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Trinity + 15 (part 2): Sheep and the Limits of Freedom

12 September 2010
Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Luke 15.1-10, Psalm 14: The fool speaks thus
And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free John 8:32

Today's parable about the Good Shepherd and his sheep reminds us how difficult it is to sustain a metaphor to its logical conclusion. In real life, a good shepherd looks after his flock with great care so that the sheep fetch a top price when they are sold to be eaten. The cover of this week's service sheet shows an apparently Arcadian idyll but, if any of these sheep were to stray, their bid for freedom might be understandable.

In the film 'Babe', we cheer as the piglet escapes from the farm to avoid being turned into roast pork; in 'The Great Escape' our hearts leap as Steve McQueen makes it over the barbed wire on his motor-bike; and in 'Fidelio' we sing with the prisoners as they emerge into the light:

Yes, what joy! What joy it is to breathe free air. Anywhere and always. 1

Freedom, as a one-dimensional concept, is as uncontroversially praiseworthy as motherhood and apple pie. But as Robert Browning knew, in a three-dimensional world, it is very difficult to keep alive the first fine careless rapture. According to Sir Walter Raleigh the shepherd's sensible girl friend knew this too when, in answer to her swain's entreaty written by Christopher Marlowe:

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove...
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies

(And much more in that vein), his prosaic inamorata replied:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies,
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten,
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

She knew that, in reality, A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.
Thomas Huxley

Pace the French Revolution, complete freedom is not compatible with complete brotherhood. The only way to be truly free is to be alone, as the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, hinted in his poem 'Sad State Of Freedom':

There's neither an iron, wooden
nor a tulle curtain
in your life;
there's no need to choose freedom:
you are free.
But this kind of freedom
is a sad affair under the stars.

William Cowper wrote about Alexander Selkirk, the original Robinson Crusoe:

I am monarch of all I survey
My right there is none to dispute.
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms
Than reign in this horrible place.
I am out of humanity's reach.
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own...
Society, friendship and love
Divinely bestowed upon man,
O had I the wings of a dove
How soon I would taste you again!

Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains, complained Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yes of course, but the chains are usually of our own making. When we realise, with Janis Joplin, that Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, we begin by seeking out human company even if this means binding ourselves with the chains of human love.

As Francis Bacon wrote:
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

And when we realise that no human relationship can possibly satisfy all of our emotional and spiritual needs, we seek out a relationship with a 'higher power' as some have called it. For pagans, this may be reached through crystals, pyramids or astrology. For those with a religious gene, they will seek a relationship with what they are unashamed to call 'God'. And self-professed Anglicans will forge a relationship with the Trinity through the liturgy and the power of prayer.

Which brings us to today's service of Morning Prayer and the Collect for Peace which we have just said. It includes that difficult phrase whose service is perfect freedom. On the face of it, this is nonsense. Being in service to someone means doing what they tell you to do. Being free means not having to do what anyone tells you to do.

The words are a translation of the original Latin Prayer, which includes the clause 'cui servare, regnare est'...'to be in subjection is to reign', meaning that to live in subjection to God is actually to reign with and for God both in this world and in that world which is to come...Freedom is to participate in the righteous and holy reign of Christ over human lives.
The Revd Dr. Peter Toon, President of the Prayer Book Society, USA

I think this paradox is deliberately put in the starkest terms for dramatic effect and in order to be thought-provoking. We are fully free to walk away at any time, but do so would mean forsaking the companionship of God and our fellow human beings. Perhaps it would be easier to sign up to whose service, being better than total freedom, we willingly enter into. But this sounds a bit pedestrian, like a pre-nuptial contract.

Here are three people who have expressed this thought more eloquently:
First of all, Richard Lovelace, the 17th century poet who wrote to Althea from prison:

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.

Next D H Lawrence in his 'Pax':

All that matters is to be at one with the living God
to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.
Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.
Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
a presence
as of a master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.

And finally, Dante Alighieri in 'The Divine Comedy':

And in His will is our peace.2

Keep me as the apple of an eye: hide me under the shadow of thy wings.
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come...shall be able to separate us from the love of God.

O God, whom to know is to live, to serve whom is to reign, and to praise whom is the health and joy of the soul; with our lips and our heart, and with all the might that we have, do we praise, bless and adore thee; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

1O welche Lust! In freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben!
2 E 'n la sua volontade è nostra pace Canto III line 85

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