The circus came to town when I was around ten years old. One afternoon I went walking through the tents and exhibits that were clustered on the fairgrounds in my little hometown, down the road from the shirt factory. Not many people were there in the early afternoon, so I was mostly by myself.
The particular circuses that came to towns as small as mine weren’t exactly the most glamorous. They were the ones which lent themselves to certain feature films, one could say. I always steered clear of the clowns—and I still do.
That afternoon, I walked up to this one particularly large tent, when I saw one of the circus workers sitting on a small chair smoking a cigarette just next to the entrance. The vinyl flap was pulled slightly back, a black doorway inviting me in. As I stood there, I could hear… breathing….deep and grumbling.
The circus worker looked up at me, catching my eye. “You wanna see the elephant?”
“Yes,” I said. Yes, I did. He waved his cigarette toward the flap, and I walked closer. As I stepped inside the tent, I could see it: An enormous Asian elephant standing there in the dimness. A bit of light came in from clearer panels on the tent, and through gaps where the vinyl panels were tied together. My eyes adjusted to the dim light and my nose to the smell of hay as I walked over to the rail, looking more closely at this incredible animal. It breathed so deeply, and its tail swished back and forth as it stood there. I walked over and looked at its eyes, deep, deep eyes with enormous eye lashes. I wanted to reach out my hand and run my fingers along its side, but I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t reach it over the rail.
It was beautiful, and I was amazed that I had the chance to be alone with this magnificent creature. I looked down at its long legs and saw, strangely, a small chain shackled to one of its back legs. It was hooked to a spike in the ground. Even as a kid, I thought that was odd.
When elephant trainers tame an elephant, they begin when it’s very young. They take a little baby elephant and shackle one of its back legs with a simple rope or small chain. That way, it learns what its boundary is. It learns quickly and yields to the constraint placed upon it.
Interestingly, as the elephant grows, there is usually no need to change the chain. The trainer doesn’t need to get a larger and larger chain because, for some reason, the elephant continues to yield to the constraints of that chain. Even when the elephant is grown, this enormous, magnificent creature, that same little chain is all it takes to keep it in place. The elephant has yielded to the constraints, never realizing it has more than enough strength within it to simply snap the chain.
“Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus says. Doesn’t Jesus care about this man who wants to follow him but needs to go and bury his father? Why doesn’t Jesus care about him? “I will follow you, Lord,” another said, “but first let me go and tell my family goodbye.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Harsh.
That’s a bit harsh, Jesus.
Of course, St. Luke, as the other Gospel writers do, has Jesus speaking in hyperbole. He is speaking in such an exaggerated way because he is trying to cut through the circumstances of their lives to help them see just what it means to follow him. “Don’t just give your tunic, but give your cloak also.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor.” In other words, you may think you know what discipleship is going to cost you, but I’m going to be so much more….
“Let the dead bury their own dead.” Like some great Zen master, always speaking in riddles and always cutting to the truth…
Jesus is provoking them so that, maybe, just maybe, their eyes are opened to realize how they are so attached to the patterns of their lives. Of course a family needs to honor their dead father. Of course one needs to tell their family that they are embarking on this new way of living. Of course….
Yet, also…. Of course people are attached and embedded in systems and customs and norms that can easily constrain them.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The community in Galatia struggled to understand what it meant to enter into this new Christian community. What do we need to do? Do we need to become Jewish first? How do we understand the requirements of the law?
And St. Paul reassures them that Christ has acted in our lives—for us—in order that we might be free.
Yet, freedom can be a tricky thing, because it’s easy to think that we should have freedom just to be able to do what we want to do. Isn’t that what it means to be free? If we are free, then we’re free, right?
It’s like when our children tell us (just as we told our parents when we were children), “I can’t wait to be grown so that I can just do what I want to do.” Ah, the blissful naivete of childhood…and how it persists straight through adulthood in so many of us. Just two days ago I told someone I really wanted to skip my afternoon class and come on home. One of my classmates (who was skipping) told me, “Well, you’re an adult, you can do what you want.” “Really,” I asked, “does it really work that way?”
It turns out that “mere” freedom isn’t the point. Freedom isn’t the “end” after all, only the “means to the end.”
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
Wait…. I thought I was free! It’s not really freedom if I still have requirements or constraints. If I can’t do what I want to do when I want to do it and how I want to do it, then I’m not really free, right?
This “self-indulgence” St. Paul speaks of refers to this impulse or pull in our lives to live “according the flesh,” in his words, that tendency we have to lean back into old patterns, old habits, egotistical perspectives, selfish ambition, greed…all these parts of human existence that act like gravity to hold us back from growing beyond, in the “full stature of Christ” as our Baptismal Covenant describes.
True freedom, then, is only embodied and experienced when we can truly reach an escape velocity and break through the pull of this self-centered gravity. Then, as St. Paul describes, we enter into the space where the fruits of the spirit bloom within us…we bear fruit….and there is growth and life: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Oh how we could use these in our world today….
So much about the spiritual life, about our practice of faith, seems to center on becoming aware of what constrains us, what ties us down, what restricts our movement and growth… Sometimes, it is obvious, and it is clear what freedom looks like. But not always. Sometimes, our very understanding of what “freedom” is, is, itself, a constraint, because we can’t see beyond our own self-interest. We come to think that we’re free to just do what the heck ever we want to do because we can.
We think we’re this powerful creature, yet we are still tied down with these pitiful little chains of self-delusion.
This week, I invite you to do a different spiritual exercise. If you would take out your bulletins and turn to page 11, you’ll see, well, the elephant in the room. If you would, tear that page out of your bulletins and hold it in front of you. I wonder what it would be like for you to take that image home and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Each morning, when you go to brush your teeth, I wonder what you might think to yourself about what you are free FROM and what you are free FOR.
What are those things that have constrained you…restricted you…tied you down. How is Christ telling you, “I have broken those chains. I have given you freedom. I have released you.” What does that feel like to you? To be free…
And, what how might God be inviting you to live into this freedom? What are you free to do in this world? What might God be telling you about your potential?
God looks at you each moment of your life and says to you, “You, my magnificent creature, I have given you freedom in this world…to love and serve and echo my presence wherever you go.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 8, Year C
Galatians 5:1, 13-25; St. Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016