Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2022 || Proper 8C || Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Back in college, I had a habit of writing verses of scripture in silver Sharpie on my guitar case. Every time a verse really grabbed me and burrowed itself into my heart, the verse wound up on the case until there were fourteen in all. The one at the very top of the case is from today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “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 servants to one another.”
I love this verse. I love it because in just a few words, Paul gets to the heart of the paradox of freedom. When we first think about the concept of “freedom,” I would hazard to guess that most of us think about “freedom” in its pseudo-patriotic habitat. We sing about the land of the “free” in our national anthem, but this does not mean everyone agrees on what “freedom” means or what it demands of us as a community. During the height of the pandemic, people who made scenes at Wal-Mart and the grocery store when told to wear a mask, shouted about their “freedom” being taken away. To many Americans, “freedom” means something akin to “getting to do what I want whenever I want.”
(In light of the Supreme Court decision on Friday, I need to clarify one thing about this individualistic version of freedom. I am not equating tantrums over mask wearing with a person’s right to reproductive medical care. Since the early 1990s, the Episcopal Church has been an advocate for the right to make informed decisions about reproductive care. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry affirmed this advocacy with a statement on Friday that I am happy to share with anyone who’d like to read it.)
That being said, let’s explore this American notion of individualistic freedom meaning “getting to do what I want whenever I want.”
I’m going to put on my political scientist hat for a few minutes to talk about why this definition of freedom is faulty. If everyone got to do what they wanted, we would reach a state of chaos pretty quickly. 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called this kind of absolute freedom the “state of nature”; in this state, Hobbes says, there really is no opportunity to exercise one’s freedom because of the constant need to protect oneself from other people’s exercise of their freedom. If you’ve ever seen a movie like Mad Max set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, you know the “state of nature” I’m talking about. Another Enlightenment political theorist, John Locke, argued that governments are instituted to protect property rights; he coined the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property,” which Thomas Jefferson then rewrote a hundred years later as “the pursuit of happiness.”
Locke started from the premise that people will inherently grab as much stuff as they possibly can, no matter how this grabbing destabilizes the rest of society. So, if society is a lawless landscape, there is no freedom because everyone is so busy protecting themselves from everyone else. A government then, Locke argues, creates freedom by curtailing it. But Locke was operating from a very limited perspective, in which only a small number of people counted in this theoretical government. Hundreds of years later, we are still straining against the conceptual limitations of Enlightenment political theory that forms the backbone of our governmental systems.
During the colonial period, this European understanding of freedom as the assertion of the right to individual property ran smack into Indigenous understandings of freedom. In many Indigenous societies on the continents on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and in Africa, freedom was seen as the state of community in which everyone is responsible for everyone else. Freedom happened because people and the land were cared for in symbiotic relationships. No one owned the land; people were part of the land, part of the ecosystem, not dominators of it. This worldview made no sense to European colonizers because they saw property rights as the height of civilization; and so they decided the Indigenous peoples they encountered were “uncivilized.”
But the Apostle Paul echoes the Indigenous wisdom: “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 servants to one another.” In other words, use your freedom to choose to serve one another in love, and then, when everyone’s needs are met, all people will be freer than they’ve ever been.
This beautiful understanding of freedom is profoundly different from the one that gets the most airtime. The hyper-individualistic idea of freedom (“getting to do whatever I want”) is an immature way of participating in society. And it stems from a worldview of extreme scarcity that sees the neighbor not as a subject of love but as the Competition. But Paul says, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
This love is one of the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul lists later in today’s lesson. Along with love, the fruit of the Spirit is “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These values are best pursued in the freedom of mutual relationships at interpersonal and societal levels.
- We find joy in the good fortune of others.
- We cultivate peace by ordering society so everyone can thrive.
- We practice patience because society does not change overnight.
- We offer kindness as a balm to soothe each other’s violent tendencies.
- We extend generosity to change that worldview of scarcity into one of abundance.
- We share faithfulness, trusting one another and trusting the God who binds us together.
- We move with gentleness, amidst the knowledge that everyone is in pain for one reason of another.
- And we work on our self-control, treading lightly on this earth and not falling victim to the consumptive forces of the market.
In all this we love – we love one another into greater freedom. We choose in our freedom to serve our loving God, who unshackles us from the fear that keeps us focused on scarcity.
When we look out at the world from a perspective of extreme scarcity, we will see our chance at freedom as a zero-sum game instead of an exercise in cooperation. We will seek to curtail the freedom of others so that our freedom can grow. But that’s not how true freedom works. Our liberating God calls us to a different worldview, one that we continually have to train ourselves to see, to train ourselves out of the hyper-individualism that contorts our culture. Our liberating God calls us to the freedom of humble and mutual loving service, one to another. This is the vision of the beloved community of God. All care and all are cared for. All thrive because no one is simply trying to survive. All love and are beloved.
God calls us to this divinely inspired vision of community. And we can choose to model this loving service in our lives, with God’s help, and move our world closer to true freedom.