Sermon: A Place of Freedom (Sunday, February 27, 2022)
“The Lord became my protector. He brought me out to a place of freedom; he saved me because he delighted in me.”
We stand today on the doorway of the holy season of Lent. Looking forward to this holy time, to this opportunity to draw near to the Lord, we ought to ask ourselves, “Why does Lent exist in the first place?” To this question we would likely respond, “To get us ready for Easter,” and we wouldn’t be wrong. A first grader told me last week, “To help us be holy,” which I thought was even better. But likely none of us would respond, “To become more free.”
And yet, on this final Sunday with green vestments, Glorias, and Alleluias, we began Mass hearing, “The Lord became my protector. He brought me out to a place of freedom.” These entrance antiphons that we sing or hear at the beginning of Mass are what the Church uses to set the theme for each Mass, usually drawing them from that great book of Christian and Jewish worship – the book of Psalms. (That’s why it’s so important that we sing these chants set out by the Church.)
Freedom is the place the Lord wants to take us this coming Lenten season. That is counter-intuitive if we have the world’s understanding of freedom – freedom as license to do what I went, where I want, when I want, why I want, and with whom or what I want. But that libertine conception of freedom isn’t freedom at all – it is slavery to vice.
By adopting practices that would seem to make us less free, the Lord will use the disciplines of Lent to lead us to a place of freedom, because set free from sin and attachments to this world, we will be free to live virtuous and excellent lives. Freedom is the goal of Lent because freedom is the goal of the Christian life – the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God that comes from living in His truth, hope, and glory.
Visiting the children in our school last week, encouraging them to live this holy season of Lent intensely, I tried to help them find ways they could find this place of authentic freedom. For our fifth and sixth grade students, I’ve been the pastor almost their whole time at St. John’s and I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Looking around the room, I knew that many of them have younger brothers and sisters, and so I suggested that instead of giving up candy, their Lenten penance could be give up some time on technological devices to play with those younger siblings who are always driving them crazy. A more exquisite torture, I assure you, could not be found in the deepest depths of purgatory, based on their dramatic reaction to this suggestion.
But why? Because their younger siblings give them a chance to live the Crucifixion? In part, sure, but more importantly, this would give these older brothers and sisters the chance to arrive at that place of freedom – the freedom to be a better person, to be a role model, to be looked up to and admired – the freedom of a joyful family life and the foundation for a life-long, supportive relationship that a brother or sister ought to be.
This place of freedom is possible for all of us to find by following the Lord’s teaching in the Gospel today: “No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.” Christ is that teacher we are invited to imitate, and he proposes an important tool for doing so:
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” These words are normally taken as an injunction against hypocrisy, understandably so. But there is also another important theme here: “Notice, perceive, notice, see.” In order to be lead to that place of freedom, we need eyes that can notice and perceive the places of slavery in our lives, to invite the Lord to bring freedom precisely there.
You can have more of this noticing or perceiving by practicing the examen prayer every day this Lent. This prayer is like the examination of conscience you make before going to confession, and includes that element but is more. The examen prayer begins by recognizing God’s presence; expresses gratitude to God for the gifts you have received from Him; asks for the grace to know your sins and root them out; takes account of thoughts, words, and actions hour by hour throughout the day; asks God’s pardon for your faults; and resolves to make amends.
In this daily examen, the goal is not only to ask God’s forgiveness for your sins, but to be attentive to God’s work in your life. Where was God at work throughout this day? How was God leading you to a place of freedom – and how did you respond or not to that invitation?
For example, if you experienced a significant irritation from another person, you might ask yourself, “Is my irritation with this person due to my own issues rather than his or hers? Have I provoked him to act the way he does by my own behavior? Am I not seeing something relevant about his situation due to my own self-interest?”
Freedom, we know all too well, must be fought for and defended. Our world is experiencing a painful lesson in that right now with the conflict in Ukraine, for whose peaceful and just resolution we should all pray. As long as there has been a place known as “Ukraine,” its people have struggled for its very existence. Now they face an invading superpower possessed of weapons powerful enough to obliterate the entire world whose leader says that they do not have the right to exist as a country. Yet they boldly resist, sustained by their belief that their freedom is worth the fight. And just as political freedom cannot be attained without a struggle, interior freedom cannot be attained without the battle for holiness, the battle against the even greater enemy who deceivingly tells us that we have no right to our freedom in Christ.
Any battle engages in offensive and defensive measures – classically, the sword and the shield. In the spiritual battle for freedom, the defensive measure or shield is the general examination of conscience. By continually examining our conscience, we protect ourselves against bad habits that might start to develop, and retain an awareness of God’s presence throughout each day.
Sometimes, though, the defensive measures are not sufficient, such as when we realize that a bad habit or vice has taken hold in our souls. In this case, the sword is a particular examination of conscience. In the particular examination, we choose a vice we want to cut out of our lives and examine our conscience each day as to how many times we gave in to that habitual sin, usually keeping a tally in a journal. Over time, we can learn to identify the “triggers” that make us more susceptible to giving in to that sin and can work on the underlying causes or “occasions of sin” that make it hard to resist.
In our striving to grow in the moral life, or in major world conflicts like in Ukraine, we are not sure what the end of the story will be. But St. Paul encourages us today to trust in the fact that while we face uncertainty in this life, we do know the end to the story. While the season of Lent will help us to live the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, we set out knowing that, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Following the master to the place of freedom is truly possible because He has already won victory for us.
The second half of the entrance antiphon at the beginning of Mass sang out that the Lord, “Saved me because He delighted in me.” God delights in His sons and daughters because at Baptism the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, was impressed upon our souls and we were re-created in His image and likeness, becoming adopted sons and daughters of the Father. Christ’s place of freedom is our freedom because, as St. Paul says in another place, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Two days remain before we set out upon the great Lenten fast. Take advantage of these last days not only to feast upon whatever you plan to give up, but to ask the Lord where is that place of freedom to which He wants to bring you because of His great delight in you. Once you know what that place of freedom is, then you can begin to determine the spiritual tools or weapons you need to achieve and defend that place of freedom.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
VIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII