This morning’s Epistle lesson is from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians. He was writing to a group of churches that he had established, and, like some of his other letters to other churches, this one addresses some of the conflicts that were tearing the young churches apart.
Likely written 45 to 55 years after Jesus ascended to heaven, it speaks to the churches internal disagreements that were apparently sparked by some traveling missionaries, who had taught that Gentiles wishing to become Christian, and even the churches looking to welcome them should put into place some of the traditional Jewish rites like circumcision, food observances, Sabbath, and festivals.
The section we’ve read today is the final section of a fairly short letter, and it summarizes and encourages the churches in Galatia to address their conflicts with mutual responsibility. Having made his detailed argument earlier in the letter, Paul uses his concluding words to focus on Jesus, and on our Lord and Savior’s commandment that we love each other as he has loved us.
Although this letter was written to a specific set of churches for a specific reason, one of the miracles of our Holy Scriptures is that we can apply these sacred words to many other areas of our own modern lives. The approach Paul exhorts his churches to take is an approach that we, too, would be wise to take, should we ever encounter serious conflict in the church, in our community, or in our family.
Now, those of us gathered in person and on-line can count ourselves blessed that there are not existential threats looming in our worshiping community. We aren’t torn as to how we might go forward in faith. Our Mission, Worship, Congregational Life, and combined leadership are all of one accord, and since we began working together to be one worshiping community, our time has been marked by a deep, mutual respect and an abiding love; for each other, for God, and for Jesus. God is good.
Even though both congregations may have experienced serious conflict in the past, and that is not uncommon for churches, our present is relatively conflict-free.
On the other hand, the conflicts that have arisen in our political and cultural lives is a clear and present danger to the very foundational principles upon which our country has been founded. There are only a few times in our nation’s history when it’s people have been so polarized, so divided, so entrenched.
This most recently concluded Supreme Court Term has simply thrown gasoline onto a fire that was already burning with red and blue flames over the legitimacy of our last presidential election.
Vilifying, demonizing, and ridiculing each other over what freedom means, our country is as divided as the churches in Galatia were back in Paul’s day. And while my own personal understanding of freedom is that we can’t mandate how another believes, or what sacred text they must adhere to, it seems to me that Paul has a pretty good strategy for lowering the temperature on what ails us these days.
For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, Paul’s advice to the churches in Galatia is clear: if we detect any of our neighbors in a transgression, we should treat them with a spirit of gentleness.
That’s right, as angry and as frustrated and as confused as we may be, no matter which side of the culture wars we stand, we are called to treat the one’s who oppose us with a spirit of gentleness, with respect. In fact, Paul would say that we should be working with those with whom we disagree with mutual respect and care, because our very existence as a community depends upon it.
That doesn’t mean we can’t protest, that doesn’t mean we can’t vote for our political leaders that we believe will lead us best, that doesn’t mean we can’t resist unjust oppression, in all its forms. It means that when we encounter each other in those activities, treating each other with a spirit of gentleness will help us focus on what’s really important.
I know some of you will say that in our current climate, a spirit of gentleness is inadequate in the face of such intense disagreement, but what seems to be fueling our entrenched partisanship is our finger pointing and our dismissal of those with whom we disagree as evil.
How is it that we, as a faith community, seem to be able to put aside our private, political differences, and focus on being God calls us to be? I mean, we can’t all believe the same things, we must represent the political diversity that is present in our country today, and yet, here we are, today, focused on God’s Holy Word, intent on worshiping together, sharing a sacred meal together, and we seem to be able to leave our political and cultural differences at the door. Paul would be happy about that.
So what are we to do, in this climate of burning partisanship, when the foundational concept of keeping our faith separate from our politics is under attack?
Can we take what we do here, and apply it to our wider culture? It’s hard, because here, we put that stuff away in order to worship. In the wider culture, the voices can be public, strident, insistent, and often caustic, and there isn’t a unified focus at all.
Can we apply our faith principles to how we approach these political and cultural clashes? Of course we can! We can seek comfort from the one who calls us on the way, and who has given us a spirit of gentleness as a guide along the way.
Violence, either physical, emotional, or verbal, flies in the face of what Paul, and ultimately Jesus, calls us to be. Even if those whom we oppose don’t reciprocate, striving for mutual respect and using the spirit of gentleness as a guide may be our best tool for affecting change.
While we need to resist the powers that oppress, and while we need to oppose the acts that strip freedoms away from the vulnerable, Paul tells us that we must take care not to get carried away in the rhetoric of argument. That when we approach conflict with the intent of using a spirit of gentleness, it will have its own rewards, just as those who don’t will have their own consequences.
But even as all this is going up in flames, the real victims are those who do not have a voice, those who do not have access to power, or financial resources, who have impossible decisions to make in their lives.
I know it sounds naïve, I know some of you could say that this is an unrealistic and ineffective approach to such big conflicts. I know that some will come to realize that Jesus took the ‘resistance with a spirit of gentleness’ approach to the culture wars of his day, and look where it got him.
But if our resistance to oppression, if our resistance to the systemic ills in our government and society, and if our resistance to those in power who would seek to limit or even eliminate freedoms from some of our neighbors, if they aren’t based on a spirit of gentleness, if they aren’t based in love, and instead are based on anger and hate, well, we’ve then become that which we despise.
Katherine Lee Bates, author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, had a spirit of gentleness, and a wider view of our country. In her refrain from the second stanza of her hymn, she writes: America! America! God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
A gentle way of saying that as a country, we aren’t perfect, and that we need God to help us get better.
These are big issues, and I will admit that I feel wholly inadequate in trying to address them theologically or biblically. But our faith has a powerful role to play in the way that we live. Our faith has a role in the way that we resist oppression, and the abuse of power. And in spite of the intensity of the conflict, Paul’s advice to a church in conflict is that they take on a spirit of gentleness when addressing one with whom they disagree, even if the ones with whom they disagree won’t join them.
Our country is best when its glorious diversity is celebrated, not squelched. Our country is best when its freedoms are respected, not rolled back. Our country is best when its citizens act on its behalf with the very best of intentions, based on the very best of their own faith impulses or philosophy.
May God mend our every flaw, and may the spirit of gentleness guide our journey that as we live our faith lives, we become hope for the hopeless, comfort for the uncomfortable, joy for the joyless, and a voice for the vulnerable. These are the things Paul would consider important. And so should we. Amen.