Ken Starr: Truett Convocation Sermon

Aug. 27, 2013

On Aug. 27, Baylor President Ken Starr delivered the opening sermon at the annual convocation for students, faculty and staff at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. President Starr spoke on freedom - "a towering word that brings hope to a fallen world" - and lessons from the great reform movements of yesteryear and of today.


New York City - the city that never sleeps. Home of the Statue of Liberty. A gift from the Government of France, Lady Liberty stands as a symbol of friendship between our two countries. Her pedestal calls to the world, ""Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

Freedom. New York City -- home to those ubiquitous taxi cabs. Not long ago, I hopped into one of those cabs. As I normally do, I gently inquired of the cabby. "Where are you from?" "Albania," he replied. "Albania," I said, reflecting. "Tell me about coming to this country." At a traffic light, the driver turned toward the back seat: "You can eat bread anywhere. In America, you can eat your bread in freedom."

Freedom. The word stirs the heart. This past weekend marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s immortal speech, "I Have a Dream." Hear those words echo in your mind -- "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Freedom. Think of the great reform movements of yesteryear and of today. For there to be peace, there must be freedom. Freedom, we believe, as Christians, is integral to the human spirit. It's the way God made us. But for too much of mankind, freedom has been the rare exception - a lonely orphan. It begins with freedom of the mind. It begins with freedom of conscience. It begins with the sacred relationship between God and the individual.

This year we will mark the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. Issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D., this royal pronouncement became the first official state document to set forth the bedrock principle of religious freedom. Freedom for all. Twelve centuries later, during the Great Reformation, Henry the IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes. This announcement of freedom conferred upon Protestants the right to worship freely in a Catholic country.

Here at home, at the founding of the American experiment, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed religious liberty for all. In the 19th Century, the British abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce and the famed hymnist, John Newton, who penned the mighty words of "Amazing Grace." In the 20th Century, the Williamsburg Charter. Presented to the nation in 1988 -- the 200th anniversary of Virginia's call for the Bill of Rights -- the Charter celebrates the strength of the First Amendment to America's Constitution, while calling for a bold reaffirmation of its guiding principles. One more. Drafted by a group of 50 international academics, statesmen, and NGO leaders representing various faiths, the Global Charter of Conscience was launched in the European Parliament last year and is steadily gaining support. So far, leaders from France, South Africa, Lebanon, Romania, the U.K. and the U.S. have endorsed the charter, which contains this stirring reaffirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, which together may be described as religious freedom, is a precious, fundamental, and inalienable human right..."

This is all good -- but the sobering news is that Liberty is always under assault. Much of mankind continues to fight for freedom of conscience and belief. An annual global survey conducted by Freedom House reports that 85 countries (representing 44% of the world's population) are free, allowing their citizens political rights and civil liberties. The survey also finds that 59 countries (31% of the world) are partly free. 48 countries (25%) are not free. That is 2.1 billion people living in countries that suffer from human rights violations and the absence of democratic institutions.

Freedom and liberty are mighty themes in Scripture. The Bible speaks of "freedom" and "liberty" over 100 times. The foundation, of course, are the words of Christ that read: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

The New Testament's use of the term "freedom" contrasts starkly with the Old Testament's use of that concept. Suffice it to say that in the Old Testament, liberty is seen as freedom from an oppressive ruler, or imprisonment, or injustice - all sources external to the individual. Think of Moses leading his people out of Egyptian bondage. Think of Joseph wrongly imprisoned. The New Testament reflects a different approach. In its 27 books, the idea of freedom focuses on the internal condition of the heart -- emancipation through Christ from guilt and sin. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks in his hometown synagogue. Jesus drew from the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free."

The Apostle Paul also writes about this spiritual liberty throughout his letters. In 2 Corinthians 3:17: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." In Galatians 5:1: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." In Romans 8:1: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." Christ fought and won the freedom battle for us. Now that we have been given the gift of freedom, it should be our solemn responsibility to act as free people.

And let me add to this responsibility of living like a free people, through Christ, the responsibility of cultivating a culture of freedom. Pastors and others in ministry have a precious opportunity to be instruments of peace - including through serving as champions of freedom. This is something our Baptist ancestors well understood. The great American historian George Bancroft once wrote, "Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists." Persecuted himself, the iconic Roger Williams founded Rhode Island - which he called Providence Plantation - in 1790 on the fundamental principle of granting religious freedom to all citizens.

Or consider John Leland, a Baptist minister in Virginia in the early18th century. History records that Leland met with James Madison under an oak tree in Orange County, Virginia. Under that tree, Leland secured Mr. Madison's pledge to fight for religious freedom in Virginia and in America. That was providential. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Like the early Baptists, let us always seek ways to proclaim freedom and truth to those in chains (both spiritually and literally) around the world. One towering example: Saddleback church, under the pastoral leadership of Rick Warren, has been committed to showing compassion to the people of strife-torn Rwanda through the Saddleback PEACE plan. Its five principles are mighty beacons for ministry: Promote Reconciliation, Equip Servant Leaders, Assist the Poor, Care for the Sick and Educate the Next Generation. As a result of these efforts and the missions of other churches, one million people have come out of poverty in Rwanda. Only 14,000 orphans are left in the country. That's an extraordinary accomplishment. President Kagami says that these great strides have been made possible by churches coming alongside this East African nation. Rick Warren says of Saddleback's work: "As we turn from being an audience into an army...from consumers into contributors, from spectators into participators... it will change the world."

That is your power -- To encourage the audience to rise up and to become an army, an army reaching out to all those who labor and are heavy-laden. Hear the words of Christ Jesus our Lord: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free." (Luke 4:18).

Freedom. A towering word that brings hope to a fallen world.


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