Toorak Uniting Church

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Freedom: The Practice of Letting Go

Matthew 23: 1 - 12
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 21
2 November 2014

For much of the history of the Christian Faith there has been a conflict between what we might call duty or obligation and freedom or liberty. I recall a quote from one of Christianity’s most famous converts, the journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who stated after he came to the Christian faith that the experience was as if he had been at the bottom of a dark well and gazed up to see a window where life and eternity intersected. He looked through the window and there he saw for the first time the glorious liberty of the children of God.

I’m not sure that many people have such an experience – particularly the image of the Christian faith being the pathway to freedom and liberty. Sadly, duty, obligation and commitment seem to be what names the church of the past and the church of today. But isn’t it remarkable that the founder of our religion – not that he ever saw himself as a founder of a new religion – was more interested in the human relationship with the Divine, with the sacred and with God. And that through that relationship would come freedom, liberty, a fullness of life and a willing surrender of all that binds and inhibits us.

Perhaps that is one of the great paradoxes of life, that in order to be free one must let go of even the desire to be free. And, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we must let go of religion itself.

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as 'religious' do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by 'religious'...

I understand that that is not a simple idea. Many books have been produced to explore Bonhoeffer’s idea of what is called ‘Religionless Christianity’. Nevertheless it is relevant to the passage in Matthew’s gospel we are considering today:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi."

Does Religion need to be so Severe?
Why does religion so often need to be severe in order to be taken seriously? We only need to look around the world and see many examples of extremist religious expression. Perhaps it is because, for many people, religion is an example of the most important thing they do in life. But I also think (and I want to be moderate here) that in some ways, following a strict rule or believing an absolute truth is easier than practising what I would call the Christian way. Again, Bonhoeffer said that religion was the garment Christianity was clothed in and that loving your neighbour was more important than religion. No gasps from the congregation?

While the earlier passage from Matthew’s narrative has a judgemental tone to it, I am not going to judge those who choose a more religiously severe way than I think the gospel calls for. The message of Jesus certainly doesn’t suggest a do-as-you-like approach to the Christian way, on the contrary, it offers what I am calling the Christian Practice, that is the pathway to a fully rich and abundant life. And these are not rote learnings or strict laws that must be followed, but invitations to the life of Good News and hopeful outcomes.

Living the Christian Practice
While there are helpful activities associated with the Christian Practice, I would just like to concentrate on the form and shape of our faith and reflect on how letting go can lead us into freedom – a free life. I wrote about Ian Adams’s book Running over Rocks in the Update and listed several practices he suggests and I would like to reflect further on them in this sermon. With several questions:

1. The Practice of moving from separation towards belonging. How would you do that in your life? What would give you the courage to let go of isolation and loneliness and embrace community?

2. The Practice of Stillness and Movement. Where do you find stillness in your life? Are you willing to make room for it and let go of the complexity that we so often draw into ourselves?

3. The Practice of letting go of our anxieties. What is there that is so comforting, or so habitual, that we often cling to that which we desperately want to abandon?

4. The Practice of dwelling on the scarcity in life rather than seeing the abundance all around us. Now don’t get me wrong, our world is filled with those who have either nothing or very little. But when we can only see scarcity we rob our lives of gratitude and generosity.

5. The Practice of letting go of our losses, our failures and our regrets and nurturing an attitude of grace, compassion and kindness for ourselves and for others.

6. The Practice of Peace. How easy it is to collapse into despondency when we observe the world around us. But the difficult process of letting go of despair and disappointment leads us towards a transformation of imagination and resourcefulness that can lead to the way of peace.

7. The Practice of letting go of our reflections on the absence of God; for the divine will open the way to experiencing the presence of the Sacred.

8. The Practice of Love. It was said by someone that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. We don’t love as fully as we could, because we are fearful of rejection, or fearful of showing our true selves. But letting go of those and other fears will liberate us to experience loving and caring relationships with family, friends and even strangers.

What was Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders? …They do not practise what they teach. It’s the biggest criticism Jesus had with the religious leaders of the day and sadly it may be our society’s strongest criticism of us…. We do practise what we preach. But that is easily solved if our religious rituals, which can be fine in themselves, always take second place to our Christian Practice. And that is not just the things we do; Christian Practice is who we are!!

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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