The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2016
Galatians 5:1, 13-26
This morning I sat down at my kitchen table, like I do every Sunday morning, to read my sermon one last time and to eat a bowl of Cheerios. I choose Cheerios over Frosted Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Chex, Cap’n Crunch, whatever. One of the blessings of living in this country is that I have the freedom to choose. To choose what kind of car I drive, to choose where I work and where I worship, and yes, even to choose what I’ll have for breakfast.
But make no mistake. The decisions we make have consequences. Just because I have the freedom to choose Cheerios doesn’t mean that I am the only one who matters in this decision. Think of the vast network that all comes together when I pour out my bowl of Cheerios. The oats were grown on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. The harvested oats are shipped to a mill in Minneapolis. Once the oats are milled, they’re shipped again to Cedar Rapids, Iowa where they are cooked, packaged, and distributed. My box of Cheerios is stocked on the shelves at HEB by a person I do not know, I drive them back to my house on roads I did not build using gas I did not produce. I put them in a pantry that’s in my house, which technically I own, but really the mortgage company still owns it. I clean out my bowl and spoon down the drain and through pipes which are older than I am, and the box of Cheerios is eventually taken away by men I do not know, to go to a landfill to decompose for who knows how many years to come.
And yes, I could have chosen another breakfast all together. I could have made a buttery cheese omelette with sausage. Even those choices have consequences much farther down the road, as your cardiologist will tell you.
Sure, I have the freedom to eat my Cheerios, but that small, seemingly insignificant choice reverberates throughout a vast network. As John Donne says, “no man is an island entire of itself.”
Do not be mistaken in thinking that you can live your life to your own pleasing, that you have the freedom to do whatever you want. Every choice you make has serious consequences up and down, in and out, left and right, for years to come. This is nowhere more true, than in the Kingdom of God.
When Saint Paul says, “for freedom Christ has set us free,” he is doing so within a community. Saint Paul is not so much saying that we are free from others, but rather the things that we are free to love others.
So right now I’m talking about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Side note: Galatia is a region of north central Turkey. Paul wrote this letter to the churches there just a couple of decades after Jesus.
Paul says, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” In other words – you have freedom to make choices, sure. So make choices that are good for the community. Then he outlines the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit. The works of the flesh are: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing. Now, he isn’t telling the Galatians to avoid these things because it’s like a Santa Claus naughty and nice list. He’s telling them to avoid these things because they disrupt community. Because those evil choices distort the relationship that we have with one another. It’s not so much about being a good person as it is being a good neighbor.
For instance, quarrels, factions, and dissensions are evil because the vision for God’s Kingdom is harmony, unity, and connection. Fornication, impurity, and licentiousness are bad because the vision for God’s Kingdom is faithfulness and commitment. Sorcery and idolatry are bad because the vision for God’s Kingdom is about one Lord, one faith, one baptism. This list of the works of the flesh is a list of what disrupts true community. It’s what gets between neighbors.
On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the fruits of the Spirit, those fruits are also all about relationship. They’re all about community: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. You can’t experience love by yourself, because love, by definition, is a thing to be shared. Generosity can’t be experienced by itself, it goes from one person to another. The works of the Spirit bring neighbors together.
Jesus Christ has set you free from anger to joy; from enmity to kindness; from drunkenness to self-control. Jesus Christ has set you free from competing against one another.
For freedom’s sake you are now bound to a stricter commandment. Love your neighbor as yourself. For Paul, that sums up the whole law. Love your neighbor as yourself. Because every decision you make affects your neighbors, make choices that are good for them, not just good for you.
If you say that you are a Christian, you must act like it. Paul is calling us to walk the walk. Nowhere is this truer than in the church.
We cannot tell ourselves that we are a friendly church, if all we do is talk to our friends. If we want to be welcoming, we must welcome others. We cannot say that we are guided by the Holy Spirit if all we do is bring our own agendas to the table. We cannot say that worship of the Lord Jesus is the most important thing in our lives when our credit card statements, our calendars, our internet histories, the books we read all tell a different story. Because those decisions are also signs of how you either love or hate your neighbor.
And just like that bowl of Cheerios I ate this morning, our decision to love our neighbors has consequences. If you make your bed, you gotta sleep in it. We wonder why the church has been declining, while at the same time Christians are most known for the things we stand against and for the people we condemn. Believe me, the church is not declining because people don’t like Jesus. The church is declining because people don’t like Christians and the way we act. We wonder why people don’t like the Christians, when every waiter at every restaurant will tell you that the worst tips they get are from people after church. We say that we follow a loving God, but we are known for our hatred, our prejudice, our rudeness, our unwillingness to listen to people who are not like us. We know that loving our neighbor as ourself is the key to community, but more often than not, we love ourselves far too much. We use our freedom to benefit ourselves, while our neighbors go hurting. Think of it, somebody else’s decision to follow Jesus Christ, is wrapped up in how you live your life.
Yes, Jesus Christ has given you an incredible liberty. But with that liberty, comes a great price. This freedom is a burden. You must love your neighbor as yourself. By doing this, you will show yourself to be one who inherits the Kingdom of God.
And finally, during this intensely political season, remember that your choices have consequences. Think about how your political posts on Facebook impact your neighbors. Are you loving them by what you say, or are you trying to prove your own point? On social media, are you exercising self-control, gentleness, generosity, kindness? Or are you devolving into quarrels, factions, dissensions? Saint Paul would have many things to say to us about our Facebook posts. And think about your freedom to vote. Use it wisely. As we experienced this week with Brexit, the U.K. decision to leave the European Union impacted your life. Think of it, there is a man you will never meet who lives in Stoke-upon-Trent; he walked into his local voting booth, voted to leave, and his decision made an immediate impact on your retirement fund. Do not ever tell yourself that your decision is your own. You live in a community, a network that stretches far beyond anything you can fathom. You are not an island.
Every decision you make changes the world, for good or for ill. Your choice. So whatever you choose, choose kindness, generosity, peace, patience Whatever you choose, choose love. Love your neighbor as yourself.