Rev. Stacy Swain, “The Give and Take of God”
June 19, 2011
Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42
I hear the news coming out of Libya and Syria and my heart aches. It aches for all who are in harm’s way — for all who so desperately long for a life without tyranny, who long for freedom. We know what it is to long to be free, for freedom is a part of who we are as a nation, part of our DNA as a people. We are the land of the free – we are independent men and women with inalienable rights and liberties.
Because we treasure our freedom so and see in it so much of who we are, the Apostle Paul’s words from the letter he wrote so very long ago to the early Christian community in Rome, all this talk about enslavement and dominion sounds antiquated – germane to a time long passed; irrelevant to us now.
For Paul’s world was indeed radically different than our own. Paul, you know, lived in Jesus’ time. He was just a few years younger than Jesus, but walked on the world when Jesus did. He was Jew, born in the cosmopolitan trade town of Tarsus in what is now southern central Turkey. He was incredibly intelligent, well educated and extremely opinionated. In Bible study we are reading the letters of Paul and have come to appreciate what a force Paul really was.
But as self possessed and outspoken as Paul was and despite being a Roman citizen, quite uncommon for Jew, he was not free in the sense that we know. He lived under the scrutiny of the Roman tyranny and more than once ended up in jail for speaking his mind, for living his faith.
His, you see, was a time of tight social control. The social reality was one of domination, of living under the power and influence of another. Where slavery was commonplace and widely accepted. In fact, throughout the Roman Empire slaves may have made up one third of the population. Some people were born as slaves, some were sent into slavery through military conquest and some even sold themselves as slaves to pay off debt.
But even those who were not slaves. Who were free men and women like Paul, lived under the surveillance of the Roman Empire whose presence and power dominated their lives. So in Paul’s time, the concept of freedom as we know it, simply did not exist.
But I would argue that regardless of the tremendously different social and political constructs of our two ages, the words that Paul speaks are absolutely timely and excruciatingly relevant to our lives today. For I believe they speak to the heart of what it means to truly be free.
For what Paul is driving at is that there really is no such thing as a unfettered space a place totally outside the power and influence of others. We cherish our precious freedom and are free in ways those of Paul’s time could not imagine, but even so our lives are continually shaped by pressures and influences outside of ourselves. To borrow a metaphor from the prophet Jeremiah, our lives whether we like it or not, are clay being shaped and formed. What is at issue is not that we are clay, but who and what it is that is doing the shaping.
When Paul says we are all slaves, this is what he means, he means we are in some way in the hands of another. Theologian Shawnthea Monroe writes “if you want to know who your master is, who it is that is doing the shaping, pay attention to what occupies your thoughts and how you spend your time and money. We are all serving something or someone.”
We see the truth of this around and within us. We are living in a time of unprecedented freedoms and yet the enslaving powers of rage, of consumerism, addictions and obsessions have never been more virulent, right? Lives every day are being completely undone by these powerfully destructive forces. It’s amazing, really, how many of our national political leaders are themselves enslaved by sexual obsession — whose lives are being ruined by such mind boggling misconduct that is hard to even imagine — so deep is their enslavement.
This is the truth that Paul saw two thousand years ago. Despite whatever political structures govern our lives and protect our liberties, let us not be lulled into thinking that we are completely, holy/wholely free.
Paul sets up what I believe is a helpful polarity. He says that like it or not we are either under the influence of sin or in the hands of God. This is simply the landscape, the shape of the cosmos in which we live and move and have our being. Hang in there with me for a moment because I know we don’t use the language of sin much these days or talk about the power that sinfulness can have on us. But there is something here, I promise. Paul says that if we are slaves to sin, under sin’s influence, being molded by sins power then we are under the dominion of death. But if we are in the hands of God, molded by the divine, then we are under the dominion of life. There are just two ways of being in the world, he argues. Being enslaved by sin; or being molded by God.
Paul, you know, had a life changing encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He thought he had been serving God, doing the will of the Almighty when he was rooting out the early followers of Jesus. But it turned out he was wrong. When the resurrected Christ spoke to him saying “Paul why are you persecuting me,” Paul realized the hard cold truth that he had been enslaved to sin, under the dominion of death. But the incredible grace that God was not about to leave him there. That on that road, the door to life was thrown wide open to him. His sins were forgiven, and he lay in the dust knocked off his horse by the truth of it all, blinded by how blind he had been.
It is out of this encounter that Paul speaks to the Good News to all Christian communities around the Mediterranean basin and as far away as Rome, to all the Christian communities as far away as Waban, telling them, telling us that the experience of the movement of the spirit in our lives, our baptism into the body of Christ, means that we no more are enslaved to sin, no more are we under the dominion of death. We have been freed, welcomed into the hands of God, who is waiting to mold our lives, waiting for us to take up our place under the dominion of life!
And so many of you have done just that. You have looked in the face of rage and said no more. You have faced addition and said not again. You looked into the eyes of meaninglessness and said “I believe”. You faced compulsion, depression, anxiety and fear and said “I will be slave to you no longer.”
Now faced with this scripture, I have made an experiment of myself this week. I have given great concentration and intentionality of putting myself in God’s hands. More so even than I try to regularly do. I have tried to bring mindfulness and attention to each thought, each action, each movement of my body choosing in each moment to give attention to God. I have to tell you, it is not easy. Talk about isometric exercise. There is this pull in our world towards so much that is not life giving. It easier to be annoyed than it is to be forgiving. It is easier to feel hassled than it is to feel compassionate. It is easier to let the spark of rage rage than it is to whisper peace. It is easier to feel righteous indignation than to feel humility. It is easier to feel put upon that it is to feel grateful.
But I tell you, every time we do not acquiesce to our baser responses. When we look rage and compulsion in the face and say no more, a power enters into us and expands us. When we choose compassion, compassion rushes in. When we choose peace, peace floods us. When we choose humility, grace lifts us up to places we could never go on our own.
Try it, Try it this summer. Try it and write of it, photograph it, craft poetry or pottery of it. This is your summer homework, work of your home which is in God. Show us how you choose life, choose righteousness, chose to place yourself in the hands of God in every moment that unfolds. Show us how this faith community has helped you do so. Bring your photos, your poetry, your prose back with you in September to form our Advent devotional book. Bring the giving of yourself to God into the life of our community – share what you shared with us.
For it is in giving of ourselves to God that we fully know what it is to be free. Nothing can enslave us when we are slaves to what is Holy, and righteous, and beautiful and so very good. To give ourselves to God is to be free, and to be free in God is to know what it is to truly live, to taste now the eternal life that is ours. Let us cherish that freedom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.