The Freedom to Love and Be Loved

On June 30, 2016 by Jennifer Creswell

Rev. Jennifer M. Creswell

My family is a little obsessed with Hamilton right now and so I’ve been listening over and over to these songs about a young nation trying to get free from its colonizers. Freedom is at the core of our national story—land of the free and home of the brave. Of course America enslaved people, and then they fought for their freedom. Today America shines like a beacon of freedom to people all over the world enslaved by violence, famine, war, and corruption. We Americans hold freedom as an ideal. We believe ourselves to be free.

But sometimes we forget that freedom isn’t just for us, for me. It can’t be. Sometimes we mistake freedom for self-indulgence. If I am free—with no expectations or regulations, then I’m gonna get in the way of other people’s thriving. Right? My freedom to own a gun and take it into a public place and shoot at people infringes on the freedom of those people to be safe. My freedom not to pay taxes if I don’t want to infringes on the freedom of others to use the schools, roads, police services and libraries those taxes fund. My freedom to stretch out in the airplane seat infringes on the freedom of my seatmates to a comfortable ride. My freedom to eat all the pie infringes on the freedom of the other people around the table to have dessert. It’s natural law as well as civil law. It’s also spiritual law: I can’t be free if other people are still enslaved.

In Galatians Paul says these stunning words about freedom: “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.” We were called to freedom. It’s not something we earned when our ancestors fought a war against the British, it’s something God has gifted every human being with. It’s something God calls us to practice. We can choose freedom or we can choose the opposite. What’s the opposite of freedom? It’s not slavery or oppression. The opposite of freedom, according to Paul, is self-indulgence. We are free—thanks to God—and we get to use our freedom to love others into freedom. Become slaves to one another. Kind of changes the meaning of freedom.

Nelson Mandela—who knew a thing or two about freedom—said: “For 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.”

Real-life story: because of some things that have happened recently in my life, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender inequity in the Episcopal Church. Like that only 3% of bishops are women. Like that full-time female clergy still earn, on average, $10,000 less than their male counterparts annually. Like that cathedral deans and the rectors of cardinal parishes are more likely to be men, and associate and part-time priests are more likely to be women. This makes me mad. It affects me and my family and the Church I love. And as I’ve been doing some work on this issue, I’ve been convicted. Because women aren’t the only ones hurting in our church body. Clergy of color are even less represented than women. Gay and trans clergy—especially in some areas of the country—have a harder time getting hired. If I want to see a better Episcopal Church, I need to work to make it better for all people, not just the people like me. So I’m changing the way I go about this work.

I’m switching gears here and taking us into Gospel territory, but I’ll come back around to Paul and freedom.

Jesus has been showing up to me in a new way. See, a lot of his sayings, as they are recorded in the Gospels, sound, well, harsh to my ears. When I first started reading scripture, really reading it—all of it—it struck me that Jesus wasn’t this heroic social justice champion that I thought he was. He was…not always nice, the way you might be if you just wanted to be a good person. He said these things that I found, frankly, kinda embarrassing. Like telling his best friend, “get behind me, Satan!” Or like today’s Gospel: you want to follow me? Then forget about your family. Forget about everything that matters to you. You have to be undivided in your devotion to me. There was still the good stuff I liked about Jesus—the healing, the preaching, the miracles. He did the radical love thing that surprised people who were immersed in their conventions. I liked that. But I didn’t know what to do with the other Jesus, the Jesus who sounded callous or distanced. I wonder how many of you are with me on this? Have you wondered who Jesus really is? Have you been confused by what seem like contradictions in Jesus’ behavior and what he preaches?

What I’m starting to grasp—like, truly just beginning to see the tiniest bit of or almost touching the loose string on the tail of the kite—is that I think Jesus isn’t being harsh; he’s teaching us the truth about living an enlightened life. And by ‘enlightened life’ I mean a life totally immersed in God. He’s hit nirvana and the truth he wants to share with us is that it is amazing…but it’s not easy. It’s not gentle. It doesn’t even always look like something you’d want.

I’m starting to understand Jesus as a practitioner—as one who lives all the time in the sort of spiritual awareness that you and I might experience a handful of times in our lives if we’re lucky. And Jesus loves us too much to sugar-coat it. He’s not going to make it sound easier than it is because that’s not who he is. And if we can stick with him, we might experience some of the one-ness with God that he has. But Jesus is not trying to be a gatekeeper and make sure only the right people get there. That’s not why he says the things that sound harsh. He’s trying to be real with us about the challenges we’ll experience as we follow the path to God. It’s a really hard path. But we know that Jesus is on it with us and we know that the boundless love of God is the jewel of it. And, truly, if we choose it, we will be kinder, more responsible, more loving people than we are now.

I wonder if this passage isn’t so much Jesus saying, “ignore your family commitments and forget about the people you love and come with me,” as it is Jesus being very real with the people who are attracted to him and letting them know that this God-full life is full of tough choices. That this awakened life doesn’t work around our priorities and commitments but it has to be our priority and our hope. That the ones who are able to have the openness and spaciousness to be okay with any outcome are the ones who will know God.

Listen to the way The Message Bible translates this passage:

“On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.
Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.” Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!” Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.” Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”

It’s a choice. No one is forcing us to pursue God, but if we do, we will find our priorities changed. We will discover that we make different choices. We will see the world differently.

Seeing differently. This is what Paul’s talking about in 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 slaves to one another.” Slavery looks totally different through the lens of Christ. Through a human lens, it’s repugnant. Criminal. But through the lens of Christ, slavery becomes something we choose to submit to out of love for each other. It’s like with the words of scripture, there is a first reading and a second reading. The first reading sounds like, ‘let go of your own desires and submit to one another.’ But the second reading sounds more like, ‘once you have understood that your freedom comes from God, you are free to love and be loved. So use your freedom to be completely open and generous to others rather than to gratify your own desires.’

See, if we make our own desires our highest priority, we end up destroying ourselves. If we make other people our top priority, we end up disappointing them and feeling depleted. If we make God our highest priority, then we become the kind of people who really make a difference for others, and we become the kind of people who have everything we desire—and so much more. Amen.

Comments are closed.