Highlights for the month of June:
Pentecost, June 9th: Wear Red to celebrate the birthday of the church!
June 16th: Joint worship & potluck with IdL
June 23rd: Vocation Sunday
Tuesdays, 1pm Book Discussion on Rachel Held Evans' book "Inspired: Slaying giants, walking on water, and loving the Bible again."
Galatians 5:19-25, 6:7-10
July 7, 2019
Humble Discipleship, Humble Citizenship
The Sunday around the 4th of July – that is, the American holiday of our declaration of independence from England – Is always a tricky one to preach. I’m aware how many folk come from other countries; how many folk have worked hard and long to become citizens of this country; how many folk have served in our military and government; and how for people of faith, we carry citizenship in the kingdom of God and citizenship in a particular country. Right now, faith and patriotism are considered by many to at least overlap, maybe even be identical. To put it simply, many believe good Christians are supposed to support their country. I don’t know how it is in other places, to follow Jesus and carry citizenship in a particular country, and I don’t know what it is like for you, regardless of where you call home, but I know what it is like for me. In facebook parlance, it’s complicated, my relationship with my country and my faith. Maybe it is for you, too.
The apostle Paul had established these little churches in Galatia– communities committed to following the way of Christ – and everything seemed to be going so well. He headed off to the next town to establish more churches, and that’s when everything started to fall apart. It got complicated. These were mixed churches – Mixed meaning some folk were coming from the Jewish tradition and culture, accustomed to temple rituals and laws, and other folk were Gentiles, non-Jews, accustomed to pagan rituals and laws. In opposition to what Paul taught when he was with them, some from the Jewish tradition started insisting that to follow Jesus meant to follow his faith, that is, the Mosaic Law – which maybe wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except that it included circumcision of all men. A huge uproar ensued, as you might imagine, and now it was threatening the survival of the whole church.
Here’s some of what Paul wrote in his letter to the divided churches in Galatia, beginning with the end of chapter 5:19-25, ending with chapter 6:7-10:
The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use, casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you, as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.
But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and desires. If we live by the spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.
Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit.
Let us not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.
May God bless our hearing and understanding of this word. So, the new community’s relationship between the way of Christ and how they’ve always practiced their faith, their relationship to Paul and their relationship to these other leaders: It’s complicated.
One thing Paul makes clear in this letter – We’re all in relationship – With ourselves, with each other, with God, with scripture. Our actions, our attitudes, our decisions, affect the world around us. And when we are driven by selfish motives, we can head down some bad roads. Bad for us, bad for those we love, bad for the whole community.
But Paul isn’t saying that it’s bad to have those longings. It’s not that the desires themselves are wrong – But that when we don’t investigate what’s really going on inside us, we are led sorrowfully and massively and destructively astray from God’s call and God’s Spirit.
There are all kinds of desires of the flesh, or selfish desires we could talk about, but in keeping this a G-rated sermon appropriate for all audiences, let’s talk about our desire for cake. Cake can be our stand-in for all sorts of other things. Our brain wants cake; we grab a piece of cake. Maybe it’s our first piece; maybe our 5th piece; and maybe as you are enjoying your cake, somewhere there’s a little tiny tickle of a voice heckling you: “Cake isn’t good for you! You’ve eaten enough cake! You are an awful person for wanting cake! You’re so weak, you can’t even walk away from cake! Fine, go ahead and eat that cake. You have no will power, no self control. You’re a bad bad person.” And then, maybe, feeling horrible anyway, you reach for another piece of cake, and slink off guilty and shame-faced.
You know what that little voice rarely says? “O sweetie – Why do you want that cake? What do you think that cake will do for you?” And if by chance you hear that voice, a loud crashing giant shows up and yells, “I don’t know, I just want cake!”
Paul is reminding us we get into trouble when we try to satisfy our deepest longings with idols – that is, with cake – With junk food trying to pass itself off as healthy and satisfying. Those early, early followers of Jesus – of course they weren’t arguing about actual cake. Their cake was who was right, what was wrong, and who got to decide what makes a good disciple. Their cake was insisting everyone should walk the exact same path. Somehow, following the law, and circumcision, and being right, and making everyone else toe the line, became more important than the kingdom of God.
It’s so obvious to us, how misguided they were. But it’s because we’re blind to all the cake in our lives. Wandering the aisles at my grocery store the other day, I noticed a bag of Cheetos – You know, that food that isn’t really food? What are Cheetos made out of - something fried and crunchy and salty and orange and delicious. Okay, but this bag of Cheetos said in big letters, “All natural! Gluten-free! Low fat!” The bag practically screamed “HEALTHY!” without coming out and saying it. Really?
When our souls are hungry, or afraid, or worried, or sad, or lonely, or grieving or suffering – We reach for what claims will fix us, especially in the short term, like right now, this minute. Give me that cake! Those early followers were wrestling with how to fix their anxieties. To follow in the way of Jesus was risky. They would lose friends and business connections and status in the community. So they’d better get it right. Because getting it right will make them less anxious about these risks they are taking.
And Paul is suggesting that when we do that – When we’re suffering, or scared, worried, anxious, sad, lonely; and we plunge into that cake – That is, into partying and drug use and idolatry, and carousing : All that is keeping us from the kingdom of God. Instead, follow the Spirit, whose voice is, dang it, so much quieter and subtler than the hungry giant crashing around our heads. “I don’t care what’s going on! I just want cake!”
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what our particular “cake” is. But here’s a thought experiment. THIS IS JUST A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Everyone know the difference between a suggestion and a thought experiment? Okay, good. This is NOT a suggestion. This is a thought experiment: What if I were to say, “We’re taking the baptismal font out of the sanctuary.” Does that rouse your internal giant at all? Does that “poke the bear” to use a colloquialism? Or does that giant, that bear, just yawn. Ho hum. And roll over and go back to sleep.
What if we change two words in that sentence. What if I were to say – Now remember, thought experiment, not suggestion: “We’re taking the American Flag out of the sanctuary.” Now what. Notice any change. Did the giant just sit up and go, “Huh? Wait a minute – You can’t take that out of here! It belongs here! What, are you unpatriotic? Don’t you support the troops? Aren’t you grateful you live in a country where you can worship however you want? Are you disrespecting those of us who served our country? Are you doing this because you don’t like the president?”
Hmmmm. Remember: THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. NOT SUGGESTION. I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just curious if your response is different to these two statements. Take a minute, take a breath, and let that giant settle back down if it got all righteously indignant, and then what if we were to check in with the still small voice of the Spirit: “Wow. That was pretty intense. I wonder what’s going on here? Why am I so attached to the flag, and not to the baptismal font? What if it were the communion table and we thought about taking that out? What about the cross? How do I feel then?”
It’s so easy to make just about anything an idol. We can tell by the intensity of our response when something is threatened, when it might be taken from us when we really want it. It can be cake, all-natural Cheetos, even the Bible, or the Lord’s Prayer, or nice clothes or chasing the sales and getting the best deal, or being right. It’s easy to make just about anything an idol – If we understand “idol” as something that soothes the worried lonely anxious giant inside us. Theologian AJ Conyers says this: “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact, all of human life, is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego.”
What does he mean? The same thing Paul is warning us: Don’t be deceived; make no mistake: Everyone’s got longings – It’s what happens next that will determine if we’re experiencing the kingdom of God or we’re sucked deeper into anxiety and fear. How do we respond to those longings? Paul tells us not to settle for cake.
To be human is to long – We long for relationship; we long for assurance; we long to know we matter; but we especially long for suffering to stop and anxiety to disappear, for pain and loneliness to end. When we impatiently try to fill those longings with, as Paul says to the Galatians, “whatever feels good,” we won’t know the gifts of the Spirit. Is it possible that we sometimes succumb to making our country an idol? Patriotism turned to idolatry is nationalism, which puts us on a self-righteous pedestal above everyone else, and shuts down discussion. There’s one right way; every other way is wrong, all questions are signs of disloyalty. But we think - it’s worth it, and we succumb – Because we think it will make us safer and feel better and ease our anxiety about what’s happening in the world. And anyone who dares raise any questions about our country threatens that thin, fragile veneer of safety.
We long for the kingdom of God, especially as Paul describes it: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. Who doesn’t want these? But are we willing to pay the price? Because those come at a cost: The cost is to sit humbly with our fear and worry and suffering, especially when life is complicated and we disagree and there is conflict. It takes sitting quietly, to figure out what we are truly longing for, and not settle for simplistic easy answers, not settle for cake. Just as it is not unfaithful to ask questions of God, of scripture, asking questions of our country and disagreeing with the direction we’re heading is not unpatriotic.
There is no one simple right way to follow Jesus. There is no one right way to carry our dual citizenship – Of this world, and of God’s kingdom. But opening our hearts to the possibilities that we have divided our loyalties, and settled for cake, and the easy answers that claim will ease our pain – That’s a good practice to begin. And coming to worship, gathering at the Lord’s Table, taking communion together, praying together, praying for one another and the world together – It re-orders our divided loyalties. We put our trust again and only in God’s saving love as the only truth that will save us, in Christ, not matter what comes today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.