Gorging on Freedom

Posted: September 26, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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Source/Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/dining/at-the-iowa-state-fair-deep-fried-butter-on-a-stick.html?_r=0

Source/Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/dining/at-the-iowa-state-fair-deep-fried-butter-on-a-stick.html?_r=0

I preached this sermon at Grace United Methodist Church on June 30th, 2013.  The text was Galatians 5:1,13-25.  Here’s the audio:

Freedom is as American as apple pie.  This week, especially, we’ll take time to celebrate and enjoy those freedoms.  Freedom, it seems, is one of those things that you can never have too much of.  But you can have too much apple pie.  Last week, we talked about how the law and rules prepare us for the freedom Christ gives us.  God genuinely wants us to develop to a place that internalizes the spirit of the law and the Spirit of Christ, so that we’re no longer in bondage to the law.  But this week, Paul warns us of some of the hazards that can come with freedom.

Read Galatians 5:1, 13-25


There are lots of fun things to talk about in this morning’s Scripture…  We all know about the fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  Its kid’s Sunday school stuff.  It is boring, goody-two-shoes stuff.  The works of the flesh on the other hand – there’s some interesting stuff in there.

Fornication.  Licentiousness.  Sorcery…eh? Jealousy and anger!  Drunkenness and Carousing.  And my personal favorite, “things like these…”

Paul has unequivocally said that we are free.  Now, I’m not sure that Paul meant his works of the flesh list to be a brainstorm of places to begin our life in freedom, but if you’re like me, when you get a little freedom, you want to splurge a bit.  Indulgence follows freedom.

I can see it clearly at gas stations on youth trips.  Youth get a little more freedom than they are accustomed to having on these trips.  Usually, their parents send them with a little bit of extra cash for a meal or two. For some of them, the impulse to indulge is irresistible.  At the first gas station stop, the vehicles are cleared and nearly everyone goes shopping for the wholesome and healthy options that gas stations provide.  Thirty minutes later, youth dawdle back to the vehicles with big gulps, Sour Patch Kids, candies that turn your tongue colors that don’t naturally occur in nature, they’ve got caffeine infused beef jerky, and exotic energy potions and concoctions that cost more than a meal, because they need energy for the exhausting car ride.  I must admit, that I’m not immune from this indulgence either.  Out from under the watchful eye of my lovely wife and child who would want equal portions of whatever I got, I line up along side the youth with my pickle-flavored pork rinds and Diet Mt. Dew.

fried butter

Source/Reference: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/dining/at-the-iowa-state-fair-deep-fried-butter-on-a-stick.html?_r=0

If you went to the Iowa State Fair, as an expression of your freedom, you could order something that I believe is the ultimate symbol of unchecked freedom.   Deep Fried Butter on a stick.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  In the South, we have deep fried just about everything – chicken, okra, pickles, and much more.  And I’ve even heard of deep fried Oreos and Snickers.  But deep fried butter is the king of senseless indulgence – freedom untethered from any restrictions whatsoever.  At the Iowa State Fair, they have 57 edible products you can buy on a stick.  To make deep fried butter, the vendors keep the butter at a near freezing temperature, just warm enough so they can slide a pointed stick into it, but as cold as possible to withstand the hot grease long enough to brown the batter.  There really is no excuse for this thing and had it been around in Paul’s day, there would have been no better place for battered butter than on the list of works of the flesh.

How do we keep from straying over into this territory of deep fried butter…on a stick?  How do we avoid this very human temptation to follow freedom with no lasting joy, on the contrary, they usually cause lasting pain of some kind.  Indulgence is short term pleasure with long term costs.  One Methodist theologian says,  “I can think of no better description of hell than the condition of always having to do what I want to do.” (Stanley Hauerwas, “Christian Schooling or Making Students Dysfunctional,” in Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified, page 220.)  And it isn’t hard to see how these pleasurable short term choices create a hellish landscape.  If the law represented one form of bondage, the indulgence that follows freedom is just another type of bondage.  It is the birthplace of addictions, nearly all of which share the commonality that they release certain chemicals in our brain that make us feel good in the short term.   indulgence?  This is exactly what Paul is addressing in his words this morning.  He says plainly,  “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  Paul is suggesting a middle way here between the law and indulgence.  In verse 1, he says “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  The word yoke is not the center of an egg – it is a technical rabbinic term.  Rabbis, or Jewish teachers, in ancient Israel each had their particular interpretations of the Mosaic Law.  Rabbis had followers or disciples that submitted to their specific teachings and interpretations of the law.  This was called their yoke.


Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ludiecochrane/6199722797/

It borrowed from the world of livestock and agriculture.  A yoke is a device that guided the animals, much like rabbis guide their disciples.  Typically, rabbis tried to out do one another with the “weightiness” of their yoke.  But Jesus went a different direction – he said  “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Because he taught the higher truth to which the law was aimed, the spirit of the law – his interpretation of the law was bent towards freedom.  That’s why Jesus can on one hand say, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” and at the same time give such expansive interpretations of the law, such as “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  Jesus’s yoke was an exodus out of slavery, an exodus out of bondage.  Paul warns us “not to submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  But their is still a yoke that must guide us.  There is a cost to discipleship.  You can veer too far in the direction of freedom, attempting to satisfy every little whim.  This is what Paul calls, “the works of the flesh.”  This is the place where deep fried butter resides, the place where we spend all our money on junk food, it is cheap sexual thrills, or the willing engagement in emotionally immature behavior.  They are generally things that release Dopamine in our brains for short term pleasure, but have n

You’ve probably all heard the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  It was written by a man named Robert Southey.  You know, Goldilocks wanders into the house of three bears and finds papa bear’s bed to be too high and mama bear’s bed to be too low, and baby bear’s bed to be “just right.”  I think Southey stole the structure of the story from the Apostle Paul.  Paul says one way of living – by the law – the requirements are too high, the yoke too heavy – another way of living – at the whims of the flesh or by indulgence is too low – we’re not guided by anything.  Yet, there’s a middle way – guidance by the Spirit that makes the most out of freedom.   I’ve created a handy chart to illustrate this.


There are another couple of symbols of freedom I want to talk about.  And at a particular time in our lives they represent freedom more potently than deep fried butter, more than the American flag, or even the cross of Christ.   I’m talking about car keys and a driver’s license.  A whole new world of freedom awaits adolescent drivers.  The parent is more nervous about this freedom than the child is.  The parent’s imagination runs wild with the temptations that will exist.  And so on the way out the door, the parent tries to summarize the essence of what they’ve tried to teach the child during the past 16 years of life.  It almost sounds like a new list of rules.  Pay attention to the speed limits, but keep up with the flow of traffic.  Make sure to keep your distance from the car in front of you, but don’t get to nervous about driving.  Let me know if your plans change, but have fun.  The parents will warn all their friends and family that a maniac on wheels is on the loose and that everyone should, all of the sudden, be on code-red alert status for their own safety.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t go outside at all.  You can hear the parent wrestling with the desire to give their child the fullness of freedom but wanting them to hang on to the things that their rules have taught them.   The parent wants the child to live in the green and hopes they will, but fears the indulgent red, so they use the red of the law to try and pull them back a bit.  Parents prefer to err on in the red of the law.  Teenagers prefer to err in the red of indulgence.  Jesus hands us the keys to the kingdom, tells us not to steer into the red of either direction.  Literally, Jesus gives his disciples the keys to the kingdom.  He says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  These terms binding and loosing had to do with a rabbi’s yoke.  Binding was to tighten the yoke on the animal or to make the law more strict.  Loosing was to release the tightness of the yoke, and to inject freedom into the rabbi’s teaching.  And Jesus hands his disciples the keys to the kingdom and like the parent who hands the keys to the car over to their teenager, hopes that they have learned the lessons they’ve been taught.  They’ve been set free.  Our freedom is not for indulgence, but is aimed at the same ends that Christ’s was – it is to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.  Neither, the works of the flesh, nor the law, Paul’s roadmap tells us, will get us to the kingdom.  The Spirit is continually guiding the unfolding of God’s kingdom.  This freedom is for latitude in bringing God’s kingdom about.  Christ has handed us the keys to the kingdom to give us flexibility within certain boundaries to adapt to our ever-evolving world.  Those who try to make a rule book of this book or proceed forward without any guidance at all, don’t yet understand Christian freedom.

The problem with the red of the law, Paul and Jesus knew, was that law was never ending.  Rabbis with heavy yokes were always adding laws or coming up with interpretive rules to make things harder for people.   Jesus told these people, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition…You make void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.  And you do many things like this…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  There was an infinite number of ways that the law could be used to grind people down, to enslave them.  This was the infinite weightiness of the law.  There is no end to it.  Time after time, people always come up short.

On the other side of the scale, there’s an infinity to get lost in as well.   It is the hellscape of short term pleasure with long term costs.  The works of the flesh carry their own consequences and they end with broken bodies, broken lives and broken relationships.  The stuff of hell.

There’s a different sort of infinitude at work when we live by the spirit.  It is called transfinity.  Transfinity has boundaries – but between those boundaries, exist an infinite number of places.  Life in the spirit is transfinite.  There are boundaries around it, so you won’t get lost in either direction.  But that doesn’t mean that its possibilities are finite.  In math, if we take the number 10 as one boundary and 20 as another boundary – it may seem like options are limited – and in a sense they are, but there are a transfinite number of places between the two numbers.  The decimal points just keep getting smaller and smaller.  The same is true with life in the spirit – we don’t have infinite horizontal freedom to do whatever we want – whether it be oppression through the law or indulgence in the works of the flesh.  Yet we do have infinite vertical freedom to explore the depth of any relationship, of any part of creation, and of most of all – the unending depth of God.  This is the abundant, eternal life.

Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the spirit.  Paul’s words have an artful symmetry to them.  He uses fruit rather than some other object that he might have made his point with.  In a way, it was fruit that introduced both the law and works of flesh into the world.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed freedom – true communion and infinite possibility with God.  In fact there was only one rule – they weren’t supposed to eat the fruit from a particular tree.  The fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  For if they did, God told them, on that day, they would surely die.  The serpent put a little different spin on things.  The serpent said, God didn’t really tell you the whole truth.  You won’t die, literally.  You’ll be like God – knowing the difference between good and evil.  And, you know the rest of the story, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, suddenly realize they are naked – a bad thing.  From then on, they know the difference between right and wrong.  And rules and laws develop in human societies and in Scripture from this point forward.  The serpent was right – they became like God.  But not God exactly.  So their vision of what is right and wrong, was never quite as clear as God’s.  They equated the good with the rules, which formalized into the law.  Evil was its opposite – living without laws – unbounded.  What they could no longer see with any clarity was true communion with God – living by the Spirit.  So Paul’s use of fruit as an analogy, has a scriptural symmetry to it.  Fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil closed our eyes to the transfinite, abundant place in which God wants to commune with us.  May the fruit of the Spirit opens us up to what God has wanted for us all along.

As we think about freedom this week, let God’s Spirit guide you away from creating systems of purity that none of us can live up to and become nebulous bureaucratic structures of life-sucking rules that have precious little to do with God’s plan for the world.  Let that spirit also guide you away from unrestricted indulgence and works of the flesh that create hell out of our future.  Use your freedom to let God’s spirit guide you to the bounty of a transfinite space of deep, unending, fruitful abundance made for the very purpose of communing with God and creation.  We are a free people.  Freedom from the law.  Freedom from indulgence.  And freedom in Christ Jesus.   Would you pray with me?


Lord, forgive us when we are tempted to buy now and pay later.  In our spirits, Lord, we know that this way leads to death.  But what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.  Let the Spirit take over that we might see the beautiful radiance of your abundant fruit growing in our lives.  Help others to see in us – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – you know, the stuff of kids Sunday School classes.  Amen.



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