sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8C), June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul writes this to the Galatians. Did you hear it? Freedom has been given to us freely. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. We are just … free.
In some ways this is self-evident. Freedom is the very first thing God gives us in creation: free will, freedom to act and think and speak. On the most basic level, we get to do what we want, whenever we want. We have the ability and the right to make both good and bad choices and to experience whatever consequences result.
On the other hand, one common slogan in our culture is, “Freedom isn’t free.” I guess that’s also true from a certain perspective. But we haven’t yet agreed on a definition. What does freedom mean?
Does it mean that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want?
If that’s the kind of freedom you strive for, I guarantee that freedom isn’t free. If your entire goal is to get what you think you deserve and keep it, no doubt you’ll have to hoard resources that others worked hard to produce. You’ll spend all your life trying to shore up your tiny little safe plot of ground. There are legal ways to do this, but not moral ones. To do whatever we want, whenever we want, is by nature to bite and devour. And when entire nations do it, the entire planet’s ability to sustain human life is compromised. When this kind of freedom is our highest ambition, we live a life of scarcity: scarcity of resources if we lose, and scarcity of love if we win. It’s a zero-sum game.
Paul refers to this phenomenon as gratifying “the desires of the flesh.” And I know a little Puritan voice in your head just said, “Oh, that must have something to do with sex.” But Paul’s concern is much broader. Anytime you hear Paul contrasting “flesh” and “spirit,” remember that he’s not saying “body bad, soul good.” A complete human being has both body and soul working in harmony. Paul’s definition of “flesh” is self-serving desire. The “desires of the flesh” refer to whatever gratifies only you at the expense of others. So while doing exactly what we want, right now, may feel at first—or always—like pure freedom, Paul calls it slavery and urges us not to submit to it.
In contrast, Paul writes: “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.” In other words, Christian freedom is shared freedom. Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, a list of nine traits that many of us memorized in Sunday school: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Paul writes that “there is no law against such things.” But this isn’t always true. Some laws prevent us from sharing the fruits of the Spirit. Some laws work against human flourishing, and these must be opposed on moral grounds. Remember the Civil Rights Movement. Remember Stonewall. They have clear parallels today.
Independence Day is coming up this Thursday, so you may be thinking a lot about freedom this week anyway. Take a look at the hymn “America the Beautiful.” Of the patriotic hymns that have been placed in our hymnal, this is the one I find most appropriate for our common worship, mostly because of its grammar. When we sing, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee,” do we mean that God did shed grace on America at some point in the past? No. The verb tense here is subjunctive, meaning that the situation hasn’t necessarily happened, but perhaps it might. This is made clear in the next line: “And crown thy good with brotherhood.” The verb isn’t past tense, “crowned”—but just “crown,” which might happen. We want it to happen.
Christian worship is set in the better world that we long for. If we’re going to sing about our nation in worship at all, we must first subject it to this longing—reaching and praying for a nation that we don’t yet see, within a world we don’t yet see.
Today in the United States I don’t see a nation of ideals, but a deeply flawed and conflicted nation. Customs and systems that stood for generations are breaking down. We are divided against one another on matters that run very deep, so deep that we may not even be able to articulate what divides us. In the current immigration crisis, we hear on the one hand a desire for people to follow the law, and on the other hand that fact that the law is causing suffering and the suffering needs to stop. To these two sides I only offer Paul’s words as he paraphrases Jesus: “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s our law as Christians, and it doesn’t always square with our nation’s laws.
And so we sing also, “America! America!/ God mend thine every flaw/ Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
We pray for self-control, one of Paul’s nine fruits of the Spirit. Americans have a hard time with self-control. I know I do. How easy is it to place limits on our own wanting, buying, and having, so that others can simply stay alive, let alone be free? As a nation we are confused and conflicted, like a rebellious teenager experimenting with deadly drugs. We might come out of this phase and flourish yet, but there’s no guarantee of that.
We pray for liberty in law. But between our school-to-prison pipelines and our toddler concentration camps, we do not have that today. How can we use our freedom to give freedom to others instead of hoarding it for ourselves?
We still have today’s Gospel passage to reckon with. Thankfully, here we find Jesus saying several things that can serve as guides for us in the pursuit of true freedom, as people and as a nation.
To be truly free means that we never want to rain down fire on others, because we are assured of God’s love and grace for everyone.
To be truly free means that we may not have a place to lay our head, because we see clearly that the world is not as it should be, and we cannot rest in one place for very long before it’s time to get up and help others again.
To be truly free means that we put our hand to the plow and keep looking ahead, not behind. If we look back, we’ll be distracted by the way things never really were, and we won’t be able to plow a straight row.
Following Jesus into freedom is a high-stakes enterprise. He sets his face toward Jerusalem and will not be deterred. There he must make a stand, to give himself away for the sake of the world he loves. Jesus dies for our sins. But he also dies to show us how dying is done: with clarity, with dignity—as an offering made from freedom, not coercion.
To give ourselves away on these terms is true freedom.
But how can we grow to handle the demands of this freedom? Well, it’s easy to appreciate the freedoms we ourselves have enjoyed. The next step is wanting them for all others as well. And then we need to get real about the restrictions we must place on ourselves to help make that happen.
Paul warns that people who live selfishly “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Do you hear how this phrase is geared specifically toward those for whom personal comfort and safety is their only motivation? If our primary concern is inheriting the kingdom, we’re already in trouble. It means we don’t yet trust what Jesus says elsewhere: “Do not be afraid, little flock: it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” If we work all our lives just trying to please some invisible, inscrutable, overly demanding Daddy, that’s not freedom: it’s slavery. It is not who God is or how God is.
It’s only when we get outside ourselves that we stop worrying about achieving the kingdom, or getting to heaven, or doing everything right, as if any of this could happen on our own steam anyway! The practices we develop as Christians do not secure our salvation—that part is done. But our practices can move us beyond narrow self-interest, over time. Practices become habits, and habits become virtues. We can turn away from selfishness. We can learn about the lives of people we might not otherwise understand. We can pray for insight, and we can worship together to make sure our prayers don’t become an echo chamber. We can bless others with our presence and our love, and we can go to work with those for whom our own gifts and talents can be most helpful. And after all this, we can rest in God’s love and recharge, and start all over again.
This is the pattern of a Christian life: walking the way of love, practicing the sharing of joy, practicing the freedom that is already ours but which only becomes true freedom as we give it away. As you celebrate Independence Day this week, remember that our freedom is never for ourselves alone, but always for the service of others. Amen.