Old Testament: 2 Kings (2:1-2, 6-14)
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
The Response: Psalm (77:1-2, 11-20)
1 I will cry aloud to God; *
I will cry aloud, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; *
my hands were stretched out by night and did not tire;
I refused to be comforted.
11 I will remember the works of the Lord, *
and call to mind your wonders of old time.
12 I will meditate on all your acts *
and ponder your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy; *
who is so great a god as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders *
and have declared your power among the peoples.
15 By your strength you have redeemed your people, *
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
16 The waters saw you, O God;
the waters saw you and trembled; *
the very depths were shaken.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; *
your arrows flashed to and fro;
18 The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world; *
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was in the sea,
and your paths in the great waters, *
yet your footsteps were not seen.
20 You led your people like a flock *
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
The New Testament: Galatians (5:1, 13-25)
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.
The Gospel: Luke (9:51-62)
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). So begins today’s second reading.
This coming weekend, as we celebrate Independence Day, we will no doubt be hearing that word “freedom” used many different times by many different people and with many different meanings. We need to be attuned to the implications of each speaker’s invocation of the term.
For some, “freedom” means the liberty to do whatever you want, regardless of the effects of your actions on other people, on the wider society, and on the world that God has entrusted to our care. In First Corinthians (10:23-24), St. Paul addresses the misuse of his hearers’ so-called “freedom” to do what they want, regardless of the effect on others. He tells them, “[You say that] ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” Genuine freedom is not just a “freedom from,” but also a “freedom for”; and that freedom allows us – and requires us — to work for the good of all, not focusing just on ourselves. Paul concludes today’s passage by listing some of the characteristics of a genuinely free, faith-filled life (Gal. 5:22-23): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These qualities, these ways of acting, positively affect the lives of others. Genuine freedom seeks to serve the needs of all, not just the wants of the few or of the individual.
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, from which today’s second reading was taken, is his harshest and most passionate letter. A key to understanding what Paul is talking about in Galatians is his hearers’ refusal to live in genuine freedom, with the uncertainties and difficulties and responsibilities that true freedom necessarily brings with it.
Fourth of July speeches and declarations tend to hold up the image of freedom as a precious gift, which it is. But they often fail to recognize the fact that, in many ways, we human beings don’t want to be free — we don’t want to be free when freedom means, as it inevitably does, that we are then responsible for our decisions and our actions. It comes with no guarantees and few clear-cut answers. We have to live in and with a lot of gray areas. And we don’t especially like that.
Those are the kind of uncertainties and responsibilities that Paul’s audience in Galatia tried to avoid. Instead of living in the freedom to which they were called, these folks wanted clear-cut rules. They wanted everything to be black and white. They wanted assurances that, if you just did these things, you were doing whatever was needed in the eyes of God. Specifically, they bought into the teaching of those who insisted that, even if they were not Jewish, they had to follow all the precepts of Torah. That, they thought, would be a more comfortable way to live. Among, other things, that would supposedly free them from the responsibility of having to make responsible decisions about their actions, decisions in which they had to consider the needs of everyone around them, decisions that did not always result in clear-cut and indisputable answers. Those folks in mid-first-century Galatia were certainly not alone.
This past week, while I was mulling over these readings and the topic of freedom, I remembered a famous passage in literature: “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When I looked for a copy of the text online, I fortunately came across a dramatic presentation of the passage by Sir John Gielgud. The eminent British actor powerfully portrayed the Grand Inquisitor as he dramatically addressed a silent, mysterious stranger, who had been wandering through nearby towns, healing the sick and performing other miracles. The Inquisitor knew that that stranger, that prisoner, was Jesus, unexpectedly returned to the world. He demanded to know why Jesus had come back. It had taken, he insisted, 1500 years for the church and the people to correct what Jesus had taught and done in calling people to live in the freedom of the children of God. Humans, he asserted did not want to live in freedom. They wanted someone to tell them exactly what to think and what to do, to spare them from having to think independently and make responsible decisions.
Dostoyevsky’s observation would have seemed all too familiar today in many nations in the world, in which people, who once exercised at least some degree of freedom and responsibility in their lives, have instead chosen to allow would-be autocrats to use distortions and outright lies in order to stoke people’s fear of others, all for their own purposes. Far too many of our fellow human beings have been willing to sacrifice true freedom, with all that it entails, in order to feel safe, in order to gain at least some false sense of security. “Just give me the authority to act as I choose,” these leaders claim, “and I will keep you safe, because those people are out to get you” Too many people have agreed to be duped rather than embracing true freedom and rejecting those who put themselves above the law and manipulate others to gain power for themselves.
People do that in other parts of life as well. There are, for example, some churches that continue to hold onto their current members and to attract others by preaching what they claim to be absolutes. “You don’t have to live in those gray areas of life. Don’t get yourselves confused by actually thinking about and questioning what you believe, or by accepting the responsibilities that freedom brings with it. You can have certainty. Just listen to what we tell you, to our narrow way of interpreting the bible, or at least carefully selected passages from it. We will do your thinking for you.” Living that way is certainly a lot easier: living with what is sometimes called “blind faith.” But, as one New Testament scholar (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A, page 75) has observed: “Blind faith… is a curious gift to return to the creator of human intelligence.”
This coming week, our celebration of Independence Day offers us a good opportunity to reflect on the nature and demands of true freedom, the freedom that is God’s gift to us. It is a risky endeavor, as today’s readings remind us. Like Elisha as he literally picked up the mantle of his mentor Elijah, like Paul as he boldly challenged his opponents in Galatia, and like Jesus as he “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” God’s freedom offers no easy answers. But it does offer the unfailing grace and support of the one who is the Author of all genuine freedom.