The First Scripture: Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
1I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. 2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. 11I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. 12I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. 13Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? 14You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. 15With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah 16When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. 17The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. 18The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 9Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. 20You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
The Second Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
5For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 3For 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. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The Manuscript: Freedom
Wouldn’t life be wonderful without rules? Nobody to answer to, not a care in the world, doing whatever we want to whenever we want to – wouldn’t that be great?
Show of hands – who would love a life like that?
Those of you who didn’t raise your hands – why didn’t you? (one or two answers)
Sure, it seems like a good life without any rules, but if everyone did whatever they wanted without any guidelines at all, the world would be in chaos, wouldn’t it. Maybe I should rephrase that. The world would be in even more chaos than it already is. We would be living in fear of one another, unsure what our neighbor would do, just as our neighbor would live in fear of what we would do.
It almost sounds like the world we’re living in already, doesn’t it? We live in an immature world led by our selfish desires. We need laws and rules to keep us in line. To keep us safe.
In the reading from Psalms, we are reminded that the Hebrew people needed to be led by the hand of God through the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They had left the only home they knew. Even though they lived as slaves in Egypt, that was their comfort zone, and they were now outside of it. To feel safe in their journey, they needed the explicit revelation of God’s power in their natural surroundings – in the storm and in the calm. They needed the visual reassurance of God’s Presence in a column of cloud and a pillar of fire. They needed the tactile proof of God’s love in the form of Manna; a food they didn’t even need to work for.
From the book of Exodus, we know they needed a list of “don’ts” that we call the Ten Commandments, and that eventually, they would need a list of 613 Laws, recorded in Leviticus, to follow in order to feel that they were living a right life.
We know, too, that through selfishness and greed, they broke those laws time and again.
When I was little, I would sometimes wake up in the dark, and I would feel like I was in a different world, surrounded by strange things. I would feel disconnected from everything and everyone I loved. A sense of panic would set in. I would reach for a sister who shared the bed or pull a soft blanket up close to my chin and put my thumb in my mouth for comfort. I needed to physically feel my sister’s presence or the warmth and softness of the blanket to know I was alright.
I felt the same sense of panic whenever we moved to a new place – something we did a lot of. As long as I was with my family, I was fine. I was surrounded by love, acceptance, security. But then would come the first day at a new school. Terror. Free floating anxiety. The overwhelming urge to flee.
If I had not been required to go to school, I would not have. After the first boy teased me, sensing my fear, I would have walked out the front door of whichever new school it was and run home to my room, and to shelter. It was only the law that kept me there long enough to find a friend or two, and to experience the joy of learning things I would never learn at home.
Rules. When we are young, we really need them, don’t we? We need the guiding hand of a loving adult to keep us safe and to teach us what we need to know in this world. We need them to hold on to us so we don’t fall into danger. Any parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or babysitter – excuse me, childcare provider – knows that you sometimes have to literally follow a small child around, telling them “no, don’t touch that!” “No, you’ll get hurt!” “Don’t stick your finger in that!” “Don’t do this, don’t do that!” Sometimes, if they get too close to danger, the little one might get their hand slapped.
But then, over time, we begin to let go, watch from a distance, let them explore their surroundings using the wisdom we have given them. Our “no’s” are replaced by “yes’s” and they have the freedom to grow into the human beings they are meant to be.
Think about when you were young, learning to ride a bicycle. If you don’t ride a bike, perhaps there’s something else you can think of to substitute. It was a process, right? Some of us started with training wheels that kept us upright until we were ready to try our luck on two wheels. Then, an adult – usually Dad or Mom – would help us climb onto the bike, steady our balance, and walk with us for awhile, hand on the back fender or the back of the seat while we got the wheels turning and built up momentum. As we went, they would be giving us advice, right? “Don’t go too fast,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t look back,” “Don’t ride on the wrong side of the road,” “Don’t go too far.”
We might not get it the first time, but eventually, as we went through this process, the adult holding on, and we would build up that momentum, that speed, and they would be running along beside us, when suddenly we would burst forward and they would let go.
They would let go. Yet, they were there, behind us, watching us, proud of our new freedom. And if we fell, they were there to pick us up. In fact, as I went through this process, I remained afraid to go on my own for a long time. My parents resorted to a little trick: Dad began to surreptitiously lift my training wheels higher and higher. I didn’t notice it, but I was riding a little sideways for awhile, the bike moving from one training wheel to the other as I turned corners. This went on for awhile, until one day…one day I went down one of those sloping curbs and my bike didn’t lean at all. I flew down that curb onto the street on two wheels, and when I realized it, I felt a freedom I don’t think I had known before that moment!
Over time, we were on our own more and more. We became responsible for picking ourselves up; still, we always knew they were there for us. To inspire. To care. To love. Of course, it wasn’t just about the bicycle. It was about our lives. It was about our freedom.
And once we had our freedom, we sometimes used it badly. I know I did. I know I do.
These same principles apply to our spiritual lives. Now, I know we are all at different places in our spiritual walks – but we are all on one, or we wouldn’t be here, in this building, worshiping together. We are all seeking a way to get closer to God, and we are all doing it by learning how to follow the Way of the Christ.
By the time Jesus came along, it seems that the Jews had come to rely on the Law so intently that there was no freedom for them to grow. They were oppressed by an occupying Rome, and yet in that oppression they were in their own comfort zone, believing themselves to be protected by the Law and by their concept of a loving yet judgmental God Who would not hesitate to slap their hands if they reached too far.
In John 8:31-32, Jesus himself says that if we follow him, we will learn the truth – and that truth will set us free! The truth, Jesus taught, was that the “Kingdom of God” is within reach, and that there are but two Laws – not 613! In fact, if you think about it, if we would only abide by those two Laws, we could not fail to follow all ten of the original commandments! For, if we actually loved the Lord with ALL of our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we would never do the things we are told not to do on that list. Of course, it’s easier said than done, as the saying goes, isn’t it?
Theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes that as Christians, we are called to “live deeply and richly in this life through personal and social structures of love, and to participate everlastingly in the life of God.” We are called to live in the “Kingdom of God” now, in this life. In order to respond to that call, we need to emulate the attributes of God.
In the life of Jesus, we are given the perfect example of those attributes, but just knowing about his life is not enough for us to imitate him. We need to have some guidelines. Not the Law, no, but guidelines for identifying how to be more Christ-like. Ways to know when we are wandering off the path.
In our second scripture today, Paul is writing to the church in Galatia with some suggestions about living in the freedom that they have received through their baptism as new followers of Christ. He gives them, not a set of Laws to follow, but two lists of behaviors. One list is a set of ways we can selfishly take advantage of our freedom, which he calls “works of the flesh.” The other is a list of what Paul calls the “fruits of the Spirit,” that is, those behaviors that manifest when we respond to the call of God to live in the Spirit.
I don’t think the first list is a register of rules. Let’s review them: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and related things. I think rather than a list of “don’ts,” these are signs that we are not using our freedom in Christ wisely. We are choosing poorly and behaving selfishly – seeking instant gratification like small children. As long as we are choosing these behaviors, as individuals or as a society, we cannot live fully in God.
I don’t think the second list is a inventory of “must-do’s,” either. I think they are signs of positive spiritual development. If we wish to mature, to grow closer to what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God,” we will choose these behaviors. We will yearn to live in ways that will help us become more like Jesus, and we will recognize the signs that we are doing so. As we truly accept the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we will follow the Christ in us into a life that exhibits those gifts of Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Contrary to the belief of many who are not in the church, making unwise choices and sometimes behaving badly does not make those of us in the church bad Christians or bad people. It simply means that we have not yet fully come into the Kingdom. It means we are human. It is our nature to take the easy road, to serve ourselves, to seek instant gratification. Just as it took work and guidance for us to learn to ride the bicycle, it takes the same for us to walk our paths without the constant badgering of rulemakers and Laws. We must choose to live wisely. As we do, we will come to reveal the nature of God through Christ in us.
As United Methodist Christians, we can look to the teachings of our founder, John Wesley, for help as we try to understand how to use our freedom well and grow into mature Christians. In his sermon “On Zeal,” Wesley wrote that “In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers; - longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in "the mind which was in Christ Jesus." In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers- by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety - reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord's supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the church, dispersed all over the earth - a little emblem of which, of the church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.”
That last sentence explains why we gather in congregations and small groups on a regular basis. We are all called to live in the Spirit. If you don’t know it yet, be still and know God for a minute. You’ll feel it – that sense of God’s Grace, luring you toward a life of love.
We help one another to choose wisely. We help one another to grow in Christ. It’s not something we have to do. It’s something we choose to do. As Theologian Paul F. Knitter of Union Theological Seminary so simply and eloquently put it in his book Without Buddha, I Could not be a Christian, “Freedom is when you do something you don’t have to do.”
Through Christ, God has given us the freedom to choose. Yet, knowing that we are yet children, God is never far from our reach. When I was a little girl waking up in the dark or walking down the hall toward a new classroom, I learned to pray. I always prayed the traditional Lord’s Prayer, as I learned it in Sunday School and I felt better. As an adult, I learned the Shaker version, which asks God not to “lead us not into temptation,” but not to “leave us in temptation.” I don’t believe that God tempts us or tests us, but that by our choices, we fall into the temptations of what Paul called “the flesh;” that is, the self-gratifying behaviors of being human.
Yes, we seek to follow the Christ and live our lives inspired by the Gifts of the Spirit. We want to live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But, we all fall once in awhile. Sometimes we even slip into the Works of the Flesh! Still, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to hang on religiously to rules that bind our spirits. We can let go.
When we fall down, all we need to do is ask God’s help in pulling us out. Through prayer and through one another, we find the encouragement we need to choose wisely, and to get back up, get back on our bikes, and fly free.
You can watch me give this sermon here.