Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8C), July 1, 2007; delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
I would like to say a few words about freedom, because freedom is in the air. For one thing, it is summer, when many of us go off on some sort of vacation and are free of our daily schedules and routine. Freedom will be the national focus in a few days when we celebrate the Fourth of July. And freedom is a theme that runs through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, from which we read this morning as we’ve done for the past three weeks. Galatians has been called the Magna Charta of religious liberty, for in this epistle, Paul proclaims our freedom in Christ. “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5:1]
What does it mean to be set free in Christ? What does it mean to be set free, period? If I asked you, right now, to imagine that you were free, completely free, I wonder what would happen in your body, where you would feel it, how your body would respond. I imagine that many of us would take a long, deep breath. When we feel free, it is like a burden lifting, as if the space around us and inside us has become larger and more open. We may feel less constricted, lighter on our feet, and suddenly aware that we have room to move.
I suspect that for many North Americans one thing that curtails our sense of freedom is the relentless pressure of having too much to do. Many of us live quite frantic lives as we hurry from one task to the next or juggle multiple responsibilities, caring for children or aging parents, handling the demands of one job or two, squeezing in a dash to the grocery store or the post office. Many of us have little time for silence or solitude, or for the kind of contemplative listening that helps us know what’s going on inside us or where God might be.
I remember a particularly busy period, years ago, when I found it appealing to consider conducting a sit-down strike. Above my desk I taped a cartoon of a train sitting motionless on a track. The train was glaring straight ahead and saying to nobody in particular, “Get lost.” The caption read: “The Little Engine That Could, But Just Didn’t Feel Like It.”
Around that time I served as chaplain at a clergy conference in another diocese and I read to the assembled priests part of an essay from The New Yorker. A young mother had sent the magazine a kind of song or chant or poem that her four-year-old son had invented and liked to sing every evening in the bathtub. She explained that the chant went on forever, like the Old Testament, and she was able to copy down only a fragment. It is sung, she said, entirely on one note, except that the voice drops on the last word in every line. This is how it goes:
“He will just do nothing at all.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.
And when they speak to him, he will not answer them
Because he does not care to.
He will stick them with spears and put them in the garbage.
When they tell him to eat his dinner, he will just laugh at them,
And he will not take his nap, because he does not care to.
He will not talk to them, he will not say nothing.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.
He will go away and play with the Panda.
He will not speak to nobody because he doesn’t have to.
And when they come to look for him they will not find him,
Because he will not be there.
He will put spikes in their eyes and put them in the garbage,
And put the cover on. . .
He will do nothing at all.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.”
The clergy to whom I read this poem responded pretty much the way you did, and then there was a thoughtful silence. Finally, one of them observed, “I think we should declare this the 151st psalm.”
Maybe so. Surely human freedom includes having some space for leisure, for being rather than doing. And surely Christian freedom includes knowing that we don’t have to earn our salvation — we are not work-horses whose value and identity depend on how much we accomplish, and how fast. This is good news both to those of us who feel internal pressure to work too hard and get caught up in the willful, anxious drive to produce and achieve, and to those of us who feel squeezed by very real external demands and responsibilities. The truth is that we are deeply loved by God not for what we do, or what we accomplish, or how much we earn, but simply for ourselves. If we want this summer to explore our freedom in Christ, we might begin by carving out time to rest and play and pray. Giving ourselves space for rest and refreshment can be our own first step in re-claiming the gift of Sabbath.
Our rector is on sabbatical this summer, and so are you, so am I, whenever we are able to set aside — at least for a while — those urgent lists of Things To Do and can begin to find out what it means to be free. One of my great pleasures has been to work on the Creativity of Grace committee, and we’ve begun to put together what I consider a quite marvelous array of workshops for the summer and fall. Just as the Restoration Project is dedicated to re-building and renewing the outer structures of our parish, so our Creativity of Grace events are intended to renew and refresh our inner selves. Most of these workshops will be led by people from within our own parish community, offering their time and talent to us from the goodness of their hearts. As I imagine it, these workshops will give us a variety of creative spaces in which to explore parts of ourselves that we may not have heard from for a very long time. They will give us spaces in which to try out new ways to hear and respond to the Spirit, new ways to let the breath of God blow through us and open us up. And as Paul writes in another epistle, Second Corinthians, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” [2 Corinthians 3:17).
The children will lead off with a one-week liturgical arts camp that begins on Monday, July 9. As for us grown-ups, there are all kinds of possibilities to choose from.
For instance, maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to cook, or want to sharpen your culinary skills, or wonder how preparing and serving a meal can become a spiritual practice. On three Saturdays this summer you can join a small group that, under the guidance of a fine local chef, will head to the farmers’ market on the Amherst town common, buy armloads of fresh, local produce, and then head inside to cook, prepare, and serve each other some really good food and discuss food’s connections to our life of faith.
Or maybe you want to try your hand at writing, or want help with a writing project already underway, or want to overcome your total aversion to writing. We have all kinds of writing workshops for you in the weeks ahead — workshops on writing memoir, on writing as a spiritual practice, and on ways to make friends with writing, so that writing becomes “more natural, comfortable, satisfying, and even pleasurable.” There will even be a writing workshop with the provocative title “Street-Fighting with the Universe,” a name that aptly conveys writing’s challenge and peril and excitement.
Or maybe you would like to explore drawing as a contemplative practice, and would enjoy a workshop that gives you skills and support to draw a small page every day as an act of prayer. By the end of the workshop you will have made a long series of drawings that open and close like an accordion. Or maybe you would like to explore icon writing. In a weekly series that will begin sometime in August, everyone in the parish of any age and any level of skill will have a chance after the 10:30 service to “join in the prayer of creating a large icon that can adorn a variety of sacred spaces at Grace Church.” In a very informal, drop-in way, right here in the Parish Hall, we will “express our spiritual renewal and honor our parish restoration by creating an image of ‘Christ with the New Paradise.'” As someone with no painting skills at all, I was quite reassured to read in the workshop’s description, “if you can breathe, you will be able to apply gold leaf.”
Coming in the fall will be a series of workshops on music, including one that encourages our creativity by giving us a chance to improvise with sounds in the natural world. Our own Brooks Williams plans a series of group guitar lessons for beginners; Beth Hart will lead a workshop on freeing the natural voice; and we may also have a workshop on African drumming and dancing.
All these events will climax on the weekend of November 17th and 18th, when we will have a chance to share together the fruits of our journey into the freedom and creativity of the Holy Spirit, and will celebrate an Earth Mass – featuring jazz-gospel compositions by Horace Boyer – that by all accounts promises to be quite extraordinary.
Can you tell that I’m excited about this? It’s true. I am. We have begun making workshop flyers with information on when and how to register, and I hope you will pick one up, or check the announcements printed in the service leaflet over the coming weeks.
No one knows what will come from these projects, what tangible creations to be eaten or read or gazed at or listened to or touched. And that’s the point: it is when we open the door to the unknown, when we step out of the familiar and predictable, that we experience both our freedom and our creativity. Creativity enlarges our sense of inner freedom, and inner freedom enlarges our capacity to create.
I think of that little boy in the bathtub, savoring his freedom and chanting a poem that he made up as he went along. That is what I hope we grownups will experience this summer: something of the freedom of a child at play. We live in a stressed and fast-paced world, and we have many responsibilities, so claiming our creativity and making space for the Spirit will take some commitment on our part. It is a kind of spiritual discipline or practice. I think of the powerful image from today’s Gospel of Jesus “set[ting] his face to go to Jerusalem” [Luke 9:51]. Jesus knew exactly where God was calling him to go, and he didn’t let anything stop him. We may need that kind of fierceness if we want to say Yes to our freedom and creativity, for we will have to say No to something else. But, as Paul once put it, “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”