So, when I was growing up my dad was a really good golfer. Almost scratch. And when I was about eight years old he started taking me to the driving range with him. We’d hit buckets of balls, and then practice chipping and putting.
It was only a couple of years later, after I had practiced a lot of hours on the driving range, and learned enough to put it all together, that he let me near the actually course. His rule was that if I was going to play, I couldn’t slow down the pace of play for whomever we played with. I had to keep up.
He would secretly relish when we got paired with two strangers who would look at me and sigh when they saw they’d be playing with a kid. He’d always have me tee off last, and then he’d send me to the first tee and say “you can out drive them”. I always loved the subtle smile on his face when I did.
Golf became my sport, and I played competitively in high school. But there was one part I wasn’t good at, and the biggest problem for me wasn’t my putting or my driving or my iron shots. It was what was happening in my own head.
You see, when I hit a bad shot, which happens to every golfer, even the pros at least once a round, I had trouble rebounding. I’d miss an easy putt and then be so rattled that I’d miss the next. Or I’d slice the ball wide right and be so angry at myself that I didn’t take the time to line up my next shot the right way.
Before long I’d be walking up the fairway, beating myself up for the shots I didn’t make instead of getting my head back in the game so that I could make the shots I could. I lost whole rounds this way, despite the fact I could have easily rebounded from one bad shot by remembering all the holes I had ahead of me.
Despite my dad coaching me to do otherwise, I had an amazing ability to forget the entire game, and get lost in the shot. Or, to put it another way, I was never able to see the whole forest, because I sent too much time focused on the trees.
It’s golf that I think about when I read this passage in Galatians. Because, like me on the golf course, these were people who in stressful moments could not see the forest for the trees.
The churches in the region of Galatia had been taught early on by the apostle Paul. He had taught them that salvation came through faith and grace, and not by works. And more than anything else, he taught them that it came from following the teachings of Jesus, and nothing more.
The thing about Paul was that although he was Jewish, and had been raised to be devout, his ministry was not to the Jewish people. That made him different from many of the other apostles. Instead he sought out the Gentiles, and told them about Christ.
This meant his ministry was different. He wasn’t talking to people who already knew the Hebrew Scriptures and about the God they worshipped. The new converts didn’t follow those customs, and they weren’t looking for a Messiah. Mostly they followed other religious practices and philosophies. So that meant his teaching looked a lot different than the teachings of the other early apostles.
And in Galatia that meant teaching them about Jewish tradition, but not asking them to convert to Judaism. And when Paul had left that region he thought that they got it. They needed to understand the tradition, but they were called to something different.
Except after Paul left, other teachers came. And these teachers told the Galatians that in order to be real Christians you first had to convert to Judaism. And so there were all these debates in the churches over things like what you could eat, when to observe the Sabbath, and even if the adults now needed to be circumcised.
And, like all church arguments, it was getting bitter. But more importantly, it was distracting them from what really mattered. They had forgotten who they were.
That’s why Paul is so angry in this letter; perhaps more angry than in any other he wrote. He tells the Galatians that he is “astonished” at how quickly they’ve forgotten what he taught them. He says that they are following people who “pervert” the Gospel and confuse them. And he tells them hat he proclaimed the Gospel he received from God, and that it is a Gospel of grace.
In other words, while you are debating the finer parts of the law, you are missing the larger message of Christ’s love and grace. You have forgotten the forest, because you now only concentrate on one or two trees.
This emphasis on legalism, and on secondary things, did not end in Paul’s time, of course. Churches still do it today and ironically, they often do it using the very words of Paul. Women, be silent in church, for instance. Or they twist his words into a condemnation of gays and lesbians. Or, not so many years ago, into justifications for slavery or segregation.
Christians have done horrible things in the name of our faith, and in the name of Jesus. And almost every time it has been because the Gospel of grace that proclaims God’s love for us has been supplanted by a gospel of pettiness that forgets the bigger picture.
So right now it would be easy to say “well thank goodness we are not like those other Christians”. We are, after all, a progressive church in a progressive denomination. We have been Open and Affirming for over twenty years. We responded to the Civil Rights movement. We stood up for the abolition of slavery in the years before the Civil War. We were even founded by people who eventually broke away from the Church of England in order to focus on what they believed really mattered.
Paul’s not talking to us, right?
Except, maybe he is. Because progressive and mainline churches, despite our social witness, still sometimes manage to spend way too much energy on our own small section of trees, forgetting the reason we are even in this forest at all.
Every church needs to have infrastructure to operate. We need committees. We need a budget. We need to talk through the big questions of how we best use our resources, and where. But churches, particularly churches that are relatively comfortable which, make no mistake, this church is, sometimes can get so tied up in what is secondary that we forget what is primary. We forget why we are really here.
To put it another way. We worry so much about the shot that we just played, or maybe even the one we are about to play, that we forget about the whole game ahead of us, and why we’re even on this course in the first place.
That’s okay. We’re human. God knows, literally, that I do it too. I can get so focused on details that I forget what matters.
And that’s why this summer I want to try to do better with that. Summer is a time when things slow down a little at church. We have fewer meetings, a lot of our ministries go on hiatus for a few months, and we all take a deep breath.
That’s wonderful Sabbath time. And it’s also a time we can use to refocus, and to take in the bigger view. We can remind ourselves that the shots we’ve taken are one small moment in the larger game.
That’s why this summer I have a challenge for you all. Downstairs, in the Vestry, there is a table set up with dozens of New Testaments. They are Common English Bible translations, both scholarly and readable. And they are free for the taking, and there are enough for everyone to have one. There’s also a piece of paper to take. And on it you will find a description of what I am calling the Congregational Church in Exeter Summer New Testament Challenge.
Here’s the idea. Take a New Testament and from now, Memorial Day weekend, until Gathering Sunday, right after Labor Day, take the time to read it. If you only read a little a day, you can do that easily.
Here’s why: By the time we convene for a new program year this fall, I want us to take time to remember who we are, and why we are here. I want us to read the story of our faith, from Jesus through the days of the earliest churches, and realize that we are not alone, and that we are a part of a long line of people doing our best to follow Jesus. And I want us to stop, soar above the day-to-day, and see the forest for the trees.
I’ll be taking this challenge with you as well. And my hope is that it will be a little like those days I spent on the driving range, learning the basics of the game, and learning how to tee back up when I hit a bad shot and try again. This is about learning how to focus on what really matters, and leaving behind what doesn’t.
May this summer be one in which you explore the whole forest, and learn to love it for what it is, without getting lost in the trees. Amen?