July 4, 2010
The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Americans love to celebrate Independence Day; to flaunt their freedom before the whole world. Thomas Jefferson's bold assertion that each individual has an "inalienable right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" still sounds sweet to our freedom-loving ears. Would be nice if our legislatures would remember this on immigration topics. However, despite the imperfections and foibles of our political system, we still enjoy tremendous economic freedom, political freedom, religious freedom, personal freedom and communal freedom. But we must be careful that we don't define the freedoms we enjoy so much solely as "freedom from", forgetting that the real test of freedom's value is how we use our "freedom to."
Paul's caution to the Galatians likewise reminds us that sometimes our greatest liberation can be found in our commitments; in our freedoms to. There is our freedom to gather together for the benefit of others, our freedom to love and serve each other and our freedom to express our feelings, concerns, hopes and aspirations for our community, neighbors and friends. Remember that the same philosophers and statesmen who boldly announced this country's "Declaration of Independence" were also the ones who worked long and hard to craft our Constitution; a document that sculpts our freedom along the prescribed guidelines and responsibilities necessary to make freedom work….. Our freedom to govern, to serve, to defend, to protect, to honor and to be loyal.
The Fourth of July is a good time to celebrate the paradox at the center of the Christian faith; we are most free when we are most bonded. Through Jesus Christ's supreme example of freedom in service, we all become the most free when we bind ourselves to Christ. That is why Jesus has sometimes been called "omnipotence in bonds." He freely divested himself of his divinity so that he could make the ultimate sacrifice for our sake and for our freedom. We must take care not to confuse this freely offered liberty for license. The long list of what Paul calls in Galatians "fleshly works" is what results when we let our freedom to ... become freedom from.
Freedom to love becomes ... fornication. Freedom to worship becomes ... idolatry. Freedom to serve becomes ... factions. Freedom to inquire becomes ... enmity. Freedom to discuss becomes ... quarrels. Freedom to disagree becomes ... dissension. Freedom to thrive becomes ... envy. The political and personal freedoms we celebrate every Independence Day always remind us that with freedom comes responsibility. For our freedom to "work" we must be good citizens; we must vote, pay taxes, obey the laws, respect property, be loyal and keep the peace. The freedom we enjoy every day of our lives as Christians demands of us only two things; faithfulness and love. Despite the long list of fleshly "works" versus spiritual "fruits" Paul enumerates, he takes care to preface these itemizations with a single reminder: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself". When Thomas Jefferson listed the "pursuit of happiness" as one of humanity's "inalienable rights," perhaps he should have called it more accurately an "unattainable reach." Christ's mandate of freedom through service reveals that the only way to achieve happiness is to love and serve others. Pursuing happiness, focusing solely on the self and its personal pleasures will never bring genuine joy or the fulfilling happiness of peace. When we pursue happiness for the self, it is like looking for the ending point of a rainbow; as soon as you think you've reached its touch-down point, your perspective changes, and the rainbow's end has moved again. In modern psycho-speak, there is a tremendous amount of energy being focused on the whole issue of "self-esteem." Carl Rogers was among the first to popularize this view as he called for the need to "actualize the potential" of one's self through "unconditional self-regard." This psychologically based school of thought has even borrowed the short-form Torah that Paul cites and claims that Jesus' reminder to "love your neighbor as yourself" was essentially a mandate to focus on loving yourself. It is true that there is no place in Christian theology for self-hatred or self-persecution or self-disrespect. But loving ourselves was not the goal Jesus had in mind for us when he freely gave his life for our salvation. We can't hold out a hand to our neighbor when our arms are wrapped around ourselves. The love Christ calls us to be is agape love, a sacrificial love bonded to Christ, and therefore cannot be self-directed. Only when offering ourselves in sacrificial service for others will we run headlong into the "happiness" we thought we had to pursue. The movement of the Christian life is from self-centeredness to centeredness in self to centeredness in God.
Think about it for a moment, with some thoughts to help guide you…. When do you feel better about yourself? Do you feel better about yourself after a long, admittedly restful afternoon as a "couch potato" watching television or after a long, admittedly exhausting afternoon coaching a Little League game? Do you feel better about yourself after whipping up one of your favorite desserts in the kitchen or after delivering it to a shut-in member of your church? Do you feel better about yourself after a special "night on the town" or after an evening ladling out soup at a homeless shelter? J. Walter Cross of Bradenton, Florida, tells a story about the Christian apologist Joseph Parker who found himself listening to one of those infamous "self-made men" tell the story of how he became a "self-made man." After his presentation was over, the “self-made man” remarked to Dr. Parker, "What did you think of my story?" To which Dr. Parker replied, "My dear man, you have just relieved Almighty God of an enormous responsibility." Cross then goes on to observe: "Self-made persons are a truly powerful argument against the use of unskilled labor. Self-serving is an oxymoron! We are neither human enough, nor divine enough, to serve ourselves, and in the end, if that is what we use our gifts for, we will come up empty" (J. Walter Cross, "When One Plus One is More than Two"). A nine-year-old girl observed a friend at school shivering in the play yard during an especially cruel cold snap. Realizing that her friend didn't have the money to spend on a warmer coat, this little girl promptly promised to buy a coat for her. But when the little girl showed up at the local Goodwill outlet to make her purchase, she was surprised that the cost was more than she had anticipated. Nevertheless, she was determined to keep her word to her friend even though the coat ended up costing her every single coin she had saved up in her piggy bank. This splurge of her carefully saved funds caught her parents by surprise and caused them some concern. But when they questioned the wisdom of their daughter's actions, she defended herself by simply stating, "But I promised her, and she needed it!" Her parents were silenced and impressed by their daughter's free spirit with her money which had been driven by her bonded, sacrificial love for her friend, her "neighbor." By having identified freedom as Christ's gift to his followers, Paul now carefully defines just what kind of "freedom" this is and what it requires. Paul reveals that freedom in Christ is not a freedom toward the "self-indulgence" of licentiousness. Rather, the exercise of loving service is the truest mark and measure of Christian freedom. Paul directs the attention of his Galatian audience out of their self-absorption and reminds them that loving service is measured by one's response to the neighbor; not the self. Love, as demonstrated through service to others, is the fruit of Christian freedom.
Fruit cannot be brought about by any human endeavor. Farmers can plow, fertilize and tend -- but whether a crop succeeds in producing fruit is still the result of the divine gift of life. Likewise, it is through Christ's freely given sacrifice that those living in his spirit can expect the presence of the spirit's greatest fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We, therefore, are called to act upon them and with them in regard to our neighbor.
God Love You +
+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.