Friday, July 09, 2010

What Can I Do?

What Can I Do?
Gal 6:1-10[1]
It’s been forty years since the images from the Apollo missions to the moon forever changed our understanding of our place in the universe. The now-famous image of the earth “rising” over the moon, while remarkably beautiful, represents a world that looks shockingly small. And that’s just the viewpoint from the moon, the closest object in the scarcely comprehensible vastness of space. You may have seen another set of images—of size comparisons between the earth and the other planets in the solar system. In comparison with an image of Jupiter the size of a volleyball, the earth looks like a marble. In comparison with a similar image of the sun, Jupiter looks like a marble, and the earth looks like a single dot. And the perspective changes dramatically when you compare some of the closest stars in the galaxy—against which the sun looks like an English pea. Even Jupiter is invisible from that perspective, and the earth is smaller than invisible!
This relatively new perspective of our place in the universe has had a variety of effects—some positive, some not-so-positive. Among the latter, I would suggest that our sense of “smallness” in comparison with even our closest neighbors in space has generated a “whatever” outlook on life. I don’t mean to be discriminating here, but when you look at the work ethic of people who were born before and after the momentous moon landing, I think the difference is not entirely coincidental with our significantly altered sense of our significance. It seems that there may be a great many people of all ages who, as a result of these dramatic images, have adopted the view that “I really can’t make a significant difference.”
One of the ironic effects of the images comparing the size of our planet to other celestial bodies is that it has brought the world closer together. Internet and world-wide cable TV have had a similar effect. But surprisingly, I think all of this has also made us much more aware of what a staggering number of people 6.8 billion is! Faced with such vastness, some will “think globally and act locally,” but it seems that there are many in our world who have decided that they can’t really make a difference, so they have stopped trying and retreated into their own world.
But we really don’t have to take this point of view as our starting point to find it difficult to avoid “growing weary in doing what is right” (Gal. 6:9). The people Paul addressed still believed in large part that the earth was the center not only of the solar system, but of the entire creation! And yet he found it necessary to encourage them to recognize that the work they do for the Kingdom of God is work that has lasting significance. The way Paul did that was to remind them that God’s work is like a harvest that will one day be finished. The people of Paul’s day knew a lot about harvesting. There is a right time for it—if you try to harvest before that, the fruit isn’t ripe, and if you wait too late it will spoil. And there is a sense of inevitability to the idea of a harvest. The rhythm of planting and harvesting creates the expectation that harvest follows planting like day follows night.
I think we would have to agree that there is something built into the very nature of a life of sacrificial love, a life of bearing one another’s burdens, a life of loving your neighbor as yourself that is “wearying.”[2] You give and give and give some more, and never really know if any of what you'regiving is doing any good at all! But Paul recommends that we take a longer look when we find ourselves getting discouraged. We need to look at things from a broader perspective when we feel that our work is insignificant. [3] In a very real sense, our “bigger” perspective of the vastness of the universe and our place in it needs the “broader” perspective of the Kingdom of God that continues to grow and produce fruit until the final harvest day. The harvest that our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ saw as ripe already is one that will be completed in God’s good time
I wonder whether part of our problem may be that we get distracted by results, or the lack thereof. Churches in our day have become obsessed with their own efforts at creating an image that will produce success, which is one way of reading what Paul means by “sowing to the flesh.” Those of us who cannot rely on such things must continue to “sow to the Spirit” in faith and hope[4]—which is the only way to maintain a life of self-giving love over the long term. We need the confidence that “your work in the Lord is never wasted” (1 Cor. 15:58, New Century Version).

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/4/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Luther’s comment in his commentary on Galatians: “It is easy enough to do good once or twice, but to keep on doing good without getting disgusted with the ingratitude of those whom we have benefited, that is not so easy”! On the weariness that goes with a life of loving service, see also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 179-80. Compare Calvin’s more positive approach that we need the patience and other qualities articulated in 1 Cor. 13 in order to do this; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.7.6.
[3] Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, says it this way: “the deepest motivation for leading our brothers and sisters to the future is hope. For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.”
[4] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” in New Interpreter’s Bible XI:339 says “Only work that is the fruit of the Spirit will be of value at the time of the eschatological harvest.”

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