Proudly Free – A Sermon for Pride
Below is the transcription of Father Cramer's sermon from our parish's 2022 Community PRIDE Worship on the Waterfront in Grand Haven, MI, on Sunday, June 26, 2022. The sermon may also be viewed on YouTube here. Our parish offers this community service each year, on the final Sunday in June. Any Christian or church in the community who wants to join is warmly welcomed.
A reading from the Letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25), as appointed for Proper 8, Year C:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the epistle reading chosen for today, the third Sunday of Pentecost and also the day we gather for this community pride worship service, we hear St. Paul remind us that it is "for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Freedom is not only a central theological concept to Paul but central, of course, as well to the great American experiment. We live in a country founded on the importance of freedom from tyranny, with many of those who founded it being those who were fleeing religious oppression. We live in the land of the free, or at least we want to believe we do.
You may have noticed lately an increase in banners and yard signs, all across Ottawa County, proclaiming a set of political candidates all united by one organization. On their signs, it says freedom and family. Well, who can disagree with that? If you go to the website of the group running these signs and candidates, you'll see what sort of freedom they believe in, the freedom to tell other people how to live their lives. They believe in their freedom to insist that their particular religious views should control what kind of books children have access to in the library. They believe in the freedom to dismantle the Ottawa County Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion because it runs counter to their personal beliefs. They want the freedom to do these things.
Groups like this, people who believe in this particular brand of Christian freedom, also believe, of course, in the freedom to tell women what to do with their bodies. A freedom that found its fulfillment just this past week when the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade. Now a woman cannot make her own conscious decision because our government has taken it from her. I want to be clear. This is, of course, the opposite of freedom. This is the tyranny of a particular religious view, and it has no place in our country. It has no place in the church.
The candidate running from this group for county commissioner in Grand Haven township, where I live, has on his flyers commitments to his beliefs about freedom. On his flyers, he insists that he believes "A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl." He proclaims his freedom to declare the gender identity of children for them, to erase the biological reality of intersex people whose gender could not clearly be identified at birth, and also his freedom to erase the reality of children who do not yet know, who have not yet claimed their own gender identity. This once more is the opposite of freedom. This is the tyranny of a particular far right religious view, and it has no place in our country. It has no place in the church.
Now, I'm not here to tell you how to vote in the upcoming August 2nd primary election in Ottawa County, though I do hope you will vote regardless of whether you agree with me. I am, after all, a lowly parish priest. But I am here to talk to you about what Christian freedom actually means because the word freedom has been twisted out of its original meaning in scripture, twisted into a reality where supposedly Christian freedom looks an awful lot more like a theocratic version of America, a reality that more closely resembles Margaret Atwood's nightmare The Handmaid's Tale than the reality Jesus Christ sought to bring about by his death and resurrection. We desperately need to understand anew what freedom means for the Christian.
The Apostle Paul, the author of the Letter from the Galatians, which we read from just a few minutes ago, gets kind of a bad rap in this regard. Partly, this is because people tend to go to Paul to find reasons to tell everyone else why they're wrong. Which is, of course, ironic because as we heard in the epistle reading for today, Christian freedom, as Paul says, is not biting and devouring one another. It's not using scripture to bind up and dehumanize others.
Paul is clear, right here in this reading, that the whole of the law can be summed up in a single commandment, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the heart of Christian freedom: love of neighbor. A love of neighbor that is so profound, Paul says for the Christian, you are actually enslaved to one another. It is not about my freedom to have what I want. It is about my commitment to serve what is best for you.
Freedom is willing to be constrained by the good of the other, to seek the best of your neighbor ahead of your own personal privilege. That's why Paul then sketches out kind of two different ways a person can live, a life lived to gratify the desires of the flesh versus a life living to make manifest the fruits of the spirit.
Now, once more, hold lightly to what you think Paul is talking about and consider his actual words because, for Paul, living according to the flesh means living a life enslaved to yourself. As one scholar notes, Paul's problem with the flesh is not that it desires, but that its desires become disordered. It wants good things, but in the wrong way. And so, Paul gives a list of ways that epitomize living according to the flesh, living enslaved to yourself instead of living with a concern for the good of your neighbor. In each of these items, you can see how a desire that is good becomes twisted, turned inward and misused.
Paul begins with three words related to sexual sin, fornication and purity and licentiousness. Ooh. Now, rather than get into the original Greek of each of these terms and run the risk of you falling asleep on this lovely Sunday morning, remember the context Paul is talking about. Paul is using each of these as examples of living with a sole concern for yourself instead of a true concern for the good of your neighbor. Yes, that is absolutely a risk in sexual intimacy. It can become turned inward, willfully blind to the good of the other. All of these examples of desires of the flesh are instances when you refuse to see the other as a person, instead when they become only an end to your own desire.
As much as so-called American Christianity wants to talk about the first three sins, Paul names, Ooh boy, they tend to ignore the rest of the list. Because Paul also describes enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions factions, envy, and Lord knows that straight white American Christianity is filled with those sins as well, just as much as it is filled with views of sexuality that dehumanize people... views of sexuality that refuse to see the other.
As one scholar puts it, for Paul, disordered desire enslaves us to our passions and it destroys community. And the appropriate response to disordered desire is neither rejection of desire (desire is not bad), nor blind surrender to it (you've got to think about what you desire). Instead, the answer is to desire properly, something we do through the gift of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. What does desire well and faithfully ordered look like? Well, it would be a desire that always seeks the best of your neighbor or, in Paul's word, it is desire that produces the alternative to living according to the flesh, a desire that produces the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self control.
Back in the '80s, my denomination, the Episcopal Church, started trying to be very intentional about listening to the experience of our LGBTQIA+ siblings. The more the straight cisgender parts of the church listened to the other parts of the church, they discovered that their love, their relationships, were not relationships that resembled the first path Paul laid out, the path of being concerned only for fulfilling your own desires and pleasure. No, queer relationships had all the evidence of the fruits of the spirit because they were filled with love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. In many ways, we discovered queer relationships were even more committed to the good of the other than many straight relationships. Perhaps that's because of the discrimination they'd faced... so they'd had to work even harder to crucify a concern for self alone so that they could live entirely for the person they loved for their good, their wholeness. We learned and the church got a little more whole because of that.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, but far too many people today live under a yoke of slavery. Make no mistake, any form of Christianity that enslaves another human is false. That was true not that long ago, when most Christians thought it was okay to own human beings and they used the Bible to justify it. But any form of Christianity that enslaves another person is false, whether it is enslaving the undocumented immigrant to a system that doesn't recognize their humanity and worth, that is false. When it is enslaving a woman so that a small group of religious men can control her body, that is false Christianity. When it is enslaving the queer person by telling them that they need to be celibate or they need to hide who they are or be anything else, anything other than who God created them to be, this is false Christianity. These systems of slavery have nothing to do with the gospel of freedom found in Jesus Christ. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
You can teach us, oh beloved and fabulous children of God, particularly those of you who have different gender identities and sexual orientations. You can teach the rest of us so much about what it means to love when it's difficult and hard, when you're not seen or honored. You could teach us what it means to love when it's vulnerable and even dangerous. Queer Christians can teach all the straight cisgender Christians here what it means to value the good of your neighbor more than your own comfort, because it's a very comfortable place to sit quietly on the side while other people's lives and freedoms are eroded away.
In light of the very anti-freedom agenda right now in this country of so many people who claim the name of Jesus, it is far past time for all Christians, gay and straight, cis and trans, to stand up and demand the just protections of freedom for all people to be who God created them to be and to live lives of autonomy and goodness that they choose for themselves.
Because it is only by working to increase love in this world, all the fruits of the spirit to increase kindness and generosity and gentleness, only by asking what you could do to protect your neighbor who is at risk of being marginalized, trapped or killed by the powers of this world, only by doing this will we find what truly Christian freedom looks like. A freedom that should be available to each and every person.
Be free beloved of God. Be proudly free. Amen.