“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land, indeed I have a goodly heritage/rich inheritance.”
I discovered this verse nearly twenty years ago, when I was in Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church in Brighton, MA. This is a chaplaincy training program, required by most denominations in order to be ordained a pastor or priest. It is designed to push you outside your comfort zone. It often brings you face-to-face with the less pleasant aspects of your own personality and how to manage a situation that presses all your hot buttons. It helps you learn how to both maintain healthy boundaries and extend them when appropriate.
I happened to read this verse from Psalm 16 the same morning I had a very difficult encounter with someone else in the group who came from the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She was a very “out there” UU, and on the morning she led worship she prepared a liturgy that included prayers to Asherah, Isis and Hecate. When I was expected to offer one of those prayers in the rotation of readers, I respectfully declined and passed it on to the next person. (Honestly, I thought I did well to stay in the room.)
She was hurt by what she perceived as my “rejection” of her way of praying. I tried to explain that I didn’t mean for my silence to be a condemnation of her. I was maintaining my boundaries. The conversation amongst the entire group became rather heated, as factions began to form. Those of us from Christian denominations expressed our increasing frustration that we had been very careful not to be too “Jesus-y” in our prayers in order to make space for the UU and Jewish participants in the program, and felt that we were not shown the same respect. This student tried to recruit the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in our group to her side, only to discover that he, too, was firmly opposed to referring to God by pagan names. He said, “I fully expected to have to navigate the Jesus stuff in a Roman Catholic program. I didn’t expect to have to navigate my way through Egyptian goddesses.”
Finally, I remembered that verse I had read that morning. “My boundaries enclose a pleasant land.” I explained that I wasn’t saying that the land enclosed by her boundaries is a swamp, only that it’s not my pleasant land. I would be happy to walk through the gate and visit her, but I expected her to respect that there might be places I was uncomfortable visiting. I’m not sure she ever really understood what I was trying to say, but she could see that I really was sorry to have caused her pain, even if I was clear that I did not regret my decision to decline the invitation to venture further into her comfort zone.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
“Freedom” is a pretty loaded word in the United States at any time of the year, but most especially in these days around Independence Day. We tell ourselves we are “the land of the free” without acknowledging that we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and a disproportionate percentage of that population is African-American men. We are still living with the poisonous fruit of slavery, 150 years after we theoretically abolished it.
We don’t want to talk about some of the harder truths behind our immigration crisis: businesses on this side of the border can employ undocumented immigrants at essentially slave wages, and those workers have no legal recourse. I can’t look at photographs of children in detention centers or hear stories of our own government claiming they have no responsibility for their basic needs and say with anyone legitimacy, “My boundaries enclose a pleasant land.” At least not if I’m talking about geographical boundaries.
This is when it’s good to remember that the United States is not the realized Kingdom of God. Our primary citizenship is not the one on our passport, our ultimate allegiance is to the one we declare as Lord, Jesus Christ. We have been freed by him for a different kind of freedom.
“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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
Misused freedom ends up destroying itself, like those pigs from last week’s Gospel reading, that went over the cliff and drowned in the water. The freedom we are granted is not to do whatever we want with no concern for others; it is the freedom to use whatever gifts, power, resources we have to help those who are struggling.
To give you a different image, I want to pick up on the end of this passage from Galatians, about the fruit of the Spirit. I did an in-depth study of this passage many years ago, and it stays with me. The sign that we are using our freedom appropriately, that we are living in accordance with the vision God has for us, is that there is room to grow. Good plants need good soil.
About a month ago, my dad called out of the blue to pick my brain about this ‘bucket garden thing’ as he calls it. For years he grew a wide variety of vegetables in a large garden out back. But age has caught up with him, and that kind of garden is more than he can manage. He wants to try growing a few things in buckets closer to the house. Every time I have called the house he has another question for me. The one that he kept going back to was about the soil. I had learned to use a mix of Pro-Mix (a peat-based product), compost or manure, and garden soil. He kept insisting he didn’t think he needs that Pro-Mix stuff. He can just use garden soil. I explained that the reason for it is to be sure the soil doesn’t get too firmly packed down so that the roots have trouble growing.
He argued that if he noticed that happening, he could just loosen up the soil using a trowel or hand cultivator. I reminded him that he couldn’t get to it the same way he could in the garden; the bucket would get in the way. The soil needs to be loose in order for the plant to grow properly.
That applies to us, as well. We need to keep the soil of our spirits loose within our soul buckets, too, so that the Holy Spirit can grow good fruit in us. We know we’ve been cooperating with God’s work in us when we see the signs of growth: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The seed and the growth come from the Spirit—but we have to do our part to create a hospitable growing environment. We have to maintain the boundaries on our pleasant land, but we need to avoid letting the soil get so densely packed that nothing new can take root.
It’s hard work, looking honestly at who we are, and recognizing where we are failing to grow the good fruit of the Spirit. There are times when it just seems so much easier to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh,’ to indulge in a little work of the flesh. I will be the first to confess a certain self-satisfaction when I “win” an argument, a self-satisfaction that looks a lot more like Paul’s first list than his second. It’s not easy loving our neighbor as ourselves. But if we want to claim Jesus as our Lord, we need to be facing some hard truths about the ways in which we have failed to follow him, the ways in which we have put our hand to the plow but then looked back.
However, we need not lose heart. We can choose to look forward, to follow Christ, to go where he leads us and do what he calls us to do. To drop everything and follow, if that’s what he asks. To stay and tell others what he has done for us, if that’s where he needs us.
I know you sometimes feel powerless to make any real difference in the Big Issues of the world. So… make a small difference and trust that God can use it as a seed for a bigger one. Stay focused on keeping the soil of your spirit clear of weeds, and trust that God’s Holy Spirit will continue to grow and do good work in and through you. Keep practicing that love of neighbor that is at the heart of our faith .Let your hearts be glad, let your spirits rejoice, let your body rest in hope. God will not abandon us…but will show us the path of life.