I have no digital footprint, and I intend to keep it that way. When I was pressured early on to get on Spacebook, or Myface (just kidding) my visceral protest was “the brethren are up in my business enough as it is.” My decision, upon reflection, was reinforced by my realization that people misinterpret, misunderstand, and take offense with alarming regularity. Since my organic disposition is sarcasm, I felt it unwise to give my inner musings a public voice. Recently, however, my reason has changed. People on social media have so eschewed any filter for what they say, or the pictures they post that I prefer not to see what the brethren put on display. I don’t want to know what harsh comment someone made in the name of the culture wars, what was in that red solo cup someone was holding, where they were after hours, or who they were with. I prefer the bliss of my ignorance, and thinking of you all in your church clothes.
I have experienced a similar change of mind about preaching Galatians 5.1-12. I know the whole counsel of God must be preached – but it is also true that some passages are not suitable for thorough discussion when children are present. The rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, or the attempted gang rape of the angels in Genesis 19 are two examples. The dual incest between Lot and his daughters that ends Genesis 19 is another. I have had the same feeling about Galatians 5.1-12 because its topic is circumcision, it mentions foreskins, and it ends with Paul wishing his opponents would castrate themselves.
Paul is agitated in the whole book of Galatians. Many Jewish-Christians are preaching that Jesus is not sufficient – that one must keep the laws of Moses as well as follow Christ. They have influenced Peter, James – even Barnabas (Galatians 2.11-21). Paul’s agitation reaches full pitch in Galatians 5.1-12. His sentences are shorter, his phrasing emphatic, his vocabulary extreme. He ends the passage in verse 12 by saying, “I would that those who are troubling you would castrate themselves” – not the kind of self-expression we want to encourage in small children.
But nowadays our children have heard much worse on the political commercials that ran all day during the recent election. Beyond that, we seem to be at ease with hateful, vulgar speech. Not that we Christians engage in such (although if you do on your Facebook page, or twitter account I’ll never know…..until some calls me to snitch on you), but we seem to accept such from our public figures as a matter of course. I just don’t think the language of Galatians 5.1-12 will seem so shocking anymore. So, I have gone ahead and decided to preach on the passage next week.
The passage is important. Our Sunday sermon series this year is “Faith, Hope, and Love”, and this passage is likely the earliest use of the three together. Galatians 5.1-12 is about Faith versus Works, and Love versus Law. I am anxious to explore it with you, but I must admit I am ambivalent about the new-found freedom I feel to share this passage on a Sunday morning.
When we Christians become accustomed to coarseness - when we support it with our silence, or our vocal approval – we communicate to our children that such coarseness is acceptable. This, more than anything else that has transpired during the political season, makes me worried and sad.
Jesus clearly equates hate-speech with violence (Matthew 5.21-26). Paul constantly insists that our speech edify (Colossians 3.17, 4.6; Ephesians 4.29 – whatever else his speech in Galatians does, it edifies), and Peter tells us that even when we are interrogated by the authorities we need to answer with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3.15). The New Testament establishes a standard we need to keep – and to apply.
The question that has stirred the hearts of man since the dawn of time begs, why am I here? It's a natural, innate, and necessary question to ask. Mark Twain is known to have said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why." While Twain held no semblance of faith as far as Christianity is concerned, he did seem to capture the essence of what we as Christians need to ask themselves. To the Christian, “finding out why” we are here is critical because finding out why suggests the reason for our existence. So what is the reason? The reason, in short, is to discover the talents given to us by God, and use them in the service of His kingdom.
Jack Swigert was the command module pilot on the failed Apollo 13 mission. If you remember from the movie of the same name, or from reading the account, Jack was not scheduled to be one of the crew members of that flight. As a precaution to a supposed impending illness, Swigert takes the place of Ken Mattingly. We don't know for sure how the mission might have turned out one way or the other had Mattingly been aboard, but that isn’t what Swigert reflected on. He didn't reflect on the "what ifs" of the situation, he simply acted on the requirement of his talents, and his calling. Jack went on to pursue politics in his home state, cut short by a losing battle with cancer. But before he died he said, "I believe God measures your life. He puts you on earth, gives you certain talents and opportunities, and, I think, you're going to be called to account for those opportunities." He’s right of course but not just because he says so. In fact, it should bring to mind a parable given by Jesus.
In Matt 25:14-30 we find the parable of the hidden talents. Lest anyone miss the point of the parable, it is not a lesson on finances. It is about the responsibility, and our accountability of the God given talents we have to serve in His kingdom. God put no limits on the growth of His kingdom. Jesus said the fields were ripe and that the only thing lacking was the harvesters. That means the only restrictions that exist are the ones we put on the kingdom by not using our talents; by burying them in the ground. We all should reflect on the two responses given in that parable: "Well done good and faithful servant," vs "You wicked and slothful servant." We have talents, we have a purpose, and it is the calling of Christ Jesus to put those talents to work.
Not all of us have the same talents. Were I to be called upon for my carpentry skills for example, we would all quickly revert to the tents of the first century. I’ll leave that calling for Chuck Leasure. It is rather the combined effort of all Christians, which is why all of us serving together is so important. We should remember that service is not participating in worship or attending bible study only, but also serve as reminders and motivators to “spur one another on toward love and good works” Heb 10:24. A sign in the parking lot of a church building in Florida, viewable only as you leave the parking lot reads, "You are now entering the mission field." I've always liked that. It's a reminder that leaving building marks the beginning of our service.
One of the most important reasons we have Care Groups is to seek out and encourage the use of our God given talents in His service whether individually or as a group. It is not a responsibility given only to a few - it is everyone's responsibility to find out what their talents are and how best to use them. Make the effort in 2017 to join a Care Group, to participate. Participate for the fellowship, certainly for the food, but mostly – to serve. Read the parable of the talents, remember the talents to which you've been entrusted, invest them, bring back to the Lord more than you were given!
Let us imagine a woman named Mariam. She lives in the first half of the first century. Past her prime, Mariam has a painful, disfiguring condition that cripples her. She lives in Capernaum. She hears that, just the day before, a young preacher from Nazareth stood in the doorway of a house owned by a fisherman named Peter and healed every kind of disease. Two grandsons carry her to this Peter’s house early in the morning. A crowd of the infirm has already started to form. Everyone is so hopeful. Jesus is sent for. All morning they wait. As morning passes into afternoon the crowd grows restless, then desperate, then defeated. Jesus never comes (Mark 1.29-39).
Months later Mariam is taken to Jerusalem to the Pool of Bethesda. The legend is that sometimes an angel stirs the waters, and the first one into the pool is healed. The crowd around the pool is just as large and helpless as the one at Peter’s doorway. Day after day they wait. Any time there is the smallest ripple in the water a macabre scramble of the invalids into the pool ensues. One day Jesus appears. Mariam thinks she will finally receive the healing she sought in Capernaum. Jesus approaches the crowd, but looks at only one man. Jesus tells the man, “Get up, pick up your bed and walk!” The man does. Then Jesus goes away without even talking to anyone else. He just leaves them all there by the pool with their pain and hopelessness (John 5.1-14).
Later, when Mariam hears the good news about Jesus she has no doubt He did perform all the miracles they report. She welcomes the message of salvation, and accepts it. Someone with such power must be from God. Something, however, is missing. Maybe it is trust, affection….love. She knows in her head the message is true but her experience keeps her from fully giving her heart to Him. And what of the family who have prayed and cared for her so long – will they ever believe the One who disappointed them so deeply?
* Mariam is a product of our imagination, but she could have existed. The events are exactly as described in scripture. Jesus walks away from a crown of people in need of healing in Mark 1, and walks away from a crowd of invalids at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5. Mariam’s disappointments are not unique. They are universal. We have all prayed for healing that did not come (and healing that did – let us not forget that). We have prayed for others more fervently that we have ever prayed for ourselves. Some for whom we have prayed the hardest we lost anyway. Does this mean we should doubt – if not His power, then His love, His goodness?
Martha does not think so. In John 11 Martha sends Jesus word that her brother is seriously ill. Jesus stays put until Lazarus has died - explaining to his disciples (and to the reader) that He intends to raise Lazarus from the dead. He gives Martha no explanation. In John 11.20-27, Martha meets Jesus on the outskirts of Bethany. Her first words are: “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” Jesus, before raising her brother, or even hinting that He would, asks her if she still believes: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die – do you believe this.”
Her response is quick and sure: “Yes Lord, I believe completely that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” Despite her questions her faith is absolute – she believes with her head and her heart. Her faith is not disappointed. Such faith never is. Jesus has not come to Bethany to cure an illness, but to defeat death.
We must remember this. We must remember that questions and disappointments need not destroy faith. Finally, we must remember that faith found only in the head – faith that lacks a beating heart – isn’t faith at all.
Why don’t you listen to me?
I talk to you day by day but you won’t listen.
How long does it take you to do something?
Does this seem fair to you?
Listen to me!
Don’t always be so hard on me.
How long will you forget about me – forever?
You’ve hurt me deeply.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want….
My soul waits in Silence for God alone; my salvation is from Him.
My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You…
My soul is like a weaned child on his mother’s lap
I will give thanks to You with all my heart.
These things David says to God are honest and bare. David praises and complains, makes promises and threats, cries out in elation and despair. The thing David doesn’t do is stop talking. David never gives God the cold shoulder. This is the lesson we need to take from the things David says to God.
I don’t believe anything in human literature compares with the psalms of David. They represent the pinnacle of poetic expression. No other writer has been so brutally honest about his feelings, his flaws, his vulnerabilities. No one has marshaled such direct, powerful, beautiful language to express these honest emotions. Nothing in our own hymnbook compares. Perhaps it was when, as a shepherd boy, he spent long hours with only his harp and his God as companions that he grew so willing and articulate. Willing and articulate he became, and we continue to be blessed.
We are blessed because he shows us God listens to whatever we have to say. We need not worry about being less skilled in self-expression as David – the Holy Spirit makes sure we communicate clearly – even when there are no words for our feelings (Romans 8.26). Whatever we have to say to God we must say – because by communicating we hold on. What we can-not do is clam-up. To stop communicating is to kill a relationship. We know this. We have to keep communicating. If David tells us anything in his Psalms, he tells us – “Talk to Him!”
Indeed. Talk to Him – say what it is you have to say – but say it! Talk to Him.
Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17)
*Psalms 4,5,6,7,13,22,35 and 39
**Psalms 23,62,63,69,131, and 138
There is a legend that Gordius, founder of Phrygia, lashed his chariot (or was it an ox-cart?) to a pole with a knot so intricate that only a man great enough to conquer all Asia would be able to untangle it. In 333 B.C. (the story goes) Alexander the Great solved the problem of the Gordian knot by slicing it in half with his battle sword. Since then a “Gordian knot” has become synonymous with any intractable problem. Alexander’s solution has become an advertisement for swift, decisive action.
Phrygia possessed just one Gordian knot. We Americans seem to be in possession of a barrel-full. The issues of race, class, inequity, due process, immigration, law and order, rampant crime, and corruption seem to become more complicated with time. Police shootings (by which I mean police shooting civilians, and civilians shooting police) may once have been under-reported. They are not under-reported now, and the mayhem produced seems to grow exponentially.
I recently reread Larry McMurtry’s book on massacres in the American West*. Some of those mass killings were the result of evil plans carried out by evil men – the Mountain Meadows Massacre for instance, or the Massacre of the Blackfeet at Marais River. Some were led by unrepentant racists – like Major Chivington’s massacre of peace Indians at Sand Creek, or John C. Fremont’s massacre of Maidu at the Sacramento River. Some massacres - the Fetterman massacre and the Little Bighorn - were the result of a toxic brew of hubris and stupidity. Most of the massacres, and the worst of them (Washita and Wounded Knee) were caused by fear.
Young men, frightened, a thousand miles or more from home, cold, tired, stressed, often acting on false information surround a village of Sioux, or Cheyenne, or Paiute and during a tense standoff something happens – a horse bolts, or a gun goes off and then everything explodes into violence. When the smoke clears the bodies of women, children, and the aged litter the prairie.
Fear was the cause of the majority of, and the worst of the massacres in the American West. The fear itself was reasonable. Many of the Plains Indians were formidable, often merciless enemies. But much of the time reasonable fear produced unreasonable acts.
In the July 13th Washington Post there was a story covering the much-discussed study by economist Roland Fryer, of fatal shootings by police. He found, much to his own surprise, that although racism played a role in many of the shootings, fear was the primary culprit. In high crime neighborhoods officers were quick to draw a weapon, and quick to feel threatened. These two responses to a reasonable fear made unreasonable force seem perfectly reasonable in the moment. This finding seems to describe a problem even more intractable. Racism is never reasonable, but fear often is.
If the issue is fear, we Christians alone have a response. There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear because fear involves punishment. The one who fears is not perfected in love (I John 4.18). I didn’t say we Christians have an answer – only a response – we still live in a sinful, decaying world (I John 2.17). But when we love selflessly, when we are involved in our communities as loving Christians (instead of griping about them and cocooning ourselves), we plant seeds that will bear fruit (James 3.13-18). This is the only response that will mitigate the level of fear which has tied this knot. Maybe then our communities will not demand more of our officers that they ought.
Love requires a significant investment of resources, energy, and time. We prefer Alexander’s strategy – we prefer to hack through a problem in one irritated stroke. Most problems are not so easily solved.
The earliest version of the Gordian knot story has Alexander cutting into the knot in order to find the ends, so he could begin the intricate job of untying it. This is more like real life. This is something we can do – especially since love provides the knife with which to begin.
*Oh What a Slaughter, Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, 2005.