(A sermon for July 7, 2019, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Galatians 6:1-16)
(Note: An audio version of this message can be found here )
One of the things I’ve come to realize over the course of 35-plus years (!) in this work is that it’s pretty much a rare occasion when your identity is not wrapped up in being a minister!
Not that this is a problem for me; truly, I think you know that I love what I do, and that this calling to ministry is part and parcel of who I am! That said, however, I must confess that there have been moments when I’d have just as soon remained anonymous: like when you’re all dirty and grubby and tired from having worked outside all day and you’re rushing to get to the post office before it closes, only to be met in line by a perfect stranger who recognizes you as a local pastor, and wants to know all about your church; or like up when you’ve been invited to a marshmallow roast with your child and you end up being cornered by two men from another church in another town who want you to settle a horrible dispute they’ve been having in their congregation about how much the organist should be paid (true story); and let’s not even talk about those well-meaning people who wish to pick your brain about end times, the virgin birth and where Cain got his wife… all while standing in the frozen food aisle (also a true story)!
I think I speak for a lot of my colleagues in ministry when I say to you that this is why we tend to keep a low profile while we’re on vacation! And, I know, we’re not alone in this need for some selective anonymity: police officers, teachers, doctors and all kinds of people in the public eye all have the same experience. All I know is that being identified as a “clergy type” just sort of goes with the territory!
By the same token, however, I’ve also discovered over the years that while you may be able to take the boy out the church it’s hard to take the church out of the boy! I remember a camping trip in the White Mountains with Lisa and the kids; and I’m walking my daughter Sarah – who was just “itty-bitty” at the time (!) – to the campground’s lavatory facilities. It’s well after dark, so we’re walking our way down the road with our flashlights shining and out of nowhere comes this other little girl, not much older than Sarah, who had somehow gotten separated from her mother in the darkness and was now unsure of where she was and how to get back to her campsite.
With a shaky voice, she asked if she might please walk with us, because she’d gotten lost and now she was pretty scared. Of course you can, I replied, and in my best Daddy voice, I told her, don’t worry, we’ll get you back to your Mom; after all, you know, it’s really easy to get turned around in the dark! And that must have been all the assurance she needed because then the little girl opened up and told us her entire life story; probably sharing much more than her parents would want me to know! But that was okay; because as far as that little girl was concerned we were old and trusted friends! It ended up that since her mother was also busy looking, we managed to bring the two of them back together fairly easily. A scared child was home again safe and sound, a mother’s panic was replaced by relief and gratitude, and in the process perfect strangers had become caring friends.
Now was this an “official” pastoral activity of great religious significance? No… truth be told, that night I was probably in more of a “Daddy Mode” than in “Pastor Mode!” But thinking back on it now, I realize that in the truest sense it was ministry; in this case, quite literally a ministry of love and light to the lost. It was a small moment; but one in which faith and kindness came into play in a real and meaningful way.
Christian ministry is not so much a job as it is a vocation; a way of life and living and love. In other words, if you’re a minister of Jesus Christ, you’re always on duty, whether you’re “on the job” or on vacation; or for that matter, even when you’re waiting in line at Market Basket! But lest you think this only relates to those of us who work in the church or perhaps have an “Rev” in front of their names, understand that this applies to you as well; it applies to each one here because as Christians, ministry is a vocation that belongs to each one of us. It’s a calling that touches all the other tasks that provide the ebb and flow of our daily lives, no matter what it is that we do in earning a living, raising our families, making choices and setting priorities for ourselves; ministry is involved in everything that you and I go through in our days so that it might be lived with some sense of dignity and integrity.
Actually, when you come down to it, it’s all about “reap[ing] whatever you sow” in the everyday of life, “…doing what is right… [and] work[ing] for the good of all.” It’s about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens,” not as mere philosophy but as a way of living. It’s about true forgiveness and the restoration of others “in a spirit of gentleness.” It’s about viewing those around us not as strangers or mere acquaintances, but brothers and sisters to be loved and cared for in the same manner as Jesus Christ has loved us. It’s about bringing ourselves to people who need to hear the good news of God’s kingdom; by our words, yes, but more essentially by the example of our very lives.
It’s true ministry; it’s what’s sometimes referred to in Christian theology as “the priesthood of all believers;” and, friends, it’s why we’re here.
In our text for this morning Paul is seeking to teach the Galatians, in essence, how they should act toward one another. These new Christians at Galatia, you see, had a bent toward, shall we say, “scriptural correctness;” that is, they concerned themselves with staying wholly true to “the law of Christ,” almost to the point of becoming like the Pharisees. In other words, they were devoted to doing everything right, spiritually speaking, but they were doing it arrogantly and without any kind of sympathy for others, and were isolating themselves from the rest of the world. So the question here is, how much is too much? When does staying true to the gospel and to God’s law – as important and essential as that is – get in the way of true faith and risk mocking God in the process?
What Paul seeks to remind them is that our Christian duty – our vocation, our job – is not just to ourselves but also to others. We are called to bear one another’s burdens; we are supposed to help those who have gotten lost in regards to their lives and faith, so that we might gently lead them home. And we’re to be generous with others; open and giving, without making everything we do an exercise in self-indulgence and false piety. You are to model your life in true adherence to God’s law: in the words of Sarah Henrich of Lutheran Seminary, you are to “do what is given you to do on behalf of your neighbor, as God on behalf of God’s people did what needed to be done for them.” Because make no mistake, “God is not mocked.” Or, as The Message says it, “No one makes a fool of God.” After all, says Paul, we do reap whatever we sow. “What a person plants, he will harvest.” (The Message, again) “The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others – ignoring God! – harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds!” But, Paul goes on to say, “the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.”
And isn’t that what the kingdom is all about? And isn’t that why we’re here?
The late Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” He was referring to the massive effect of media on our collective lives; how what we see on a television screen, or in the movies or in the papers ends up being what a great many people assume to be real about life, living and world (a theory, I dare say, that though posited in the 1960’s has never been more true than it is in 2019). But may I suggest to you that’s it’s also true as regards the church and its mission… our mission. Friends, we are called by Jesus himself to be about the business of God’s Kingdom; but if we truly want to do that, then we need to be living, acting and being as though that Kingdom has already come in its fullness; indeed, we are the medium that is the message! We need to live a life that shows forth the truth that love is the only truly redemptive power; we have to order our priorities as persons and a people so that the others will not come to assume that the predominant culture is one of manipulation, violence and neglect. If you and I are to proclaim Christ as the Lord of life, if we ever expect to change the world by Christ’s love, then we have to live unto the change that Christ has made in each of us!
Let me ask you something this morning: can you love your neighbor? And I don’t mean in a greeting card kind of way, either; I mean can you really love your neighbor; are you able to do it? Can you, for instance, love that person – and you know who they are – who just seems to go out of their way to be a thorn in your side? Can you love that person who’s been very unkind; who’s been out there talking and telling lies about you behind your back? Can you love the one who’s hurt you, whose actions have made your life difficult? Can you love the one with whom you disagree… vehemently? Can you love them even when they haven’t loved you; can you love those who need that love the most? Can you work “for the good of all?”
To quote Sarah Henrich once again, “Such a life needs graciousness, perseverance, a constant cheerful sowing, and a refusal to judge who is worthy of help and who not.” And we should know that it’s most decidedly not easy. But if we hear what Paul is saying here (so emphatically, in fact, that Paul makes a point of writing it in large letters by his own hand!); if we know the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we also know that this is the life that’s expected of us as his disciples, and we must “not grow weary in doing what is right.”
It’s why we’re here.
Sometimes you and I succumb to the temptation of believing that we can somehow compartmentalize our faith into a specific time and place; to keep it contained right here within these walls to be used only for a couple hours on a Sunday morning. But that’s not the ministry to which we’re called by Christ; and it’s not where the Spirit leads us, which is out these doors and into our homes, our community and our world, proclaiming good news and working in every opportunity we have for the good of all. We have this ministry in Christ’s name; and even now it’s unfolding in the times, the places and the people of our lives.
And who knows what may happen in our ministry, beloved? Frederick Beuchner puts it this way: “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people… some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… the soreheads and slobs of the world, the ones the world has hopelessly crippled… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.”
Beloved, let us never grow weary in doing what is right, for “at the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.” It’s why we’re here, and it’s the vocation, the ministry we share as believers and as the church of Jesus Christ.
May we be blessed in that ministry, and ever and always, may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry