by Sara Miles
Most days, as I sing my way through the Psalms for morning prayer, the words enter me in a half-focused way. But I always wake up with a shiver, the way you jerk awake from a dream of falling, whenever I hear: “I raise the cup of freedom as I call upon God’s name.” The line is from Psalm 116—crucially, a Psalm of praise.
I am filled with love, for the Lord hears me;*
The Lord bends to my voice whenever I call.
Death had me in its grip, the grave’s trap was set, grief held me fast.*
I cried out for God, “Please, Lord, rescue me!”
Kind and faithful is the Lord, gentle is our God.*
The Lord shelters the poor, raises me from the dust.
Rest once more, my heart,*
for you know the Lord’s love.
God rescues me from death, wiping away my tears, steadying my feet.*
I walk with the Lord in this land of the living.
I believe, even as I say, “I am afflicted.”*
I believe, even though I scream, “Everyone lies!”
What gift can ever repay God’s gift to me?*
I raise the cup of freedom as I call on God’s name!
And yet there’s something frightening about that raised cup. It is the same bitter cup Jesus will soon sadly offer his quarreling disciples, asking, “Can you drink the cup I will drink?” It is the same cup Jesus holds in the hours before his death, praying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”
Take this cup from me—this cup of freedom.
This past month we celebrated Gay Freedom Day, or Gay Liberation Day – I’m too cranky, too old-school and, actually, too proud to refer to it as Gay Pride Day, which I consider a blasphemous name designed by marketers from the self-esteem-industrial complex ––and also celebrated, weirdly enough, the law. Or at least the freedom to marry under the law, the moment when the law aligns with love.
Freedom is our song, freedom is Paul’s text, freedom is Christ Jesus’ living word. We proclaim and celebrate freedom––and yet, like the disciples accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, I sometimes want to turn back. Remember how our ancestors craved the foods of their bondage—how even the abundant manna God freely gave them in the desert didn’t taste as sweet, in their imaginations, as the cucumbers of slavery? It’s like St. Paul’s argument to the Galatians. He’s disputing other evangelists who insist that new Christians need to adopt Mosaic law, observe dietary practices, and become circumcised in order to complete their conversions. You need rules, these preachers say, if you want people to be good Christians. You need identifying marks, identity-making rituals that prove you’re like the others; then you have to follow the law to keep you from slipping. St. Paul sees this reliance on law as nothing less than a return to bondage. But I understand. Like the Galatians, I can find myself afraid, and praying for the cup of freedom to pass me by. Oh, take it from me.
As old bumpersticker says, freedom isn’t free. It’s like coming out. Coming out is liberating, thrilling, but it means you have to give up the safety and the privileges of living under the law. I remember a girlfriend in New York hissing at me, “Let go of my hand, are you crazy?” panicked that we’d be attacked for being two women, one white and one black, showing affection in public. Freedom isn’t free: leaving the closet means you might lose your family, or your home–––foxes have holes, birds have nests, but queer people are way, way over-represented among the homeless and marginally housed. And I hate to break the news, but the gay community isn’t made up entirely of people who are tall, fashionable, beautiful, funny, artistic and rich. Coming out means you have to identify yourself with all kinds of others: mostly weird, stigmatized outcasts despised by decent folks: screwed-up runaway kids, big homely bull-daggers, awkward campy boys. Freedom isn’t free: it binds you to the costs of loving a community. I remember a hospitable little band of transsexual friends, early in the AIDS years, who had a tiny slum apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, with a mini-frig where they kept and shared black-market hormones: they’d invite me to hang out with them after my restaurant shift…. And where are they now? Dead, I suppose, like so many others. Freedom isn’t free: you have to drink from the cup of tears to taste it.
And so, considering the cost, I might desire to look back, and turn my face away from Jerusalem. Because I’m not always sure I want that cup of freedom Jesus offers. It requires me to love all kinds of strangers: I want to bury my dead, that is, to take care of my own family above anyone else. It requires me to let go of my desire to be respectable: I’m an employed, middle-aged white lady, a Christian preacher, after all, not just a sexual deviant, and I want the law to ratify my rights and my social standing, and I want the church to admit I’m morally better than the Samaritans, the unbelievers, the opponents of gay marriage. I want the freedom to be as bitter, vengeful, jealous, bad-tempered as I feel like; snapping and biting at my enemies, calling down fire on their heads in God’s name. Follow Jesus? Jesus is only going to the cross, after all, and what kind of freedom is that?
The freedom the law offers is different. It seems easier. The law says I just have to take on the identifying marks of the normative community—circumcision, for example, or dietary laws, or marriage. The law ––with its reduction of truth to logic, its reduction of mercy to justice, its heavy debt to the rulers of this world––the law says nothing about what I owe my neighbor. The law doesn’t require me to love anybody but myself. The Supreme Court decision on marriage, coming just a day after its decision on voting rights, says it’s OK for me to be free while others aren’t. And so, in the name of those saints and martyrs who turned their faces resolutely toward Jerusalem, kept their hands on the plow, and went forward singing, even to death, for the right of all people to vote in this country, I commend to you not the laws of the Supreme Court, but the teaching of St. Paul:
After all, brothers and sisters, you were called to be free. Do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: You must love your neighbor as yourself.
Through Christ, St. Paul insists, God offers everyone relationship without conditions: a gift of freedom, given freely, for freedom. Nobody has to earn God’s love, we just have to accept the gift. And then we have to share it, freely.
The cup of freedom Jesus offers is the freedom to love. Not merely to love another lady in the privacy of my own home, but the freedom to love my neighbors, bear their suffering. Not the freedom to do whatever I feel like, but the freedom to be part of a community that includes those members whose needs I find most difficult. Not freedom from grief, either, or affliction––there are tears in the cup––but a freedom that even at the cross will reveal the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control: no law can touch such things as these.
It is for freedom that Christ has freed us. We are freed to love, and to be freedom for others. The cup Jesus offers us, the cup we partake of and become, is his blood of the new covenant poured out for all: it is a cup, finally, of salvation.
And so we go up to the Table together, and raise high the cup of freedom as we call on God’s name. Drink it, all of you, and know the Lord’s love.