Freedom Calls

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Our New Testament reading for today comes to us from the apostle Paul’s letter to the communities of Galatia—from Galatians chapter 5, Paul writes:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."…Now the works of the flesh (today we might say ego) are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these… by contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.(Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

Well there’s more to the lesson than that, but that is more enough for now; let us listen together now for what the Spirit may be saying to us today.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was active in a church that was slipping into the trap of fundamentalism. A small but zealous group within that community took it upon themselves to set the rest of us straight (and I do mean straight). Most people sat on the sidelines and watched -- as a gifted pastor and his relationship with that community were systematically destroyed; as a trusting young Sunday school teacher was tricked and publicly ridiculed by his own scripture slinging students. His crime, by the way, was welcoming a visitor from a different religious tradition to share her faith with those students. Books disappeared from the library. Lots of ugly words were exchanged. Every meeting, a new opportunity for warfare. There are many ways to be in enslaved.

Controversy in community, it turns out, has been part of Christian experience from the very earliest days. Paul’s letter to the Galatians in our lectionary today is, in fact, one of the oldest and angriest documents in the whole Christian canon, according to Marcus Borg. In his fascinating new book Evolution of the Word, Borg takes all 27 documents that make up the New Testament, and places them in the order in which they were written (which happened over more than a century). This simple but powerful presentation helps us see more clearly the evolution of ideas about Jesus, the practices of his followers and the controversies that arose among them over time. The word evolves, spirituality evolves, human consciousness evolves, and in an evolutionary universe, perhaps we should expect that the living Word, the Mystery that we call God, evolves as well. Change is not our enemy.

Galatians, second in Borg’s order, was written only about 20 years after the death of Jesus and several decades before anyone ever thought to write down a gospel account. So, long before there were written stories of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and all the parables, miracles, angels, shepherds, and empty tombs that they offer to our imagination, there were whole communities of Jesus followers and disagreements within them. In Galatians, Paul is really angry about disagreements that have surfaced around the challenge of diversity--specifically, what to do about all those unclean Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus. These earliest communities were still very much Jewish, although as Jesus followers they sought to be radical, inclusive expressions of that faith. In first century Jewish practice, however Gentiles were actively avoided. So, how to reconcile these conflicting forces? Did the Gentiles have to become Jews? Observe dietary laws? Get circumcised? (a pretty big barrier to community!) Paul, like Jesus before him, would insist: all are welcome; just as you are. Other leaders taught otherwise and Paul does not take this well. The verse that sets up today’s reading, but never quite makes it into the lectionary cycle, is this little gem: “I wish those who would unsettle you would castrate themselves.” Life in community, always an adventure.

I find it kind of comforting in a depressing sort of way to realize that false gospels, like the ones condemned here by Paul, are older than the gospels themselves. And, of course, there are plenty of false gospels alive and well today—all those things that make us unfree to use Paul’s imagery. For Paul, freedom is not just political. It is also, perhaps more importantly, a way of living grounded incompassion—freedom for love of neighbor andlove of self. It is available to all who are willing for the Spirit of Love, this mysterious, universal, transforming power that Paul insists repeatedly is beyond us and within us at the very same time. It is what scripture often calls “the kingdom of heaven” which has nothing to do with an afterlife, and everything to do with the quality of our lives here and now.

The forces that diminish our capacity for love and keep us in bondage are as active today as ever—all those things that separate us from one another and from our true selves. In my experience, the most destructive false gospels are all those that hinge on the word if: you are worthy if, you will get into heaven if, God loves youif-- if you believe certain things, behave a certain way.If you go to church on Sunday, this church not that one, if you hate and avoid all those people over there. If “you get it”. If you’ve “got it all together.” If you are just rich enough, thin enough, happy enough, hetero enough, healthy enough, good enough. I don’t know all that much, but I do know this: there is no if in God; every human being, every creature and every feature of this astonishing planet is beloved. Everything belongs, as Franciscan scholar Richard Rohr likes to say. Exploring that truth, living that reality, discovering it implications, learning to trust belovedness, and following the thread it weaves in and of our lives is the real task of human being. Love is our true identity, our deepest dignity, and most authentic call. It is the call of freedom: love neighbor, love self.

This is, by the way, the opposite of “getting to do whatever I want to,” asserting MY right to think and act however I choose, believe whatever I want to, exclude whomever I dislike, impose my religion on everyone else. Paul calls this self indulgence, and he offers a pretty colorful list of its consequences, including idolatry, jealousy, anger, dissention.  A life centered on self is a powerful form of bondage. And he contrasts this with the consequences of a life rooted in love--joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not things we seek to acquire as a way of feeling good about ourselves or gaining God’s favor; they are the result of a certain way of living.

Still, the pursuit of right belief, correct practice, rules of belonging, that one true answer—is very seductive. Rohr, in his fabulous new book Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, calls this moralism which, he says, is a universal substitute for mysticism—by which he means authentic experience. Sticking with the externals—things to do or not do, believe or reject—keeps us safe and cozy. Letting it all go, surrendering to the power of Love, is a risky business; it invites our openness to change, freedom and the transformation that they bring.

Rose Mary Dougherty in her beautiful book Discernment: A Path to Spiritual Awakening, writes, “Freedom is at the heart of who we are. It is not something we acquire; it is something we live into. As we come to live more and more in that place of true identity, we are grasped by Love… and that love gradually determines all our choices. We begin to awaken to the invitations issued by love and are ready to respond out of the authenticity of our being.”

I am deeply grateful, actually, for all those years in troubled community. They were very hard at times, but they shaped me, and inspired me to all kinds of exploration and study. They helped me discover first hand not just the consequences of moralism in community, but more importantly in myself. My righteous anger made me every bit as closed, uncompassionate and unfree as anyone. It was a dysfunctional family, but it was my family. And, I met some of the kindest most encouraging people on the planet in that place; the Spirit grows in every kind of soil. So my leaving was a shock. It became immediately necessary because of an unrelated and bizarre personal situation. It was excruciating. But, right in the heart of the worst confusion and darkness, I clearly heard freedom’s call; sometimes, it turns out, love means shutting up and walking away.

Freedom does not give us answers, but it does offer us lots of invitations. And learning to hear them is a life-long process that requires our attention, intention, practice, prayer, the kind of prayer grounded in deep listening; all of this, I believe, happens most fully in community. I long for answers as much as anyone. But after all these many years, I just keep finding more questions. I’m trying to learn to love them, and to appreciate that the best ones don’t bring closure at all; rather they open us up to new and deeper ways of seeing what’s already right before us. So instead of what do I believe?, we might ask, what do I trust? And why? What in my life right now brings me joy? Where do I experience the most dis-ease? What is the Spirit’s invitation for me in all of that? What leads me toward—and what draws me away from--freedom for love? So lets keep asking, lets ask together, lets trust in Love, and lets listen for freedom’s call. I don’t know, but I have heard, it might sound something like this.

We Are Called
Come! live in the light!
Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord!
We are called to be light for the kingdom,
to live in the freedom of the city of God!

Refrain: We are called to act with justice.
We are called to love tenderly.
We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.

Come! Open your heart!
Show your mercy to all those in fear!
We are called to be hope for the hopeless,
so all hatred and blindness will be no more!

Sing! Sing a new song!
Sing of that great day when all will be one!
God will reign and we'll walk with each other
as sisters and brothers united in love!