Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42
… you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.
Recent weeks have forced us to think about the reality of the slave trade; forced us into recognising the many ways that our most beautiful cities have benefitted from the proceeds of that trade. Perhaps some of us have also spent time thinking about what it meant to be enslaved. How people coped with the cruelty and the uncertainty and the loss of personhood. What must it have been like to know that you were a possession; that you could be bought and sold on a whim; that there was no area of your life over which you were in a position to make choices. People were violated in many ways – they were branded, sometimes with the mark of their owner, sometimes with the mark of a company. And of course we also know that when slaves were freed, that wasn’t necessarily into a better life. It might have been better to be enslaved and relatively safe than freed and struggling to survive.
In this morning’s passage of Scripture, St Paul forces us to think differently about enslavement. He finds a way to turn things on their head, to suggest that the atrocities of enslavement to a human master are the absolute opposite of the rewards that come from enslavement to God. He reclaims the idea of enslavement – finding something that gives life and dignity in the very midst of something that denies life and dignity.
St Paul seems to be clear in this passage – we don’t choose to be enslaved, or not, but we choose to what we might be enslaved. That sounds straightforward, but experience may suggest to us that it’s not really that simple – it’s not a binary choice but perhaps a spectrum within which we make choices and decisions and at the same time face temptations and challenges.
For instance, people who are living with addictions can feel that they have become enslaved to the substance or behaviour that dominates their life. What starts as a choice becomes a necessity about which there may be little choice – at least without support and guidance. We can be lured into becoming slaves to a particular way of living or looking or spending time; find ourselves convinced, often by social pressure, that there are rewards to be had.
And that may be true, but it’s also true that as soon as we cross the line into enslavement, something else is happening. There’s a very fine line between enslavement that we find rewarding – even when those rewards aren’t necessarily healthy for us – and entrapment, where we find it difficult to see a way out.
Equally, we can find ourselves enslaved to ideologies. There are many examples of the ways that a commitment to a particular way of seeing or understanding things can go from being a rational result of thought and reflection to an uncritical acceptance of a larger canon of ideas and principles.
Enslaving ourselves in any of these ways limits us. It limits our potential to be critical thinkers; it limits our interactions with other people – how do we challenge our thinking if we only ever meet people who think like us? How do we grow as people if all of our energies are put into maintaining a particular stance? And it limits our engagement with God. How do we hear that still, small voice if our starting place is that we’re right?
And of course some of what is tricky is that as human beings we don’t really like change. Once we find a pattern of working or socialising or family life, we like the routine; on the whole we like to know what to expect, how to cope with particular situations. In some ways enslavement suits us.
Perhaps St Paul recognised that fact – enslavement suits us. We are creatures of habit and routine and we like what we know we like. We find a security and comfort in the patterns of our own enslaved behaviour – even when we grumble about them.
So how then might we think about a healthy form of enslavement, a way to be enslaved to our relationship with our God that is nurturing and life giving because of its nature, not despite that nature. What might we find that would give us life and dignity, that would enable us to grow, to take risks, to embrace change?
One of the surprising joys of lockdown has been that putting our pattern of morning and evening prayer online has enabled a number of people to join us on a regular basis.
Those services frame the days – we begin and end in prayer, and everything stops for those times of prayer. It’s a completely rigid routine, one might argue that its inflexibility is of itself enslaving – and yet the feedback would suggest that something else is happening. That pattern and rhythm enables freedom and creativity within the rest of the day. And there isn’t a decision to be made about what to do or when to do it – that’s, to some extent where the freedom comes, you just pitch up and engage with what is in front of you. Just do it.
For many of us, our weeks up until lockdown were marked by particular activities one of which was church at a particular time on a Sunday. That might have sometimes felt like one of those demands that is inflexible and burdensome – and yet we know that people are feeling rudderless without it. One of the fundamentals of Benedictine spirituality is the concept of stability – the whole question of where we put down our roots and how we then nourish them. Many people’s stability has been formed by that Sunday routine, their spiritual nourishment and nurture has been firmly rooted within their regular commitment.
One of the other pieces of learning over recent weeks has been that we don’t actually need to be in church. We might prefer to be there; we might find something different happens when we are there; and the physical building of the church is where we gather to form community and to make connections. And yet, it’s clear that none of that has stopped over recent weeks. The foundations that were created within our church building have enabled something to happen in ways that we could never have imagined. Our enslavement to the stability that comes from the physical church has been the catalyst for a new freedom that has emerged outwith the stones and mortar.
Slavery is a shameful part of our history and its legacy is something that we live with. It seems that St Paul is suggesting that finding ourselves enslaved to patterns of behaviour is also something that we live with. I pray that as we move towards freedom from our lockdown we will continue to find healthy patterns of enslavement that will nurture and sustain us as we relearn how to be free.