Proper 9C Sermon (2016)

Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Galatians 6:1-16;
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20; Isa. 66:10-14


Our First Reading is about celebrating and speaking words of hope to one’s nation: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her…” On this holiday weekend we can echo those words for our nation: Rejoice with the United States of America, and be glad for her, all you who love her…” That is what we do this weekend. St. Paul, too, in bringing his letter to the Galatians to an end, gets in words of blessing to his nation: ‘peace … and mercy … upon the Israel of God.’ It bears mentioning that Paul is writing to foreigners, Galatians, who are not part of his religious and national heritage. It is like you or I writing a letter to Brazilians and ending it, ‘Blessings on the U.S.A.!’ A bit strange, but also fitting for this weekend of praying for our nation.

Is it also OK, though, to do something else for our nation this morning and this weekend? In praying for our nation, is it OK to also be aware of its flaws and issues as things to pray about? We have the sense that our nation faces some severe challenges, and so we can include those things in our prayers. But it might mean be willing to look at ourselves with a critical eye. Isaiah in the closing chapter of the book, speaks words of celebration, blessing, and hope, but it has come after many strong words of challenge to his people — challenges of not following God’s way of peace in a militaristic world and challenges of not properly taking care of the most vulnerable among them, like the widows, orphans, and strangers.

And St. Paul speaks his benediction on his own religion and nation after his most scathing letter of criticism and challenge. In fact, his word of benediction is mixed with a blessing on those Galatians who follow his rule of not messing with circumcision, which was precisely the sign and symbol of his national identity. It was a bit like setting a rule against a basic national symbol like the American flag, and then saying, “God bless America!” After criticizing his own national identity, he is trying to show that he isn’t against his homeland. He certainly doesn’t wish it ill-will. No, he sincerely prays for God to bless them. But he knows that won’t happen without some crucial changes.

Can we have some of that same spirit here today? We sincerely love and pray for our nation, but we also do so with an awareness that we face critical and challenging problems right now. We pray aware of the fact that some crucial changes need to happen.

We disagree, of course, on what kind of changes need to happen. From what perspective do we understand the problems and what needs to happen in order to bring the necessary changes? I’d like to tentatively offer the kind of analysis and solutions that St. Paul has been suggesting to the Galatians, as we conclude our six weeks of reading this very important letter. For Paul it has to do with the very heart of our culture and religion, what he names as “the law.”

Probably our most common analysis as human beings when things are going wrong involves the law: “Not enough people are following the law,” we say. “If more people simple followed the law — not only our American laws, but moral laws, too, like the Ten Commandments — then our problems would be solved.” We might say it’s a problem of sin — not enough people following the basic moral laws.

But through Jesus Christ, Paul is performing a huge twist on this usual analysis involving sin and the law. He has discovered that the problem goes deeper than whether individuals follow all the laws or not. Yes, some of the matter of sin involves basic things like following the Ten Commandments. But there’s also a dimension of sin that’s much, much harder to see that must be addressed, too: namely, the ways in which the power of sin infects the laws themselves and how we enforce them. When the laws cause us to see things in terms of us and them — leading into division and enmity, and away from unity and love — then the power of Sin has taken over the law itself. That’s what this whole letter to the Galatians has been about! That the power of sin is not just a matter of individuals following all the rules or not. Certainly, it does involve people following rules which they make together for the sake of order and peace. But if we see law and order as only about that, then we’ve missed the most crucial dimension of Sin, which is that in some ways it infects our human systems of law and order themselves.

How has Paul come to know this? By being confronted by the crucified Messiah Jesus in his persecution of Christians. Paul is knocked off his horse on the way to round up some Christians in Damascus by the risen Jesus, who says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In coming to be a follower of this Jesus, then, he has had to see his own cherished Jewish Law as part of the problem, not just the solution. The way the law moved him to act, under the power of sin, brought him to do violence against fellow human beings. When the law creates some form of us vs. them among us, then the law will never bring the desired result of peace and order. Why? Because there will always be some form of us vs. them! How can we human beings ultimately have peace when we are continually finding new ways to have a Them out there whom We are against?

So Paul has been saying throughout this letter very radical things, like the fact that he had to die to the Law and rise to new life in Christ (Gal. 2:19-20). When we do that we find all forms of us and them melting away. We are no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28). The chief Law, if you will, is our oneness in Jesus the Messiah, so that the entire law can be summed up as, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). What matters now is not the cultural symbols that continue to divide us — for Paul as a Jew something like being circumcised, for us it might be something like the American flag. What matters the most is being a new creation in Christ such that all the things which divide us begin to be healed. For that we recognize that everything is being made new, no exceptions, even the law itself.

As we pray for our nation this weekend, then, how does that get worked out in life and history? How do we go the extra mile of seeing Sin not just in the misdeeds of individuals — not just as a matter of following all the moral rules. Paul gives us an example the last two weeks. You might remember that last week Paul has a list of familiar sounding sins: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and so on. But with what does Paul follow that up? A list of punishments? No, this:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

In other words, we don’t treat them as something less than us and therefore to be punished. No, we treat them as one of us, as persons in need of healing.

So when we pray for our nation what does that mean? In recent weeks, I’ve suggested it means a complete overhaul of the way we do criminal justice, because our focus is almost completely on punishing, with next to nothing on rehabilitation and healing. In the so-called “War on Drugs” these past 30 years, for example, I think we can see that our actions have not been so much a war on drugs as a war on drug users and dealers — in other words, a war on people not drugs. That, I think, is an example of how the law, under the power of sin, creates an us vs. them instead of an ultimate unity, and we are sorely feeling the effects of that division.

That’s just one example. How else are we divided as a nation? White vs. Black? Democrats vs. Republicans? Liberals vs. Democrats? How can we come together in peace to seek the Common Good once again? We’ve barely cracked the surface this morning. It remains a matter for prayer. But our prayers should also include our call as Christians to be part of the healing. For our ultimate hope is that new creation is everything! Even when the system itself is broken, God is promising that it, too, can be healed and made new. And you and I — following the law of our human oneness in Christ and the law of love for neighbor — you and I can be part of the healing. We can be part of making a difference. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, July 3, 2016

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