3 Pentecost B—6/30/19
Pr. Scott Kramer
On the Sunday before Independence Day it seems appropriate that our reading from Galatians is all about freedom: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So, take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you!
Well, what does freedom mean to you? If we were to take a survey this morning, some familiar responses likely would rise to the top: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of the press. At their best, these rights empower citizens without power. At their worst, they become tools for greed and oppression. This past week, for example, you may have heard that our Supreme Court—in the name of “free speech”–approved the use of obscenities as trademarks. You now have legal permission to name a product or a company with a name that sounds obscene.
Is this—or any constitutional/legal rights and freedoms–what Paul is speaking of when he proclaims that “Christ has set us free to live a free life”?
In today’s gospel reading Jesus extends an invitation to those he encounters, the same invitation he extends to us: “Follow me.” Notice the good intentions of those who respond. “I will follow you, Lord! But first…” Notice how those who earnestly want to follow Jesus can’t quite put Jesus first. It’s a universal problem, and a daily temptation for all of us.
It’s so easy to settle for less, and that’s certainly the case where Christian freedom is concerned. What exactly is Christian freedom? You know the answer: It’s about love. It’s always about love! As Paul puts it: For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.
The shocking thing about this command is that it doesn’t fit human definitions of love, just as Christian freedom doesn’t fit human definitions of freedom. Christian love isn’t our natural love of people or groups who are merely extensions of ourselves. For example, the chart in your bulletin–both categories together–describes as clearly as possible what Christian love looks like.
- Your family
- Your country
- Your religion
- Your race
- Your gender identity/sexual orientation
- Other families
- Other countries
- Other religions
- Other races
- Other gender identities/sexual orientations
Notice in our reading from Luke how those who want to follow Jesus put family first. On this Sunday before Independence Day, there will be plenty of evidence in the days ahead that many put not just love of family but love of country well before the heavy demands of Christian love. Follow Jesus? Yes! But first…
Christian discipleship is not simply showing up at church on Sunday. But to the extent that we do simply show up, we practice and equip ourselves to “show up” when the stakes are higher. Weekly worship can be training for when just showing up may be a matter of life and death for the “other.” We should never expect to be ready to risk much when the stakes are high without regular practice when the stakes are much lower.
That point was driven home to me a week ago, at an interfaith conversation about the movie “Emanuel” up at St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was a conversation about race and justice led by a Lutheran pastor, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim woman leader, and an African Methodist Episcopal pastor (which, of course, sounds like a set-up for a “walked-into-a-bar” joke!)
At one point an African-American woman spoke up and noted that American racism today is just a continuation of the oppression that has existed for four hundred hears. After she finished, the Jewish rabbi jumped in: “I just have to say,” he added, “that oppression is not just four hundred years old.” Speaking from personal experience and as a Jew, he said, “Oppression of my people has been around for thousands of years!”
The oppression he speaks of is includes millions of nominal Christians through the centuries who through aggression or silence have failed to obey the one God-given law that we’ve been given to follow: Love others as you love yourself.
It was a privilege to witness that conversation at St. Mark’s! But it was what happened next that I remember most. Referring to the growing tide of injustice and hatred in our land, an African-American Christian spoke up: “You white people need to stand up and speak up,” she said. Sounds like St. Paul in today’s reading: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
What is this “harness of slavery” that keeps us privileged people quiet? It’s the slavery of indifference, maybe, but more likely the slavery of fear. Where fear prevails, there can never be Christian freedom. And where God’s people cave in to fear, there cannot be obedience to the one Christian command: Love others as you love yourself.
Today, as we’ve done many times in years gone by, some of us will join thousands of others for the Pride Parade in Seattle. Some will be walking with signs and banners. Others will be cheering us on from the sides. It’s a pretty low-risk way of answering Jesus’ call to follow, without saying, “But first…”
In his World War I-era poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats describes the world in which he lived:
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“The best lack all conviction.” Or, “I will follow you, Lord…but first…” Discipleship—following Jesus—sooner or later becomes public, and for all disciples it involves at least some risk. In times such as ours when the loudest and most powerful among us bully, degrade, and attack the dignity of the “other,” loving others as ourselves means that silence among disciples of Jesus is not an option.
The question for each of us is this: Since Christ has called you with the words, “Follow me,” what loyalties most tempt you to respond, “Yes! But first…”