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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Not What You Show, But What You Sow

(Preached at Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church on July 4, 2010)

Galatians 6:7-16

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.  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. 
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
(See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!)
It 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.  Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.
May 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.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
         When the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in the Galatian region, he did not bother with many of the usual formalities and politeness.  It was not a model of careful diplomatic language geared to avoid insult or hurt feelings.  He starts out calling them deserters; then, he moves on to call down a curse from God.  He accuses them of being people pleasers.  After reminding them that he is not afraid to get all up on someone’s face, no matter what kind of big shot that person may be, the he calls them a bunch of fools who are acting like someone has cast a spell on them and turned them stupid.  And he does all of that by the first verse of the third chapter, in what we might call his introduction.  If a preacher had come and said that kind of stuff in her church, my momma would likely have said that she couldn’t believe he had the “gall” to talk that way.  I can hear the whispering as people leave the service, “Of all the nerve!”
         Apparently the Apostle Paul thought there was something seriously at stake in the problems the Galatian churches were struggling with.  Something was going on that could doom their whole existence as a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Somehow they had gotten off track so dangerously that they might end up on the wrong road.
         The symbolic issue at the center of the argument was circumcision. For Israel, the people of the covenant, circumcision was a central mark of their identity and faithfulness.  Paul, an heir of the covenant both by birth and by training, was among the circumcised.  Yet he had learned from the gospel of Jesus Christ that he was a chief among sinners, that his righteousness symbolized in his circumcision was as filthy rags when compared to the surpassing greatness of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  He was struck down by the power of the gospel, shaken and awakened to the new creation revealed in the government-sanctioned murder of Jesus Christ.  The most pious of the circumcised plotted and shared the ugly deed of putting that kind and loving man to death, and this apostle had previously approved of their agenda one hundred percent.
         In chapter two he wrote of this new creation in words dear to many of us.  “For through works of the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified (I have been executed) with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  (I in him, and he in me.)  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faithfulness to the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  In a new creation, all of us creatures take on a new identity.  Uniting with Jesus relocates our origin, our purpose, and our destiny in the story of God’s redeeming love.
In the new creation, our messed-up order and structures get replaced by a way we did not envision.  It is a way that does not legislate according to bloodline or property or skin color or language or pants or dresses or what is inside them.  Because of our baptism into Jesus, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female.”  In so many ways we try to make it seem that some are better than others, some more deserving, some more beautiful, some more inherently good, some more dignified, some more valuable.  We want to believe that something about us makes us superior and others inferior.  If we don’t feel comfortable just coming out and saying it, we figure out a way to say it in code.
In Galatia, the church people had let circumcision become a code for superiority.  In that kind of thinking, men who had obeyed the law to be circumcised had reached a higher level of being God’s people.  This focus on circumcision encoded all kinds of political structures into a distorted and perverted gospel.  Since it was primarily those born into Jewish families who would have been circumcised, the Galatian church politics divided them by nationality.  Greeks, who were unlikely to have been circumcised, could be seen as residing at a lower level of the faith. 
From Paul’s description, the fascination with circumcision as a sign of faithfulness in Galatian churches clearly was linked to status.  A group who had a reputation as “pillars of the church” were known as sticklers for the legalism when it came to the law.  When others were envious or overly impressed by these pillars, they aspired to be like them in order to share their rank or status.  If they could get the approval of the pillars, get accepted into the in-group, join the popular crowd, then people would look up to them, too.  The confusion brought on by such political thinking is that getting into the popular crowd means for some people that God ranks them above someone else.  They encoded status and rank onto circumcision.
Finally, because the law prescribed circumcision for males only, the politics of gender relations got mixed up in these churches.  As an aside, let me note that these cultures did not practice female genital mutilation, a tradition wrongly labeled as circumcision with very different effects on health and the quality of life.  The circumcision of which Paul is writing about was a mark on the flesh of a man.  Since they had encoded it with bloodline and rank, by implication women could not achieve the higher rank of the circumcised. 
I think Paul was right to see how the controversy over circumcision had become a ticking time bomb, ready to destroy the churches in Galatia, and perhaps elsewhere.  In the new creation, Paul had come to see that things like circumcision and its political meanings had been unmasked as mere showiness, smoke and mirrors, false pretenses of superiority or blessedness.  He wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faithfulness working through love.”
That is why in this closing section of the letter, Paul has tried to sum it up by saying that it is not what you show, but what you sow.  Showing off your skin color, your language, your gender power, your conspicuous consumption, or even your pretentious piosity amounts to nothing.  Actually it is worse than nothing because it is a false gospel leading us to ruin and degradation.  Putting on a show of faith leads to a dead end.  As Jesus said, “Everyone who cries ‘Lord!  Lord!’ will not enter the Kingdom of God.”  The pretentious Pharisee did not leave his loud and self-important prayer justified.  By contrast, he widow who quietly deposited her two pennies gave the greatest offering, drawing forth praise from our Lord.  Paul was suspicious of people in the church “who were reputed to be pillars.”  He suspected that they went about their lives promoting the idea of their own piety and importance rather than giving the glory to God.
Paul was addressing a problem in his time in which circumcision had become a code word for claiming superiority in the eyes of God.  In our day, circumcision is not a very comfortable subject for polite conversation since it brings our attention to private matters concerning genital organs and painful surgery.  Frankly, circumcision is not something churches in our time and place get in big arguments about.  Maybe that means we can just put the Letter to the Galatians aside and not mess with it anymore.  In that case, I guess I must be finished.
Just kidding!  Although we may not be arguing about circumcision does not mean that we are not still finding coded ways of trying to prove ourselves superior to one another and create a false gospel.  What better day than July 4th to talk about a false gospel?  Frederick Douglass famously called out the white folks in Rochester, NY, in 1852 when they invited him to be their Independence Day speaker.  He pointed out to them the way that the idea of independence and liberty had become empty code for white supremacy.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Douglass could see the idolatry that permeated the celebration of the 4th.  The idea of the United States as the beacon of liberty and the hope for all the nations was an empty idol.  Salvation built on violent domination is a false gospel.
The Apostle Paul claimed that circumcision had become an idol.  Making a “good showing in the flesh” did not amount to anything else than a big show, just like an idol is nothing but a dressed-up piece of wood, metal, or clay.  Nowadays we make our own kinds of idols.  The flag can become an idol.  I first began to recognize this a twenty years ago when there was a public controversy about burning the flag.  Men who were usually stoically unemotional in church became agitated and passionate to the point of weeping over the flag.  More recently, a citizen questioned a presidential candidate’s loyalty to the nation based on whether the candidate made it a habit to wear a flag-shaped lapel pin.  Making a good showing of loyalty to the flag can easily come to substitute for true love of God.
But making a show will not cut it.  Paul says it is like sowing to your own flesh.  It will be good to remind ourselves what Paul means when he compares flesh and spirit.  “Flesh” here does not mean the body.  In this case, flesh means turning away from what God would have us do, as opposed to Spirit which means turning toward what God would have us do.  Sowing to the flesh is devoting ourselves to something less than God’s purposes for us. 
No national emblem, no nation-state and its pretensions as the means of human salvation, deserves our highest loyalty.  The United States of America cannot save us, nor can the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Liberia, or any other throne, dominion, principality or power.  No pumped up image of a nation can give us what we long for. 
Sowing to the Spirit, on the other hand, devoting our whole selves and highest loyalties to God and God’s purposes, will save us.  When we try to rise above others by claiming superiority over them, it is just an empty show.  When we sow to the Spirit we follow in the way of Jesus by bearing one another’s burdens, by not growing weary in doing what is right, by living in faithfulness that works itself out in love.  Instead of greed, licentiousness, hatred, dissension, jealousy, and factions, sowing to the Spirit replaces these vices with the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Trying to hide our unrighteousness and vice behind a code of self-importance will not make it anything else but filthy rags.  In our day, image has become everything.  Trademarks and brands sell an image as much as they sell a product.  People choose clothing that advertises a brand, announcing to the world, “I’m a Coca-Cola person.” Or I’m an Old Navy, or Abercrombee, or Hollister person.  I’m a Chevy or Ford or Honda person.  I’m an Eagle or an Aggie.  I’m for Duke or Carolina.  We secretly hope that by identifying with a brand we will prove ourselves better than others.  We hold contempt for those who will not come and try to be like us. 
So to be unamerican becomes a grave sin in the eyes of those who sow to the flesh.  Those who speak another language are looked upon with disdain.  Any other nation which would claim for itself a measure of autonomy and dignity that might raise the price of a gallon of gas becomes an enemy.  But “do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.”  Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  Violence begets violence in a never-ending chain of destruction.  Eventually, the chickens come home to roost.
On this day we may appropriately honor the good done by our foremothers and forefathers.  We may honor ideals of a people without putting our trust in nations and empires.  But more importantly, we may love one another, live in peace with one another, share the joy of human fellowship, be patient with one another’s shortcomings, show kindness rather than claiming superiority, continue doing good to one another without demanding a reward, be faithful to God when the going gets tough, be gentle rather than pushing and shoving our way around, and always keep from elevating ourselves into the place of God.  If we can continue in well-doing, in doing what is right, we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.
May our prayer today be the prayer of the Apostle Paul as he closed out his letter in his own handwriting.  “May 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.”  In praying this prayer, we turn away from the enclosures of race, of nation, of language, of gender domination, and we open ourselves to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  Following this rule, we promote the peace of God’s people and we allow ourselves to be united to, yea to be grafted into, the Israel of God, beyond all national borders and boundaries, the true humanity.  “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  It is the pearl of great price, worth all that we have.  May we sow our lives to the Spirit.  May the fruit of God’s Spirit grow in us.  Not what we show, but what we sow.


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