By Rev. Sandi Anthony
Galatians 6:1-18 — 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. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
11See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. 17From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. 18May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Sermon: Practical Advice
I grew up in a family, particularly my mother’s side of the family, where boundaries were not respected. I remember many family arguments that mostly ensued after my father passed away and my mom began dating again. My mother’s parents and siblings, good country people that they were, were especially disapproving of the man who would become my stepfather—mostly because he was not like them. First of all, he was from the city, and city people in their minds were all suspect. Second, he was Catholic, and my mother’s family was Protestant; Catholics were “other” and they were suspect. Third, he presented himself as ultra-confident, and self-confidence was never something this family encouraged or respected. Also, on some level my mother’s siblings and parents assessed and intuited that he would not be good to my brother, sister, and me.
Anyway, soon after my mom and he became a couple, I remember first my grandparents coming over to the house and confronting my mother—screaming at her that she did not know what she was doing, that she should have no business “with a man like that.” When she didn’t listen to them, my aunt and uncle (her brother and sister) in rapid succession came storming over, “telling my mother off,” and getting in her face about her relationship with him. At one point, my uncle came over when my stepfather was there and the two nearly got into a fist fight. The result of all of this? My mother, who stated that no one could never properly understand her circumstances, having been left a widow with three young children to care for, ended her relationship with her siblings and parents. She married him, and she tried to keep us kids away from her side of the family, citing their arrogance, ignorance, and threat. I remember my mom hiding us all upstairs once when she saw my grandparent’s car coming up the driveway. My mother went to her grave having never spoken to her sister again (though she had made amends of a sort with her parents and brother). Her family’s confrontation style, however well-meaning in their own minds, absolutely did not work—relationships were destroyed. Pride reared its ugly head on both sides—in my mother and in her family of origin. We kids went on to suffer what her family had feared—and had failed to prevent in their bombast.
I don’t mean to bend your ear today about the dysfunction of my childhood, but I do want to illustrate a point that the Apostle Paul makes about dealing with someone’s transgression, perceived or actual. He states up front in our passage today that that person is to be restored in a spirit of gentleness, “gentleness” being the operative word. Because here’s the thing: We cannot control the lives of others. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows this. Anyone who has ever tried to intervene in the life of a loved one knows this. We can actually do very little to influence someone’s life in a positive direction without their own cooperation. You who have tried to care for ailing or wayward relatives and friends know this. We can easily become obsessed over what others do or don’t do. We can easily become tempted to just storm in and take over, telling them how something is to be done or what should or shouldn’t be done. But here’s the thing, none of us have especially clear vision regarding other people because we have logs in our own eyes. Jesus reminds us of this when he says “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” The prophets remind us of this when they tell us that “judgment begins with “the household of God.” Judgment begins, in other words, at home, with us, because we all have logs in our own eyes. We all perceive the world with our own baggage and self-interest. Jesus never said to storm in and take over and tell others what to do or what not to do.
In our passage today, Paul spends the bulk of time talking about matters concerning the ones doing the restoring of transgressors. After exhorting the Galatians to restore transgressors in a spirit of gentleness, he focuses on the very ones doing the restoring—not the actual transgressors in this context—and he exhorts them how to be. Not only are they to be gentle, but the restorers are to be aware of their own propensity to be tempted, self-absorbed, superior, stingy, deceived and prideful. He exhorts them to work for the good of all and especially for the family of faith. In effect, he calls them beyond their own egos to that which makes for unity. The simple message may be to restore others with gentleness and acute self-awareness.
Let’s look at what was going on in the book of Galatians. Paul addressed this letter to Gentile churches he established during his first missionary journey. He likely penned the letter from Ephesus around AD 55. Galatia included the region of Ankara, Turkey—what we today call Central Anatolia. In this letter, Paul takes on a group that is troubling the Galatian church. This group, Jewish Christians who have invaded the Galatian church, were insisting that the Galatians had to be circumcised and keep the law. They wanted the people to have an identity marked by Jewish rites and practices, namely outward symbols. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians aims to counter the Jewish Christians’ claims. Paul effectivity writes that the people needed to have their identity in Jesus, which makes them a new creation. One great Lutheran preacher, Rev. Dr. Ed Marquart likens this last chapter of Galatians to a “Dear Abby” column. He says that Paul anticipates the problems of the Galatian people and in chapter 6 writes to give them friendly advice, practical advice for everyday living. The earlier chapters of Galatians “articulate his theological doctrines; [but] in the last chapter, [Chapter 6, Paul] briefly spell[s] out the practical consequences of his doctrines…Paul deals with practical, everyday concerns and questions that the people were asking” (www.sermonsfromseattle.com/galatians).
Many of us still struggle with this today: How do we confront? How do we run interventions when needed? The social mores of our time say “don’t get involved,” but what about when a situation hits close to home and we see someone about to get hurt—like my mother’s family had once foreseen? And Paul counsels, “If you do speak to others, be very gentle [—avoid bombast]. If you do speak to others, be humble and not self-righteous, being very aware that you too fall short of the glory of God and succumb to temptations. If you do speak to others, it takes maturity to gently reprove another person. It takes a combination of kindness, love and insight blended with wisdom, to speak a wise correcting word to a friend or relative” (www.sermonsfromseattle.com/galatians). Because Paul goes on to caution, “You reap what you sow.” If we sow of the flesh and act out our natural tendencies, we may reap corruption—and people will get hurt; if we sow of the spirit of God, we will reap the God’s blessings. That’s good, practical advice.
So, what does it look like when we run interventions wisely with the purest of intentions and self-awareness? Let me tell you about the other side of my family to illustrate—my biological father’s side and how they dealt with this turbulent period of my childhood and with my mother, after my father (their sibling) had died and when my mother started dating. I think they were just as concerned as my mother’s side of the family about what she might be getting into, but they were gentle, helpful, and supportive. They realized that they could not tell my mother what to do. They asked gentle, pastoral questions: “How do you think this will affect the kids?” And they listened to her answers. She said, “I can’t do this on my own; I need someone.” And they said, “Louise, we will always be here for you and your kids.” And they were. They took my brother camping with their sons. They had us over for sleepovers and listened to us when we hurt and never spread gossip through the community. They came to all of our graduations and weddings and events. They helped us pick up all the pieces and stood with us in the muck. And those pieces and that muck made me into the person I am today, because none of us gets through this life unscathed. None of us grow and are transformed into God’s image without struggle. But we do need people to ask gentle questions and to walk with us, wise and spiritually-mature people, who never force their (very limited) understanding of God’s will upon anyone.
I want to end today with some more sage words from, who? The Apostle Paul? The Rev. Dr. Ed Marquart? Richard Rohr? No, this time from Audrey Hepburn. Her words concern beauty, restoration, renewal, reclamation and redemption: She writes,
“For attractive lips…Speak with words of kindness.
For lovely eyes…Seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure…Share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair…Let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise…Walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.”
Ah, the ministry of gentle presence trumps bombast any day in my book. Amen.