Freedom to Love
Here at St Matthews we are asking ourselves, what does it mean for THIS collection of people, in THIS time and place in 2013 Twin Cities, to be followers of the Way of Jesus? And what biblical stories or themes have caught our imagination and inspire us? What practices might support us as a community to follow the way of Jesus in the way we are called to do?
As part of our exploration of these questions Blair asked me to share with you part of my own story about exploring Christian community. As some of you know I spent quite a few years outside the church and Christianity exploring other faiths and spiritualities. During some of those years I found great peace in practicing daily meditation. So when I returned to Christianity I was interested in whether there were daily Christian contemplative practices that might grant me a similar kind of peace and groundedness. Soon after I returned to the church a woman approached me, told me she was a member of an intentional Episcopal community called Rivendell, and invited me to check it out. Now at that time I wasn’t especially interested in the notion of Christian community, but she told me that the Rivendell Rule of life involved a commitment to daily prayer and to radical hospitality. I was intrigued that there were Christians doing very intentional daily contemplative practices. Plus I happen to love the Lord of the Rings—which the name Rivendell is from—so I agreed to go check them out.
These folks, these Rivendell Episcopalians, have as the basis of their rule the desire to say an unqualified YES to God in response to God’s overwhelming love. They are modeled on the ancient monastic traditions of Christianity and they live out their rule with great intention. Every day, they pray the daily office from the book of common prayer, morning and evening. Some of them are priests who live together in order to reduce expenses, and so that they can serve small, struggling parishes and only be paid a small stipend instead of the usual salary. Some of them are lay people who work with the homeless or at-risk children. And, as I discovered, all of them have taken the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as interpreted for their individual circumstances.
Well this was a lot more than I bargained for. As I told you when I began exploring the Rivendell rule it was because I was interested in daily prayer, but not necessarily Christian community. And I was especially perplexed by this notion of taking the traditional monastic vows. I mean, isn’t poverty a problem we are trying to overcome –not something one would voluntarily choose, in the 21st century? And haven’t the vows of chastity and obedience caused more problems than they have solved? But even as I was challenged and provoked by these vows, I could see that the Rivendell Community was living out their Christianity in a way that was very compelling. One of them is a feisty ex-Catholic nun who, as a single woman, adopted five children—including several children who were abandoned, one of whom had no arms or legs, and including two orphans from Haiti. When these people say they are followers of the way of Jesus, they mean it. I was really moved by them, and so I spent two years studying their rule of life and praying the daily office with them.
Eventually I did not join their community. But I had learned so much from them. By praying the daily office almost without fail for two years, I discovered what it means to begin and end your day with intention, the intention to have a life that is centered in God and in listening. And ironically, by the end of the two years, my priorities had flipped. When I first began studying with them I was interested in a rule of life, and not so much in community. By the time I ended my journey with them, I had found that the rule of life itself was not as important as the community of faith—and that was the reason I did not join them: for the most part, they were too far away from me physically to really get to know one another. Instead I felt called by God, not to commit myself in a special way to a small group of people, but to become radically committed to supporting Christian community wherever I found it—especially here, in the Christian community we are surrounded by and are already a part of: the people of St. Matthews. My study with Rivendell began with what Brian McLaren calls a journey into ME. But it ended with a journey into WE. My being had somehow been re-centered.
The other most important thing I learned from my time with the Rivendell Community was the incredible value of simplicity. By simplicity, I mean that their rule in every detail encourages them to be about the one thing that matters to them: following the way of Jesus. It strips away things that do not help with this, and liberates them to do what they feel called to do. And actually I think that is exactly what today’s text from Galatians is about. If you haven’t read the book of Galatians recently I encourage you to check it out – many theologians have called it the Magna Carta of the Christian faith. The whole book of Galatians is about what I was just discussing—being liberated to do what God calls us to do. Let me explain. In today’s reading the Apostle Paul strongly challenges the Galatians because he accuses them of having abandoned the gospel they had received. What does he mean? Later in Galatians Paul explains that the Galatians were Greeks who were having a dispute with some of the Jewish Christians, who felt the Greeks ought to become cultural and religious Jews in order to be Christians. Therefore they should become circumcised. Paul is saying that the gospel they received did NOT include a requirement for the Galatians to prove their worth by conforming to cultural or religious traditions. In a famous passage from Galatians Paul says “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ..” Then he goes on to say that Christ died in order to liberate us. This liberation is both FROM something and FOR something. It is a liberation FROM the requirement to prove our worth before God and human beings, especially by having to conform to religious and cultural requirements. And it is a liberation FOR something: Paul says that we are liberated so that we can love our neighbors. That is the point of Christian freedom. It is not a freedom the way we think of freedom in the West. It is not freedom to do whatever the heck we want. It isn’t freedom from the interference of others. It is freedom to love.
And that was the point of the Rivendell rule. It was about simplifying the community’s life such that its members could have space for God, for prayer, for each other, and for their neighbors.
I think the St Matthews community should start there. We should ask ourselves, how does God call us to love God, each other, and our neighbors, as followers of the way of Jesus? What helps us to do that? What prevents us from doing that? The answer to those questions will help us fashion a vision of our life together. Let me ask you to think about your own life, personally: what would free you to love God and your neighbor unconditionally, as a follower of the way of Jesus?
This is a real question. I ask it of myself every time I go to Youthlink and listen to the stories of homeless young people, how does God want me to LOVE them, in practice? I bet Valerie asks herself this question when she is helping urban parents raise their children in an emotionally and spiritually healthy way. I bet Sarah Sannes is thinking along these lines when she teaches at-risk kids in elementary school. We all have neighbors we are called to love, and many things get in the way. What would simplify our lives so that we could will the one thing? How can we make space in our lives individually and in our life as a community – space for God, space for one another, and space for our neighbors? How can we constantly support one another to find out what love of the neighbor looks like, in practice?
The need for love in this world is urgent. The invitation is here. May we say an unqualified yes to following the way of Jesus by loving God and our neighbors—because of the good news that God loved us, and our neighbors, first. Amen