There is a wonderful moment in the movie “Field of Dreams” when the Iowa farm family that is at its center attends a PTA meeting because someone in their community wants to have a particular book banned by the local school.
The woman behind the proposed ban is acting out of a misplaced Christian impulse, and what quickly comes into the picture when she speaks is a whole slough of harsh invective about morality that is meant in the movie to be more or less a parody.
Well, getting increasingly agitated as the woman speaks is Annie, the wife of Ray, the main character. She is a now settled down mom. But she was a flower child in her youth, and she has a decidedly different opinion of the book that the other woman wants to see banned—perhaps even burned.
Annie loved that book. But maybe more than that, Annie has a different opinion about the idea of banning books, in general, whether or not she agrees with them.
And the two women get into a furious argument there in the school gym, which the other parents watch go back and forth like a tennis match.
Ultimately, it is Annie who prevails, after an impassioned speech about love, understanding, and peace—good values to be sure, which, personally speaking, she doesn’t happen to embody very effectively at that particular moment.
Of course, nor does the other woman seem very much like a disciple of Jesus in that particular moment.
I say this just to note that, in our reading from Galatians this morning, if it sounded to you like the Apostle Paul was one of those people from the 80s, standing in front of a school board, talking angrily and judgmentally about moral turpitude (they actually expressions like that back then)…well, you are to be forgiven.
It is a little bit of a blast from the past.
And as someone who loves Paul—as someone who gets a lot of important sustenance for the journey from Paul—I have to tell you that the mean church lady misinterpretations and misuses of Paul are still a cause for great sadness in my life.
Because there is so much there, and it’s so beautiful, and so important.
But even today, it’s easily obscured by the use and abuse of a kind of “thou shalt not” version of Christianity that still speaks with a megaphone in so many places.
Sometimes it is hard not to wonder if we Christians are more inclined to shout down Jesus rather than listen for his voice.
I worry that we might be.
This week, I’ve wondered if maybe Paul didn’t worry about that in his own day, too, truth be told.
That’s why it’s important to read Paul closely here.
When you do, what you notice is something interesting.
You see, Paul isn’t simply signing off on the danger of the vices he names.
Don’t get him wrong. He still sees them as dangerous, to be sure.
You don’t need to be particularly faithful to see that licentiousness—doing what you want when you want how you want as much as you want with whomever you want—is a precarious and often destructive way to live.
But Paul’s deeper point is that if avoiding the bad is all our faith is, well, then we have missed the mark.
Because for Paul, what it means to have a new life in Christ is not simply that we find the strength or summon the shame to avoid the bad.
For Paul, what faith really is comes down to a newfound power to choose the good.
It’s not simply the power to walk the narrow path of righteousness. That’s not what faith is, for Paul. That’s important, but it’s only the beginning of what faith is.
It’s not that we are perfect, either.
It’s that because of faith, somehow, in what we do, in who we are, a brighter light shines through.
And when you put it that way, I think what Paul is saying is actually meant as a criticism of much of the religion in his day—and perhaps in ours, too.
Because important as it is to seek freedom from sin, the deeper point of faith is to give us the freedom for love, the freedom for good, the freedom for the hard work of building and sustaining the whole human family.
In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther would speak of what he called “the bondage of the will,” his sense that our shortcomings make it impossible for us to live faithfully without God’s help.
Luther believed that our wills themselves are bound by sin.
But he also believed that when our wills are finally freed—freed by the light of God that shines through even in the darkest of places—then at last, a different path is possible.
When that happens, he argued, we are freed for a very different kind of life.
Paul would have understood that.
Unlike Paul’s list of vices, his list of virtues gives us much more to aspire to.
Paul talks about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
And that’s what life looks like when we are finally freed. When faith finally takes hold and begins to grow.
It’s not that we are freed from the snares of sin. It’s that we’re freed for the joy and challenge of a very different, deeper kind of life.
I remember when I was seventeen, I was studying for a year in France, and some friends of mine and I decided we would take an Easter trip to Italy for just over a week.
And it was certainly a wonderful trip.
But at one point, I remember, I realized something that I’d never thought of before.
I realized that for the very first time in my life, I was entirely without adult supervision of any kind.
For the very first time in my life, there was nobody waiting up for me. Nobody worrying where I’d been.
I was completely, totally free.
I celebrated this by having a triple serving of pistachio gelato, which is something my parents would never have permitted.
Italy, schmitaly. No way.
Now, I know that others respond to their first taste of freedom from parental constraint in other ways. I’m not here to point fingers.
But if all that trip had been was a scrupulous avoidance of the things I’d been taught to avoid, it would not have been much of a trip.
I mean, yes, except for the gelato, indeed, I did avoid all those things.
But the point of the trip was not that.
The point of the trip was to see new things. The point of the trip was to have new experiences and to build bonds with new people.
And the reason I still remember that trip so fondly all these years later is because I was able to do those things.
It was not only my first taste of freedom. More importantly, it was a small glimpse into what freedom for can be like, as opposed to freedom from something.
All by itself, freedom from is a kind of settling.
And what Paul wants for the Galatians, and what he wants for us, is the freedom for a life that never feels as if it’s settling for anything.
Friends, these are days when our fears may focus our attention on freedom from any number of dangers, toils and snares.
These are difficult days.
But the promise of life in Jesus is a promise of healing and wholeness even in the midst of the world and its brokenness.
It is a freedom for lives of peace and hope, no matter what the world might bring.
The love of God shines through.
And wherever it does, God’s people are transformed, and mobilized.
Where the love of God shines through, everyone else may see a minefield.
God’s people see a field of dreams.