Sermon by Pastor Kris Tostengard Michel

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past week we had Vacation Bible School at church. It’s my favorite week of the year, especially now that I’m no longer in charge of it. The church’s corridors are filled with kids, and as they pass through the halls and sing in the Sanctuary, I get to witness young kids experience worship as their voices make beautiful music, and community as they make new friends and discover mentors in the older kids who serve as their leaders, and of course they learn the stories of the faith that shape their imagination for life in the world. But truth be told, my favorite moments of VBS are in the middle of the day when the kids are out playing games. From my office window, I have a great view of the west lawn, so try as I might to work, my gaze falls on the activity outside my window, and I get to observe the interaction of the kids when they’re playing organized games or just doing what kids do.

One day last week when a new group of kids was arriving on the lawn and the games were at a transition point, I happened to look out and notice than ree elementary-age boys roughhousing. The kids were being physical – challenging each other, pushing one other,…but it was quickly digressed to interaction an interaction of two on one, and the shoving and kicking looked more like bullying than play so I hoofed it out to the lawn to intervene. By the time I got there seconds later, the roles were reversed, and the victim was now one of the aggressors.

These boys were engaged in the struggle with which we all find ourselves: We are free – free to use our power to dominate others, to harm people with our words or our bodies, and to respond with aggression when we’ve been harmed, to retaliate and demand an eye for an eye.

I tell you this story with caution because it would be easy to assume that I’m going to exhort you to higher moral ground because that will somehow make you a better person. But instead I tell you this story because it illustrates the choices we have. As human beings, we are endowed with freedom – to love or to harm, to accept or reject, to engage or avoid. We are aware of that freedom, and although we might like to be and act with perfection in every way, we do not. We struggle with jealousy and anger, idolatry and lust. We have freedom. Is that the gift we’re given?

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” our reading says. “But don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence; instead through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

You were called to freedom, but don’t use it for your own pleasure. Instead, through love, become slaves to one another. It seems like a paradox, don’t you think? Being called to freedom, only to serve another? Is that the gift?

Today we come to the fifth and final installment of our five-week sermon series on the book of Galatians – Paul’s letter to an early Christian community. Martin Luther loved this book so much he called it his “little Katie,” affectionately naming it for his wife, because in it he found freedom from the compulsion to get it all right. Plagued with the sense that he was never good enough and that he could never do enough to be accepted and loved by God, Martin Luther finally found in this book and other letters by Paul that it wasn’t up to him, that it had been done for him – and the life-giving paradox that flows from it – that when we serve “through love,” we serve one another not because we have to to be right with God or even to feel good about ourselves. We serve because of the needs of our neighbor. Love is driven by what the neighbor needs.

In the culture and in the church, it’s tempting to reduce faith to a moral code, to see it as a list of rules and a system by which we can improve our standing, to see “sins” as the individual things we do or don’t do to uphold the moral code. How many times have I had conversations with people both in and out of the church and found myself saying, “But faith isn’t really just about morality…”?

When we hear the word “flesh”, and especially think about “desires of the flesh,” our minds tend to go to the physical body, and then we get caught in this dualistic notion that the body is bad, and the higher things of the mind are good. But for Paul, “flesh” is more than the body; it’s the whole self under the power of sin, with self-serving desires and motives. Self-indulgence becomes a new form of slavery, one that leads to seeing others as rivals instead of beloved children of God. And the behavior that flows from that is the opposite of loving service. And it destroys life in community.

Years ago, we had a women’s retreat that centered on this text, and over the course of 24 hours, we memorized “the fruit of the Spirit.” Some of you might have been there. – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:23 – I have to say I am grateful for this list and grateful that I know it by heart.

Again, it would be easy to assume that Paul is exhorting us to develop these qualities of our own doing, but Paul is describing the work of the Spirit. This is what it looks like when the Spirit is active in your life. Just as fruit grows organically, and it is God who gives the growth, the fruit of the Spirit comes to life in us because of the Spirit’s activity in our lives.

There is so much heartbreak in the news these days. With sensitivity to younger ears, I’m going to speak about two recent events in general terms, not intending to minimize the nature of these events but to recognize the potential range of ages present here today.

First event: In January of 2015, on a Saturday in the middle of the night, a student at Stanford University intentionally harmed a young woman. Two graduate students passing by on bike stopped to intervene, and then chased down the assailant when he took flight. An arrest was made, and the case was brought to trial in March. A jury of 12 people found the assailant guilty on three counts of assault. Sadly, the situation that led to this trial happens all too often.

At the trial, two letters were read that have been widely disseminated: one from the assailant’s father, and one from the victim. The young man’s father asked the judge for leniency for his son. That isolated event – “20 minutes of action,” he called it – had altered his son’s life, he said, and taken away his happy-go-lucky self. The judge complied and gave him a light sentence. The victim’s letter, on the other hand, described in eloquent fashion the devastating effects of the attack on her life. The two letters went viral, and there was a huge outcry on social media:

  • Angry voices began to call for the removal of the judge because of the light sentence.
  • Other women started sharing their own stories.
  • Vice President Joe Biden wrote a public letter to the woman to thank her for her courage and candor.
  • Men and women and expressed outrage at the father’s letter to the judge, which made light of his son’s actions and impact on the victim.
  • Then came another letter in the public arena of social media, one addressed, “To (the Assailant’s) Father from Another Father.”

If (your son’s) life has been “deeply altered” it is because…he made a…choice to take advantage of someone for his own pleasure….to assault an incapacitated young woman….The story here is that young men have choices to make…(all the time, often) when temptation is great and opportunity is abundant. In fact, our humanity is most expressed when faced with such things, we choose integrity and decency; when we abstain from doing what is easy but wrong.”

That is the crux of our text today. We are free human beings; we make choices. “But don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” Paul says. “Instead, through love, serve one another….Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The victim did not mince words. She spoke plainly about the severity of the attack and its lasting, devastating impact. She spoke directly to him. And with a spirit of generosity, she asked not for retaliation, but justice and a chance for life to flourish once again. “Here we are”, she said.” The damage is done,…and now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us,…or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on. Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story….I fully support your journey to healing, to rebuilding your life, because that is the…way you’ll begin to help others.”

I don’t have any idea what her background is, but in her statement I see signs of her recognition of what he needs for life to flourish.

There is deep pain in this story and in the experience of so many others. I am not attempting to find easy answers; indeed there are not easy answers. We might wonder where God is in all of this. We can be sure that God is found in the darkest, most lonely and painful places of our lives. And there, when hope and a future seem nowhere to be found, God promises resurrection, transformation, new life.

Second Event: As people of faith came together in houses of worship last Sunday, news was unfolding about the chaos in Orlando at Pulse nightclub. The devastation was shattering. Once again, waves of grief and disbelief rippled across our country in response to this man’s choices. The aftermath is far from over. But despair is not the only story being told about that night and the days that followed. As news broke, people began waiting in long lines to give blood – lines that were blocks long; they came knowing that this concrete way would make a difference. People across the country started giving money, millions of dollars to help families of the victims. Emergency workers continue to work tirelessly. And as is often the case when catastrophes occur, strangers have let down their guard to hold and support one another because they see each other’s needs. Dr. Joshua Corsa, a senior resident at Orlando Regional Medical Center, wrote this week in a post that went viral, “On June 12 after the worst of humanity reared its ugly head, I saw the best of humanity come fighting right back.”

In a few moments, we’ll come forward to receive bread and wine, for Jesus’ presence with us now. In his self-giving love, Jesus went to the cross and gave away everything, his very body and blood because of our need. God said ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life. When we receive this bread and wine, we’ll be sent out to be signs of God’s grace and mercy, to let the Spirit work in our lives, and to recognize it in others, to give witness in this world where death is known and the separation of sin is palpable. We’re sent out to be Christ’s light in the world, to bring light to dark places, to weep with those who weep, and to stand with those who falter. We are not meant to be alone, and we are not meant to despair. We hold each other up. With the Spirit’s help and by the Spirit’s guiding, we do the hard work of participating in restoring God’s creation.

That’s the gift we’ve been given: the Spirit. And through the Spirit, we get to participate in God’s plan for the world – restoration, wholeness, union with God, with ourselves, and with each other. We get to respond to the needs of our neighbor, to find pleasure and meaning in serving others.

“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says. You’ll know love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s how the Spirit bears fruit, fruit that nourishes, supports life – for us, for the neighbor, and for the world. Yes, the Spirit is the gift we’ve been given. May it bear fruit in our lives. Amen.