Meg Peery McLaughlin
“A Matter of Prepositions”
September 12, 2021
Galatians 5: 1, 16, 22-25
Prayer for Illumination
Guide us O God
by your Word and Spirit
that in your light we may see light
in your truth find freedom
and in your will discover your peace
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For freedom Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I’m not sure how it happens, except by the work of the Spirit, but this church collects amazing saints together.
Working on this text and knowing that many would be hearing it at the Congregational Retreat at camp this weekend, I went to the team giving their heart and soul to planning every detail of the day, and said: “Hey, I know y’all are working on name games for the retreat, but do you happen to have any games that have to do with prepositions.”
I thought it was a long shot, but they didn’t even look at me funny. Alas, there is no such game, but Kim McNeill popped up and replied: “No, but I do have one about adverbs!”
Then she deftly used these fruits of the Spirit that Paul lists to describe the game. One person in the circle is asked to leave the room, while the rest of the group is told to act in the manner of the adverb. Act generously, they are told, or act kindly, or act gently— and then the outsider is brought back to try to guess the adverb.
I love it. And I’m still a little sad there is not such a game for prepositions: those little pieces of grammar that govern nouns in relation to other words.
Our text from Galatians begins with a preposition that is worth our faithful attention: For freedom Christ has set us free.
Usually, we associate the gift of freedom with the preposition from.
We have freedom from chains. We are freed from slavery. In Christ, we are given freedom from sin. Among the company of friends, we are freed from burdens.
Yes, freedom from makes all kinds of sense. For we Christians who are also North Americans, this preposition is even more solidified in our minds.
Community organizer Michael Gecan argues that freedom from is in our national DNA, dating back to our emergence as a nation[i]. We fought for it! Freedom from unfair taxation, freedom from colonial rule, freedom from big government.
Just look at the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag created as we moved toward the Revolutionary War, and how it’s since been reclaimed and reworked of late.
Gecan goes on to suggest that the major divide in our country is not around controversial issues that make us sweat in church like immigration,
race, abortion, or vaccines, but rather about our understanding of freedom.
So let’s perk up our ears to what the Apostle may be saying about such.
For freedom Christ has set us free.
Note the preposition.
There is a second element of freedom. Freedom for.
Freedom for whites, as well as for blacks.
Freedom for men, as well as for women.
These are freedoms for which our nation has also fought, and still do: freedom for citizens to receive healthcare, equal rights, public health.
Fault lines are created in our culture at the places where freedom from
and freedom for bump up against one another.
The Apostle Paul was writing along fault lines too.
The church in Galatia was on the brink of disowning the gospel because some folks came to town after Paul and preached that circumcision was necessary for salvation—it was the law, they argued. There were hoops to jump through to get in God’s good graces. Paul writes to help the church see that in Christ, they are freed from this. Salvation is a gift. Jesus unbinds salvation from any work, any requirement, any law. We are justified by faith alone.
Yes, it’s freedom from. But Paul doesn’t stop here. It’s also freedom for. Paul is quick to say that we are freed for a certain kind of life, a life guided by the Spirit.
In between the verses we read today, Paul adds “you were called to freedom,
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean we get to live an unencumbered life.
It’s like a lyric in an old Indigo Girls song that you have to hear twice before you get it: “the closer I’m bound in love to you, the closer I am to free. “
I know this is heady; let me see if this helps.
In a couple of weeks, I’m doing a wedding for a child of the church, Travin Richardson. In fact, I officiated his wedding to Emily last year. It was a Covid affair, and thus, small and safe.
Travin and Emily wanted to have their wedding in the presence of their friends,
so they will speak their vows again, binding themselves together.
So, a question:
Who is more free, someone who is unattached, or ones like Travin and Emily, who are able express the range of emotions, values, and possibilities through a covenantal relationship?
Now, not everyone will be married, but all of us, I pray, are part of relationships where we have experienced the gift of freedom. And all of us are invited into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and with that relationship comes freedom for a certain kind of life.
Grace is not a free pass, but an entrance into the life of the Spirit, a letting go of inward facing love in exchange for an ethic of radical love of God and neighbor.
For freedom Christ has set us free. So, live by the Spirit.
Believe it or not, a team of landscape architects can help us.
The American Association of Landscape Architects conducted a study[ii] back in 2006 to observe physical and psychological effects of having a fence around a playground.
By observing teachers and their students on a playground surrounded by a fence, and on a comparable playground with no fence, the researchers found a striking difference in how children interacted in the space.
On playgrounds without fences, the children tended to gather around their teacher, and were reluctant to stray far from her view.
On playgrounds that were fenced in, however, the children ran all around the entire playground, feeling free to explore. The researchers concluded that with a boundary, in this case a fence, children felt more free.
The business community and design folks clambered onto this study and expanded it to explain why “blue sky brainstorms” don’t actually work all that well. When organizations encourage employees to generate new ideas in a world where anything is possible, sky is the limit, it may result in all kind of shiny new ideas, but not ones that actually work. Having constraints can actually improve creativity[iii].
The kind of freedom that Paul is describing is the kind that I am convinced we need right now.
A freedom with both prepositions.
Freedom from anything that would hold us back from receiving God’s love
and freedom for a life lived in love for love.
I like to imagine us, the church,
on a playground
fenced in by the gospel
bound tightly by love
living in the guidance of the Spirit
so that we can play freely on every inch of creation
in the manner of these adverbs:
and with ample amounts of self control
No matter their part of speech,
these are the fruit of such a life of freedom.
May we bear them abundantly.
[i] Many thanks to the Rev. Jessica Tate and her Well Paper on this text that led to this bit about Gecan.