A Freedom For
by Tim Mooney
How surely gravity’s law,
Strong as an ocean current,
Takes hold of even the smallest thing
And pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing –
Each stone, blossom, child –
Is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
Push out beyond what we each belong to
For some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
To earth’s intelligence
We could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
In knots of our own making
And struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
To learn from the things,
Because they are in God’s heart;
They have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
Patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
Before it can fly.
Rainer Maria Rilke, II, 16, Book of Hours
“Only we, in our arrogance, push out beyond what we each belong to for some empty freedom.”
We long for freedom. A child squirms to be put down so it can run in the very direction its parents doesn’t want it to run. Teenagers who count down the days until they get their driver’s license. Adults who long to be loosed from anxiety, depression, self-doubt, perfectionism, shame. We long to be set free from all that enslaves us. We long to become our true selves, who we were meant to be. Like the rooted tree, we want to rise up; like the weighted bird, we want to fly.
But freedom, real freedom, is elusive. This country, rooted in the idea of freedom, struggles mightily to provide freedom for all. The land of the free? Rilke’s poem suggests that, unlike the things of nature, “we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused.” And so, we “push out beyond what we each belong to for some empty freedom.” So the question arises: What do we think we belong to?
Some people in the church at Corinth were experiencing freedom. They no longer believed in many gods and idols. They felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols, now for sale at the local market. They told their “weaker” brothers and sisters to get over it: “Idols aren’t real, have some real faith, and let’s go out for steak.” They wanted to “fix” the “weaker” members. They reveled in their freedom. They belonged to the “in” group, the enlightened ones, they belonged on God’s side. They were the heroes. But Paul saw their freedom, was an empty freedom. Paul could say, along with Rilke, they had pushed out beyond what each belonged to. What they belonged to was each other. Paul invites them into a fuller freedom. Christ’s freedom means they are free not to eat meat if doing so would harm another’s faith. Paul calls them back to love, to each other. True freedom, is the freedom for compassion and justice, the freedom to love. Paul asks them to be church.
David and Goliath. A classic story of the underdog against the villain, good versus evil. When we read it, hear it, who do we belong to? David, of course! This is known as the Disney Princess Complex. We always identify with the hero. We are more like Peter than Judas Iscariot. More like Moses than Pharaoh. More like Israel than Babylon. Isn’t that who we are? As Christians, as a nation? We’re on God’s side, right?
Let me tell a few stories. As you listen, I invite you to notice who do you identify with, who do you belong to?
Cathy Hawk tells a story about her black friend, named Nalini. When Nalini’s brother, her boyfriend, and another male friend go out into the world for pizza, go for a run, go to the bank, run an errand to Home Depot, she finds herself texting them every hour, “Are you okay?” They know to respond ASAP, because she fears they will be pulled over or harmed just because they are black.
Gary Ringler shares an apartment with a good friend, Patrick, a black man. Occasionally, Patrick asks Gary to accompany him on errands. He says it makes him feel safer.
These two stories reveal the reality of white privilege. White privilege is unconscious, assumed, embedded in the notion of white supremacy, institutionalized in our laws and culture. We white folks don’t text our friends or family every hour to ask if they are okay. We don’t ask anyone to go on an errand with us because we are afraid something bad could happen just because the color of our skin is white.
One more story. I came to Denver from California over ten years ago. I was married at the time, and we decided to move closer to Deborah’s family. I was called to serve Peoples Presbyterian Church ¾ time as their Interim Pastor. I had never worked in a predominantly black church before, and I knew I would learn a lot. And I did, particularly on one Sunday, when the choir came into my office for prayer before worship, and it just seemed to me that everyone was in a radiant mood. And so I said, “I love your shiny faces!” And I got the strangest looks! And if you don’t understand why I got those looks, then you have white privilege. The members of Peoples Presbyterian Church are wonderful, and I really enjoyed my time with them. They were kind to me, and supportive, when I went through my divorce. I served with them for three and half years. And I thought I did a good job.
True freedom, is the freedom for compassion and justice, the freedom to love
But over the past several years, being staff liaison to the Racial Healing Initiative Group here at Central, and more recently, witnessing the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd, I have seen how little I understood what the good people at Peoples Presbyterian Church have gone through. I realize that I understood perhaps only 25% of the prejudice, profiling, and pain they have been through, and still face. I talked a good game, but I didn’t act on it, I didn’t pursue any systemic changes, I didn’t know how deep racism went, and I didn’t know how deeply entrenched I was in my white privilege. I see it now. And I’m ashamed at what I couldn’t, wouldn’t see. I am asking for their forgiveness. And I am now actively seeking change in our laws and culture, long overdue. I have found a fuller freedom.
Paul is asking those Corinthians who had found a new freedom, to not eat meat, if it would harm others. Today, Paul would ask those who have found freedom, to wear a mask, in order to prevent harming others. Paul is asking those Corinthians who had found a new freedom, and us, to see their brothers and sisters, and themselves, in a new light. One word to describe that light, is “respect.” At it brings to mind Aretha Franklin’s song:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of T-C-B.
“T-C-B” stands for “Take Care of Business. The Latin root of the word respect means “to see again.” Taking care of business to continually see more deeply who each other are, and that we belong to each other. And what I was going to say right now in this sermon when I was working on it Friday was – “that we belong to each other no matter the color of our skin or the accent of our voice.” But when Rilke says “the things,” meaning all life that is not human, and that the things teach us, and when we look at the great variety of things – species, shapes, sizes, voices, colors – we realize we belong to each other because God has created diversity! Our difference is a part of what makes us unique, and it makes us belong to each other. We are asked to trust the One who made all the colors, to embrace every particular color, and a few colors have not been embraced. Black lives matter. Brown lives matter.
Let us fall into the love of God, let us fall into the weight of our own soul, and witness the weight of one another’s soul so that we might trust God’s life in each one of us, trust it enough, so we take wing.
Even a bird has to do that
Before it can fly.
Matthew 25 speaks of the Beloved community. We all belong to God, and to each other. What we do to “the least of these” we do to Christ – and I think those words “the least of these” should be in quotes, because Christ equates himself with them, and Christ is certainly not “least.” God calls us to be conscious about our love for all. The freedom we have is for loving each other, true freedom.
Each one of us is in God’s heart, we have never left him. So we no longer consider anyone less than human, less than essential. When we belong to each other, we become free in God’s love. Amen.