“For Freedom You Have Been Set Free” / Galatians 5:1, 13-25 / 30 June 2019
“For freedom Christ has set you free.” And you are free, as free as you’ll ever be. Consider the choices available to you in this very moment. You’re perfectly free to run your hand across the binding of the blue hymnal in the pew rack in front of you. You’re free to tear pages out of it one by one, or to stand up in the middle of the sermon and make a solo of your favorite hymn. You’re even free, if you don’t like my words, to throw that hymnal at me. You can chuck it at my head with all your might, or toss it like a Frisbee. I’m sure it’s not very aerodynamic, and you’re all sitting so far back that I doubt you’d hit your target. But that choice is available to you, if that’s how you care to use your energies. Of course, if you used your awful freedom to chuck a book at the pastor, then there would be some consequences. People would give you dirty looks. You might scare away some potential friends. And you can be sure that I would bring up the incident years later if I end up conducting your funeral. But if it’s what you really want to do, you’re free to do it. What keeps you from doing it?
You’re free to tousle the hair of the stranger sitting nearest to you. You could just sidle up to him or her and muss up that person’s hair with a mischievous grin, assuming the nearest stranger has hair. If not, maybe you could empty the contents of your wallet onto his or her lap. These are things that you’re free to do. It would violate some of the rules that govern polite society, but it’s perfectly within your range of freedoms to hand your MasterCard to the person sharing your pew, along with whatever cash, and photos, and long-forgotten business cards you might be toting around. Just empty your wallet on his or her lap. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you might light a cigarette. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to smoke in church, but you could. You might get a few drags before the usher grabbed your cigarette and showed you to the door. You’ve got vast arrays of freedoms available to you that you’ve never even thought about—and it’s not just because the consequences are unfavorable. They’ve just never even occurred to you. But you’re free to set fire to your pew Bible, free to stand up and argue with the sermon, free to put your feet up on the back of the pew in front of you.
In fact, years ago when I was pastoring two churches—one Presbyterian and the other Lutheran—I asked a rhetorical question during the sermon, and a visitor actually raised his hand to answer it. He was a young man who apparently didn’t know how church worked, for preachers ask questions from the pulpit all the time, and you’re only supposed to answer them in your head. But he was free to offer his answer, and I was free to call on him, and I’ve long regretted that I did not exercise that freedom. I smiled at him and just kept talking. I had the freedom to invite him to speak, but it was just so unthinkable for some reason in that space and time. We never feel as free as we are.
Oh, you’re free; you don’t even know how free! There are more doorways of possibility opening to you off this moment in time than you have the ability or the patience to count. You’re even free to do things that are unthinkable to you. There would be consequences, but our freedoms always come attached to those. You could change your clothes, your hair, your glasses, go for a whole different look. You could strike off into the mountains and live like Grizzly Adams on berries and wild grape leaves. That option stands open before you, perhaps unnoticed, but I just want to call your attention to it. You’re free to shuck your responsibilities, abdicate your duties, disappoint everyone who relies on you. You’re free to surprise us all. Why don’t you?
That’s a real question: Why don’t you? Perhaps you have certain burdens that give you more joy than your freedoms. What keeps you from cutting out on all your bills, forgetting the mortgage, putting gin on your cereal instead of milk? What keeps you from sleeping in on Sundays, and why do you go to work on Monday for that matter, if indeed you do? If you only get threescore years and ten, why are you spending them the way you do, sitting on committees, and volunteering your time, and sharing your money? What keeps you from donning a gorilla suit and stealing the neighbor’s dog to go live together under a bridge? Why don’t you adopt twelve unwanted children? What keeps you from kidnapping yourself and collecting the ransom money? Isn’t it enough that you’ve lived your whole life for the things you live for; must you die for those things, too? And really, don’t most of us end up dying for the things we lived for, the choices that defined us, the lifestyles that we invested our energies into, the attitudes we nurtured? Oh, the places you could go, the vows you could make and break, the lies you could tell! Your freedom encompasses all these things. The choices are so many and the possibilities so devastating. The freedom of our lives is too terrible, too vast to consider! We get so overwhelmed that we look past all the freedom and stick with what we know. We press past our numberless choices and commit ourselves to a sane and expected course of action. What we usually end up with is sameness. What we usually end up with, while we ignore our many freedoms—some of which are too horrible to consider—is an unexamined life, a life beset with the dullness of the damned. Oh, this awful, glorious, hope-filled freedom!
“For freedom Christ has made you free. For you are called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” What do you think that means? Lovely words, lively words, words that ring in the ears with the weight of something hard to grasp, something so big and so vital that, like the best spiritual truths, we can relax into the comfortable splendor of it without even knowing fully what it means. For at the heart of our faith there abides not certainty, but mystery, wonder, beauty, awe. But freedom in what sense? The freedom to put out flags and set off firecrackers? No. When the Apostle Paul penned these moving words to the church at Galatia, he was speaking to a house divided. Christianity was young and hadn’t yet found its footing on the world’s religious stage. Most Christians were Jews who saw Jesus as the Messiah. As first century Jews, they assumed that all the ancient rules of old Judaism were still binding. Some of those rules were good because at their heart, all they asked of us was that we honor God and each other. Don’t lie; don’t kill; don’t commit adultery; respect your elders; stand in reverence before a God too great for you to ever fully know. But if you’ve ever read the books of Leviticus and Numbers, then you know that there aren’t just Ten Commandments. There are hundreds of commandments. They describe in great detail which types of animals had to be killed in order to atone for which types of sins. They lay out an elaborate dress code for the clergy. They condemn Philly cheese steak sandwiches by making it illegal to mix meat and dairy. It was deemed a sin to weave mixed fabrics. They prescribe ritual baths, and solitary confinement, and even the death penalty for offenses that we no longer deem offensive. And all mixed in with these odd rules about ritual cleanliness, there were good rules, telling us to treat animals kindly. And Leviticus 19:33-34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” So many rules, how could you possibly keep track of them all? You’d need an attorney in church law just to live your life from day to day—and that’s what the Pharisees were.
I do not say this to disparage Judaism; it’s a beautiful and ancient wisdom tradition from which Jesus drew all the best elements of Christianity. But how liberating Paul’s words must have sounded in the ears of his friends in Galatia when he declared, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. You are called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” Then Paul echoes Jesus’s classic little life hack for keeping the spirit of the old Law without all the hassle: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. That’s all. Aside from that, you are free, free to eat pork, free wear polyester, wonderfully, terribly, frighteningly free.
What was your first car? Do you remember it…and the sense of freedom it gave you? Or—if you don’t yet have a driver’s license—do you anticipate it? Mine was a 1976 Chrysler Newport, big as a tugboat. It was old even then. The front seat was a couch that easily sat four across. It only had three seatbelts up front, but that was okay because we didn’t use seatbelts back then. The back sat another four, sometimes five. We called her Large Marge the Party Barge. She was a palomino, creamy beige with a white top. But you know what I did? First thing, I took Marge to Earl Scheib, where they painted any car any color for $99.95, and I got her painted a bright fluorescent acid green. Do you know why? Well, we could talk about middle child syndrome and always feeling invisible, but mostly I did it because I was free to do it. I’d never owned anything before in my life, and my new freedom was dizzying. Then I drove that car across the country and lived out west because I was free to do that, too, and freedom was new to me. Think about the first place you lived away from your parents—or the place you plan to live, if that day hasn’t come yet. The first trip you took on your own. The first time you experienced a big city, a vast ocean, an airport on your way to someplace else. The sense of freedom can tickle your chest, make your shoulders tingle. The very thought, or memory, of life unleashed can quicken the pulse! There are many in the world today whose freedoms are few due to poverty, or illness, or prisons real or imagined.
And yet, and yet! There is a burden almost-but-not-quite as bad as having too few choices. It is the sorrow of too many choices. It’s the anxiety of finding yourself at a crazy Pittsburgh-style intersection, where seven roads converge. You’ve got six possible ways to turn, but what good is that when you have no goal, no duty, no responsibility to call you forward into any of them? Freedom, like all things, is best within limits. The best, most freeing life is found in the shackles and the fetters that we willingly take upon ourselves in the name of something or someone we love. Our spirits will rebel when others bind us, but we will freely and lovingly allow ourselves to be chained to and for our children, our homes, our beliefs, our faith. We will find our greatest freedom not in a life without responsibilities, but within the confines of the commitments that we make to our God and to each other. That’s the paradox of the freedom for which Christ has set us free: It too is governed by certain principles. For Jesus and Paul, the only fetter that binds us is also the very one that frees us. It is the principle of love. You’re free to do it, whatever it is. You’re free…as long as it harms no one and demonstrates love for all.
Oh this terrible, beautiful freedom that comes with being human. You are free, as free as you’ll ever be. Because you’re loved, you’re free to love. Because you’re forgiven, you’re free to forgive. Because the only rule placed on your life, the only rule at all, is the law of love, you are free to live for joy, and for wonder, and for laughter, and for love. “For freedom Christ has set you free. You are called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” Only love your neighbor as yourself, and in the words of Longfellow, you will be “firmly bound, forever free.” Amen.
“For Freedom You Have Been Set Free” / Galatians 5:1, 13-25 / 30 June 2019