H. L. Mencken described Puritan fundamentalism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” There really is something to this. Religious and political thinking that robs people of their freedoms to live and think freely stands in direct contrast to our Baptist heritage. It’s no wonder Roger Williams got kicked out of the Puritan communities in his quest for soul-freedom. We were reminded of this in Pastor Rick’s sermon on Sunday as we reflected on the Hebrew holiness codes of old and Jesus’ newer vision of radical love: “Love, which is at the center of holiness, is not a downer. We need to remember that. We break down the wall between the sacred and profane because an ever-present God demands it of us. Taking on holiness does not allow us to put up walls of superiority and judgment.”
How might we make decisions about how we govern ourselves, our communities, our families, and our own lives if we take the route of free-love rather than limiting-fear? Self-expression, conscious exploration, and social engagement flow from this space of freedom and compassion, they also teach us more about the world and its Maker.
LIVE FREE is the theme for our yearly stewardship drive, ending in Stewardship Sunday on November 22.
In I Timothy 6: 7 (RSV), Paul states “For we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world.” He speaks about the rich in this world, in verses 18 and 19, saying that: “They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” We are all rich in God’s grace—therefore, LIVE FREE to take hold of life.
We need to realize that stewardship is not only giving money to the Church, but encompasses giving of our time and talents as well. We may not all be rich in monetary means, but we can give a portion of what we have by helping in other ways. Paul also states in II Corinthians (SRV) 9: 6-8: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.” LIVE FREE to do God’s work from what God has given you.
I can remember while growing up that whenever there was something we needed, my parents would say, “don’t worry, the Lord will provide” and He always did. This is just one example we all need to remember as we think about our commitments to our Church and humankind. Can we follow the example of those who donate their time, talents, and money for the good of others? First Baptist Church of Palo Alto is a very giving congregation for both the budget and the chosen missions. But each year we must review our Church expenses and missions. Give freely so that you may LIVE FREE to do God’s calling.
1Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Once again our McLaren resource has gifted us with a rich selection of texts. We can choose among the stories of Moses and how he came to lead his people to liberty or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery or Paul’s riff on freedom as he tries to straighten out the good folks of First Church, Galatia. All of this is gathered under the theme of “Freedom!” The challenge is that each of these texts approaches freedom from a different perspective.
We considered the call of Moses not long ago, the story of the burning bush, Moses’ reluctance to go and God’s promise to go with him to set God’s people free. McLaren writes that this story “makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God does not uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future may come” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 39). Once again, McLaren shows us how the God of Israel is distinguished from other gods of the ancient world who would have been firmly on the side of the ruling classes. Shockingly good news! The living God, the great God of the universe, is for the oppressed and downtrodden. God hears the cries of those who are bound by chains of every sort.
The Moses story is about freedom on a grand scale. It’s about the liberation of a entire people, a people with whom God has covenanted to be their God as they will be God’s people. This is a tale of God’s desire that these people live together with one another and with God in peace, harmony and well-being. It holds a promise of the restoration of the rich, abundant life that God laid out in creation. This story has held hope for enslaved people in all generations, from the slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world to the African slaves brought to US shores, from contemporary structures of apartheid to the poor, downtrodden people of slums and barrios everywhere. The song that begins, “Let my people go,” ends with the refrain, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. I’m free at last!”
Still, as we know only too well, the road to freedom is long and arduous. The Children of Israel go grumbling and complaining, dragging their feet through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may desire that God’s people live free, but we make it difficult to find fulfillment of the promise. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery. Her wrong-doing, her sin is not in question here. She is guilty and she knows it and she feels it. The point of the story is the self-righteous judgment of the community that wants to keep her bound to her guilt rather than offer her the liberation of forgiveness and restoration. The great irony is that the community’s self-righteous judgment has them tied up knots as well. They are bound to the letter of an ancient law that serves neither the woman nor the community.
Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and offers freedom to all. But the road to freedom is challenging. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Well, well, that’s not exactly what they were expecting from the teacher. He has turned their blood lust back on themselves. I wonder if, after they have slunk away and spent some time considering his words, they didn’t find some freedom in Jesus’ challenge. Humbling, yes, but liberating as well. “You mean it’s enough to take care of the log in my own eye without worrying about the speck in my neighbor’s eye?” Can you feel the release in not having to carry the burden of another’s sin and guilt along with your own? And, in the process, are we not freed to work together then for the welfare of the whole community? As Richard Hays writes, “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table” (Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI, p. 310).
“For freedom Christ has set you free.” What a word of hope and promise! Paul is writing to a congregation caught between some who insist on adherence to the law, to certain religious rules and practices in order to secure God’s favor, and those who insist that they are free of any such rules and practice. It is not unlike the situation with the community that comes to Jesus ready to stone their neighbor. Keep the rules or you’re headed for hell. But that sort of judgment is beyond our pay grade and, in fact, Jesus has liberated us from such a burden.
Remember how Jesus summarized the law – love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, the irony being that he drew these mandates directly from the ancient texts. This is a liberating word, easy to remember, enough to focus the practice of a life time. Love God, love neighbor.
In his teaching on freedom, Paul reinforces this liberating word, “…everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Then, in case they don’t get the full import, he adds a timely warning, “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
Just to be clear, he reminds the members of First Church, Galatia, that the freedom he’s talking about is not license. The freedom we find in Christ is freedom that comes with responsibility. As a reminder of our exploration of “Rivalry and Reconciliation,” Elisabeth Johnson tells us that “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010,” workingpreacher.org).
We’re not free to do whatever we want, certainly not without consequences. Paul says the road to freedom leads to a crucial fork. If you take the fork toward getting your own way all the time, you’ll find yourself wandering through “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
The other fork leads to the freedom to serve, the freedom to care for one another and the community, the freedom to love as we are loved. It’s not cheap freedom. It comes at a price, but is well worth it in the end. Here we find ourselves immersed in “…things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involve[ment] in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
Well, there you go, the road to freedom. Walking this road has implications for people and nations and creation itself. It also has implications for you and me and First Baptist, Palo Alto. When we come to that crucial juncture in the road which route will we take, the one to self-interest, self-righteous and selfishness or the one to love for God and neighbor and ultimate freedom? “It’s a long road to freedom, awinding steep and high, but when you walk in love with the wind on your wing and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” Amen.
Understand these words well:
You absolutely must achieve freedom!
You definitely must go down the path
that leads to the shore.
With an undaunted heart and singing
with a bold strong voice you will cross over.
You will have to breast the waves cheerfully
in spite of the storm’s blasts.
Even if the entanglements of illusions
cause you to reel in bewilderment
you will still have to get release.
On the path there are indeed thorns;
trampling on them,
you will have to go on.
Don’t die fearfully
while you hold dreams of happiness
tightly in your embrace.
In order to have your fill of life
You will have to sustain the blows of death.
As many of you know, it’s been a rough road lately in our home. Friends have lost loved ones, young children. We have lost family, a young man of twenty-two. The new year has been a bit rough thus far. But that is the way of things. So often I am inclined to think that there is ever a time without difficulty, without someone’s deep loss. I only imagine that there is a time free of loss and grief in the world. The truth is that there is never such a time.
This is why we must cultivate compassion. We must.
Suffering and death happen. We all get to do it. We may wish to live as if that were not true, our own mortality being too terrible a burden (understandably) for many. But today I am holding death up to the light and saying, once again, God does not give us suffering. God does not send us tests. The death of a loved one is not a test from the “God who so loved the world.” No. Never. Stop it.
Don’t do that to the one whom God loved so very much. God is kind, slow to anger, long-suffering. God is compassionate.
I have been reminded that we serve a God who suffers and dies every day, a crucified Christ. Suffering and death are not tests. They are never tests. Nor are they “gifts.”
The saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle” assumes we know a great deal about what God gives us in the first place. I’m not so certain we can know what God gives except to say God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.
Instead, God suffers and dies.
Then there’s another poem. This one is from the Sufi poet Rumi. It goes something like this:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
A friend of mine recently said, “No matter how hard it gets I always say to myself, ‘I am glad to be alive.’” There is this thing we call joy, resurrection, suffering and death are never the end of the story. And though Lent will likely be a bit more deep and dark than usual for me this year, I am aware of where this season ends…
“Oh, freedom over me…before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave…” What do you imagine that song is about it? Who do you think first sang it and why? It was a very popular song of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the mid 1960s. What famous document was signed into law 150 years ago? What did the Emancipation Proclamation say and do? That’s right it outlawed slavery in this country and freed the slaves from bondage. “Oh freedom over me!”
So what exactly is freedom? What does that word mean to you? How many of us are free today?
If freedom means “the quality or state of being free: as a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another; c: the quality or state of being exempt or released, usually from something onerous” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), then what is its opposite? Is it slavery, bondage, constraint? Yes, but some would also argue that freedom is also opposed by license, that it is actually not true freedom to say because I’m free, I can do anything I want.
The fellows who wrote the song I sang at the beginning of the service about wishing to be free, do you think they were longing to be free to do anything they wanted, to live a life with no rules or expectations, no compassion or love for others? I like that song because it speaks so strongly of a desire to be connected, for you to understand me and me to understand you. “I wish I could share all the love in my heart; remove all the bars that still keep us apart. I wish you could know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree that we all should be free.” “I wish I could say all the things that I should say…” “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give.” Doesn’t sound much like someone who is self-absorbed, who wants to be free just to do whatever he pleases, who wants only what she wants when she wants it, usually at the expense of others.
I think this is what Paul is writing about when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Yes, this freedom in Christ is truly a freedom from whatever has bound us, made slaves of us, unduly restricted our lives. But it is not just a freedom from, it is also a freedom to. In particular, it is a freedom to love and be loved. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
Uh…wait a minute, “slaves to one another”? What’s that about? Well, good old Paul does love a dramatic contrast. It surely got our attention, didn’t it? How can we be free and be slaves at the same time? A paradox indeed! I suspect that Paul did not literally mean slavery in its crassest, cruelest sense. Often that word is translated as “servants” rather than “slaves.” The basic point is that the freedom for which Christ has set us free is the freedom to love. It is a freedom to take on a great and meaningful responsibility. It is the freedom that allows us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Paul says all the ancient Jewish law, all the rules and regulations that can tie us up in knots and keep us longing to be free, all the demands and expectations we impose on ourselves and others, must be reconsidered and reconfigured in the light of the great commandments to love God and neighbor above all else.
Long ago St. Augustine said something like “Love God and do what you will.” Some people find that statement very worrisome. They’re afraid it will lead to lots of bad behavior and chaos in the world. They’re more than willing to come up with intricate definitions, lists of rules, and binding laws to spell out what Augustine did and did not mean by “do what you will.” Unfortunately what they miss, the wisdom inherent in Augustine’s saying is that love for God comes first. When you truly love and give your life over to God, everything you do and say and feel will be rooted and grounded in that love. That’s the freedom to which Christ frees us, to live immersed in that kind of loving relationship with God and neighbor.
Now Paul goes into some detail here about what it means to love God in Christ and to love your neighbor as yourself. He’s got a little sermon about not “gratifying the desires of the flesh.” Sometimes we get hung up on that term. We think of flesh as our bodies and we make it seem as if Paul hated bodies and bodily functions, thought they were all nasty and evil. But that’s not really true. The word that gets translated as “flesh” has a much wider and more important meaning than just our physical bodies. What Paul is really warning against is self-absorption, “me first” or “it’s all about me.” Elisabeth Johnson writes that “Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.” We know enough about obsessions and addictions today to understand how the freedom to do as we please can lead to awful, deadly forms of slavery that affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us. Johnson sees with Paul that “Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to ‘become slaves to one another’ through love” (Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010, workingpreacher.org).
Paul has a list of sins, of feelings, thoughts and behaviors that get us into trouble, that serve the law, the flesh, or both. What are some things you might add to the list? Or perhaps you have different words for naming things on Paul’s list? Some of those things are about the abusing the body but most of them are about attitudes and the poor ways we treat one another. Paul is arguing that when we get hung up on these things, we are not free. We are surely not free in Christ. What do you think?
So then, when we are free in the freedom for which Christ has set us free, what are we to be like? What sort of characteristics and qualities are we to take on? Paul has another list at the end of today’s passage. Remember a few weeks ago, we looked at this very list. Pastor Tripp had printed these very words on strips of paper and the children and youth made sure we all had one. Do you remember which word was yours? Here’s mine – “kindness”. I kept it as an important reminder of one “fruit of the Spirit” that I am free to exercise when I encounter my neighbors of every sort. Again, are there any values you would add to Paul’s list, any fruits you would graft to his tree, any thoughts about how you might name them differently?
Somebody I read recently suggested that this list should be read daily. I think he might be onto something. Those of us who wish we knew how it would feel to be free, those of us longing to live beyond whatever might enslave us, those of us who want to claim the freedom for which Christ has set us free could do worse than to consider on a regular basis what it might mean to be free for “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” to be free to love our neighbors as ourselves.” Just in case you agree with this suggestion, I’ve printed out the list. You can take it home, post it on your refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, file cabinet next to your desk, fold it up and carry it in your purse or wallet. Feel free to do with it as you will, and at the same time feel free to love one another, your neighbors, the world, in the freedom for which Christ has set you free. Amen.