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Pentecost 6C Sermon
Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

June 26, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

There are a couple of instances in our readings today where the word, “yoke” is used. You heard it first in the Old Testament reading from 1 Kings, where Elijah finds the man whom God has chosen to succeed him when he is taken up into heaven, Elisha. Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha’s shoulders. Elisha wants to go back and wrap up loose ends with his family, who must be pretty wealthy for him to have 12 yoke of oxen, which means that there were 24 total. It is the yoke, a wooden contraption that links two of these beasts of burden together across the shoulders, which Elisha breaks up and burns in order to boil the meat of the oxen after he slaughters them.

It is a weird story, to be sure, but the yoke and the mantle in this tale symbolize the things to which Elisha was bound: the yoke, his family and former lifestyle; the mantle, his new calling as a prophet in the line of Elijah.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul encourages Christians to stand firm, and to not submit again to a yoke of slavery. In Paul’s day, slavery was a very real part of life. People were literally slaves in those days, not just people of color, but those who had been sold to pay off debts, or others who were part of a conquest of one nation over another. Certainly, people in these situations were not free as we know freedom; but Paul is also directing his teaching to those who were free, according to social status. They may have been free in that they were not property of another person or group of people, but they were not free in respects to the things in life that they made of primary importance. And that is where Paul’s words about yokes and slavery and freedom are particularly important and meaningful for us today as well.
The kind of slavery and yoke that Paul is dealing with is described by him in one word: flesh. Now this doesn’t specifically refer to carnal desires, as we have come to associate with the word, “flesh.” When Paul contrasts “flesh” with “spirit,” he is pitting the love of one’s self against the love of one’s neighbor. And Paul reminds us right in the middle of this passage that the whole law is summed up in that one singe commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As a matter of fact, Paul goes on to say that when we seek to devour one another, we are actually consuming ourselves instead. “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” As I have shared before, the major issue Paul was addressing in his letter to the churches in Galatia was the fact that there were arguments over the question of circumcision and whether or not those who came to believe in Jesus from a pagan, Gentile background should become Jewish first. Evidently the angry rhetoric got pretty nasty, and Paul jumps in like a firm parent and is basically telling them to stop being so selfish because they are destroying the community that he had worked so hard to establish when he first came there to share the Gospel of Jesus.

We all wear a yoke. Yes, we are all bound to something – we all make something (or maybe some particular things) of utmost importance in our lives. Many times the things to which people become yoked are very unhealthy. Drugs and alcohol are dangerous addictions, and Paul even mentions drunkenness in his list of the works of the flesh. He also mentions fornication, and that reminds me of how our society has taken God’s gift of sex and warped it into a selfish, personal pursuit of pleasure instead of something which strengthens relationships between people who love and commit themselves to each other. But we have to admit that sometimes the things that people get yoked to in slavery are otherwise very admirable parts of life! For some it is health and fitness. Still others claim that their job is top of the list. Family is a big one, and I have a friend who will tell you that his family is the number one thing in life, especially his kids. The problem comes when those things demand such time and energy from us that we lose our balance and we can no longer focus attention on our faith or on our community. For my friend, his love of family has taken over his life to the extent that his kids are in every sport and activity they can be in. They have so many practices and games and tournaments that they rarely eat dinner before 9:00 at night. They spend thousands of dollars and lots of time travelling every weekend to places where they stay in hotels, away from home for sports tournaments and competitions. Often each of their two kids has games or tournaments in different areas, so it divides their family up a lot. I think that my friend knows it has gotten out of hand because recently when I described his hectic lifestyle to someone in his presence, he got very defensive and said, “Now, why would you say something like that?” It’s because it’s true – he is yoked to his family and kids’ schedule to the point that it has consumed him.

If we are consumed by something to the point that we no longer use our time and our efforts to worship God and to love our neighbors, then we no longer are experiencing the true freedom for which Christ has set us free. For the Galatians it was their point of view about circumcision and other rules of the faith. It can be destructive use of things like food, drugs, alcohol or sex; or, it can even be an unhealthy obsession with otherwise positive parts of our lives like health, vocation and family.

We are free – as Christians and as citizens of the United States of America. There is nothing that can take away our citizenship, and there is nothing that can take away the love that God has for us as his children. But we do live under the law so that we do not become enslaved to ourselves in unhealthy, destructive ways. I read this past week that Eric Fromm, in his classic book, “The Art of Loving,” says that the healthiest people that he has known are those who received from their two parents and early authority figures a combination of unconditional and conditional love. What he means is that as we grow, we need to not only know that someone will love us no matter what, but that there are boundaries and limits to what we can and should do in life, hence parents make rules like curfews, bedtimes, chores and expectations around the house, and prohibitions on certain kinds of behaviors. When we do not have these kinds of things, we are more likely to live to our own desires and gratifications than if we do. And with the base of these two loves to build on, we experience the fruits of the spirit, which were all demonstrated best by Jesus on the cross – love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The yokes of slavery are still evident for us and for our families and friends, even though we live in this free nation. But we are called to freedom through Christ, and the best way to live out that freedom is to confess our slaveries, with the intention that we surrender to a slavery to serve our God and love our neighbors, replacing our slaveries to selfish desires and pursuits. Thanks be to God that we have the Spirit to guide us so that we can know what true freedom is all about. Amen.