Sermon from June 20: Focus Here

Focus Here
Pentecost IV; June 20, 2021
Galatians 6

I learned something interesting this week. Most of those who have been arrested for the insurrection on January 6 did not come from places that you and I may expect. Most are not part of white nationalist organizations. One thing that seems to be common among a majority of those who stormed the Capital: they come from places that are changing demographically. Formerly overwhelmingly white, their communities are now more mixed.

Why would people come from Jerusalem to tell the Christians of Galatia that they had to be circumcised? Last week I reminded you of the scriptural argument, but Paul here says that’s not the reason: “They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side” (v. 13; The Message). Boasting, certainly, may be a factor, but I wonder if they may not have felt threatened: they were afraid of losing control.

Power can be a wonderful thing, when used for good. But when those in power fear losing their power, their actions can be terrifying. They may try to compel Gentile Christians to be circumcised. They may attempt a coup against constitutional government. They may redline neighborhoods, put signs in windows that say, “Help wanted: Irish need not apply.” They may make a show of interviewing women and then hiring only men. They may deny a petition to adopt because the couple is two women. They may pass a law that forbids teaching the truth about the systemic racism in American history.

One way to demonstrate your power is to control others. Control where they are allowed to live and work; control how they live their faith; control what they’re allowed to teach; control the minutiae of their personal behavior. I’m resisting chasing a rabbit down a hole on this one, since the desire and means to control others are pervasive in our society. And as power in government, business, and religion becomes spread among more people, not just among white, heterosexual, middle-class men, some of us rejoice in the growth of freedom and others fear the loss of their control. I told you before of the aging white businessman who sighed into his drink and said to me, “This used to be our country.” Those who stormed the capital on January 6 could have used that as their mantra: “This used to be our country.” And those who went to Galatia and told those Gentiles they had to become Jews in effect were saying, “This used to be our God.”

Paul was one of those Jews: raised as a strict, observant Jew, a Pharisee, and for some time a persecutor of Christians. Then Jesus got to him. Jesus changed his heart and Paul discovered that his God could be everybody’s God, and not on Paul’s terms. Different terms for different people; he could rejoice in his freedom to be a Jew and rejoice in the freedom of others not to be a Jew. That is what I find so appealing about Paul’s attitude in the Book of Galatians. Here in our country, we used to speak of tolerance: we in the majority culture would tolerate that other people were different. Eventually we learned that tolerance isn’t good enough: we started to learn acceptance, to accept difference among people as appropriate and good. But Paul raises it to a higher standard: rejoicing. I am free and you are free and that is wonderful!

That is what I read from his comment in verses 16 and 17: “Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do – submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God – his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!”

All this because Jesus got to him. Jesus showed him that the crucial element in having a life in God is to trust in Jesus Christ to get us through. In a novel I’m reading[1] two old friends are talking about the changes one is making in her life. She expresses surprise about something; and you may be troubled by this, but here goes anyway. She says that she thought her Christian faith would require her to stay married to her abusive, alcoholic husband, but that she found it was her Christian faith that gave her the strength to leave him. Her friend said that she thought many people misplace their focus in Christianity: they focus on the rules everyone is expected to follow, when the more important thing is to trust in Jesus Christ.

Was that friend reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians? God is creating a new thing, always creating a new thing. Will we resist and lament the power we are losing? Or will we rejoice, along with Paul? Yesterday, as you know, was Juneteenth; it has been in the news enough that I don’t think you need me to tell you what Juneteenth is about. Congress has made it a national holiday. How do we react? Do we gripe about it? Or do we rejoice in a holiday that will call our attention not only to the reality of freedom but also the importance of informing people of their freedom? Isn’t that what preaching the Gospel is about? You and I are already free in Christ; the preacher’s job is to tell you about it.

And it hasn’t escaped my notice that today is Father’s Day. Paul never had children, but I think he considered himself something of a father figure to the Christians of Galatia. And that is partly why he was so angry at those who were trying to box them in, control them, make them conform to something they were not. I have often seen fathers and mothers rejoicing at the people their children were becoming, even though very different from them. Paul rejoiced in the freedom of the Galatians and wanted them to live in that freedom.

If there is a moral imperative in this, and I believe there is, the moral imperative is to respect the freedom of others. I told you last Sunday that Paul did work out the balance between claiming one’s own freedom and not becoming a libertine: doing whatever you feel like. The balance is twofold: your freedom to be what God calls you to be, not what others expect; and your deep, abiding respect for the freedom of others. Whether we speak of legislation or business or our religious life: we claim our freedom. And we respect and rejoice in the freedom of others.

Focus here: not on whom you can control or how you can compel them to follow your rules, but on the new creation of God: a free life. Your free life and free lives all around you. The party is much more fun when we’re rejoicing in freedom together.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis