“The Human One and Being Free” Reflections by The Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday January 21st, 2018. (Readings for the 3rd Sun. After Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-5,10, Psalm 84, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20)
“ ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ …..and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Mark 1:17 & 20
For me those brief lines from our gospel today speak to the freedom the disciples experienced through their encounter with Jesus, but also the price and pathos of that freedom.
Last week I talked about Jesus vision of “The Human One” as a vision of what it means to be truly human in opposition to the way the Kingdoms and empires have defined what it means to be human as having power over others. Today I want to talk about the Human One in terms of the challenge of living as free human beings.
I don’t like the metaphor we find in our gospel about fishing for people. It makes me think of people being hooked and coerced into doing something they don’t want to do. In contrast, my instinct is that people were drawn to follow Jesus partly because they experienced a kind of inner light, life, and freedom in Jesus, that I think they yearned to know in themselves. I know that’s part of what draws me.
The Jesus we encounter in the scriptures seems to have been a remarkably free person. He doesn’t seem to need to follow the social, cultural, religious, gender, political scripts that people at the time were expected to follow. In encounter after encounter you see him do, or say, something that seems surprising, totally unexpected. It’s as if he’s in a play in which everyone else is playing their parts and reading their lines and yet he’s speaking his own words and choosing to do what he wants to do in response to what he encounters.
For me this speaks to a kind of interior freedom that seems to have been rooted in Jesus’ experience of himself as beloved and pleasing to God. This mean he goes around not needing to earn his worth in the eyes of others. (Imagine what we might have done, or might do, if we weren’t continually needing to prove ourselves acceptable to others.) And this ability to write your own script, to let the dead bury the dead—that is to not feel the scripts and ideas from the past have to determine our lives or our futures—seems to have been infectious, seems to have inspired others to do the same. Thus, we see people behaving in totally unexpected ways. They drop everything to follow Jesus, ignoring the family codes and traditions which were thought of as the essential glue of their society and their faith as they refuse various family expectations whether they were about attending a funeral, getting married and having kids, or living under the direction of their parents. But our gospel today also tells us there was a price for this new-found freedom. One can’t but feel the pathos of Zebeedee who is left alone in the boat with his hired men, as his sons James and John go off and follow Jesus. One wonders if we’re not hearing the sorrow James and John might have felt about this—even years later.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul says “For freedom’s sake Christ has set us free.” In other words, freedom is a core constitutive value, a value in and of itself and yet it is not our only core value. We live in an age that has made a fetish of individual freedom, a kind of idol, with stupid and deadly ideas like freedom is doing whatever you feel like doing regardless of the consequences to others, so it’s important to say that interior freedom, while a core value, cannot stand on its own, it stands in relationship to other core values like loving others and being committed to their well-being.
The “#me too” movement has helped shed a light on how many of us, particularly men, were taught that somehow our freedom meant we could engage in sexual activities with others, particularly women, without checking in with them to see if this was something they wanted. The male sexual revolution of the 1960’s challenged a wide variety of restrictions around sexual behavior and relationships that needed to be challenged, but it also seemed to say, as Marvin Gaye and some of my other favorite singers would sing, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” We’ve learned that is simply untrue. Many of us perpetuated significant harms because of this lie that if it feels good to us it must feel good to others. Many others of us have been harmed as a result. Hopefully, we’re coming to a place where we’re learning how to both claim and honor our own experience while also listening to and honoring the experience of others.
How do we help one another experience the interior freedom which is vital for us as human beings and yet also honor and care for one another? Thinking about our community over the past year it has struck me how much we’re still struggling with learning how to be free while being in relationship, while being in community.
It’s not surprising as most of us have been incredibly poorly prepared for life in community.
Our country has a long history of collectivism in which the group dictates who and what the individuals within it could do, or think, or even feel. If you’ve been marked with the mark of collectivism it is terribly hard to learn how to be in a community of free people as you are always expecting that you are just meant to follow the program. This can also leave you without much tolerance for the kinds of disagreements and chaos that come with life among free people. Or it may mean you have been left so hurt by collectivism that you keep your guard up and won’t entrust yourself to the group lest they try to control you.
Collectivism has in turn fostered a long history of radical individualism within our culture to the degree that you have many people who view everything through such an individualistic lens that everything becomes simply about their individual souls and they are unable to even see all the ways history and society are impacting us.
Radical individualism often fosters the idea that we are most free when we are detached from others. If you are already detached from people then they can’t use our attachment to them to coerce us. Though many of us have come to find that freedom without bonds of attachment is “just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Those who try to live without bonds of attachment to others tend to also strive to detach themselves from their bodies and their feelings because as social creatures we have needs that can’t be met except through others. Thus, this kind of individualism often goes hand in hand with a kind of radical alienation from our bodies and our feelings.
If you have been marked with the mark of radical individualism, it’s hard to learn how to be part of a community of free people. It’s easy to keep living your life as an isolated individual even in the midst of community. If you do let yourself get attached to others, it can be hard to maintain your autonomy, hold onto your own truths and own experience, because previously you’ve only done this through being detached.
So, the practice of the community of the free is a kind crucible. We need to be compassionate with ourselves and one another as it is not easy and it’s likely to take us a long time to get figure out how to do it. For most of us, to be able to do it, is going to require a kind of rebirth.
Here are a few of the challenges I see many of us struggling with in terms of being free while growing in our attachment to others:
*To learn to do the dance of the free requires us to honor our own experience and truths, while opening ourselves to the experience and truths of others, yet most of us have difficulty doing this as we have been raised to have an either/or rather than a both/and perspective.
*Most of us have grown up in various forms of middle class culture in which we’ve been encouraged to stay pretty distant both from our own needs and those of others. Growing closer to one another makes us aware of all the different kinds of suffering that people are living with: things that have happened in the past, things that are happening in the present, things we are afraid are going to happen in the future. Many of us don’t know how to live in relationship to suffering so we feel tyrannized by it to the degree that we either want to blame people for their suffering, or try to fix it, but there are so many different kinds of suffering we can’t do anything about except to be present to each other and love one another. To be able to present to others and love them in the midst of their suffering means that most of us are needing new consciences, consciences that aren’t condemning us or others for their suffering, consciences that don’t condemn us when we make others aware of our own suffering.
*Thomas Merton once said, something to the effect, that “Grace is the ability to play in a world of suffering.” Most of us are still spiritual infants when it comes to learning how to live the life of grace which will allow us to live in relationship to suffering, our own and that of others, and still be able to feel free, still be able to experience joy and happiness. In the meanwhile, it can leave us wanting to flee or detach.
*Psychologists tells us that we have been programmed to have a bias towards pessimism. They suggest that pessimism is one of the fruits of our evolution as a species as those who assumed the worst, or looked for the worst, tended to survive. But going around seeing the worst, fearing the worst, all the time, is not much of a way to live and it makes life in community really difficult, as there always seem to be so many things to worry about or be afraid of.
I’m struck by how most of us are continually tempted to assume that everyone, or at least most people, are not like us. This is easy to feel as most of us are petty unique. But the lie is that most other people are united in being different than us. We experience others as a collective “them” which is really simply a creation of our fearful imaginations. The result of this kind of projection is that it is easy for us to despair and feel alone and abandoned. It’s easy for us to feel like no one’s ever going to be interested in whatever it is we’re interested in, or whatever it is we’re concerned about. Thus, so often, we don’t even begin the long slow process of beginning to share our interests and concerns with others and seeing who might ultimately come to share those interest and concerns. I find that when people share their concerns and desires over time—others respond to them, but it’s often a long slow process.
*Lastly, my experience of most churches is that they have a little sign outside the door that says people come here to not feel disturbed so please leave your difficult feelings at the door. This means that when people come into a church where people are sharing their feelings—it can feel pretty crazy and even upsetting. Hopefully, in and through the Holy Spirit we will continue to grow in our ability to hold our feelings so that over time they can become sources of wisdom, wealth, and blessing for us all.
I believe that part of what draws us to spiritual community is the desire to experience freedom. Yet, as creatures so programed to respond to the expectations of others, that if a group is facing the back of an elevator most of us will do the same, it’s an incredible challenge to find our way forward to being free while being in relationship to others. If we can’t do it, most of us will either live our lives feeling burdened and resentful, or walk away like Huck Finn, always dreaming of the place, the community, where we can feel free to be ourselves. I think many of us are coming to realize it not a matter of finding a certain community, but our learning to dance the dance of the free.
If things continue to progress as they have been in this community there are going to be more and more small groups doing different activities. If we aren’t reflective and don’t claim our freedom we’re likely to either try to force ourselves to do things we really can’t or don’t want to do, or to feel resentful or distrustful of those who are doing what we don’t feel called to do, or tempted to coerce others to do what we think they should do. All of those are forms of dishonoring ourselves and others as free people. I want to be clear here. We need to talk and to be able to disagree with people. That’s not a problem, that’s pretty vital. I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about trying to coerce ourselves, or others, in a way that violates are inherent dignity. I’m talking about living in relationship to ourselves or others in a way that keeps us from feeling the joy of freedom and the creativity that arises from it.
Being free, practicing freedom, while growing closer to others is I think something most of us long for, but it’s not just going to happen naturally as there are so many forces that prey upon us. Being free is at the heart of what it means to live fully as human beings, not dominated or controlled by the past, not ruled by the dead or the living, but it requires that we learn to live by the Spirit, to trust the Spirit that allows us, in Pauls’ words today, to see that the “present form of this world is passing away,” that nothing human is permanent and fixed, which means almost everything is transformable—thank God.
A new world composed of free human being is struggling to be born, but we are not going to be able to be part of that new world, much less create it, unless we ourselves learn how to practice and to be free human beings, in our lives and in our relationships and within this community. That’s part of the enormous challenge before us. But if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen