Pentecost 3 (Proper 8) – John Conway, Provost – 30/06/19

(1Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask

sometimes they didn’t dare

open their mouths anymore

not because they hadn’t understood

he was taking from them

everything sacred and safe

he offered no guarantees

Fire was not sacred to him or neon

not singing or silence

not fornication or chastity

in his speech foxes bread leaven

and much mended nets became sacred

the down and out were his proof

and actually he had as much assurance

of victory as we in these parts do

None

That poem by Dorothee Solle, a wonderful post-war German theologian and mystic, from her set of poems, When He came, captures something of the uncompromising, urgent Jesus that we encounter in today’s Gospel reading. A Jesus on the move: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Follow me.’ Are you attracted? Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, we are told, and an urgency now characterizes him – almost shocking in its brusqueness: ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ – ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, he journeys towards the pain, the conflict, the disturbance that await him there. And he seems only to invite others to join him in that single-mindedness

That stark invitation may seem at first to be at odds with our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ Paul declares. ‘Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.’ That call to freedom might seem in contrast to Jesus’ insistence that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Are we not free to do as we like?

To see Paul’s evocation of freedom as being in tension with Jesus’ call to discipleship is, however, to misunderstand the nature of the freedom in which Paul believes we stand.

To understand that crucial notion of freedom – such a loaded word for us in the West of course – I think the writings of a French anthropologist, Renee Girard, are immensely helpful. Girard’s writings are complex, but at the heart of his understanding of human society, and religion, lies what he calls mimetic desire. Girard argues that our desires, what we find ourselves longing for, what we imagine we want out of life, such desires do not come out of nowhere. Nor are they simply the expression of a free heart. Rather there is something about how human beings are, that makes us desire what we see our neighbour’ s desiring. We learn what we desire through imitating those around us. That is what Girard means by Mimetic desire, from the Greek word mimesis, meaning reflection. What we long for is a reflection of, learnt from, the longings and desires of the society we find ourselves within. The most obvious example of this, with which many of us will be familiar is when you observe two children playing. One child rediscovers a long forgotten toy, buried deep in some toy box. As she gets the toy out to begin to play with it, the other child notices – suddenly the toy, which a moment before had been of no significance to either child, becomes the must-have plaything. The second child cannot, all of a sudden, live without it – and he will swear blind that he’s been longing to find it for weeks. We learn what we desire from the desire of those around us – and the belief that that only happens in childhood, is quickly dispelled if you observe the power exerted by keeping up with the Joneses, or the pull of celebrity culture, or the way that the latest technology exerts a strange fascination for us. Our desires, the longings of our heart, what we imagine we need to be free, is actually a reflection, is shaped by those around us. Our expressions of individuality, our cherished freedom, is far more a product of group-think than we care to admit.

Girard’s further, and crucial point, however, is that because what we desire is shaped by the desire of those around us, we necessarily find ourselves competing for the same thing. Just like the two children will end up in an almighty squabble over the newly-discovered toy, so we end up thinking that, in a world of finite resources, we need to guard what we have, guard what will inevitably be the object of others’ desire. Our mimetic desires inevitably lead, argues Girard, to repressed, or sometimes open, violence: competition over the shared objects of desire. Societies find ways, says Girard, to unite us in the midst of that violent competition: usually by turning that repressed violence outwards onto a scapegoat; we avoid fighting with our neighbours by turning on those identified as outsiders. We become united by turning on them, thus avoiding the conflict which our mimetic desire provokes with our neighbour.

There is not time in a sermon to do full justice to Girard’s complex and suggestive thinking, but I hope I have indicated enough to put all our usual ideas of freedom into question. Freedom is so often characterized as about our liberation, about being able to express ourselves however we want. Girard’s point is that once we are aware of how such desire is shaped by others, and of the competing violence that that gives rise to, it no longer looks much like freedom. And the one who makes us aware of all that, says Girard, is the one who refused to unite people by playing ‘us’ off against ‘them’: is this Jesus, who steadfastly walks into the heart of our violence, and takes the place of the scapegoat, bears on himself the violence we usually unleash on the marginal, the outsider, the foreigner; on ‘them,’ who are not like ‘us.’ Jesus, in his crucifixion, reveals the scapegoat mechanism even as, in his resurrection, he reveals the deeper reality of forgiving love. For it is in that forgiving love, in a desire shaped by his abiding in the Father, as the Father abides in him, in that forgiving love that Jesus walks toward Jerusalem. It is in that forgiving, non-competitive love that he is free, free from mimetic desire and its competitive violence. And it is into that freedom that we are invited. Not, as Paul says, a freedom that sets us apart from one another, an opportunity for self-indulgence; but through love, says Paul, become slaves to one another.

And he then hammers home the point: that it is two accounts of freedom that are in view here. The first is freedom that gratifies the desires of the flesh, desires shaped by what the world values around us: a freedom, as it is so often characterized, to do what we want, to live without limits or constraints, with the pleasure-seeking self at its heart. Such ‘freedom’, Paul argues, results in enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy – as well as the more usual suspects listed as sins of the flesh. Against that understanding of freedom is the freedom given as gift, given in the abiding of God in the human heart, so that we begin to be shaped by that reality of God’s abiding presence rather than by mimetic desire. Such freedom is not found in endless choice, or liberation to be whatever we want, but in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity – in those things that make us slaves to one another, bound together rather than competing; freedom in commitment, in engagement, in the laying down and the picking up of mantles. Freedom not, as it is so often characterised, with a certain wistfulness, found in un-commitment, in not being tied, but the freedom of finding a ‘home’ on the way, a task to do, a self discovered not through the relentless acquisition of ‘experiences’ or possessions, but known in relationships, in all their give and take, their laying down and picking up. Freedom found as Paul paradoxically puts it in the bondage of love.

Our Eucharistic prayer will shortly declare that Jesus ‘broke the bonds of evil and set your people free to be his Body in the world.’ We are freed in our common sharing to be Christ’s body in our world; learning in community that new freedom to which all are called.

As St Augustine put it:  Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you: grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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