Consequences of Freedom

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 5, 2017, the first Sunday of Lent.

Text:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

 

It is hard to be a Christian in America.  I read those words last summer in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, New Monasticism, after he had been with us for our July preaching series.  Jonathan writes, “almost everywhere I go these days, people agree that something is wrong in American Christianity.  Whether I’m talking to Pentecostals or Presbyterians, Democrats or Republicans, academics in a coffee shop or neighbors on their front porch, there seems to be a consensus on this: the church in America isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be.”[i]  He goes on to say that the consensus quickly breaks as soon as he tries to get specific about what the problem is; fingers start to get pointed everywhere…it’s them!  He continues, “Unity across dividing lines was what distinguished the early church—so much so that they required a new name. Christianity was a new identity, neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28)…It’s hard for anybody in America to look at the first Christians and feel very proud about where we are now.”[ii]  Jonathan wrote those words in 2008.  Lord knows things have not improved.  The divides are deeper and wider than ever; the Christian witness in the public square is a hot mess.

 

I want to make a clear distinction:  It is not hard to say we are Christian in America—it’s not like we have to hide our faith for fear of getting put on a “Christian registry” or out of fear for our lives or the lives of those we love.  No, it’s not hard to say we are Christian in America; but, if being Christian means living in a peculiar way that truly mirrors the life and teachings of Jesus, then being Christian in America is difficult.  Kin-dom values and “American” values don’t always line up.   And we can’t help but participate in systems of oppression, violence, and injustice as citizens of the U.S.  How’s that, you ask?  Well, do you purchase goods and services (some of which will be produced with child labor or in ways that pollute the earth or that don’t pay workers a living wage)?  Do you pay taxes (some of which pay for instruments of death)?  Do you avail yourself of any privilege you’re afforded by way of your race, education, income, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation (privileges woven into the fabric of American culture)?  The life and teachings of Jesus would have something to say about all those things.  And, try as we might not to be, we are complicit.  It’s hard to be Christian in America. 

 

As we enter into Lent, continuing our year-long focus on “witness,” this sermon series will address some of the places where our Christian witness is most challenged by the realities of American life.  God’s call on Ash Wednesday was, “Return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)  Over the coming weeks, we’ll try to be honest about the ways our hearts get led astray.  

 

We begin today with a text from Genesis that doesn’t have much baggage (Just kidding!).  The story in Genesis 2 and 3 is laden with centuries of interpretations.  It is what’s called an “etiological” story, that is, a story told to try to explain the origin of things; where did humans come from, why do they wear clothes, why is there suffering and death, what is the relationship between humans and earth, between humans and other humans, between humans and God?  Alongside the various insightful and helpful explorations of the text over the years, we also get oppressive patriarchal readings that cast the woman as the human villain, that put human sexuality in an exclusively heterosexual box, and that paint God as a kind of controlling tyrant.  There is a lot to unpack even in the excerpt of the story we heard today.  But today we’re going to zero in on one piece, the issue of freedom. 

Americans know something about freedom—after all, we are “the land of the free.”  Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, the freedom to travel, the freedom of the press—these freedoms are rightly cherished parts of our history and culture.  But as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.”[iii]  Freedom can be perverted and used in harmful ways; examples are everywhere—any time a person uses their freedom to do violence to another person, to poison the earth to save a buck, or to advocate for prisons for profit (just to name a few examples).  One of the most pervasive perversions is the American tendency to use our freedom for selfish reasons.  In the words of rock and roll: “I’m free to do what I want any old time…I’m free any old time to get what I want.”[iv] 

 

Freedom is also at the heart of Judeo-Christian faith.  The ancient story we heard today reminds us that, from the beginning, our ancestors believed God gave human beings the gift of freedom.  God created human beings and placed them in a garden filled with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen 2:9) God gave them a meaningful purpose in the garden, to till and keep it.  God warned against eating from the tree of good and evil, knowing that there would be painful consequences.  The tree of life, also in the garden, was evidently fully available for their nourishment.  Notice that in all this, God doesn’t force the humans to do anything.  At the beginning of the story, there is no gate around the dangerous tree, no requirements or rent due God for the gift of life and of the garden.  The humans were free to live together, enjoying all the fruits of God’s creation.  Maybe God, like a parent who is trying to shield her child from harm, overstated what would happen if the humans ate from the tree of good and evil (“eat that fruit and you’ll die!); but that still doesn’t impinge on human freedom.  The human beings in the story are given everything they need; they live in a state of pure grace.  And, like a child who tests the limits set by her parent as a way to claim power, agency, and a growing sense of “self,” the humans in the story, cross the boundary set by God.  And there are consequences.  They don’t die (the crafty serpent told half the truth), but their eyes are opened to the reality of deceit, of blame, of regret, and shame.  And the way they lived before—unaware of anything other than God’s grace—is gone forever. 

 

Richard Rohr calls freedom “God’s great risk.”[v]  It would have been safer for God to be a controlling God who makes us care, forces us to do what is right, compels us to love each other and to love God.  In creating human beings with free will, God surely knows that we will do harm—intentionally or unintentionally—to others and to ourselves.  Freedom allows us to choose and choices have consequences.  We have to choose—at every age and stage of our lives—what to do, whom to trust, where to go, how to be.  We are free to love things that do harm, to give our hearts to self-made idols and soul-killing distractions.  We are free to “fall” into ways of being, thinking, acting that do harm; things like feeling shame for our bodies and our God-given created natures; fear-driven need for control; selfish ambition; denying our own giftedness and agency; believing “I’m free to do what I want—to get what I want—any old time,”—regardless of the consequences to others.  // The consequence of freedom is that we are free to choose that which is not God, that which is not life-giving, that which is not capable of loving us back.  We are free to turn away from God.  We are free to reject God’s love.  We are free to rebel against God’s guidance.  God can’t make us love or trust.  God can’t make us “return with all our heart.”  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “[God] cannot ravish. [God] can only woo.”[vi]

We can make a mess of things because of our freedom.  But there is yet another consequence that is most important of all.  Freedom makes it possible to truly love.  Because God graces us with freedom, we are not robots “programmed” to act like we love each other; if we love each other, we freely love each other.  And when we turn to God in love, it is not because of fear or force, it is because our hearts’ desire is to be close to the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. (Acts 17:28)  So much energy across the centuries has been expended focusing on how free will is responsible for “the fall” from grace.  But the extraordinary thing is that free will is responsible for our capacity to fall in love.  John Wesley taught that, as we freely choose to engage in spiritual disciplines and acts of mercy and justice, the love of God will fill us more and more.  The goal is a heart perfected in love, a heart that is so saturated with God’s love and grace that it spills over without our even having to try.  Imagine being free from having to choose what to do…because the love of God—like breath through an instrument—simply flows.  What if the ultimate consequence of freedom—only glimpsed in flashes in this life—is not having to choose between good and evil because our hearts are tuned, impulsively, to good, to mercy, to love, to God? 

 

God’s great risk turns out to be God’s most profound gift.  Human freedom—in our nation, in our human relationships, and in our relationship with God—is a terrible, precious thing.  It is our responsibility to choose how to use it.  Whatever we choose, you can be sure there will be consequences.

 

[i][i] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church, Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008, p. 9.

[ii] Ibid., p. 10.

[iii] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/eleanorroo166988.html

[iv] Rolling Stones, “I’m Free,” http://www.lyricsfreak.com/r/rolling+stones/im+free_20117891.html

[v] Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, Ed. John Feister, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 1995, p. 284.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 25.