A Sermon for 7 July 2019
A reading from Galatians 5:1, 13-25. This is believed to be one of the letters written by the Apostle Paul to the churches of Galatia – likely a Roman province Asia Minor located east of the Aegean Sea and north of the Mediterranean Sea. Listen for God’s word to us.
“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. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 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. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Recently I heard an interview with Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Super Soul Sunday, OWN, 16 June 2019). A Doctor of Psychology, who is known to friends and family as her preferred name Edie, Dr. Eger was born in Eastern Europe in 1927. The youngest of three sisters, Dr. Eger’s father was a skilled tailor. Her mother, a pragmatic woman, became an adult child when her own mother died shortly after childbirth and Edie’s mother took on the duties of mothering the household. Dr. Eger might have had a promising career as a dancer. She even was training for the Olympic gymnastics team until her beloved coach pulled her out of practice in the early 1940s to let her know she no longer would be able to compete on the team because of her “background.” It made no difference that Edie was one of the most talented girls on the team – her eldest sister Clara a protégé violinist and her sister Magda a flirtatious beauty. In 1944, Edie was a young Hungarian Jew.
Now 91, Dr. Eger has released her first book – her memoir of the Passover when soldiers invaded her family’s tiny apartment. After a month of being held with 3,000 other Jews of her home city; Edie, her sister Magda, her mother, and her father were loaded on a truck; then transferred into the dark, over-stuffed cargo car of a train that emptied them before the man known as the angel of death. Standing before Dr. Josef Mengele, with a flick of his finger; he ordered Edie’s mother to the left – the line that led directly to the gas chamber of Auschwitz, the most heinous Nazi death camp. There stands the gate reading “work sets you free.” Unbelievably, Dr. Eger writes: “I could have remained a permanent victim – scarred by what was beyond my control . . . Early on, I realized,” she writes, “that true freedom can only be found by forgiving, letting go, and moving on” (https://dreditheger.com/). Certainly, she came to that lesson due in part to a lifesaving shred of wisdom her mother gave her when first the soldiers came to get them. Edie’s mother told her, “They can never control what you put in your own mind” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017). That wisdom taught Edie the difference between victimization – something she explains nearly all of us will experience in our lifetimes from the external forces of another – and victimhood – an inner belief that we are not worthy of any better treatment than what is given us by those who would harm us. A vibrant ray of light at 91 years of age, Dr. Eger is one of the few Holocaust survivors still alive today. If it wasn’t for an American soldier, who on 4 May 1945 noticed a slight movement amongst a pile of dead bodies, Dr. Eger would not have made it and gone on to become a celebrated psychologist who for fifty years has been helping others victimized by severe physical and mental trauma. Broken in so many ways during her time as a Nazi prisoner, Dr. Eger reports that the mantra that carried her through every horrific day at Auschwitz was the reminder: “if I survive today, then tomorrow, I will be free” (The Choice: Embracing the Possible, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, 2017).
Likely we’ve heard the word this past week. “Land of the brave. Home of the free,” our nation sings not just in celebration of Independence Day; but also at every major sporting event from football to hockey to tennis (“The Star-Spangled Banner”). Freedom is in our blood as Americans – though the history of what has happened here on the soil of this part of North America paints the picture of freedom for some. Enslavement, exploitation, and continued victimization for others. Now I don’t intend to get all political today – just because we’re a few days from the fireworks and fun of the Fourth of July. Rather, I want us to focus on what we know as Christian people. “For freedom,” the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1a).
Freedom in Christ is less about our desire to overthrow some far-off British king, and more like Dr. Eger’s inner attitude to forgive, to let go. In the interview I heard with her, Dr. Eger talked about those who survived the camps but didn’t know what to do once the day of liberation came. They had become so broken by their oppressor in the death camps, they barely knew how to face regular life again. After liberation, some walked back to the barracks in which they had been imprisoned. It took Dr. Eger’s starved, pain-wracked body over a full year to begin to heal. And her inner torment, most of her lifetime. She reports that she still can be taken back to that heinous year in Auschwitz with something as benign as a trip to Costco. The interviewer listening to her surmised it must have been like that too for African America slaves who finally found their freedom. We know from Scripture, it was no easy transition for our Israelite spiritual ancestors when at last the Pharaoh let them go and Moses led the racing people of God on dry land through the sea, only to live forty years as a wandering people in their journey to be free. Paul’s insistent words echo: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 1).
I’m not sure we realize the precious gift we have in Christ – the one who shows us how to live free according to the Spirit of God alive in us. It’s easy to live according to the ways Paul calls the ways of the flesh – what I like to think of not as our physical bodies, but as our unaware, slumbering selves. Paul’s talking about living enslaved by the unconscious impulses that arise. Like the automatic anger that can overtake when we feel hurt. The unexamined gnawing that drives us to act destructively. The impulsive, involuntary way we do something without even stopping to consider the harmful consequences to ourselves and others. Living like this – the way so many live – is not at all living free. It is the way of living as those who have submitted ourselves again to the yoke of slavery.
Dr. Eger tells a story that gives a good example. One day an angry 14-year-old arrived at her office for court-appointed therapeutic interventions. Just a few minutes into the session, he exploded that he wished all Jews were dead. Dr. Eger had not made mention of her ethnicity. She did not tell of the horrors of the kind of treatment she experienced even as a young girl when other children would spit at her and call her names because she was Jewish. As the teen filled with such hate sat before her in her office; for her to begin to help him heal, Dr. Eger describes finding a way within to regulate what might seem like the natural reaction to snap back. Instead, she breathed deep, called upon a calm still place within, and created the kind of safe space between her and the boy where the trauma of his life could be processed. That’s living free – by the Spirit. Not reacting out of her own space of hurt. But opening herself instead in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“There is no law against such things,” the Apostle Paul writes (Gal. 5:23). These fruits, as they’re called, show that within we are totally free – not at all enslaved, no matter the outer circumstances of our lives. To live according to the fruits of the Spirit is the very reason Christ has set us free. The very gift we receive when we embrace the truth that the Spirit of God dwells in us and wants just a little more room inside to guide our thoughts. To direct our actions. To transform the very way we see everything that is before us. Living by the Spirit, that inner Presence expanding in us to be like the rudder of the vast ship that is us, this is the way in which we live free. Surely that’s an independence we all can celebrate!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)