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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
July 7, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Galatians 6:1-16
Subject
Pentecost 4C
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: July 7, 2019—Pentecost 4C

Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 

What Really Matters?

 

          “Mr. Fleener, can you tell me their names?” I paused for a second. I felt guilty. Embarrassed. I couldn’t answer the police officer’s question. Not directly, anyway. I had lived by these neighbors for over two years and had not bothered to learn their names. Their dog had bitten me as I returned from a run, and while I knew the dog’s name, I didn’t know theirs.

 

          What kind of a world do we live in where we don’t know our neighbors’ names?

 

In his February article, Bishop Bill shared a similar story of embarrassment at not knowing his neighbor’s names.[1] But in our bishop’s and my defense, this disconnection is not an isolated thing. It reflects a widespread shift in American society—a major change in social expectations. In a January 2017 article, Luther Seminary professor Dwight Zscheile points out this disconnection, citing Mark Dunkelman’s book, The Vanishing Neighbor.

 

Americans today spend more time with their intimates (immediate family and closest friends) as well as in an outer ring of loose social ties facilitated by social media and the Internet around specific interests. What is disappearing is the middle ring—traditionally the city neighborhood, village, or township, where voluntary organizations like congregations exist. Expectations for neighborliness have changed—from block parties and potlucks, sharing tools and child care, to keeping to oneself and not interfering in your neighbor’s business….Americans look to their devices to connect with people on social media who may be geographically far removed, ignoring the people next to them on the bus, street, or at the playground.[2]

 

          As Zscheile and others point out, this shift of community away from the local neighborhood has had consequences. Americans are more tribalized than ever. They live and work with people who look like them, think like them, vote like them, and worship like them more than ever. They are less exposed than ever to people with different opinions who might challenge their worldview. And, perhaps most dangerously, more people of one political party regard people of the other party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.[3] Now, this is not a paean to “the good old days”. Remember that in the 1950s and 60s, racism, sexism, and homophobia ran even more rampant than they do now. (Not to mention fear of those “godless Commies”). But it’s indicative of a dangerous shift. If you’re on social media, you’ve surely noticed an uptick in extremist political language. Certain behaviors by our leaders, formerly unacceptable to the American public, are becoming mainstreamed. And as a result of this rising tribalism, we’re paradoxically becoming lonelier than ever. More isolated than ever. A study done by San Diego State University suggested an uptick in frequent feelings of loneliness among high school seniors, up from 26% in 2012 to 39% in 2017.[4]

 

          It is in our world of loneliness, isolation, and the breakdown of the neighborhood that we hear this reading from Galatians today.

 

          Let’s recap Galatians: Some folks, likely from the Jerusalem church, have come to the churches of Galatia to demand compliance to Torah. They are, in effect, saying, “If you don’t obey Torah, especially circumcision and dietary laws, you can’t call yourself a follower of Jesus.” Paul argues that these folks are introducing a cultural litmus test into the Christian faith, putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of following Jesus. For two weeks, you’ve heard Paul argue passionately that there is no division in Christ—not gender, race, class, or anything else particular to this finite realm. You have also heard that him argue that the only “law” necessary for Christians to follow is the law of Christ—to love God and love your neighbor, which is less of a law and more of a summation of the fruits of the Spirit. And now we hear Paul’s final exhortations to live in community—a diverse community of faith, where the thing prized above everything else is transformation in Christ.

 

          And in churches where these cultural litmus tests are threatening to tear the churches apart, where folks are screaming and arguing and self-selecting the “right” church, Paul urges gentleness. Gentleness. Not weakness. Not letting someone steamroll you. Gentleness. If community is broken, Paul says, we should restore that person in gentleness. Whatever our cultural or political views are, Paul calls on the churches to “carry one another’s burdens, and so…fulfill the law of Christ”.[5] Paul also paradoxically reminds us that we ultimately have to carry our own burden.[6] We are responsible for our actions. Our deeds on this side have eternal consequences. This doesn’t mean that our sins aren’t forgiven in Christ, or that we aren’t saved by God’s grace alone. They are and we are. Paul simply reminds us that what we do has consequences—for becoming, as C.S. Lewis put it, either a heavenly creature or a hellish one.[7] If we demand adherence to “our way of doing things”, we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re not bearing the fruits of the Spirit that are so attractive for those outside the church. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not reaching the people we’re called to reach or that we’re not being the community that God calls us to be.

 

          Thank God, then, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has freed us from these “laws”, these social, political, and yes, even religious litmus tests that we impose on others and that are imposed upon us. Jesus lived so that we could freely live for God and in service to our neighbors. Jesus died so that we could die to self-righteousness, self-worship, and every other cultural test. And Jesus rose so that we could rise a transformed, new child of God every single day. And that is ultimately the only thing that matters to our community of faith. Not doing things “the Lutheran way”, however we define that. Not how we vote or how much money we have or the importance of our family name or the programs we have or don’t have. No, the only thing that makes a Christian community is the transformation of its members in Jesus Christ. That’s what matters.

 

          And that’s what happens to the seventy-two who return to Jesus. They have been transformed in him; they have seen his power at work through their radical dependence on God for their needs. They come back jubilant, and Jesus reminds them, “Don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice in being the transformed, new creature that God has made you to be. Amen.

 

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

 

 

[1] This was in the Bishop’s February Newsletter. You can find it in the February 2019 Zion Herald, here: https://s3.amazonaws.com/mychurchwebsite/c4092/22019_herald.pdf.

[2] Dwight Zscheile, “Who Is My Neighbor? The Church’s Vocation in an Era of Shifting Community”, Word and World: Vol. 37, Number 1, Winter 2017, p. 29. Zscheile’s article can be found here: http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/37-1_Neighbor/37-1_Zscheile.pdf.

[5] Gal. 6:2, Common English Bible.

[6] Gal. 6:5, CEB.

[7] Mere Christianity.