For the Good of All

starling murmuration by airwolfhound on flickr

For the Good of All – July 3, 2016
Fourth Presbyterian Church
Galatians 6:1-10 (NRSV)

Our second reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatian Churches.

It’s an emotional and rhetorical letter as Paul is defending his honor and explaining his teachings to a community that has been infiltrated, so to speak, by teachers who contradict him and undermine his authority. At one point he even writes, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

The churches in Galatia were very young churches and this is one of Paul’s earliest letters, written probably about 15-25 years after Jesus’ death.

In the reading we’re about to hear, when he refers to “those who are nothing” but who “think they are something,” he’s probably referring to his rival teachers, so he is quite biting in his tone.

Our reading comes from the final chapter, in which Paul is summarizing his arguments and guiding his listeners to live by the fruit of the Spirit, which is, he says, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things… [so] let’s not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another,” he says. (5:23-26) Paul continues in chapter 6:

Galatians 6:1-10 (CEB)

6:1 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.

6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.6:3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.

6:4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 6:5 For all must carry their own loads.

6:6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

6:7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.

6:8 If 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.

6:9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.

6:10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

~~This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.~~

So here we are, the Fourth of July weekend, thinking about our independence and how we struggled to become a people.

For me, it raises a lot of questions about identity. What does it mean to be independent? Who are “we” as individuals in relationship to one another? Who are we as communities, as a nation, as part of this world? What is it that makes us “us”? And what role does our faith play in our answers to these questions?

Sometimes it seems that we are perpetually caught in an us/them paradigm, in which we define who we are by saying, “we’re not them!”

This can be an effective way to create a sense of belonging but I don’t think it’s sufficient. It’s a bit of a negative definition. It’s like saying sunlight is not a shadow. But if that was all we ever knew about sunlight we wouldn’t grasp the power of its warmth and light or the way it calls flowers to turn their faces toward it.

I know that when I embraced Christianity as an adult, I spent a fair amount of time saying I’m not that kind of Christian. I had to learn over time, I’m the kind of Christian who believes that God is a God of grace and love, all the time. I’m the kind of Christian who honors my neighbors of other faiths. I’m the kind of Christian committed to putting on Christ like an article of clothing and then trying to live up to his standard of strength and grace. And I’m the kind of Christian who gets that strength by resting in God’s love for me when I need to remember that I am precious, that I am created in the image of God. It’s true of all of us.

The young churches in Galatia were facing questions of identity, too. They were a group of followers of Jesus, but they came from different backgrounds. They asked what makes us who we are? How should we behave as followers of Jesus? What binds us together?

They were divided in some of their answers to that question.

On the one hand, there was the contingent who thought that to follow Jesus you had to do the practices of the Jewish people, which Jesus had done in his own lifetime—one should follow their holy calendar, go through their ritual initiations, eat what they ate, mark the covenant with God the way they marked the covenant with God, by circumcision.

The circumcision faction, as they were called, said “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)

But on the other hand, there were the Gentile followers—the Greeks, the Galatians and so on. They were not Jewish, and Paul, who had grown up Jewish himself, did not think that the Gentiles had to convert in order to follow Jesus.

Paul wrote in Galatians, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything: but a new creation is everything!” He never told Jews to stop being Jewish, but he said the Jesus followers didn’t have to become Jewish.

So this wasn’t a fight between Jews and Christians, it was a fight between followers of Jesus who came from different backgrounds and who were trying to become a new community and figure out how to live together, with shared marks of their identity.

And over time a new community did form. In Acts it says that it was in Antioch that the Followers of the Way were first called Christians. Over time their new patterns of ritual and initiation, and their symbols and their way of life became established. Christianity.

Recently I was meeting with a young couple preparing for their wedding here. Although they are still trying to figure out what their faith means to them, they know it’s important. We’ll use some fairly traditional language in parts of the marriage ceremony and we talked about how the rhythms of the ritual and the tone of the language resonates with them in their experience.

Sometimes it’s the things we do, the patterns of our life together, that bind us to each other and to the community—more than the ideas we think. There’s something powerful about saying that confession in unison this morning. There’s something powerful about singing the songs and praying the prayers that binds us together as a people.

We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. We care about our groups. We care about our families; we care about our sports teams; we care about our country; we care about all of our cohorts of people in which we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

One moral psychologist has said that we are 90% chimp and 10% bee. The 90% chimp part is that competitive individualist part of ourselves that has evolved from primates. But the 10% Bee is that part of us that desires and depends on being part of a greater whole, like bees working together in a hive in deep cooperation. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind)

Both parts of us, the individualist and the more groupish part of us each have their positive and negative sides. That chimp part, our primate mind, helps us to compete and excel and achieve. This is the part of us that can also be selfish and hypocritical. This is the part that sees the speck in our neighbors eye when we have a log in our own eye.

But, “We also have the ability,” this scholar says, “under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.” [1]

So the more self-awareness we have about our drive and our longing to be part of a group, the better it is for us and for the world.

This idea that we may become like cells in a larger body might bring to mind another scripture that we often read here: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13)

There is something so beautiful about this idea that we are all part of a greater whole, that in some way we are all part of each other. This is what the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes in less elegant terms as hivishness.

It’s beautiful when it leads to greater wholeness, but dangerous when we let it blind us to other bees outside our hive. Or if we begin to think that we have all the answers or we have all the virtue.

That’s when fear and stereotypes might start to sneak into our hearts and minds. Our hivishness or our groupishness both binds us together in a good way, but can also blind us if we are not careful and self-aware.

My hope is that as we consider the question “who are we?” That we can remember that our identities are complex, that we are simultaneously part of multiple hives actually, multiple groups, multiple families.

The apostle Paul says earlier in the book of Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

As Christians, we are a family. But we are also part of another, larger family. We are not only the Body of Christ, we are also part of the Body of God.

We not only have brothers and sisters in Christ, we have cousins who call God by different names. We have aunties and uncles and nieces and nephews who are also children of God, created in the image of God, and part of the Body of God that is God’s creation.

I was encouraged to learn of a group of 12 interfaith religious leaders in Boston who’ve started circulating declarations of interdependence. They affirm just this kind of thing: how we are connected.

The Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston explained the media campaign, which is called #DeclareInterdependence, in this way:

We are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We are members of cousin religions, descendant of Abraham. We are family.

The public rhetoric that is borne of the current election season scares us. It is dangerous. It is tearing our nation apart. With this social media campaign we are making an appeal to the better angels of our natures and of our nation.

We believe in the American hope and promise of E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One (adopted in 1776 as our national motto).

But that promise can only be realized with hard work, a lot of listening to each other, a lot of trying to understand each other using civil discourse, instead of blaming each other. Instead of everyone yelling their own truth. It feels as if the world around us is spinning out of control as fear causes one group to blame or scapegoat another group. We hope to make a small space for the hard work of listening and learning and finding common ground for the common good.[2]

These interfaith leaders together are asking us to Pledge Respect, to Uphold the Common Good, and to Practice Civility.

I know we can do it if we can celebrate our manyness and our oneness at the same time.

Once I saw a video of a mass of small black birds flying in a large group, in unison, but moving as though they were breathing together, as though they were a holy breath, coming together and going slightly apart, turning in a large group. It was an astonishing thing. It was manyness flying in oneness.

The poet Julie Cadwallader-Staub wrote a poem about this called “Blackbirds.” She wrote:

I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

Moving together toward the common good. May we harness our energies and direct our love in just such a way.

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

So my prayer for us is that we may not succumb to indifference, but that we may love energetically and create art passionately, and read poetry regularly, and practice faith devotedly and embrace life abundantly.

And may we do it for the good of all, as the apostle Paul calls us to do. Amen.


[1] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.