Expanding freedom


Text: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

It was late at night on my sixteenth Birthday. My guests had left the party, and I snuck away as well. I put on my sweats and tennis shoes, and began stretching. It was cool out, even though it was Florida, and I breathed in the moist air and listened to the faint sound of the ocean rolling. I began running around the block. First, I bounded with full steam, as fast as I could. After a couple of rounds, I could hardly catch up with my breath, so I paced myself. I never wanted to stop.

The feelings that propelled my at that moment were complicated, but I think that most of my energy came from guilt.

I grew up in a bikini-friendly beach town, where people actually looked good in their swimwear. As a result, I’m pretty sure that half my high school had some sort of eating disorder. When I think back on my teenaged years, I remember being intensely hungry. By the time I turned twelve, I had a very strict good food and bad food list, running in my mind. Sometimes I even had a typed list posted on the refrigerator.

The good food list got smaller every year, until it pretty much just had two foods on it: carrots and celery. What made these foods good? Well, it was their nutritional value, and because I heard somewhere that it took more calories to eat them than was actually contained in them. Every other food was bad.

I lived under a food tyranny, where there were constant spies, my siblings, parents, friends, doctor, it felt like everyone was watching what I ate. I stepped on the scale three times a day. I had my metabolism checked out, and I was told that because I was short, I couldn’t eat what normal people eat. I had to consume a lot less.

Each New Year’s, I resolved to lose weight. I lived on a diet. I felt guilty about eating, all the time. And when I would eat a desert, well, then I would punish myself, and run for miles, just to work it off.

And that’s what I was doing, while running around the block. I had the double whammy of becoming sixteen while knowing that I wasn’t thin (I was pretty much the same size I am now. I was well within a normal weight, but in my mind, I was gigantic). Plus, I had eaten a piece of my birthday cake. So the torture had to begin.

It wasn’t until I moved away from Florida before I could think differently. I broke out of these habits when I moved to the Midwest. It took me two years in Lincoln, Nebraska, being surrounded by hearty, beautiful women, who thought nothing of kicking back with a giant glass of whole milk. It just did me a world of good to be in the land of funnel cakes, thick steaks and fruit kolaches, for a while. Women there are pretty, even when their total weight equals three digits. In that land, flowing with milk and honey, with no one looking, I began to appreciate food, the taste and texture of a good meal.

Now, I no longer think of eating as a bad thing, I enjoy food, and I actually try to eat three square meals every day.

You see, a shift happened. It was a matter of personal freedom. I went from the damaging effects of wanting to live without food, ignoring hunger pains and weakness, to an appreciation for food. I had the freedom for food. I was liberated to eat like a normal person, three meals a day, without guilt or punishment. It may sound strange or petty for some of you, but if you’ve ever gone through something like this, you know it’s a truly liberating experience.

Many of us have experienced freedom on a personal level, in one way or another. When we realize the damaging effect of addiction and we work through a program of recovery. When we leave an abusive spouse, or move away from a destructive parent. When we leave a soul-sucking job, or we begin to gain some balance over our exhausting work habits, or when we finally come out of our financial bondage.

The passage into liberation can be scary and thrilling all at one time. You go from feeling a sense of relief, to a gripping fear that it’ll happen again. Or that there will be too much freedom, and that freedom itself will damage us in some way.

I noticed this while pastoring people who went through the Great Depression. After living through that economic hardship, even when they were completely well off, they still had this lingering fear that they were going to lose it again and they would cling to their wealth.

I also see this in Paul’s writings, when I read this passage from Galatians. This is a letter to the churches in Galatia. Paul is in the heat of the moment, writing in the midst of controversy. I recently read a scholar who compared Paul to a high school teacher, trying to teach a Science class, but he has to stop and break up a fight in the hallway. Then, during his lunch hour, he’s got to fill in for the coach who went home with a migraine headache. Paul’s running from one place to another, managing all these conflicts while the church is in its infancy. He’s defending the leadership and defending himself. He’s in and out of jail. He’s making up the rules as he goes along. All the while, he’s writing these dispatches, and the members of early church gather around to read them, much like we still do. Sometimes the churches accept the words, and sometimes they reject them.

One of the biggest fights Paul has to break up is what to do about all the non-Jewish converts. The early church was basically a small sect of Judaism, and so when Gentiles began to gather, there were all these questions about whether they needed to be circumcised, or if they needed to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions.

Paul answers some of these questions in Galatians, although his logic can be infuriating. He contradicts himself all the time. And he’s a pragmatist, who’s trying to be all things to all people. I mean look at the passage: “You are to be slaves to no one…. You are to be slaves to everyone.”

I just scratch my head, and want to ask him, “Which one is it, Paul?”

There is one thing he’s clear on here. Paul’s talking about freedom, and says that we are called to freedom. In Paul’s particular context, he’s referring to freedom from the Jewish law. But we can sense the discomfort in his pen, as he moves into this passage to liberation, in this new era of freedom, he writes his warnings. I don’t think of Paul as a high shool teacher here. He seems more like an eager parent who doesn’t quite want to let his children go. He doesn’t want us to get carried away. “Don’t bite and devour people,” he reminds us. “You’ll just end up feeling consumed.” He leaves us with a do list and a don’t list. And just as we’re running out of the door to go play in the streets, Paul yells after us, “Remember, the most important thing: Love your neighbor as you love yourself!”

We hear a lot about freedom, and we know that our views of freedom move about fluidly from the personal, to the spiritual, to the political. We celebrate it, on this day, the Fourth of July, a time when we remember the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. A great day of freedom in the United States.

George Lakoff reminds us that this is a time in our nation when we need to be aware of our freedoms. We have freedom from things (freedom from oppression or freedom from slavery), and we have a freedom for things.

In our country, activists have worked to expand our freedoms, to pass them on. We’ve expanded rights of citizenry, like voting rights, we’ve expanded them from white property owners, to African Americans, to women, to younger people.

We’ve expanded the right to good job opportunities, labor rights, through a minimum wage, combating child labor, improving working conditions, and establishing a forty-hour workweek.

We’ve expanded public education so that basic education is provided to our children. And we have worked hard to desegregate our schools and to combat the myth that schools can be separate, but equal. Many teachers and children endured threats and put their lives at risk to make sure this happened.

We have the right to public health and free speech. We have the right to practice our religion.

These are some of our basic freedoms, and we have seen these freedoms expand over the years. We’ve looked for those who have been left out, those who are marginalized, those who are not a part of these basic freedoms, and we have enlarged our vision.

As we celebrate our great freedom, we can remember how we have grown stronger as a people when our rights have grown. We can protect the freedoms that we have, and look for ways to expand them. We can continue to nurture each and every person in our society. We can imagine how to live as Paul instructs us: because the most important thing is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Let us live by the Spirit, with the full realization that we have been called to freedom. May the richness of this spiritual liberation influence every aspect of our lives. May we learn to cast off those things that enslave us, so that we might love ourselves. And may we always expand our vision for loving our neighbors.


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