Monday, July 04, 2005

In(ter)dependence Day

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

As a child I noticed what I thought was a fundamental difference between adults and children, and maybe something of an injustice. One day when I was maybe eight, I explained it to my father. I said, “Grown ups have it easy. You can drive a car, so you get to go wherever you want. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. You’ve got a job, so there’s always money in your pocket. I have to sit at home in the hot sun, and play with the same old friends day in and day out. Man, I can’t wait until I grow up.” It seemed to me that adults were free, but kids weren’t.

I can’t remember just what he said. But looking back on it now, I can imagine what he was thinking – and I’m sure you can too. But maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe most kids feel this way, envying grow-ups because they seem free to do more.

Of course, as is the natural way of things, I grew up and now look at things with rather different eyes. I own a car, sure, but I have to pay for and maintain it. I’ve got a job, but the money goes to pay for things like electric, insurance, tuition, pork steak: not things I would have been excited about as a kid. And although I suppose I could theoretically take a couple of hours on a Saturday and go wherever I wanted, the truth is, my family and I are usually too tired and uncreative to do even that. As an adult, I see with different eyes. In fact, it sounds like a pretty good idea to sit at home in the hot sun and play with my friends day in and day out. Unlike when I was a kid, it now seems to me that children are free, but adults aren’t.

Freedom seems quite elusive. Kids think adults are free; adults repay the compliment. We chase after any number of things, thinking they would help us to be free, only to find them a burden. Historically, Americans have sought freedom by moving west to the frontier, only to reproduce there the same circumstances which prompted them to move in the first place. Or we have sought the supposed refuge and freedom of the suburbs, only to be saddled with more pressure, more traffic, more suspicion, more sprawl. Each of us knows in some way the bitterness, heartbreak and frustration of chasing after elusive freedom.

It might be especially appropriate to meditate on this theme this morning, the day before we Americans celebrate Independence Day, marking the anniversary of the freedom which swells our breasts and fires our imaginations.

Continue reading In(ter)dependence Day

Although he doesn’t use the word, Paul talks about freedom today in his letter to the Romans. But the struggle Paul talks about is within: “when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” He wants to be freed to pursue the good, God’s will, which he delights in. But he also knows the frustration of being tempted to do what he knows to be wrong. He doesn’t just want to be free from constraints; he knows that real freedom is freedom to do the right thing. He calls this internal struggle a war – and who doesn’t know a little of that?

Now, I think it is worth taking a minute to look closely at what Paul says here, because it might be easy to hear the wrong thing. Paul talks about his mind being a servant of God, but his flesh being a servant of sin. One might possibly be lured into thinking that Paul is condemning the body, as if there were something wrong with physical existence. We might then also think that Paul is saying that our mind or our thoughts or some sort of disembodied spiritual existence is what the Christian life is about.

But this isn’t what he means. And although some Christians have sometimes sounded like this, we need to be clear that that is false. Our bodies are every bit as beloved and redeemed by God through Christ as our minds or our souls are. Paul would agree. The problem isn’t the body, but the flesh. That’s a word that he uses to mean our carnal instincts and malformed appetites. These pull at us, mind and body, and tempt us to do things which are unloving or hurtful. We’ve all felt them, all wrestled with them at times. But it’s not at all the same as the body.

How interesting, then, that when Paul talks abut being free from the flesh, he doesn’t just mean being untied from this tendency to sin. For Paul, true freedom is being untied from sin and tied to Christ. Being free isn’t for him just a matter of becoming a free agent, a solitary individual. Rather, freedom is a matter of relationship: chiefly with God through Jesus Christ, but also with those around us.*

This goes against some popular ideas about freedom. Most people would probably say that freedom is a matter of being free from something. We are free from commitments, free from relationships, free to do (as my eight-year old mind conceived it) whatever we want. Not so with Paul. For him, freedom is being a servant – he uses the word ‘slave’ – to the Law of God. This is not freedom from something, but freedom for something: freedom for doing what he knows to be good and right.

We find this same idea at work in the gospel reading for today. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Because most people today aren’t farmers, we might lose some of the vividness of this image. A yoke is a long, smooth piece of wood which is slung over the necks of oxen or other animals, so that they can walk together and pull something like a plow. So when Jesus invites us to take his yoke, he is inviting us to walk alongside him, to learn his way of moving and working in the world. And again, the word freedom isn’t used here, but it seems clear from the context. If we want freedom from the sorts of weariness and heavy burdens that the world lays on us, it comes not merely from shrugging them off, but by the kind of apprentice relationship that comes from walking alongside Jesus.

Perhaps what we might take from these two lessons is that we become who we most truly are not in isolation but in relation; not in independence, but in interdependence.

We can’t simply do this on our own. But as we take Jesus’ yoke and walk with him, we will learn from him who we most truly are. We will learn there not that we are just fine, for we know otherwise, but we will learn that we are loved beyond measure.

And we will see the perfect love which lies at the heart of God: the love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. We will see that the love within the blessed Trinity overflows onto the whole creation, including each one of us. That powerful, passionate love is set on redeeming and restoring us. It is precisely in that relationship with God that we are given our true identity as beloved of God – and in that our true freedom. Through that, we are freed to love and serve others, and to accept gratefully their love and service in return.

Friends, we run after and grasp at all manner of other freedoms, but they elude us because they are illusions. True freedom, God’s freedom, flows out of who we are in God’s love. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.

* This latter point, about others, is not so clear from this passage but comes to the fore later in Paul’s letter.


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