“For freedom Christ has set us free.” Galatians 5:1
3C Pentecost – June 30, 2019
Some time ago when I was a new priest, a young mother (I’ll call her Lisa) sought me out for a pastoral conversation. We met in the afternoon at a coffee shop during a very brief window in Lisa’s complicated schedule. She had coaxed a friend into watching her two children for an hour, so that she could hurry off for our conversation.
As she walked into the coffee shop, I could immediately see the harried look on her face. Before Lisa even sat down, she blurted out, “I’m not sure I can take this anymore. I was up twice last night with my infant, who has an ear infection. And the older one is clinging to me all the time, whining and demanding constant attention. The house is a mess. I have no time to do the marketing, or to cook, or to clean. My husband is pretty much useless around the house, and I can’t remember the last time we had time together alone. All I want to do is escape to some island somewhere with my friends, share a bottle of wine, and lie in the sun, with no one else to take care of.”
I knew instantly that Lisa wasn’t really looking for advice, least of all from me, an older man who has never given birth, or nursed an infant, or cared for small children all day long, everyday. She just wanted a compassionate ear. So, instead of offering advice, I asked: “Can I see a picture of your kids?” She scrolled through the photos on her smartphone, found one, and shared it with me. “What adorable girls,” I said. As she stared at the photo, I could see her face beginning to soften just a little, and her body started to relax.
“Before you know it,” I said, “they will grow up into strong, smart, young women, and who knows what wonderful things they might do with their lives. And all because of you.”
I don’t know whether Lisa left our meeting feeling any better about her circumstances or not, but I do know that many years later I received a card in the mail from her, along with a photo of her now-teenage girls. Only this time the photo was of all three of them, sharing a laugh. And although Lisa’s card didn’t mention our prior conversation, there was a post-it on the back of the photo with a “smiley face,” next to which she had written: “they even say ‘thank you’ to me from time to time!”
I share Lisa’s story with you this morning because in its own way it aptly illustrates the question of moral freedom that is at the heart of our first lesson this morning. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul reminds the church in Galatia that God has created them in freedom, and that Christ has come to set them free from the constraints of sin and death. So, the question then becomes: how are we to use this newly won freedom in the way we live day-to-day? Do we use our God-given freedom exclusively for satisfying our own needs and desires? Or do we use this freedom for the sake of others?
Self-love is the default setting for most of us, most of the time. Focusing on our own needs and desires is a tempting way to go, because let’s be candid, self-love has a lot of short-term benefits. It feels good to do what one wants, to indulge ourselves, to eat, drink and be merry. The trouble is that self-love rarely sustains us for very long, and the pleasures that come with just satisfying our own needs tend to lack the complexity, depth, and richness of being connected to others.
The work of social psychologists confirms this. Study after study shows that it is not pleasure per sethat people crave, so much as it is meaning, purpose, community, and a sense of belonging. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. We are created to be in loving relationship with others, and not merely in it for ourselves and our own good.
None of this is to say, by the way, that our friend Lisa is in the least bit wrong to want to get away to the beach by herself for some simple pleasures and alone time. Caring for ourselves, our souls and our bodies, is being a good steward of what God has given us. But it is to say that such breaks are just that: breaks that renew us so that we can return to the more meaningful and rewarding task of loving and caring for each other.
Importantly, though, we are called not just to love our children and our families. Jesus beckons us to go one step further, as St. Paul reminds the Galatians. The central command of the gospels to love our neighbors as ourselves. And a “neighbor” is just that: anyone near us. Not just families and friends.
This is the daunting part, of course. The trouble with neighbors is that they can be annoying. They often don’t return the love we offer. It can be inconvenient to stop to attend to a neighbor’s needs. And sometimes neighbors are curmudgeons or boors or just downright weird.
But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t mean just love those who fit into our idea of lovable. He meant those who are broken; those who are scarred; those who no one else will touch. Jesus means for us to love them all. We don’t get to pick and choose.
Jesus urges us to love recklessly in this way for a reason: And that is because learning how to love – to love deeply and consistently and without discrimination – is in truth the meaning of our lives. It is what we are here for.
The aim of the Christian life, it turns out, is not happiness, but love. And as any parent knows, as any spouse knows, the requirements of love can indeed be painful, but they are always worth it. For one of the mysteries of life, and of our faith, is that love in the end is its own reward.
And once we get the hang of it, with some practice, what we discover is that the way of love yields all kinds of other benefits; and not just for our neighbors, but for us as well. St. Paul calls these other benefits “the fruits of the Spirit”: and they are the experiences of joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that come with loving. The more you love, the more these other fruits will blossom in your life.
So, how do we get good at practicing love of neighbor? How do we become the kind of Christ-centered people who consistently put love at the top of their agendas? Well that, my friends, is why we are here. One of the central purposes of the Church is to be a place where we can support each other in learning how to love our neighbors and live Spirit-filled lives.
Think of church as a training camp where disciples practice the art of loving like Christ. That is why we show up Sunday after Sunday, and repeat certain practices time and again. We come to say prayers for others so that we can learn to move beyond a preoccupation with our own pains; we come to joyfully join our voices together in song as a way of connecting to something bigger than ourselves; we come to confess our sins so that we can practice humility and recognize our dependence on the God who sustains us; we come to greet one another with signs of peace as a reminder that kindness is a hallmark of Christian living; we come to offer up our treasure when the collection plate comes around so that we can meet the needs of others less fortunate than we are, all the while experiencing the liberating power of generosity; and we come to share the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Table remembering the selfless love that Christ has for us.
Don’t get me wrong: Growing in the spirit, learning to love like Christ, is no easy task. Like practicing an instrument, or learning a sport, or raising children, it can be a boring and repetitive undertaking. And we shouldn’t lose heart if we don’t see immediate or unambiguously good results from our efforts. For the work of love requires patience. But if you stick with it, the practice of such self-less love will, as my friend Lisa knows, yield the greatest possible joys.