First Congregational Church
July 3, 2022
4th Sunday after Pentecost
“Reading Our Own Mail”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One morning a little girl sat at a kitchen table to eat breakfast with her mother and father. As she listened to the prayer her father prayed before the meal, she was especially intrigued that he thanked God for God's presence everywhere.
After the father finished his prayer the little girl asked him, "Father, is it really true that God is everywhere?” "Yes," said her father. "Is God in this house?" she asked. "Yes," her father said. "Is God in this kitchen?” "Yes," her father said. "Is God on this table?" she asked. "Yes," her father said. The little girl hesitated and then asked, "Is God in this cup?” Her father said, “Yes." Upon hearing this the little girl quickly covered the cup with her hand and exclaimed, "I've got Him!”
This morning’s scripture passage is not necessarily one that would be at the top of the list for an Independence Day weekend Sunday sermon. And it’s definitely not one that is easily captured in a cup or any other vessel. It absolutely has good stuff for us, particularly at this moment in our history and world. But just a bit before we get to it.
It's from the last chapter of a letter Paul wrote to the people in Galatia. The overall theme is the importance of getting the basic gospel straight. Scholars have suggested that Galatia is either a significant area of modern Turkey, or a region defined by an ethnic group of Celtic people in the same area.
In the effort to spread the Good News of God’s love, some Christians in Galatia were getting a little too zealous in making their identity known as followers of Christ. The zealous ones were going back to the Mosaic Law of the first five books of the Old Testament. The black and white infractions and punishments were appealing in determining who was “in” and who was “out” of the Jesus club. Paul’s letter was to get them to see the grace that is also to be indicative of Christ-followers.
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are nothing, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves, without comparing themselves to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry their own load.
6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what they sow. 8 The one who sows to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Thank you, Alicia. The sermon title today comes from something that one of my seminary professors said once. Can’t tell you who or what class it was, but it made a lot of sense then, and still does - 26 years later. He said, when it comes to reading the Bible, make sure you are reading your own mail.
It doesn’t happen as much as it did for a while, but every so often, a piece of mail finds its way into my box, and living in a world, in my head, where most things are good and right, it doesn’t dawn on me that it might be someone else’s mail. It is especially embarrassing when you open the mail and wonder how on earth you got on that mail list. And then you see the label and wonder how on earth I could make such a mistake. I’ve described this event, because I’m so very sure it has never happened to anyone else, so now we’re on the same playing field.
In regard to this passage and this theme, the point is better made when we have a couple of other passages, one also written by the great Paul, but to different groups of people. They all deal with the idea of discipline, but the situations are so different.
In the book of Matthew, there is a piece of chapter 18 that has Jesus describing the procedure to correct “sin.” “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” In this instance, Jesus stresses the process of rebuke without any specific problem in mind. I might also suggest that while this may be a Biblical approach, it ought to be accompanied by a great deal of tact and prayer beforehand.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes a very specific situation in chapter 5, where a man was known to be living with his father’s wife, at which even unbelievers were shocked. The Corinthian Christians were proud of their tolerance of “love,” so Paul’s admonishments were to bring them back into the balance of being ethical and responsible followers of Christ.
In today’s passage, just the opposite is the case. Rather than overlooking serious sin, the Galatian Christians emphasized harsh and judgmental legalism, mainly as it pertained to the topic of circumcision. If you said you were a Christian, that is how you lived up to the claim. The remedy for the Corinthians was to exercise judgment; the Galatians needed to extend mercy.
If you need mail that addresses the irresponsible, willy-nilly way you live as a follower of Christ, she said tongue-in-cheek - then maybe spending some time in 1 Corinthians is the mail catalog for you. If you need mail that addresses the guilt-ladened perfectionistic way you try to live out your following of Christ, Galatians is going to be a far more helpful mail catalog for you. To read the wrong mail is not only harmful but de-legitimizes your walk as a Christ-follower.
Kathleen Peterson of ministry matters.com gives us a picture of the need for correct mail. She was visiting a family that had a little boy, and while there, accidentally knocked a candy off an Advent chain of candies. The young boy was apparently Gestapo-like in his mission to loudly announce Ms. Peterson’s awful offense to everyone. The child was so heavily "under the gun" himself, that his need for the relief of redirecting blame onto others was overwhelming.
Ms. Peterson went on to point out that “This kind of distraction - looking away from looking at one's "own work" - just postpones the day of reckoning with one's own guilt and need for freedom from it. "You who have received the Spirit" (v. 1) don't have to go around with all kinds of opinions and assumptions that you know are right. You can be wrong sometimes and that's all right, because all your transgressions, past, present, and future, have been accounted for. So you don't need scapegoats to accuse and attack and you can deal gently with those who may need some brightening of their ways to gradually sink in.
Now I’m not necessarily all excited about getting into anyone’s face about how they behave - or don’t. I was raised to be Minnesota-Nice. I’m not even so sure that that sort of making a person’s so-called sin plain for all to see is even all that helpful in this day and age - and I’m not talking about serious crimes.
Our country has spent unimaginable amounts of money trying to prove that someone is guilty of particular sin infractions that were unnecessary wastes of time and energy in cases in which the allegations were false. And the real sorrow - at least to this heart - is that without God’s Holy Spirit, I don’t know if we will ever rise above such greed and apathy.
I’m not really sure why, but I’ve long been fascinated by yokes - be they straight sticks or fashioned instruments constructed with comfort in mind. They don’t have to be perfectly matched or leveled to work, but close enough. And they certainly give and take in their balance while getting bigger work done. Which is also the picture when we put together the “carrying of each other's burdens” with “testing our own actions.”
The yoke image is so right for being patient with one another and with ourselves. The yoke of gentleness that carries those in trouble is the same that carries attention to self-awareness. Encouragement balances out contentment.
I know I’ve used the illustration before, but not in this way - I don’t think. In Poland, their famous concert pianist and prime minister, Ignacy Paderewski was backstage, waiting for a concert to begin. A mother, wanting to encourage her young son in the piano, got tickets to the performance. Mother and son found their seats near the front and admired the imposing Steinway waiting onstage. As the mother got to talking with a friend, the boy wandered off. At eight o'clock the lights dimmed, the spotlight came on, and the audience looked up to see the little boy perched on the piano bench, plunking out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Gasping, the mother got up to get her son. But the master had already walked onstage and went quickly to the piano. "Don't quit. Keep playing," he said leaning over the boy. With his left hand Paderewski began filling in the bass part. Then he reached around the other side with his right, to add the top part, encircling the child. Together the younger child and the older master held the audience enthralled.
It’s not a perfect yoke picture, but there is something yoke-like between child and adult, accomplished professional and beginner, playing in the middle and playing on the ends. And then we extrapolate the image even further, to us - and God - balancing out the melodies of restoration and wholeness with humility and self-awareness.
This is not, upfront, a message that is particularly patriotic or celebratory, except that the freedoms we are privileged to hold make our jobs of restoration of souls so much easier. Being able to join with the Holy Spirit to honestly and transparently determine the mail we need is not universally or freely embraced as some of our brothers and sisters struggle under the thumb of legalism and cruelty.
Wesley White, of Kairos CoMotion Lectionary Dialogue wrote, “Work for the good of all. Why? Because the cosmic payoff is worth it - a new creation. Enough said.” And so we can pray.
Holy Spirit of whispers and breezes, we thank you for your gentle messages of encouragement and persuasion. And we are grateful for the louder messages of warning and attention. And we appreciate your Spirit of new creations, morning after morning. For those times when we willfully close our ears and hearts to your needs of us, we ask for your grace and forgiveness. As we reflect on our place in this world this week, help us to do so in honesty and humility, that our gratitude may be all the greater. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.