Sermon, July 3, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
Happy Independence Weekend when we celebrate freedom - even if it wasn't truly freedom for all at the time.
Will you pray with me...
What is freedom, and what does it require of us?
When the wider world too closely resembles tv’s fictional dystopian series like The Handmaid’s Tale or ridiculous dark political dramas like Scandal, I find myself re-watching shows or movies that bring me comfort and bring me hope. Shows that insist that we can aspire to greater things (there aren’t that many of them). That might be why I found myself again appreciating the opening monologue of The Newsroom [linked above] - for the umpteenth time. You probably know the one, featuring 3 supposed journalists in a college forum. Provoked by the question, “What Makes America the Best Country in the World?”, it goes into a monologue by Jeff Daniels that has become infamous in its own right, independently of the show.
The clip illustrates the absurdity of our public dialogue that ignores context and nuance, like when the supposedly conservative commentator responds to “What makes America the best country in the world?” with, “Freedom and Freedom, so let’s keep it that way.” Daniels’ character - our antihero - points out the ridiculousness of that answer and that 180 other countries in the world enjoy ‘freedom’ - by whatever way they define it.
How do we define it? How would you define freedom?
One of my favorite rocker legends, Janis Joplin, proclaimed that ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose - nothing, and that’s all that Bobby left me…,’ I always thought depiction was profound.
But I’m not sure the Apostle Paul would agree.
Today’s scripture comes from Paul’s letter to his community in Galatia, to whom Paul writes; “For Freedom Christ has set us free.” What a powerful and loaded statement.
There’s been a lot of public discussion, a lot of news stories and social media commentary, and conversations amongst friends and neighbors, I’m sure, in the last 10 days about what the bible says, and whether those things should take prominence in public policy decisions. I know how I feel about this; as a community-organizer-turned-pastor, I entered Seminary with the intention of becoming part of the Religious Left. I absolutely think our faith-inspired values have a role in the public arena and we have every right to work towards having our policies and laws reflect the values we hold and act upon in our daily lives. But I would argue that those “Christian” values center on dignity for all persons; care for the poor and disadvantaged; self sacrifice for the grater good; valuing the image of God in all people - ALL people; and compassion and grace for each other above all. It offends me that the label ‘Christian’ has been co-opted to represent only anti-abortion and anti-gay, leaving out the very Christian values that are a lot more prevalent in scripture and in the Christian legacy and in our government system. And the backlash to this, the instinct to remove all discussion of faith-inspired values from the public arena, is not an answer either, in my opinion. Rather, we can and should be proud of the values we hold dear that have been planted through our brushes with God, our participation in church, our engagement with scripture, or our experiences with those who embody these principles. Religious and philosophical debate shaped this nation, and we need not be ashamed to say so - rather, there’s plenty to be proud of - steeped in nuance and context.
So… today’s scripture offers another biblical value for you. Freedom, as declared in the bible.
Although Paul is by far the greatest proclaimer of freedom in our holy book, freedom to make your own choices is pretty evident in scripture. God bestows freedom from the beginning, allowing Adam and Eve free rein in the garden. They had parameters, sure, and consequences, but God didn’t erect a fence around the tree of knowledge. Their choices were their own. We see lots of characters in the bible make choices; Jonah and Elijah are free to choose to avoid God's requests; Jonah flees to Tarshish and ends up in the belly of a whale. Elijah finds himself in a cave talking to God trying to explain himself. King Soloman had the freedom to make his own choices (he chose 700 hundred wives and 300 concubines). King David made his own choices and chose to bed his neighbor's wife without her consent. So it's clear throughout the Bible that choice and freedom are evident in life with God. Through covenant, God specifies values and morals, but expects us to exercise our free will.
At this point in Paul’s letter to his community in Galatia, he is deep in his argument against his opponents. After Paul has left the region, other teachers have come to the area, preaching the need for the Galatians to follow the law as the first sign of obedience in their newfound faith in Christ. It’s important to remember that when Paul argues for or against the law, it is the religious law, and it includes the challenging requirements that identify one as a Jew - diet, cleanliness, and circumcision - which are those mentioned in the letter. Apparently, the teachers have claimed that obedience to these religious laws is how one connects with God, but Paul believes differently. For Paul, the necessity to adhere to painful and traumatic genital customs, or costly and alienating food restrictions, as requirements for faithfulness fell away when Jesus extended grace for all.
In fact, Jesus had a habit of breaking the religious law when human compassion called for it. He touched the unclean; he healed on the Sabbath; he turned over tables in the temple when he saw they were unjust; he spoke with and took water from an unclean woman at a well who’s heart needed redemption. He was confronted on many occasions by religious authorities for ignoring these religious laws, and he responded that man was not made for the law, rather the law was made for men - i.e. in cases where people are suffering, the law does not take precedence over compassion and responding to the need.
Throughout his ministry, Paul is very focused on this religious law as he is the evangelist most focused on bringing the gospel to those outside the Jewish community. To ask grown converts to submit to something like circumcision would be a prohibitive barrier to spreading the real message of Jesus; to 'love your neighbor as yourself’. The law, according to Paul, can also be a burden. To submit to the “yoke of slavery” is to return to a system in which one places trust in obedience to the law, surrendering too much critical thinking and free will to following rules at the expense of serving and loving others, our true calling in Christ.
So, for freedom Christ has set us free. And while he urges us to reject the yoke of slavery, before long Paul turned that phrase around, proclaiming that while we are not slaves, we must, in order to ensure the freedom that Christ offers, become slaves to one another.
Paul's version of freedom is certainly at odds with the fictional conservative correspondent from The Newsroom but perhaps closer to what Janis Joplin is hinting at - the connections we cherish.
The Christian idea of freedom does not look like living an unencumbered life. It should be clear from Paul’s use of ‘being slaves to one another’ that, no matter how popular it is to think of freedom as the absence of impediments and restraint, freedom requires responsibility.
One commentary - published over a decade ago but so prescient - put it so beautifully that I needed to quote it directly;
“Freedom is not the absence of entanglements; entanglements are the means by which freedom becomes meaningful. Who is freer: the confirmed bachelor or the husband and father discovering the range of emotions, values, and possibilities made possible through those relationships? Who will be freer: people in a society that vote for leaders who shape the laws that govern them or people in a society in which people have stopped voting? Who is freer: the woman who chooses to take ordination vows that bind her to the church or the one for whom ordination is not an option? Freedom is not a separation from relationships; it is a feature of relationships that becomes especially apparent as a result of our relationship” with God and Christ.
Freedom is a gift, a choice, and a burden. Freedom requires responsibility.
So how do we carry out this responsibility of freedom through our relationships? Paul’s very direct, short and sweet answer is that Christian relationships ought to be shaped by loving your neighbor as yourself. Choices have consequences, and so one responsibility of freedom is to look at the consequences of our actions. Freedom does not grant license to do anything we want without concern for the impact of those actions ourselves, our neighbor, or God’s foundation. Freedom has limits and constraints; otherwise, freedom becomes a destructive force rather than a liberating one.
This distinction about freedom is a Christian value that should be discussed more in the public sphere, in my opinion. It is at the crux of so many of our current controversies - what does freedom require of us?
During the pandemic, health precautions were codified. Restrictions on gathering, mask wearing, and eventually vaccination requirements for certain activities met with sometimes violent resistance. Even though those measures were enacted out of concern for public safety, many felt that the government went too far in imposing them upon the people even as hundreds of thousands of citizens were dying and even more hospitalized. How does your freedom from government mandates and wearing a mask compare with my freedom to live, work, grocery shop, or attend school safely?
Like public health, environmental protection has always revealed the fascinating tug of war between freedom and responsibility. When the air is common to everyone, who has the responsibility to ensure that it’s clean? Knowing the destruction that’s immanent with rising global temperatures - and knowing that those effects will fall, disproportionately as usual, on the poor, developing countries, and our own communities of color - what responsibility lies in our actions? In our careless energy waste of keeping lights on, appliances plugged in, the A/C super cool? In our freedom to drive whatever type of car we want? What is our responsibility to their future freedom from disaster?
Whose freedom matters more in the debate over gun safety? When does the freedom to carry arms interfere with my child’s freedom to go to school safely? Where is the responsibility in the freedom to carry arms?
Whose freedom matters more when it comes to an unexpected or unplanned pregnancy? As we all know, last week the nation’s highest court overturned a woman’s right to make her own decision regarding her bodily autonomy - at least in 13 states without driving across state lines. When I left for the weekend, abortion was legal, and when I returned it was illegal even in the case of rape and incest in Missouri. As the stories emerge from this unpopular decision, stories from those states with trigger laws, stories from women who have begun sharing their own abortion experiences, it becomes more and more clear how each and every story is entirely specific and personal, and yet this legal precedent was overturned without regard for the consequences to the health and well being of the women who find themselves in this position.
In this country that lauds its freedom but disputes how that applies to religion - perhaps we would all be well-served by a deeper investigation on what religion has to say about freedom. Truthfully, I believe so many of our public controversies would be well served by a deeper investigation into the wisdom of scripture. Because, folks, the problem isn’t religion in our public sphere, it’s the lack of biblical literacy that’s hurting us. On the conservative side, it’s the flattening of faith into litmus tests, cultural identity and slogans that can fit on a bumper sticker without critical thought or divergence. On the liberal side, it’s those of us who have discarded reading scripture, believing the bible isn’t relevant to modern society anymore. Religion is not the cause of our modern controversy and swing towards authoritarianism. As always, it is a tool that can be wielded and politically manipulated - just like the definition and the reality of freedom.
And one last thing. I included the gospel verse for all of you who might have been drafting incantations in your mind over the last 10 days, wondering how you might call down fire to smite your enemies. (you are not alone…) I love this verse, following immediately after Jesus telling the disciples that it is not their place to judge who is right and who is wrong. And the very next thing they do is inquire whether he wants them to smite their enemies. In my mind, there is a comic book square with a batman-like slap, when Jesus says “No you fools!” <Thwack>. ‘Our mission is not violence and not punishment. Our mission is love and compassion for all.’
As frustrating, as exaggerating, as infuriating as it is, as tempted as we might be to smite our enemies, we must, we must, we must continue to show our love for God by loving our neighbor. We must continue to engage, we must keep communication lines open, we must struggle to see the image of God in all people - ALL people. This is how we participate in our freedom. The antidote to all our stubbornness, our self-righteous sense of right-ness, our litmus-testing and our self-selection of like-minded community is to participate. Participate not just through voting, not just through rallies and social media, but participation in the processes of governing. Participation in caring for those discarded by unjust laws. Participation in building solidarity with the marginalized. But also participation in listening to those who disagree with us. Participation in managing this complex and nuanced society. Participation through service - in church positions, in elected positions, even as thankless cogs in the machinery of our democratic freedoms like working elections. It’s difficult when you participate in serving our democracy to see the other side as the enemy. It’s inconceivable to be an election worker and still believe in a conspiracy theory about stolen elections. And It’s impossible to participate and still feel alone.
Freedom is a gift, is a choice, and is a responsibility. And it requires participation. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, "Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
Paul is reminding us that christ’s perfect freedom engages us in a call. That call carries an obligation to our neighbor as well as to God, to invest ourselves in a community, to put up with the crackpots and the caregivers, with the lonely and the loving, with the delightful and the discarded. That call compels us to participate in community with such openness and generosity that our neighbor’s well-being is part and parcel to our own. And through our participation, come to know that Freedom isn’t a word for nothing left to lose - Freedom is best within a network of shared connection and love. For, as Nelson Mandela says, "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
May we all go out and participate in a way that protects and supports our freedom and the freedom of others this July 4th holiday, in the spirit of the Freedom given to us through Christ. And in that freedom, may we all live lives filled with God’s enormous grace, mercy, and compassion that manifests the fruits of the Spirit. Amen.