“6/27/10 sermon: Free to Be… You and Me”

“Free to Be… You and Me” © Abigail Henderson.  Preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota on June 27, 2010.

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

If you are a parent or a child of a certain vintage—say, the seventies and early eighties—then chances are you have encountered the children’s record album and book “Free to Be You and Me.”  The actress Marlo Thomas conceived of this project after going to the bookstore to find something for her young niece, and discovering that every available book and recording played to traditional stereotypes of gender and family.  So she called on a bunch of her famous and talented friends, and together they created a vision of magical land where mommies could be ranchers and engineers, and daddies could be cello players and poets.  In this place, boys had their own dolls and girls didn’t care about being pretty, and they all played together happily and harmoniously, and, as football hero Rosey Grier proclaimed, it was even all right to cry. All this to a soundtrack of exuberant seventies folk rock!

In a world where Heather Has Two Mommies, this genre of children’s literature comes across as rather dated, even quaint.  But oh!  As the daughter of strange, feminist, non-conformist parents in small-town New Hampshire, I loved it.  I loved seeing my family’s values reflected in this small, goofy slice of culture.  The lyrics of the title song still ring in my mind.   I won’t sing them—you’re welcome—but they went like this:

There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live

In a land where the river runs free
In a land through the green country
In a land to a shining sea
And you and me are free to be you and me

It’s really quite biblical—this vision of rich, fertile place where the people are freed from bondage and oppression, to be found in a vague but not-too-distant future.  And who first articulated and worked toward these visions, in the midst of suffering, loss, and discord?  It was the great leaders and prophets of the Hebrew Bible—Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaiah.  “I have observed the misery of my people in the land called Egypt,” God says to Moses,  “… and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8).

Judaism is a religion deeply concerned with the injustice of slavery and the gift of freedom, and God’s role in the movement between the two—it is one of the most persistent narratives in the ancient Hebrew texts.  Modern Western theories of political freedom and democracy owe a great debt to this heritage.   In this light, it is ironic to hear Paul speak of the Law—by which he means Jewish cultural rites and observances—as a “yoke of slavery.”  And like so many writings from this era, this piece of Christian thought has borne a toxic legacy, one that paints Judaism as rule-obsessed and automated and oppressive.  By contrast, Christianity gets to be the religion of freedom and Spirit—in other words, more “real,” more connected to God.   Yet another root of the smug, condescending Christianity that turns off so many of us.

Now remember, Paul’s letter to the Galatians occurred in a very specific moment in history—was Christianity a minor messianic sect of Judaism or something else, something new and different?  Some believed that in order to enter into the Jewish covenant with God, one needed to observe the laws handed down by God—including circumcision.  Did non-Hebrew people interested in Christ need to make a similar commitment?  On one level, Paul’s resounding “no!” makes sense.  It goes without saying that obligatory adult male circumcision makes for an ineffective conversion strategy.  But there’s something deeper at work here.

After all, Paul himself was a Jew.  He was a Jew who was deeply, deeply compelled by the person and story of Christ, and he wanted to extend that experience to others.  He appeared to genuinely believe that the risen Christ would return in his lifetime, that the world would be transformed into the glorious Kingdom of God.  He saw both Jews and followers of Christ as having a role to play in this drama.  He was also a politician of sorts, aware of his audience and targeting his message toward different interest groups.  There is great scholarly controversy over what, in the end, Paul really believed about Judaism.  At the very least, I say with confidence that he could never have predicted the effect his words would have on Judaism, Christianity, and the relationship between the two.

Whatever Paul’s intent may have been, Christians have been busily interpreted this week’s passage since it touched down on paper.  One popular understanding goes like this:  that Paul was redefining freedom.   Freedom, in a Christian context, does not mean the liberty to do anything you wish (thus the itemization of vices).  Rather, he is speaking of freedom from one’s own ego and self-interest.  When one is liberated from self-interest, the interpretation goes, then we become “enslaved” to life-giving, community-building things:  in Paul’s words, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.”  These are all good things indeed.  I may not agree entirely with Paul’s understanding of vice, but I’m pretty onboard with his image of virtue.

But I would push that interpretation further.  Rather than take Paul as an authority on freedom, I recommend we look at him as a model of sorts.   In this passage, he is modeling a tension that we all experience.  In a confusing, overwhelming, ambiguous world, how do we determine the right thing to do? How do we act ethically and righteously and for the good of the whole?  How do we exercise our freedoms without infringing on the freedoms of others?  In answering these questions, do we adhere to cultural norms?  Maybe.  Do we rely on an internal compass to guide us?  Maybe.  Do we attempt to sense the Spirit at work within?  Maybe.

This way of reading the Bible is frustrating, but I do believe it’s rewarding.  It’s rewarding especially if we can make space for each of us to do this important wrestling, if we share resources and testimonies and conversation. That’s part of our covenant together—that we will make space for each other’s spiritual formation, even if we are each led to different places.  It’s as that silly, wonderful song says—“you and me are free to be you and me.”   It’s a lot harder than it sounds.  This kind of freedom can’t be obtained in a vacuum, as a lone ranger, not caring what anyone else thinks or does.  On the contrary, this kind of freedom hinges on the affirmation and support of a community.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out the Pride Parade this afternoon.  There, you’ll see all different kinds of people lifting each other up not because we are the same, but because we are all trying to answer the same fundamental question: how, in the face of so much oppression, can we find freedom?  Thousands of years ago, Paul had one answer.  What’s yours?