Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Proper of the Day: Pentecost V

Today is the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Parish uses the Revised Common Lectionary and the Scriptures for today are here.

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I offered the following reflection on the excerpt from the letter to the Galatians:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

These past few weeks we’ve heard a lot in the news about freedom. The Supreme Court just this week decided that it was not an infringement of a student’s freedom to punish a student who put up a sign saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at a public rally that was school sponsored. Recently the CIA released some of its Family Jewels, documenting how in the 1960s and 1970s it had systematically tried to deny freedom to all sorts of people the US government didn’t like at the time. We are debating what freedoms that immigrants, illegal and otherwise, may have in the country. There’s a continuing controversy here in Bayonne about whether requiring student uniforms in the public schools is an appropriate infringement of freedom or not. The rights and freedoms of enemy combatants that we have captured in the course of the war on terror are on our minds, especially after the bomb scares in London this weekend. And of course I can’t not mention Paris Hilton: she regained her freedom when she was released from jail recently.

All of those examples of what we usually think of as freedom are one kind of freedom, political freedom. The dictionary defines freedom as:

1.

the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint:

2.

exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.

3.

the power to determine action without restraint.

4.

political or national independence.

And that’s usually what we think of, especially during this time of year when we celebrate the independence of our country from England on this coming Wednesday, the 4th of July, Independence Day. We fought a war over our right, here in what would become the United States, to decide our own affairs without interference form England or anyone else. Throughout the 231 years of our independence, we’ve gone to war several times to protect or regain freedom on behalf of those who have lost it. We think it’s so important an ideal that we are willing to risk lives and money when we think freedom is threatened, especially our own. And I think we as a nation can be proud that we enjoy the freedoms of speech, the press, religion, and the other political rights guaranteed to US citizens in the Constitution. We have much to be thankful of, although there are many even today who seem bent on abridging our own freedoms.

But regardless of the state of our political discourse, regardless of how you or I might agree or not on the issues of immigration, school uniforms, taxes, free speech and all the rest, as Christians, you and I also enjoy another kind of freedom entirely. That’s the freedom that Jesus Christ won for each of us in his life, death, and resurrection. It’s both a freedom from and a freedom to. At its basic level, what Jesus did was free us from fear. See, in the usual state of affairs, we as human beings get afraid. We’re afraid we’re not good enough. We’re afraid no one likes us. We’re afraid no one loves us. We’re afraid God doesn’t love us. And that fear then lay on each of us like a wet and freezing cold blanket that stops us from being who God wants us to be. If I think I’m not good enough, I probably won’t try to reach forward and try things that maybe I’m perfectly capable of doing but don’t think I’m worthy enough to go for. And if I’m afraid that I’m not loved by other people, I will stop loving and appreciating my own self as well. That can into a downward spiral, compounding in on itself into disease, depression, or even merely quiet and daily despair over the state of my own life. Perhaps some of you know folks who are in that vicious cycle of self-hatred. I’ve been there at times. Perhaps you have too.

This is what St. Paul means when he says in today’s excerpt from the letter to the Galatians when he says, “For Freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In the death and resurrection of Jesus, he says to us, God is here, and God is with you, and God loves you. Each and every one of you. You and You and You. And so you can let go of the fear that froze you in its wet cold grip. You are freed from that fear by God’s love. You don’t have to be a slave, in Paul’s word’s, to self-hatred, to fear.

That freedom is the priceless gift that God gave us in Christ Jesus. It’s worth far more than all of the political freedoms we have. If today I were arrested and put into prison, I know that I am still free from the fear that I am worthless, that I am unloved, that no one, not even God cares for me. Because God does care and love me, and everyone of you too. I am loved by God, and as St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, nothing can separate me from the love of God. No matter what! That goes for everyone!

And that freedom is powerful and absolute. No court can take it away. It can never be abridged. It’s granted by God in Jesus and we know it by the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. So the question is, what to do with it? Remember the dictionary definition: “the power to determine action without restraint.” That certainly seems to apply here. That’s the second freedom that that as Christians have. We have granted freedom from, and we have been granted freedom to – to what? To do whatever we want? After all, God loves me, no matter what, right? So that means I can do whatever I want to do in my life and it will all by OK, right?

Nope, not at all. That idea is one that Paul addresses in several of his letters, not just this one to the Galatians. It turns out that lots of the early Christians thought the same thing, the Corinthians especially. And so Paul points out to both them and us that our freedom to is actually the limiting one, oddly enough. We are freed from fear and even death, true. And we are freed to be who God created us to be. Paul suggests that the best way to do that is to “use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” So we are freed by Jesus from fear and to be who God wants each of to be. And then we’re supposed to voluntarily give up that freedom to be slaves? To each other? That sounds weird. And to the ears of the Galatians, that was positively scandalous.

But that’s just it. If God loves me and wants to be in a restored relationship with me, then God wants the same thing for each of us. And God asks us to use our freedoms – our unrestrained power to determine action without restraint – to choose to be in restored relationships with those around us too. Our brothers and sisters, co-workers, parents, students, teachers, friends, everyone. If I am freed from fear, I don’t have to worry is someone is or is not going to respond to the relationship I offer someone. Remember, I already know that nothing can separate me from the love of God. So without fear of rjection, without fear of alienation, I can go ahead and work on restoring the relationships in my own life that are broken, just like how God, in Jesus, is constantly restoring my relationship to God. My relationship with God is constantly breaking – I can’t help it, because I am a human being. And God in God’s love is constantly fixing it, so that it’s whole and right again.

So now re-read that long list that we heard just a few minutes ago – the so-called works of the flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” It’s a mistake if we hear this passage and think of the flesh as our bodies and the Spirit as our souls. In reality, what Paul is referring to when he talks about the works of the flesh is that power of sin and separation in the world today. It’s more than a metaphor or a figure of speech. This list is a description of what happens when people are afraid – when they have not understood they are freed from fear in Jesus Christ. And that other list? That’s what the world looks like when we are freed to be who we are created to be: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These fruits of the Spirit are also more than a metaphor or a figure of speech. They describe what being in restored relationship with God and each other and the world and our own selves actually looks like. We are freed to be who we are created to be, and what God creates us to be is in whole relationships. And that’s what those look like.

My sisters and brothers, is isn’t as if God does not want us to have a good time. God does. I am aware that many of our sisters and brothers in other faith traditions do say that. But remember the wedding at Cana. Jesus made more wine so they could continue the celebration. There is a time and place for having a good time, of course, and just because we are freed from fear does not mean we are freed from the laws of mature – we can still over-indulge in any number of ways. When we do that, of course, we still have to face the consequences of living in a broken relationship with our own selves, because that’s the consequence of too much anything. And we have to face that too. But today’s passage from Galatians is not a laundry list of does and don’ts. We have freedom from and freedom to because of the impossible love of Jesus for each of us. We have freedom from fear and sin and even death. We have freedom to be as God has created us to be. If you see something from that first list in your own life, perhaps it’s an indicator of a broken or bending relationship that you might not have been aware of. When you see something from the second list, you can be sure that it’s happening in relationships that you are in that healthy and sound and as God desires.

On this 4th of July week, we as nation remember the political freedoms we have fought for and won. As you go to the fireworks or to the shore or are having a barbeque or whatever it is you are going to do, remember, too, that we have, in Jesus, far more valuable freedoms that Jesus fought for and won for us. We are freed from fear, and we are free to be who created us to be.

In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.


RFSJ