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Jul 07, 2019

With Gentleness

With Gentleness

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: July 2019

Category: Communion Sunday

Audio of scripture reading, Galatians 6:1-10, followed by the sermon begins at 20:59.

Galatians 6:1-10

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. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.

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

7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If 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. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10So 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 HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Spirit of Gentleness

I’ve just returned from leading family camp at Zephyr Point, a Presbyterian retreat center in Tahoe--it was good to have some Westminster families there--so I’ve got camp on my mind.  In light of today’s passage about transgression and confrontation, two camp stories come to me from another time and place, an annual 1-week youth camp in the mountains in my first church.  One year we’d lost our regular musicians.  Finding replacements was particularly challenging because we were your classic Mainline congregation.  For whatever reason, it’s hard to find a contemporary band that plays music with more open progressive theology.  It seemed if you wanted music with guitars and drums, you had to take lyrics that focused on Jesus either as your collective boyfriend or the guy that was bleeding all over the place on your behalf, a sacrifice to an angry God.  We ended up with great musicians who were very serious about their faith, but man did they bring the blood.  Everything was about Jesus’ bloody sacrifice for us.  Moreover, the lead singer would launch into these long spontaneous prayers that made me really uncomfortable...and as a Presbyterian I’m only referring to the spontaneous part :).

Another time, it wasn’t the leadership that presented our little camp community a challenge, but a youth.  Yearly, everyone signed a covenant that acknowledging, among other things, that any drugs or alcohol would result in immediate dismissal from camp.  One day it became clear late in the afternoon that one of the youth not only had alcohol, but was drunk.  He was a great kid.  He didn’t come to our church, but he always went on our trips and camp.

How does a Christian community handle these kind of challenges?  Many of Paul’s writings are really teachings to budding communities of early followers of Christ about how to handle the real daily challenges of life together.  What happens when the wealthy consume all the communion feast while those who work during the day are left with the leftovers?  Which purity laws that were once central to identity should be applied to converts as well?  Along those lines, a key example was circumcision, the distinguishing mark of Jews.  The solution they came up with might surprise you.  Rather than make everyone adopt or get rid of the same practice, different communities kept different practices.  Furthermore, Peter was assigned to the support communities that upheld circumcision and Paul to those who did not.  It didn’t resolve the tension because as the fragmented record attests, it seems some from Peter’s camp infiltrated Paul’s communities when he wasn’t there to tried to convince them to change their ways.  Conflict is nothing new, even (especially?) among religious peoples.

Consider how conflicted we are as a people now.  Many have written about the deterioration of social fabric, social capital as sociologists such as Robert Putnam call it.  The decline of participation in various civic and social organizations, the fragmentation of media, and the increasing flexibility we have to connect only with those we like have weakened the ties between us.  That’s not to dismiss the way social media has given a voice and a way of connecting to previously alienated people.  David Brooks, New York Times columnist and best-selling author, decries the decline of some of the old institutions that used to hold us together and provided some stability and shared vision.  To be fair, we can question how these institutions had their own flaws and didn’t represent the needs of all peoples equally, and whether or not the good old days were really the good old days.  It’s hard to deny we have lost something, however, but these old institutions aren’t coming back in the same form.

What’s needed are new communities, new places and ways of coming together that strengthen the ties between us, so that when there are issues that need to be addressed, there is a commitment among parties to come together and work through it.  It is in community that the kind of relationships are formed which allow this difficult work to take place.  Some would say the church has a role to play here, though its old forms are no longer working either.  Think about it, if our goal is to form community, then the sole act (or even central act?) cannot be coming together for a worship service where one person does most of the talking.  Rather, there should be gatherings of all sorts--for conversation, for work and service, and for play.  The worship service is the weekly capstone to the full life of the community.  This is more than I can decree and make happen, but perhaps together we can work toward this shift.

One of the places I’ve seen Christian life lived out in its fullest expression is camp.  At everyone is looking at the same page even if everyone isn’t on it.  Even in a strong faithful community, handling conflict and transgression is hard.  It cannot be ignored, as tempting as it may be.  Communities have to actively manage their conflicts.  It’s necessary maintenance.  Paul’s guidance, then, provides a much-needed direction.  Notice how he directs, “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”  That sentenced is packed with wisdom.  First, “you who have received the Spirit,” the assumption is that these are people who have put in the time to learn to listen for and be guided by Spirit.  Second, the goal is to “restore” the transgressor.  It’s not first to punish them.  It’s not to inflict pain or lock them away for as long as possible.  It’s not even to show everyone how wrong they were, making an example.  It’s to restore them to the community because what’s most important is the community and people’s place within it.  In restoring the victim, and if possible the transgressor, the community is restored to wholeness.  Third, in an effort to achieve this, all is to be done in a spirit of gentleness.  Gentleness so often gets seen as weakness, but Paul is not advocating conflict avoidance or appeasement.  He is arguing for truth-telling in the spirit of gentleness.

That’s what we tried in each of those examples from camp.  One of the adult leaders and I called a meeting with the blood-slinging, long-praying, band.  “You know we want our kids to remain open,” the leader said, “We plant seeds of faith, but we let them decide for themselves what it means and how to understand it.”  I think I sheepishly added, “If you could just stick to music…”   I don’t remember what all I said.  We tried to be direct, but kind.  Then we paused, awaiting the bandleader’s response.  Then he looked us square in the eyes and said, “As iron sharpens iron.”  (Prov. 27:17).  He was quoting the Bible, Proverbs, saying our confronting him as brothers in Christ was going to make him better, and he thanked us, and that was it.  Now, I’d like to take credit saying it was our gentleness that made the difference, but truthfully I think it was just as much because he was someone who was very open to the Spirit, who felt a sense of spiritual community with us because he assumed we took our faith seriously as well.  It was a remarkable experience.

With the youth who’d been drinking, we took the advice of our speaker for the week, a well-known pastor in the city, and confronted him as Jesus commanded in the gospels - first, individually with evidence, then with a second if needed.  Just as Paul was concerned with restoring the member to the community, Jesus wanted to preserve the dignity of the transgressor even while confronting the transgression.  At first, the youth tried to deny it.  Finally, I looked at him and said, “I’m sitting three feet from you and I can smell the alcohol.  Tell me I’m wrong.”  He came clean, and acknowledged he needed to go home.  Keeping with the spirit of things, we said we absolutely wanted to see him again, that we loved him, and that we wanted him to continue to be a part of us. 

We never saw him again.

That’s not the ending you expected, I assume, but I would be lying to you if I told you it would always work the way you want it to.  Religion does nobody a favor when it over promises.  Sometimes 50-50 are the best odds you can get.  Paul understood this, which is why he said, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right.”  He knew it would be tempting to give up when don’t get the results we want.  For him, perhaps that was all the more reason to act with gentleness.  Who knows, by dealing with him truthfully and gently we may have planted a seed in the youth that couldn’t take root at first out of embarrassment.  Maybe, just maybe, down the road when things had softened in the memory’s eye, he would remember that he was dealt with gently, and might be in a place to likewise extend gentleness to another.  Then, he, might be doing what we are all called to do, in Paul’s words, working, gently, for the good of all.  Amen.