anthem celebrating the American Dream.
In reality, Springsteen’s lively chorus is doing something much darker. Instead of the joyous, rousing, call to Americanism, Born in the USA is really a protest anthem lamenting the treatment of Vietnam vets coming back from defending freedom.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”
The story goes that being born in the USA should afford you opportunities never before experienced in the world. But what so many end up finding upon their return home from defending freedom, is that the freedom they were defending wasn’t theirs in the first place. The systems and hurdles and barriers in place for those who make it back from war are like yokes of oppression saddled on the necks of some of our country’s most vulnerable and most deserving.
What is freedom? What does it mean to be free? The word is tossed around like the old American pig-skin but rarely do we pause to really consider: How does one really experience freedom and what is sacrificed for that freedom? What’s the cost for true freedom?
Today we have one of the more familiar readings from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 58 was written in a time of uncertainty for Israel. The Babylonians exiled most of the Israelites and now, after years of being away some of them are returning home. They are fraught with loss when they arrive. The devastation of the land, their temple, life as they knew it, destroyed. They do their best to try to establish a new normal. They harken back to what they’ve known, the rituals the practices that pleased God, or so they thought.
But what will the future hold? These are uncertain times for the Israelites, and uncertainty breeds anxiety and anxiety produces fear that causes us to operate out of a small place of protection, self-interests, and self-preservation.
The Israelites have been through a lot. The loss they experienced was real. And when you get on the other side of loss, you just want to be able to take a deep breath and see the light shining across the horizon, but sometimes, that’s not how it goes.
Sometimes when you get out on the other side of loss, you look down at your bruised and beaten body, the scars from a terrible encounter. You survived the tornado that ripped through your town, but you look at your house and wonder how you’ll move ahead.
So out of the fear of the uncertainty, you close in. You wall up. You point fingers and raise an angry fist, you speak evil of each other, even your own people, your own kin.
What will the future hold? How will we know? Will we ever be free?
So a group among the Israelites have taken to fasting- an ancient religious ritual pleasing to God– usually reserved for times of mourning a loss. They thought they were doing the right thing, serving God in the right way.
And they fast day and night- but nothing. Where is God? And they cry out to God, “Why do we fast and you do not see?”
And God responds as any loving parent would because God wants to see the best for Israel. But sometimes, in order for us to bring our best selves to the table, we need a little correction, a little kick in the pants, a revealing of our blind spots.
So God reminds the Israelites of the kind of fast that is acceptable and pleasing:
1) A fast that is divorced from the loving action towards your neighbor is not a fast acceptable to God.
2) A fast that ends in fighting and raising of the wicked fist is not a fast acceptable to God.
3) A fast taken on the very same day that you exploit your workers is not a fast acceptable to God.
Rather, the fast that God would choose, the fast that pleases God is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thong of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every single yoke.
A fast acceptable to God must be grounded in these ancient wisdoms of our faith. To be called repairers of the breached and restorers of the streets to live in, will require us to dig through these ancient ruins and rediscover that the pillars are: compassion, justice, and care for your neighbor. Mishpat (מִשְׁפָט) in Hebrew: the ordinances of God.
It is in building on these pillars that freedom comes to those around us. I mean, listen to these: loose injustice, to undo the thong of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, break every damn yoke.
When those with the power to do something choose to lean into compassion, justice, and care for the neighbor, the ripples of freedom begin to be seen. And that is a fast acceptable to God.
Now, this seems like the obvious stuff of this passage. Freedom will come to those in oppressive situations if those with the power turn from their own self-interests and towards the interests of God.
But the bit of this passage that often gets overshadowed is that while there’s freedom out there, there is freedom that should be had in our systems, hierarchies, our economies, the environment, this passage also points to a freedom that hits closer to the heart of each individual. God points to the very heart of the matter where the locust of change happens and says:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
with the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
If you remove the yoke from around your own necks– that self-imposed yoke of needing to be right, of blaming others, of contracting apart instead of coming together. If you remove that yoke that is weighing you down and not letting you bring your best self to the table, then God says:
you shall be like a watered garden,
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
What do we need to be freed from, UBC? What yokes are saddled around our necks? How are we longing to be called again?
You’ve heard it said that freedom isn’t really free, but what if it is. What if that’s the scandal? What if that’s what they don’t want you to know? That freedom comes with the letting go of ourselves in service to those around us. What if it’s in freely giving that we are being set free. What if it’s in turning clenched fists into open hands that we experience the true freedom God would have for us and all in this world.
There’s an Eastern Philosophy that says that freedom is found when you detach from outcomes and bring all of your energy to the present. Imagine the healing that is possible with that kind of energy. There is a brokenness that exists in our hearts and in our world, and instead of remaining in that brokenness, we can choose to heal those places of hurt and pain.
And just the other day, there was a brokenness that existed all over my kitchen floor. While doing dishes, a bowl slipped out my hands, and you know the feeling, you just clinch waiting for that crash as it hits the ground. And when I look at what had been broken, I did what most of us would do. I picked up the pieces, swept up the shards, and threw them in the trash.
But in Japan, you may know this, when a piece of pottery is broken, the pottery is repaired with what is called “kintsugi.” Those pieces that have been broken apart and seem like they will never be put back together are taken up with care by a kintsugi craftsman who will glue the broken pieces of pottery together with gold, silver, or platinum to reassemble the whole. Those shattered places of disrepair, those ancient ruins lying on the floor are carefully gathered and placed back together with care. In the end, is a piece of pottery with the imperfections of the break emphasized. Have you seen one of these?
The break is part of the history, it’s part of that pottery’s story. And where there was a break, there is now, beautiful gold. It is in the intentional choosing to bring the pieces back together, the pottery is more beautiful than it was before.
When you choose to take off that yoke around your neck and choose to remove the yokes from those among you– When you choose to live into this invitation of freedom from Isaiah, when you choose the freedom that comes from letting go—you’ll not only heal this church, but you can heal the world.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; Isaiah says
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.