Free at Last!
Pastor Gregory Stevens
2 July 2017
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
When I lived in Florida and was working as a youth minister at the local Methodist megachurch in town, we would take the middle schoolers to summer camp just around this time when they were on break. We’d all pile into the church vans and head to the woods. The camp we always stayed has this rustic feel that transported you into a safe space, far from the troubles of home. You and your friends could do and be whoever you wanted! It was a sense of freedom from the drudgery of everyday life that made every kid and volunteer pleased to be there.
We’d tire the kids out with field games, scavenger hunts, and team building exercises. They’d shovel camp food down to re-fill each day, but by the fifth night we had them right where we wanted them: dead tired and ready to hear the “gospel.”
The last night was Cross Talk night where we told the strange rendering the gospels with God as a cosmic child abuser ready to send you to Heaven or eternal damnation at the mere repetition of a prayer spoken from the camp speaker.
Tired and heavy hearted their little hands would fly up when the alter call was made, they would rush crying to the front to “pray the prayer.”
Right as the prayer ended our worship band flipped on the laser lights and fog machines, and blasted the last worship song of the night. It’s a terrible song that repeats the chorus so many times you want to scream, or pray their silly prayer and get it over with so we could go home. But then again, the kids loved it, because we allowed all the newly “saved” kids to run around the worship area during the “I am free to run” repetitive chorus.
Sunday would roll around and we’d shovel the kids into the final worship service of the trip before heading home. I remember the camp speaker one year used the scripture from Romans that we are looking at today. Except he interpreted Paul’s talk about sin and freedom in the strangest way possible.
In the conservative Christian mind, individual sins are equal to if not worse than social sins. So for example, if I were to get up in front of an evangelical megachurch and say, “10,000 children die of starvation every day and you don’t give a shit.” The majority of complaints would actually be about my use of the word “shit” rather than the fact that 10,000 children are dying every single day. If God really was up in Heaven tallying up sins and weighing out their severity for a just punishment, you’d think a society based on starvation and impoverishment of children would deserve far more frightening a punishment than saying the word “shit.”
The “Freedom” we were selling at our camp that summer was all about a very specific culture’s understanding of bad behavior. For us at the time, it was about the freedom to go to church because God wants you to, the freedom to decide Heaven or Hell, it was the freedom to get rich because God wanted you to, it was the freedom to ignore the world’s problems and flourish as an individual without recognizing the community that supported and created the person you’ve become.
In studying anthropology, this last year it became clear that in our country the leaders and rulers do the same sort of controlling thing, calling it “free” or “freedom.”
Free Market and Free Trade, are the two that first come to mind. Neither of which are free of anything but regulations, and what are regulations but safety measures for workers, for the environment, and for the products being produces. De-regulation creates poverty and ecological destruction while being called “the market working itself out.”
The deceptive naming is intentional as the terms Fair Trade and Collective Markets don’t sound as good. But if Freedom is about an individuals ability to gain wealth and power while ignoring the ones suffering under their flourishing, is totally false and unfaithful to the witness of Paul in this scripture.
What Paul is suggesting is that we shouldn’t go on sinning, even though God’s love and grace are sufficient for anything you could possibly imagine, and Paul says this not because he’s asking everyone to live an individualistic and legalistic Christian lifestyle, checking off al your personal bible times, prayer times, and volunteer times.
But you see, that central to the Christian lifestyle is relationality, remember on Trinity Sunday we used reflected on our creation in the image of such a Trinitarian relational dynamism. Our freedom, isn’t about my freedom alone, our freedom is bound up in the freedom of everyone else.
A quote attributed to multiple authors, all women of color, as saying, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
In our country and in our religiosity we must begin to understand freedom as a collective freedom and not an individualistic freedom.
Sin in this sense is the act of taking away the freedoms of others, it is to force your own ideologies and ways of being onto the others without allowing them the freedom to participate in the decision-making process.
To be faithful in God to Jesus, is to be faithful to the well-being of relationships: the relationships we have with one another, other people groups, religions, and ethnicities, in those relationships we have with non-human animals and critters of all kind, and in those relationships with have with the ecosystems we inhabit.
Freedom is social rather than individualistic: it approaches liberty as a collectively produced relationship to our potential, not a static bubble of private human rights.
No person is an island, no community or ecosystem exists in isolation. For example, the safety and health of human populations are inextricably linked to the safety and health of our planet and Her creatures. None of us are truly free until even the most vulnerable communities and ecosystems among us are safe and flourishing.
Freedom in God, when I was growing up a Southern Baptist, was really about restrictions, limitations, and an almighty pastor dude telling you how to live your life, in Jesus name of course.
Freedom in God meant, voting for the pro-war and ironically pro-life candidates, it meant no rated R movies and no cusswords, it was a freedom bound up by a false sense of reality, a restrictive authoritarianism, and a terrible rendering of the Biblical tradition.
The biblical tradition speaks to community and collective action over and above the individual. As if to say the individual matters and deserves the ability to express oneself, but when freedom is understood as self-interested and self-involved it misses the mark, it must be known and embodied collectively.
Our lives, our Christianity, is bound up in the lives of others. May we honor these relations with grace and peace. Relations to the immigrant, the other, the queer, the transgender, the Muslim, the Leftist, the Methodist, and whomever else might be an outsider that we might join in solidarity.
Heal your relations, mend the wounds, pay reparations, and join me in incarnating the holy Spirit of Pentecost where diversity is described as divine.
This is the good news: God so love the world God moved into the neighborhood and can be found in all the least likely places with all the wrong people. Relationships might be torn and disjointed, maybe messy and uncomfortable, but this is our work: to incarnate the Gospel of inclusion, love, and radical hospitality in all our relations, for in doing so we find our liberation, our freedom.