Detail of a page from the Book of Kells (c. 800)
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 2nd, 2018
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Click here to access these readings.
Sometimes our lectionary works really well. Sometimes we come to church, hear the readings, and you can see so easily how they connect. Sometimes, though, that’s not the case, and the readings seem like a Broadway play I once saw; it was a variety play, with all these different pieces with different songs and different sets and costumes. But when I saw it I didn’t know it was a variety play; I thought there was a story. And so with each new scene I was scratching my head, thinking, “What in the world is this about?” I did my best to create some semblance of a plot, and, for a while, I had one, and it was pretty compelling; but then at intermission, when I told my dad all of this, he just shook his head. “There’s no plot, Tim,” he said. “It’s just disconnected pieces. That’s part of the fun.” Sometimes the lectionary selections are like that. Sometimes life is like that.
But not today, not this morning. This morning the lectionary works well. All the readings fit together. The Bible, you see, is full of many different themes: there’s hope, perseverance, dedication, struggle, even sorrow and frustration, but so too death and resurrection. All these themes run through the Bible, criss-crossing back and forth, weaving in and out of one another. And you can see these themes in some of the study Bibles around. John had one the other day, and in the margin on all the pages are little references to other passages in the Bible that are quoted, or mentioned, or referenced. Medieval artists tried to represent this tapestry-like nature of the Bible in the margins of their manuscripts, with all their mingled designs of animals, people, and geometric shapes. One job of the lectionary, and one of our jobs when we study the Bible inside or outside of church, is to take one of these pieces or threads and pull it out, look at it, and figure out how God is speaking a word to us in all these different parts of the Bible.
And this morning’s theme is about…well, it’s about freedom. And that might seem strange. For all these readings, in a way, are about rules and laws, what to do and what not to do. In Deuteronomy, we hear of statutes and ordinances. In the Psalm, we hear about keeping your word and swearing to do no wrong: “Whoever does these things, [these rules], shall never be overthrown.” In the letter of St. James, we hear of more things to do, and even in our gospel, we hear of Jesus Christ talking about practices, rules, and defilement. But even so, I believe all these readings are about freedom.
And what is freedom? Well, my atheist friends would say that freedom is the ability to do anything you want, to choose your own fate. They chafe at God because they don’t want someone telling them what to do, how to live, and what is good and what’s bad. They want the freedom from that sort of authority figure. I don’t agree with their image of God, but even so: they want a freedom from something.
Or perhaps freedom is like when teenagers go off to college. Now, they’re not only (supposedly) free from something (free from parents, they way things have been, etc.), but free to do things. They’re free to stay up however late they want, go to whatever parties they want, and goof off, as they want. And even if they choose not to goof off, and they sit and study, that is a choice they are free to make.
Now, these are certainly two different types of freedom. But the freedom that Jesus is talking about, and the freedom that we encounter in these readings this morning, is a little different. Elsewhere, Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32). And we may rightly wonder, like those who were around him, what is this freedom that Jesus is talking about? And in Psalm 119, we hear “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought your precepts.” And we may question, “How am I free if I am bound by precepts, bound by laws?” We get closer to what I’m talking about in 2 Timothy. Here we hear, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). For where the spirit is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17), and that spirit is of power, and love, and self-discipline.
This freedom we hear of in the Bible is not just a freedom from something, or a freedom to do something, but a freedom in something. Think, for a moment, of baseball. There are rules, certainly: After three outs, the teams switch being at bat or in the field. When running to a base, you have to stay in the narrow, little baseline. And these rules are pretty strict. But when you’re playing the game, those rules fade into the background. Not that they disappear, but that they become the very foundation of the game, the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. And something happens when you “play by the rules”, or, rather, when you’re “in” the game. You hear athletes talk about it every now and again, for there’s a glory in the game, of breathing the air of the rules of baseball that is a freedom. There is a glory in the crack of the bat, in the lights, in the smell of the glove, even in the dust that you kick up. And this glory, this freedom, isn’t from something, or the ability to do something; it’s a freedom in baseball, a freedom in and through and up beyond and with the game that jostles the heart from its slumber and makes it alive again.
This is the sort of freedom that Jesus and the Bible are talking about. For Jesus didn’t come just to give us stuff to do so that we wouldn’t goof off all the time. Jesus came to save us from sin and death, not so that we could get back to the status quo. No, for Jesus freed us to something, to a life in God, to a life lived along a path of freedom. And this freedom may look at first like a lot of rules, a lot of words that so often can seem empty and rote, a lot of prayers we really don’t want to say so early in the morning or so late at night. But when we enter into them, when we live those prayers, and these liturgies, when we walk up to the communion rail not thinking about doing everything right but because we love Jesus and here is a way to meet him, when we see that the water in this font isn’t just liquid but the very light of salvation, then…then we see that this life is a holy life. We see that this life is a good life. And that little path, that narrow gate, opens up to a great landscape, burgeoning with life and love. This is the path that Christ calls us to live; this is the freedom that that path calls us to.