Most of the time I really do understand Jesus’ first listeners today when they proclaim for all the world to hear that they ‘have never been slaves to anyone.’ For even though it may be obvious to anyone else that they are a people who should know what slavery is:
- As those whose people had been enslaved in Egypt;
- As those who had been ‘enslaved’ by or sent into exile by Babylon;
- And now as those whose very existence was in many ways defined by the occupation of the Roman Empire.
Their claim that as ‘children of Abraham,’ they have never been slaves to anyone’ rings a little hollow.
And yet, as Jesus speaks to them of slavery and freedom now, either their memory is short or their awareness is limited.
But I have to say that mine is too sometimes.
Indeed, I expect it is even easier for you and me than it was for them back then to live in a kind of denial about slavery. I say this now realizing that it was not that many generations ago when all of my ancestors arrived here and what I know of them is that they were mostly looking for freedom from hunger and freedom of opportunity and freedom from oppression. Slavery does, in fact come in many forms and perhaps the worst kind of slavery is the sort where we have forged our own chains which bind us. Indeed, Jesus says today that we who do wrong, are in a very real way tied up with and by that wrong. We who sin are enslaved to sin. To pretend this is not so does not make it not so. And if we are fortunate, the day comes when we can’t live in our denial any longer.
And so while like Jesus’ first listeners I like to think of myself as free, still I am not. This is how it has come home to me.
It was more than 25 years ago that I last underwent an actual physical fitness test. It was a hoop we had to jump through as one of our ordination requirements then. I wasn’t necessarily out of shape yet, but it is so that I didn’t pay that much attention to my physical well-being in my 20’s. What I still remember distinctly about that session was that at the end the young woman who shared my results told me that I was losing flexibility. And this was so. At the age of 26 I was already finding it hard to touch my toes. To twist around. To move in even every day kinds of ways.
Ouch. One would have thought I would have paid attention to this clear warning of what could only get worse. One would have thought that I would have done something about this then before it was too late. I did not. Indeed, a quarter of a century passed before I even really noticed. And now I find myself noticing all the time. Especially early on Tuesday mornings when I force myself out of bed for an early morning yoga class.
Because, you see, I’m really bad at yoga. Almost every Tuesday morning for over a year I have been stretching and holding and breathing. And more than once I have almost laughed out loud when our instructor has us lying flat on our backs with arms and legs straight up in the air (or some such equally uncomfortable pose) and then invites us to relax into it. “Relax!?!? Really?” I think to myself and mostly don’t let myself mutter out loud. Oh yes, all these years of not paying attention, of not moving in ways that would really stretch me, has resulted in my being ‘bound up’ — enslaved even, if you will, in ways that indicate I may never really know full freedom of movement again.
It is so, of course, that as Jesus points out today, sin can enslave us in much the same way. And I would guess that this is especially true when we find we have not paid attention to it in the way I ignored the warning about my physical flexibility a long time ago. Indeed, I have had to learn countless times that our actions — or lack thereof — have consequences. Sin repeated over and over again leaves a mark, shapes habits, scars us in our very being. And while it is so that I can go long stretches of not paying attention to such as this at all — the day always comes when I wake up and find I do really miss that one from whom I have been estranged for so long, when I realize that I am exhausted from behaving as though I have to do it all and have forgotten or failed to receive the gift of Sabbath for yet another week, when I experience that nagging resentment I sometimes do that results from my envying all the good things others seem to take for granted. Oh yes, it is so that all too often I live in the same kind of denial that Jesus’ first listeners must have when they claimed they had never been enslaved. Then I wake up and find it hurts to move in a way I once would not have believed possible.
And so I find I hear Jesus’ words of promise today and I feel a kind of wonder as I listen. For I have neglected far too much, failed far too profoundly, ignored it — whatever it is —for far too long to ever know freedom again, haven’t I? Well, haven’t I?
And yet, that is not what Jesus says to us now. In fact, he makes it sound almost easy, if not without pain. For there is something to this stepping out of our denial and into the truth of who we are and what we have done or not done and who Jesus is that changes everything. There is something to simply knowing we need this gift of freedom offered to us now that brings freedom already. Freedom from denial, for one. Freedom from having to pretend I’m more than I am. Freedom from believing it all rests on me. Freedom from feeling the need to hide my failures, my hurts, my neglect and freedom to simply be all of who God made me to be among others who also fail and hurt and neglect and do wrong. Oh, yes in that alone there is a kind of wondrous freedom. In just not having to pretend anymore there is an amazing kind of freedom.
And while it is so that this amazing promise of freedom does not mean:
- that next Tuesday I will go to yoga class and be able to relax into whatever outrageous pose is modeled for me,
- that a relationship broken by neglect or hurtfulness will suddenly be as though nothing ever happened,
- or that the toll on my body and spirit by too many months or years of thinking it all depends on me will suddenly disappear.
Still, for people of faith, this step into the truth is the first step and perhaps the most important one of all. For this is the one that says that we do, in fact, know what slavery is first hand and that we also know that Jesus and his life and death and forgiveness is our only avenue to any kind of freedom that matters.
Oh yes, it all begins with the truth that I am prone to even ignore well-meant long ago warnings that my actions have consequences. It all starts with the truth that this freedom Jesus offers now is for this life now — not just in the next one. Indeed, standing in this wondrous truth is the best and only way I know which moves us closer to claiming and experiencing the freedom for which we long. For this truth has us standing in the presence of Jesus in the fullness of all that we are. This truth includes being offered the promise again that this freedom is not only possible, but that it is meant for you and me, too.
- What experiences of slavery and freedom come to mind as you hear Jesus’ words for us now?
- What does it mean to you to be ‘set free?’
- What is the truth that Jesus speaks of today? How do you know that to be the avenue to freedom in your life? In the life of the world?