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.
Today is Pentecost, often referred to as the ‘Birthday of the Church’. When we celebrate it, we get to relive, and in some ways, experience the mystery and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The text tells us that that many of those gathered were amazed and astonished, perplexed even at what was happening. Others thought that the group was drunk on wine.
The image of the Holy Spirit resting on the faithful, like tongues of fire, is mysterious enough, but add in the group’s ability to understand each other regardless of their native language, and the mysterious becomes miraculous.
There aren’t too many sightings of the Holy Spirit these days, at least, not like this. No blaring headlines or breaking news segments to tell us that a group of people were overcome by the Holy Spirit for a time, and suddenly could understand each other regardless of their language.
I’m sure the Holy Spirit is upon us at times: many can sense the presence, even without the tongues of fire, just as many sense the absence of the Spirit.
Last year, I preached about Pentecost, and I suggested that one universal way to let others know we care is to use our smiles. Quoting David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner, from the song Wooden Ships, I suggested that ‘if you smile at me, I will understand, ‘cuz that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language’.
In looking back over the last year, however, I’m starting to get the sense that a smile might not be enough. I may not have been wrong, but what I know now is that a smile, a universal sign of sister- and brotherhood isn’t enough. The world as we know it needs something a lot stronger than a smile between strangers.
Given the kind of violence and hate the world has witnessed in the last year, a smile for a neighbor, or a stranger, or even an enemy isn’t even a band-aid on the wounds inflicted by the forces of evil.
Some of you know that I was in Buffalo in the aftermath of the racist killings at the Tops Market on the eastside, to support the pastors of those communities, and to support the work of the wider church seeking to help in any way possible.
I met the United Church of Christ Associate General Minister for Justice and the Local Church, Rev. Traci Blackmon there, and together, we visited the site, now a memorial to those who lost their lives, attended prayer vigils, and a free concert for the families of the slain. We also established a working group of pastors in the area who will receive resources from the United Church of Christ Neighbors in Need fund to try and address some of the systemic ills that plague areas like the East-side of Buffalo.
In giving some remarks at one of the prayer vigils, Rev. Blackmon told us, and I paraphrase here, ‘there is a lot of hate in the world, so we’re going to have to love the hell out of this place!’
So there it is: a smile isn’t going to cut it in these hateful and violent times. Smile is nice, non-threatening, but under-powered for what we need. What we are going to do, is find a way to love the hell out this place, because love is so much more powerful than hate, and so much more powerful than what a smile suggests.
In the short-term, we need to love every family touched by violence. Love them as they mourn, and as they heal, as best as they are able. But we can’t stop there. We’re also going to have to love the hell out of those who would use violence to achieve their goals. More on that in a bit.
In order to maximize our resources, in order to bring extravagant, unconditional, and universal love to bear upon the hate in this world, we have to start close to home. And by close to home, I mean that we have to be able to love ourselves first, before we can love others.
By loving the people God created us to be, we can build a strong love foundation. So if any of us struggle with not being able to love ourselves, I say this: if God loves us, can we find it in ourselves to love ourselves too?
And if so, then we can turn our love to those closest to us. Our family, and friends. Letting them know we love them may seem redundant, but really, who doesn’t love to hear that they are loved? Once we become accustomed to telling others we love them, we can also work on showing them. How do our actions coincide with our words? Can we be doing more to bring them in alignment? If our actions don’t broadcast our love, then we’re not doing it right, and we have to go back to the beginning.
And once our actions match our love for others, it’s time to start spreading that love around, to neighbors, to strangers, to anyone who is in need. In the context of our worshiping community, that means remembering to always have our mission aligned with our love. If someone were to ask who we love, we can show them our mission work, and say our aim is to love the hell out this place.
If we have come to a place where we love ourselves as individuals, and we love those closest to us, and we love our neighbors, and our actions match our love, then it will be time to really dig deep. You probably already know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
One of the more challenging things Jesus asks us to do is to love our enemies. No matter how you define enemy, literal or symbolic, our journey as faithful children of God includes loving our enemies.
Loving those who mean to do harm, those who hate others because of the color of their skin, or because of who they love, or because of what they believe. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we can’t hate the hate out of others, we can only love the hate out of them.
Here’s the thing: we have to love the hell out of those who would use violence to express their self-hatred, we have love the hell out of those who would use violence to express their racism, their hetero-sexism, their ableism, whatever their misguided philosophy or manifesto.
In order to love the hell out of this place, we will have to bring our resources to bear in order to get help for those who hate. And, we’re going to have to love them enough to keep the weapons of destruction out of their hands.
Our collective resolve as a country, as a group of communities, can’t be based on hatred for the violence done in the name of racism or any other ‘ism’, it’s going to have to be based on love for others.
I alluded to this in the Sacred Seeds earlier, but in our love for others, can we please find a way to love our children, to love the vulnerable, even if it means that we sacrifice some of our freedoms? How many of us here, in person or online, really need an assault weapon and high capacity magazine? I’m not looking to get into an argument about how this is a slippery slope on the right to bear arms, I’ve already made up my mind about this: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
How many of us are in a well regulated militia? Military or law enforcement? Those are the people who get to keep and bear arms. Not 18 year olds who are barely old enough to vote, much less have access to assault weapons and Kevlar vests.
Can we love enough to bring our resources to bear on this issue? Can we find the resolve to not only love potential perpetrators out of their hate, their self-hatred, and their hate of others, but can we also love our children enough to prevent potential perpetrators from having access to efficient weapons designed and manufactured for only one purpose: to kill?
I think we can. It starts with being able to love ourselves as God has made us, with all of our shortcomings, with all of our foibles. And it continues with our love of our family and close friends, and continues still with our love of neighbor and love of stranger. The ultimate test of our use of universal love, the love we remember on Pentecost Sunday, is our ability to love our enemies, to love the world God created so much, that we are willing to sacrifice heard-earned resources, and maybe even some of constitutionally guaranteed rights in order to make the world a safer place.
If there was a time when a simple smile signified acceptance, gentleness, and safety, well and good. But I believe that we need something stronger than acceptance, gentleness, and safety in these times: we need love.
We need extravagant, assertive, insistent, unwavering, and unconditional love, because it’s only with these gifts that we will be able to love the hell out of this place. Let’s get started. Amen.