Fr. Andrew Armond – The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 29, 2021
On July 1, 1986, the month before I turned 8 years old, the state of Louisiana made it a law that you had to wear your seatbelt in the car.
I don’t remember, of course, whether such laws were controversial or not, though I’m sure they were. And it’s hard for me to imagine now a world in which it’s considered a strange exception to buckle your seatbelt when you get into a vehicle. It’s become second nature, I’m sure, for all of us, and we really don’t even think twice about it. We’ve created safer habits through these laws.
Did we give up anything in the process? I suppose we gave up the “liberty” of being untethered in our vehicles, but it was for a much greater good, for the purpose of saving lives. And the seatbelt laws across our country have indeed saved many, many lives, and I’m grateful for them.
But laws in general DO restrict “freedom,” or at least a certain way of thinking about freedom. Laws curb our excesses and appetites so that we can live in a healthy society, so we don’t harm one another, or ourselves, in the exercise of our liberty.
I’m glad there’s a line that separates the lanes of traffic, so I know where to drive and where not to drive and can expect other drivers, hopefully, to do the same. I’m glad for traffic lights and other laws that attempt to keep traffic flowing smoothly and to keep us all safe.
If we really think about it, then, laws restrict certain freedoms in service of larger freedoms. The freedom to live and not to die on an unsafe highway is a greater, ultimately more important freedom than the freedom not to wear a seatbelt or to go 65 in a 35.
I think this is something like what James means by his phrase the “law of liberty.” In Christ, we are given perfect freedom. But the freedom of Christ actually means that we then voluntarily give of our selves in service of Christ and others. It means, in other words, that Christ sets us free to be each other’s servants.
I’m sure we all have had experiences of friends or loved ones caught in the horrible spiral of addiction. Addiction is psychologically and spiritually complex, but one of its most obvious sources is a perverse idea of the concept of freedom.
In being “free” to consume as much of something as we want, we end up enslaved to that thing, sometimes for years, sometimes to the detriment of our own health and the well-being of those around us.
Both the readings from James and Mark remind us of the importance–even the beauty–of Jesus’s Law of Love, which is the highest law to which we can and should aspire as Christians. It is the Law that tests all things by one thing; the Law that Christ himself followed perfectly on our behalf; the Law that focuses centuries of Jewish ethical thought and argumentation and religious practice into one brilliant, shining point of light: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and Love your Neighbor as Yourself.
Jesus’s Law of Love is the only Law under heaven and earth through which we will find true freedom. In following this Law, the chains that bind us to sin are broken forever. In loving God, our Neighbor, and our Self, all things are placed into their proper relationships, and we are actually able–through the Power of the Holy Spirit–to be free. Free enough to love, Free enough to Serve.
These passages remind me of a beloved short story by one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry. In his story called “Fidelity,” Berry writes of a father and son, Burley and Danny Coulter. Burley, at 82 years old, is admitted to the hospital at the beginning of the story, and we learn quickly that he is dying.
Danny and his family, longtime rural Kentuckians, regret taking Burley to the hospital, a place that Berry describes as cold and sterile, lacking any natural light or human touch. And so, in violation of the law, Danny steals his father out of the hospital and takes him back to his beloved woods, so that his last experiences will be of the places and people he loved his whole life.
As the story comes to a close, the young, naive local detective on the case has “caught” Danny and is trying to figure out how to handle this complex situation. From his perspective, a law has been broken and Danny must be brought to justice. But an older, more seasoned lawyer friend of Danny’s speaks up, saying this to the young detective:
“But, my dear boy, you don’t eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve all the many things that are above it. Love.”
This is the same message that Jesus had for the Pharisees. The Law does not exist unto itself, but it serves a higher purpose. We often focus too much on the externals and fail to keep our gaze fixed on the Author of the Law, the One from whom the Law of Love actually Proceeds.
The Law of Liberty is meant, ultimately, to form us as Christians, so that we can be conformed to the image of Christ. In our baptism, we die to the old self, with its false and contrived notions of liberty as doing whatever we want to do. We die to the old self and its lies that tell us that in following every selfish impulse we are actually finding freedom. We instead have, as James puts it, a seed put within us–the implanted word of God–that has the power to save our souls.
That seed must be nurtured and watered and cared for even as we weed and prune the rank growth of wickedness that seeks to choke out the flourishing seed of Christ’s presence within.
In growing closer and closer to Jesus, we discover more and more that perfect Law of Love that enables us to live without reference to a complex religious system, but simply asks us in every situation to find the presence of Christ, and to do what Christ would have us do.
Both James and Jesus help us to understand better what our collect of the day calls “true religion.” True religion, according to Jesus, is something that wells up from deep within us. It comes from a transformation. It can never be imposed from the outside, which is good news for all of us who work for the advancement of the Church and of the Kingdom of God: all we can do, all we should do, all we must do, is to plant the seeds of God’s love in human hearts wherever and whenever we encounter them. Growing those seeds is ultimately the Holy Spirit’s mysterious and holy work.
Someone shared with me this week a quotation from the mystical Christian writer Evelyn Underhill. It’s something she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1933, but its message continues to ring true to this day. She says
“it is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the ‘irritating details of outer life.’”
True religion, the law of Christ’s liberty, is to have a deep, abiding, and real inner life. A life marked by prayer, a life formed by the brilliant paradox of our faith: to lose our freedom is to find true freedom; to lose our selves is to find our selves, or, really, to be found by God.
The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, a deeply faithful man who was living as a missionary in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell on that city in 1945, leaves us with a profound meditation on true religion, on the inner life that God’s Holy Spirit will implant in each one of our souls.
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.