“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."”
For all my struggles with Paul’s epistles, when Paul is good, he’s good. IN this little passage (that’s really two verses stuck together with a bunch of omissions in between) we get the following: the freedom of a Christian derives from God. Freedom is something to be used—not hoarded. Freedom is a constant struggle—you never arrive at freedom without the risk of slipping backwards into oppression. Christian freedom is an opportunity for love—not for self-indulgence or individualism. And finally all law—which is related to freedom--is summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we are most free when we are most loving—counterintuitive, perhaps, to our 21st Century American ears, which tend to focus on freedom to be an individual rather than freedom to engage in community.
Last week, I went to the Four Freedoms FDR memorial on Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech was part of the State of the Union address which he offered on January 6, 1941—the Feast of the Epiphany, mind you…. It’s worth hearing the whole quote, and it’s a good prelude to celebrating July 4 this week in the context of today’s reading from Galatians:
"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."
Freedom of speech; freedom to worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear. No distant vision of the future, but something that is possible now. Even now, over 70 years later that vision lingers just far enough in the future that you can imagine what it would be like, even if you can’t imagine how we would get there from here. And these are gospel freedoms—every one of them, in its own way, is something that Jesus taught, whether it was by his giving authority and speech to women, or his desire to worship and practice his faith differently than many in his religion did, or his constant attention to the poor, or his faithfulness to die without giving in to the temptation to raise his hand in violence.
What struck me most upon reading the quote at the memorial was the repeated phrase, “everywhere in the world.” I cannot be truly free unless you are free; and you cannot be truly free unless I am free. So long as there is a woman in this world who cannot speak for fear of her husband or family or government, I am not free; so long as there is a man who is forced to worship a God he does not believe in, I am not free; so long as there are children who are starving, we are not free; so long as families hide in fear from militias, and terrorists, and drones, none of us are truly free. It is not enough to say, “I am an American so I am free”… both because not all Americans experience being an American as freedom, but also because citizens around the world do not share the freedoms many of us take for granted, and so our freedom is only a shadow of what it might be.
On Wednesday, after the Supreme Court rulings were announced, my Facebook feed lit up with many celebratory comments from gay friends and straight allies; but one from a friend in California named Anna was particularly striking: “Twenty years and two kids into our lives, Steve woke me this morning to propose that we get married.” Anna and I went through the ordination process together in Los Angeles, and at the time, she and her male partner were not married out of principle: they would not get married until their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters could get married. The diocese of LA had a lot of problems with that—they couldn’t figure out how a priest could function in a heterosexual relationship—and she was pregnant at the time—without being married. Eventually they figured it out, and Anna has been an ordained proclaimer of the gospel in urban parishes ever since. Anna and Steve chose to share the burden of being a non-married couple—with its financial costs and legal risks—until all their friends were free to do so—maybe not “everywhere in the world” as in FDR’s speech, but at least everywhere in their state. Part of Christian freedom is that when we are offered freedoms that are not offered to all—when we are given privilege or rights that exclude others—we sometimes offer our witness by standing in solidarity with them, to physically enact the spiritual reality that our freedom is dependent upon one another, and not ours alone.
The section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we heard today continues with the discussion of the desires of the flesh vs. the fruits of the Spirit; you can interpret that he wants us to be free from the desires of the flesh—and that big huge list—so that we can enjoy the fruits of the Spirit.
Now, I do not believe that we can take at face value Paul’s dichotomy between flesh and spirit in the 21st Century. Not all those vices in that list stem from what I’d think of as “flesh”…. Look at it in your bulletins, because I don’t want to have to read that whole list out loud again. But every one of those vices he lists puts self ahead of the neighbor. What Paul calls desires of the flesh, and what I’d call desires of the unhealthy self (because there are some very healthy desires of the self!) are desires that break or fracture or impair our relationship with our neighbor. They are desire that inhibit true freedom.
The fruits of the spirit all require relationship with a neighbor—and those are worth reading aloud again: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I think of all those fruits of the Spirit with Anna and Steve’s non-married relationship—both towards each other and towards their friends. Faithfulness, patience, love… and now freedom in community.
As Christians we are called to work for freedom—everywhere in the world. Freedom to love; freedom to vote; freedom of speech; freedom from want; freedom from fear; there are so many freedoms Christ calls us to.
Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate, and I remember the preacher, David Hurd, gave me the charge of Romans 12:15 to follow: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” and David added, specific to me, “Sing with those who sing.” I’m ready to weep with those who are weeping over this week’s Supreme court decisions. Today, however, I’m going to go rejoice with those who are rejoicing, and join the Episcopal float in the Gay Pride parade. If anyone wants to join me, I’ll be heading downtown after the service. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” and today is a good day to celebrate that.