The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

“Freedom to Love”

A sermon from Peter Ulisse

Today’s Epistle begins by telling us “Christ has set us free” and “we are called to freedom” to the point of even being instructed “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Now freedom (and its opposite, slavery) is a term we hear a lot of in today’s world.  Just turn on the evening news any night and you’ll hear multiple references of it in relationship to democracy, prejudice, the 2nd Amendment, even our own bodies. At times it can get confusing, so we might want to ask, what does Jesus actually mean when He refers to the word?

To answer we probably should begin by going back to the term itself.  At first it seems obvious- it means we have choices- no one is lording over us and we can do what we want.  For example, we can get in our cars, drive to any restaurant, and order whatever we desire. This would certainly be in contrast to one who is in jail and is told when and what to eat. Two thousand years ago Jews were enslaved in Egypt and 200 years ago blacks worked 14 hours a day for a Master in cotton fields- clearly not freedom, and I think most people in the world would agree.

But is it really that simple? Or could something be missing and might Jesus have something to say about it? For, if freedom is only being able to do what we want, then right after worship today we could get in our cars, take a left, and drive 50 mph down Madison Avenue with windows open because it makes us feel so good. We could go through “no turn on right” signs at red lights. On our way home we could go visit that elderly friend we’ve been wanting to see and if we don’t want to wear a mask no big deal- covid is behind us anyway. Right?

I’ll go out on a limb here & take a wild guess most of you listening right now have already figured out something isn’t right here. Could it be there’s a difference between what the world thinks freedom means and what Jesus says?  Well, right away Jesus states freedom is not “an opportunity for self indulgence”; it is not doing anything we want when we want, not always “having it our way” as the jingle says, but also involves a crucial additional element- our neighbor as well as ourselves. He is telling us there is a moral responsibility to freedom and even links it to the great commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Apparently for Jesus love is intricately connected to freedom.

In examining this concept though let’s make sure we don’t skip over Jesus’ words “too” quickly. We’re so familiar with this commandment we might miss the phrase- “as ourselves.”  Notice, Jesus isn’t saying we shouldn’t love ourselves- we were put on this Earth to be happy, to celebrate birthdays, holidays, nature, to enjoy travelling, favorite hobbies, and each other. And indeed people sometimes suffer when they don’t love themselves, listen to that inner critic telling them they’re not good enough, smart enough, not even worthy of God’s love. So, yes, love yourself, but do so AS others, not ABOVE them.

Jesus continues to talk on this inclusion of love in freedom and our relationship with others as he addresses the flesh and the spirit. Yes, he does say flesh is “opposed” to the Spirit, but to me the meaning might make more sense if we view flesh as more subservient to the Spirit than opposed. What do I mean?  Well, let’s look at the list Jesus is giving us when speaking of the flesh- idolatry, impurity, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy, and the like. What do all of these things have in common?  OK, sin, but sometimes that word turns off a lot of 21st century non believers- what if we substituted another “s” word- how about selfish, for isn’t all sin really about putting ourselves above others?

Today psychologists might even refer to Jesus’ list as “negative emotions,” something natural to all humans from time to time. We have all been guilty on occasion. But when we follow this list to the exclusion of the Spirit, the real problem it seems to me is these things do not lead to freedom but rather to things like compulsion, isolation, vanity, and yes, even prejudice which actually “prevent us from doing what we want”- Jesus’ own words! Ironically, Jesus is saying non loving, selfish behavior and negative emotions can actually enslave us in this wall of self, the exact opposite of where peace and happiness lie. He then makes a truly amazing statement by saying we can only become free when we “become slaves to one another!”  Wow, let me repeat those words, the seemingly paradoxical statement- we can only be free when we “become slaves to one another.”

Whew. Heavy stuff- maybe we should take a deep breath here. Let’s try to apply it to our daily lives. We’ll shortly be celebrating the 4th of July which is certainly a major type of freedom and what might come to mind for most people.  Yes, enjoy this wonderful holiday, but I’d like you to also go beyond this in the next few weeks and become more aware of the voices of others as they talk about freedom and the various choices you make on the subject keeping in mind what Jesus has been saying about including love in the definition. How will you demonstrate freedom within your families, at work, in the grocery store, on the highway. For you see, ultimately Jesus isn’t making us “do” anything. Instead he is reminding us that God has given us this wonderful gift called “free will” and allows us the freedom to choose whether we want to open a door for a stranger or shut the door in his face, allow another car in front of us or speed to cut them off, buy a more expensive coat for ourselves or get one for someone at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, even whether we want to spread rumors about a fellow worker or not. Yes, Jesus calls us to freedom, but remember he also says “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence.”

Now, as you’re doing this , please don’t see this as a monumental task or overthink. Enjoy yourself. But you might want  to reread today’s Epistle sometime, and to further assist you in all this, I’m now going to give you a tool to help you which will be so easy you won’t believe it.  It has to do with something you use every day and something which probably all of you have on your person this very second. Yes, I’m talking about your cell phone!

So, I’m now going to conclude this sermon with a demonstration. I’m going to take my own phone out of my pocket and turn it to the camera setting.  Then I’m going to hold it up (I do so) and face it out from the pulpit toward the main part of this beautiful church. Through its lens I can see the magnificent stained glass, the blues, reds, yellows, and greens. I can also view the choir, the organ, and all you very good  looking people out there- keeping in mind of course I’m looking at you from a distance! Regardless, this really would make a good photo. But wait I’m just thinking, I really don’t “have” to take this picture do I. I have a choice. If I hit this other button, I could see behind me and get a great shot of our beautiful altar, the stars on the ceiling, the candles brightly lit and, best of all I could take a picture of me in front of all that- I can take a selfie- a selfie!  Just think of the term- a tiny 2 syllable word which may speak volumes about what we’ve said today. And yes, I’m also free to take this photo, and the altar will still be there, still beautiful, but it will now be in the background, secondary to me. So, since Jesus calls us to freedom and I have choices, I’m going to make mine right now, here in the present, the only time we have.  Here I go (I aim the camera facing the pews, then turn it toward myself with the altar in the background and then turn it again back to the pews snapping a picture of the people in the church demonstratively so everyone is aware of what I’m doing).  There, I’ve done it. I have made my choice.  Ask yourselves, what photos will you take in the coming weeks?  Will they be mainly of you, or will they involve yourselves and others, united in love?  Remember, Jesus calls us to freedom, but the choices are ours.