Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling
July 1, 2007
First and Summerfield UMC, New Haven, CT
Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
The 4th of July is just around the corner and we’ve all got something in mind for the holiday. Whether you’re looking forward to the day off, the picnics, the fireworks, or all of the sales, there’s always something to do to make the most of this holiday. When I was a child, my favorite 4th of July activity was fireworks! Come to think of it, even now, the fireworks are my favorite thing about the 4th of July. A recent, festive 4th of July was spent in Boston at the Hatch Shell. Throw in a little Boston Pops, and a couple thousand of your closest friends, and it’s quite a fun night!
But this year, Chris and I have a totally different celebration with fireworks lined up for our 4th of July holiday. Later this week, we will be going to a wedding, our friend Beth is getting married. It may seem odd timing for a wedding, but I think this one is especially significant. Our friend Beth has been living out west for a number of years, but we know her from the church we all attended together in NYC a few years ago. We even inherited our cat Moses from Beth when she moved out west.
Last October, I had a conference in Seattle, and so I was able to spend a little time with her, before my meetings got under way. She had met her partner a year before, and I finally got to meet her “significant other,” Sarah.
The two of them make a great couple; they have similar interests, a deep connection to their families, a love for the outdoors, and a strong commitment to their faith. So on the 4th of July, Chris and I will be on the road to their wedding, ready to celebrate with family and other friends–many of whom are clergy—the love that unites these two people.
I’m not sure why they chose the 4th of July week but it seems a particularly significant holiday for these two young women to take vows committing their lives to each other. Although there are many pastors in both of their families, they aren’t getting married in a church. They aren’t getting married in a state that legalizes civil unions either.
But with the excitement of 4th of July fireworks in our minds, Beth and Sarah will exercise the freedom to practice their religious beliefs and their civil rights, even though our nation’s laws and our church’s laws haven’t quite caught up to them yet.
That’s the wonderful thing about love. When it’s present, it doesn’t wait for rules and regulations.
It spreads, so that love begets more love. Love is impossible to hide under a bushel. It bursts through our insecurities, our anxieties, even our injustices. It reshapes us, and realigns us. It grounds us. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I couldn’t help but think of my friend’s wedding as I thought about today’s scripture from Galatians.
I don’t often think of love as a call to freedom, but that’s exactly what the Apostle Paul is trying to tell us.
God’s love for us is a call to freedom. This is the heart of Paul’s letter. As people of faith in the 1st century or the 21st century, we are called to live lives filled with the gifts of the Spirit of God within us.
We are called to freedom from envy and greed, and other destructive behaviors that suck the life out of us.
We are called to the freedom to love and serve. What a liberating gift this is!
The love of God sets us free from the prisons of our rugged individualism and stubborn self-sufficiency, freeing us to be servants of one another. For when we live in full awareness of the deep interconnection between all of us as children of God, and the global community that this creates, we are no longer lone rangers fighting our own battles, cut off and separated from God and one another. Instead, as Paul said it, “It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a). We are one human family, “for there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for we are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Paul’s 1st century letter to the Galatians wasn’t concerned with freedom the way we Americans think of it.
Freedom wasn’t a political ideal, a legislative principle, or a slogan for any Roman war. Freedom meant freedom from slavery, and not freedom to bear arms, vote, or practice a religion! Slavery wasn’t only a metaphor for Paul, it was also a reference to the economic systems of the Ancient world that required slave labor. Life was treated cheaply, and a very few wealthy people dominated the lives of the many, many poor people. Our modern problem is that conditions like these do still exist in our world, but in the Ancient Roman Empire, these conditions were pervasive and prevalent. We are surrounded with choices, perhaps more than we can handle. Not so in Paul’s day. Paul writes to a community that has very few choices, and is limited and constrained in every aspect of private and communal life.
So when Paul says “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he’s saying something very radical and new. But for us who live in the United States, we hear this phrase and think little of it. Sometimes it is so hard for us to hear what Paul is really saying. The freedom that Paul proclaims to the Galatians–and to us—is not freedom of religion or freedom to self- indulge. It’s a spiritual freedom.
Paul compares two powerful spiritual forces at work within us: the desires of the flesh and life in the Spirit of God. When Paul refers to the flesh here, he isn’t simply referring to our physical, human bodies.
After all, Paul’s the guy who said our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit. Rather he means a psychological force within each of us that leads us to destructive, selfish, sinful behaviors. By contrast, the Spirit of God is a force within each of us that seeks the well-being of others and is rooted in love.
Like the ancient Galatian church, we, too, can become enslaved; enslaved to self-centered and self-serving behaviors, like idolatry, jealousy, and quarreling. We can be enslaved by our own egos and our own fears, seeking after what feels good for us, makes us comfortable or happy, without considering our impact on others. Our culture conditions this self-centeredness of us.
The Apostle Paul had a challenging culture to work with, too, one where self-centeredness wasn’t the problem, but rather groups and cliques with different interpretations of the Christian message were.
And too often, those different interpretations were legalistic, attempting to silence the uncontainable power of the Spirit of God within us. For that spirit is about transformation and new life, bringing life out of death, hope out of despair, and joy out of fear.
It reminds me of a quote I heard in a movie recently:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination… We ask ourselves—who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so? …We were born to express the glory of god that lives in us…While we allow our light to shine, we unconsciously give permission for others to do the same. When we liberate ourselves from our own fears, simply our presence may liberate others” (Marianne Williamson, Return to Love: Reflections on a Course in Miracles).
Not only are we called to the freedom to love one another as God loves us, but we are empowered to do this by the Spirit of God that is within each of us. By this spirit we are united as a diverse community, brothers and sisters of one Holy Parent. By this spirit we are given the insight and the courage to follow where God leads. By this spirit, we produce the evidence of love, peace, patience, and joy in our lives.
The freedom to love one another and the power of the Holy Spirit to make this possible are great starting places for us today on our first Sunday together. First & Summerfield UMC has a long and proud tradition of seeking justice, praying for peace, feeding those who are hungry, advocating for those who are in need, and welcoming all people into this family of faith. This body of Christ has exercised its God-given freedom to love and serve one another. It is an honor for me to be your pastor.
For any urban ministry, there are challenges to overcome, especially here in the Northeast. First & Summerfield is no different. But there is also great potential to grow in so many ways. That growth will require all of your resources, in spirit, mind, and body. The greatest resource of this congregation is you, each one of you, and that Spirit of God within you.
Together, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can live out that wonderful call to freedom. We don’t know what challenges await us, but if we are willing to face the future unafraid, leaving behind selfish desires and bringing out the best in each other, there is a future before us of love and peace, joy and patience, kindness and generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Life together in the spirit.
I am confident that as a community of faith we can claim the amazing gift of freedom to which we have been called. Not freedom as our Constitution defines it, but freedom as scripture defines it, as the Holy Spirit inspires it. Let’s answer the call to freedom to love and serve, in the name of Jesus Christ our risen savior. Amen.