Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
7 July 2013
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Text: Galatians 6.1-10, 14-16
You get to feel so guilty, got so much for so little
That you find that feeling just won't go away
You're holding on to every little thing so tightly
Till there's nothing left for you anyway...
You hurt yourself, you hurt your lover
than you discover
What you thought was freedom is just greed...
-We’ve reached the end of Galatians, the letter that Martin Luther once called the “magna carta of Christian freedom” (he'd add "holy grail" if he'd been around to rap with Jay-Z). Last week, we heard Paul proclaim that “it was for freedom Christ has set us free,” and then, looked at two apocalyptic visions, one of slavery to the Sarx (flesh), and one of the liberty of the Spirit’s fruits flowering in us.
-But as we conclude, we still haven’t really answered a pressing question: what, in simple, human, 21st century terms, exactly is Christian freedom? What are we freed from? What are we freed for? And, just as important, how do we live this freedom?
-Thankfully, for once, Paul makes it pretty clear here in chapter six, just as he’s wrapping up his letter. He seems to lay out three basic recommendations for what Peterson’s Message translation calls “living creatively:"
1) Be a community that restores one another and bears one another’s burdens with gentleness
2) Focus on your own load, rather than another’s
3) Boast in nothing but the cross of Christ, which has won us a new creation
-In many ways, that’s the ethical distillation of the entire letter. All that discernment of Idols and Gospels, of Sarx and Spirit, of Includers and the Included, Jews and Gentiles...it all comes down to this way of being community - an Israel of faith - with God, and with neighbor.
-But if Paul has taught us anything, it’s that even Gospel community - especially Gospel community, can be used for slavery if it falls into the wrong hands. Enter me. On the Fourth of July. A perfect time to reflect on freedom.
-See, every year around the Fourth, we join Leah’s family up on Lake Ontario at the Lighthouse Christian Camp for a week-long family camp. The setting is beautiful, with tiny cottages nestled right along the shore of the lake. The sunsets make your heart sing. There’s space to talk, to pray, to recharge, and to skip stones. Lots of stones. Family stories are shared and remembered as families work together to remember and grow in the story of our faith.
-And, for this community, a big part of both family and faith stories is the story of America. On the Fourth, there’s a huge worship service in the tabernacle. Red white and blue balloons line the aisles. Giant flags are projected behind the praise lyrics. Veterans and parents of soldiers are venerated and thanked. As I walked by, I heard a soloist practicing a song with the lyrics “one nation under God.”
-Except this Fourth, I was walking away from it. See, Leah’s cousin Matt and me, being the enlightened progressive Christian pacifists that we are, have made a tradition of holding a prayer service before the tabernacle service, to pray for America’s enemies. Then we skip the service. Our way of saying that we belong to the Kingdom first, and only then, to this country, and her history of genocide, pillaging and war.
-As I made my way past the sights and sounds of passionate patriotism, I felt the sweet sensation of self-righteousness swell within me. Surely, this was a community of Christians in need of being restored, in line with Paul's Point One. Surely, with my advanced sense of the Gospel and my keen eye for Idolatry, we could free them from nationalism and unwrap the Bible from the flag. Help them find the Truth.
-Which is just about when the Truth found me. Because I realized: I was the one in need of restoration. Because, like the Judaizers requiring circumcision of the Galatian converts, I was making my acceptance of my fellow Christians - albeit distant cousins - conditional of them meeting my standards of progressivism. And, in the end, I was isolating myself from community. And ultimately, was no more free from sin than anyone at the camp.
-See, Paul’s first recommendation says that we ought to restore one another with gentleness, and that we should bear each other’s burdens. Instead, I took out my Hipster glasses and switched on the ‘ol Flaw-O-Matic my generation has ingrained in me. And I started to critique and judge. Outraged by a nation built on warfare, I was unwittingly, hypocritically, and not at all gently, waging war on my own family.
-And that’s where I was hit by Paul’s second recommendation - namely, verse 3: if someone thinks we he is something when he is nothing, he is deceived...but let each test his own work. Or, in psycho-babble terms: stop codependently trying to control and manipulate others, and focus on your own s-h-i-t.
-For me, maybe it meant just going to my own prayer meeting and doing my best to do what I felt called to do: pray for enemies - not praying against others. It also meant, I think, focusing on the warfare in my own heart. The ways that, through violent speech, and selfish thinking, and neglect of my own spiritual life, I tried to isolate myself from God, from accountability, and so make myself god over other people.
-In reality, I couldn't go in that service, not because of any moral outrage or zeal of the Kingdom, but because I couldn't stand to experience my own resentment and critical judgement. I wonder what would have happened had I walked up to the pastor, took responsibility for my own struggle, admitting "I struggle with solely focusing on patriotism - could we also pray for our enemies?" Who knows? Maybe the whole camp would have ended up praying. And I might have been humbled more gently too.
-But see, if you’re like me, then even on the short walk to church today, you’ve probably slipped into the whole god-complex in any number of ways. Perhaps it’s indulging in the fleeting and ironic joy of using the Flaw-o-Matic to make critical remarks of others. Maybe there’s a person in your life you desperately want to fix, and you think about fixing them all the time. Maybe you are feeling trapped and enslaved by someone else’s manipulations, and are stockpiling nuclear weapons in the silo of your heart. And it feels like slavery.
-And if you’re like me, you are being called out of slavery for Gospel freedom. Freedom from the need to always critique. From the need to fix others. From the need to manipulate or control circumstances other than your own. From the impulse to react, to pray or preach or do anything good AT people, rather than FOR them. From the quiet desperation of needing to be god, or ending up as nothing.
-And, you are also being called to Gospel freedom FOR something. FOR right relationships. With God. With your neighbors. And with yourself. FOR the wholeness, the peace, the Shalom described in those fruits of the Spirit. FOR what Paul calls the “new creation.”
-Now, like me, maybe you’re wondering: how am I supposed to focus on my own load AND carry my neighbor’s burden? Doesn’t that seem a bit contradictory?
-Seems? Yes. Actually? Not so sure.
-See, Paul’s first two steps are not in opposition. I think they’re two sides of the same coin. See, the Greek word for “burdens,” those that we must help our neighbors with, this word denotes something really oppressive. Usually, a set of requirements laid down by others that weigh on one’s soul. It's something take cuts one off from community. And drains away life.
-The word for “loads,” on the other hand, is the same word that Jesus uses in the Gospel of Matthew when he says, “my yoke is easy and my load is light.” It’s still very difficult stuff. It’s hard work. But it's work that gives us life. That is us acting out of our Spirit center. And, as Jesus notes, like oxen, we are not yoked alone. In fact, we are able to do this work only because Christ has bound Himself to our very hearts, and so animates us with his grace and love.
-The end goal of each work is different. One, "burdens," oppresses; the other, our "load," enlivens.
-So what I hear Paul saying is this: the first task of our Christian community is to restore one another when we have fallen into the grip of sin and death. Which means, not punishing or guilting or controlling or fixing. But speaking the truth of who we are in Christ. Literally re-clothing our brother or sister with the garment of Christ Jesus, and with it, the promise of the Gospel that they are no one’s slave, and so, do not need to carry oppressive requirements, or guilt, or expectations, or anything else that is not God. This is always gentle, because it must reflect Jesus’ own gentleness. How we restore will be part of the reminder of what we are restoring them to!
-But to be the kind of community that can heal with the soothing balm of the Gospel, we also need to carry our own loads. Do our own work. Not work that seeks to earn the free gift of salvation. But the work of growing in intimacy with Jesus, the one who has joined Himself to our hearts. We cannot simply know the Gospel with our heads. We must work so that it can sink into our hearts. It must become a part of us. The soil must be prepared so that the seeds of the Spirit fruits may grow.
-So, in some ways, our load is very personal. It might mean recommitting to a discipline of regular prayer and of listening to the Scriptures. It might mean letting God reveal our idols, so that God can cleanse us from the works of the Sarx, and make us open to be channels of the Spirit. It also might mean taking time to delight in God, to be in God’s world, and among God’s people, being refreshed through worship, and play, and celebration. But point is, it’s a relationship. Christ has set us free for relationship. And the ultimate freedom of a relationship comes in the discipline of commitment.
-So as we grow more deeply in our love with God, we will be given the freedom from self to love and restore and support our brothers and sisters. Growing in the knowledge of how much God loves us and has forgiven us feeds us so that we can extend this restorative love to others. And, in being a community that openly shares our struggles, and practices gentle Gospel healing and restoration, will ultimately provide a safe and nurturing space, a greenhouse, if you will, in which the fruits of the Spirit can flourish. In which the New Creation is incubated. In which we can fully live and grow together.
-Which is why I think Paul ends with his powerful third recommendation: “But for my part, may I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ - for nothing else matters, except the new creation it’s given us!" We are given the freedom to be a community with a singleness of purpose - to be known by God deeply and intimately, and so to know one another deeply and intimately, and then, healed by the Gospel, to offer that Gospel to the still enslaved and suffering. We do not need to affiliate with any political party. We do not need to solve the deep issues of the day. In many ways, we do not need to worry what America is doing, or what the Jews are doing, or what the Evangelicals are doing, or what anyone else is doing. It’s not about them. It’s not about us. It’s about God.
-We are called to boast only in the cross of Christ. The proclamation of the Crucified God. Who brings healing to the broken. Who brings love the excluded. Who brings freedom to the slaves. Who brings an end to death, and begins the new creation. Nothing else matters. Everything else is just our practice of bearing the burdens of others, and so fulfilling our mission as a church - the mission of telling the story of the Good News of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. That God forgives us. That God has liberated us. That God is for us, with us, and loves us. And God wants so much more for God’s children then we ever imagined.
-I have another Fourth of July story I'd like to leave you with as we leave Galatians together. Later that day, Matt's wife Jess suggested a practice for us. She recommended we take a bucket of stones. That we go to the waters' edge. And we cast them into the deep. And for each one thrown away, we shoudl name out loud a barrier that kept us from God. A kind of dramatic form of confession.
-As I listened to Leah throw her stones, and then had to name and throw my own, I was struck. The things I was naming, they could have been written on the stones I threw at the patriotic tabernacle service. The things I most hated in myself, the chains of my slavery, were the demons I tried to cast into others. And instead of making them weapons, they became instruments. Not just of confession. But also, of play. Skipping them off into the distance, to sink into oblivion, where God will remember them no more. It's setting down a heavy burden. And freeing the hands to carry a load.
-And I think that's Paul's message of grace in Galatians. I'm thankful to him for having lived it and passed it on to us. Thankful for you, walking and stumbling with me through this series. Thankful that we at the South Wedge Mission have been given this work to do - this Mission of bearing burdens and carrying loads. And we've been given the Gospel - and the God - to take our place in the new creation. Praise be to God. That's all. That's everything.