With a Spirit of Gentleness
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.
Our Hebrew Scripture this morning tells us of the time that the prophet Elijah was threatened by the queen, Jezebel, after he killed all the prophets of Baal. Acting on his love of God, and in this case, being the only prophet for the Creator God, against 450 prophets of Baal, Elijah broke the law, and greatly angered the king and the queen. His life was in danger.
Escaping into the wilderness, Elijah went about a day before he stopped under a broom tree to rest. There, exhausted, scared, and besieged with guilt, he acknowledged that he was ready to die. After asking God to take him, he fell asleep under the tree. But then, and angel woke him with a touch, telling him to get up and eat.
He ate the bread and the water that had been laid there, and went back to sleep. Again, an angel came and woke him, telling him to get up and eat, or else the journey would be too much for him. He ate the bread, and drank the water, and was strengthened for the journey ahead. Bread for the journey.
Every year, 3 of my friends from high school and I rent a cottage on Owasco Lake. There, we reconnect, recharge, and often remember the days of our youth. We have a lot of fun, and enjoy each other’s company now just as much as we did when we were teenagers. We’ve been doing this for over 10 years now.
Each year is slightly different: we visit museums, wineries, AAA baseball games, rent a boat, try a new restaurant. Somehow, last year, as we were planning our trip, one of my friends mentioned that he had been riding his bike a lot, and wondered if some of us might want to try riding around Owasco Lake as one of our activities.
I had not been riding as much as I would have liked, but I was up for the challenge. Once around Owasco Lake is 34 miles. Most of my bike rides are in the 15 to 24 mile range, but I figured if I could do 24 miles, I should be able to do 34 miles, right?
It was late July, and we got up early to get a start on the day, before it became too hot to ride. We each brought two bottles of water, and joked that if it got too difficult, we’d call one of the other two friends to come and get us. As was my custom, I didn’t eat any breakfast that morning, preferring to eat upon my return. We estimated that it would take us just a little bit over 3 hours to make the trip.
Would anybody care to guess what happened to my 59 year old body, 2 hours and 30 minutes into the trip, at the bottom of the biggest hill of the day? I ran out of gas. Not even fumes. I watched my friend pull ahead on the hill in front of me like he had one of those fancy electric motors in his bike, and I had to climb that hill one revolution at a time in the lowest gear, vowing not to walk, or even stop. I didn’t stop, but I was absolutely exhausted when I got back to the cottage. Why? I didn’t take any bread for the journey.
Bread for the journey: if I had just brought a snack, a granola bar, some peanut butter on some bread, if I had had some bread for the journey, I wouldn’t have run out of gas. Lesson learned.
Elijah was on a journey, running for his life. It was an angel that brought him bread and water that told him to eat, twice, or else the journey would be too much. That day on Owasco Lake, left behind on a huge hill, I almost quit. Because I didn’t have any bread for the journey.
Each of us, every one of us, is on a journey. God has us journeying here, or there, different metaphorical places, for different reasons. But there is one important truth we each need to remember, and that is that if we don’t take some bread for the journey, the journey will be too much. And in this day and age, we can’t expect an angel to just leave us some bread and water by our heads as we sleep. No, we will need to take stories like this one from 1st Kings, and take responsibility for our own bread for our own journey.
The human body can only journey so far without fuel. The human spirit can only journey so far without fuel. So what does bread for the journey look like? Well, just as each of our journeys is unique to us, so, too, is the bread we need for those journeys.
Of course, there is the literal understanding of needing to eat in order to function. But we all know that there are also some really important things we do in our lives that help fuel our journey.
Prayer. Meditation. (Which, by the way, are two different things). Relationships. Reading. Singing. Playing an instrument. Laughing. See, the bread for our journeys will be different for each of us, but each of us needs to discern what will work best for our unique circumstances.
Elijah understood how dire his circumstances were. He was ready to let God take him. He confessed several times of his sins. Confession was also part of the bread for his journey. And when he ate of that bread, and drank of that water, he was strengthened for a journey that led him to a very close encounter with God.
This morning’s Epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us that in faith, in our love of Jesus, that in Christ, we are all one. The things that make us unique, or different, don’t matter in Christ. The unique journeys that we are all on don’t matter, only that we are on the sacred journey of life in Christ.
I’m pretty sure none of us is running for our lives, thank God, but the metaphor is still a good one: you and I need bread for the journey, or else the journey will be too much.
Discerning just what kind of bread we need is sacred work. Discerning what our journey is like is sacred work. Following the angel’s instructions and remembering to get up and eat to prepare for our journey is sacred work.
As we continue to journey together as one, worshiping community, we can discern together what kind of bread we need for the journey. For me, it probably includes Sue Britt’s cookies! But the journey that is set before us as a worshiping community will require us to get up and eat, to fuel up, to take responsibility for making sure we are strong enough for what God calls us to do.
But some of that work needs to be done alone, in private, in prayer. Contemplative prayer, where we open our hearts to God to see what God has put there, is different than asking God for healing, or deliverance, or forgiveness. We can only journey so far on an empty stomach. And if we don’t get up and eat, we’ll find that we won’t have enough in the tank at the end of the journey, on the biggest hill of the journey.
As we look ahead to the week to come, and the months to come, and the years to come, we would do well to remember that in our journey in Christ, we are all one. And Christ, in many ways, is our bread for the journey. Even as the path has us following him, he offers us bread and juice in a sacred supper, he offers us refreshing water in our baptisms, he offers us ways to live and love that are consistent with what our Creator God hopes and prays for us.
For Elijah, confession was part of this sacred meal. Perhaps it is for us, too. We know worshiping together must be a part of it, even if there are parts of the worship that do not feed us. That’s ok.
Loving our neighbors enough to share of our hard-earned resources is part of our sacred meal, giving us bread for the journey.
Forgiving those who have caused us harm can be bread for the journey.
Allowing others to fully be and express who God has created them to be can be bread for our journey.
Adding our voices to the joyful noises of worship can be bread for our journey.
My example of riding around Owasco Lake happens to be just one way that I ran out of fuel while on a journey. I’ve done that too many times to count! Each of you may have countless examples of what it feels like to run out of fuel in the middle of a journey. And it’s important to reflect on those times, because this morning, the angel is telling us to get up and eat, or else the journey will be too much.
As much as we hear from the pundits and the prophets of the day that the point is the journey, doesn’t it feel good to arrive at your destination? To have completed a particular journey, and arrived safe and sound? Again, a metaphor for sure, but an important one. Whether it’s the journey of life that we are on, arriving at the end to meet our creator, or a shorter, side journey of life to learn a lesson, or grow in faith, or to teach a lesson to others, if we remember to take some bread and water before we leave, no journey will be too much. We’ll always have enough fuel to make it to our literal or our metaphorical destination. Let’s get up, and eat. We have a journey ahead of us. Amen.
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