Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sermon on Galatians for May 29, 2016

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.

logo-smThat’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?

The Bible Clearly Says…: Sermon for June 2, 2013

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.

And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.

I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.

Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.

And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.

And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.

Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.

It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.

But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.

That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.

Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.

Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.

I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.

And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?

Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.