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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible- Galatians
Dear Abby; Dear Paul

Galatians Series    Galatians 6:7-16 

One of the most popular newspaper columns is Dear Abby. At many a home, people read the sports section, the funnies, the editorials, the grocery ads; but at many a home, many of you  people read the Dear Abby column. My wife is a more faithful reader of Dear Abby that I am, but both of us enjoy the column. We enjoy the wit, the humor, the straight forward gossipy everydayness of her column. I would guess that many of you  here are like us: that is, you occasionally or faithfully read Dear Abby or the equivalent column, Dear Anne.

The Dear Abby and Dear Anne columns don’t have to do with the prominent public issues of the day. These columns don’t discuss the development of the neutron bomb, global warming, the growing inequality of the rich nations verses the poor nations. These columns don’t deal with the current presidents of nations and our conflicts with them. No, these columns deal with the practical everyday issues of life, with practical down to earth, everyday decisions that we all face.  Both Abby and Anne are noted for their insight, wit, sound advice, and sharpness of tongue.

For example, the other night, the column read like this:  “Dear Abby. Some asked you if a thirteen year old boy could get a girl pregnant, and I am so glad that you said ‘yes’ because I am living proof of it. Five months ago, I got a fifteen year old girl pregnant, and her parents and mine raised a terrible fuss. The girl finally got an abortion, and we weren’t allowed to see each other again. Might I add that my puberty started when I was eleven. Signed. Thirteen years old and old enough.” … The response read like this: “Dear Thirteen. Might I add that you aren’t the only thirteen year old boy who wrote to confirm that fact. I also heard from several girls stating that they had become pregnant at the age of twelve. In fact, last year, some 12,000 babies were born in the USA to girls who were between the ages of ten and fourteen.”

Here is another sample of a Dear Abby Column. “Dear Abby, I have a problem I need you help on. Every night my husband sets his alarm clock for five o’clock in the morning. He does not get out of bed when the alarm goes off; he just turns on his snooze alarm which goes off every nine minutes until 6:30 – when he actually gets out of bed. … We both work full time and he goes to bed anywhere from two to three hour ahead of me, but the just can’t get out of bed in the morning. There are times when he wakes me up in the middle of the night for love making, and when I tell him I am too tired, he thinks I am a terrible person. Abby, how can I resolve this? He wasn’t like this when I married him fourteen years ago. We have three children and I love him dearly, but I am tired of this snooze alarm business. Signed, Tired.”  Her response? “Dear Tired. This terrible person in your marriage is the selfish party who wakes up his wife at 5:00 AM when she could sleep for an additional hour and a half. As long as you put up with this, nothing will change. Give him a choice:  Either knock off the snooze alarm or arrange for separate sleeping quarters.”

And so boys and girls, men and women, write these letters of everyday concern about practical matters like marriage, sex, jobs, manners and snoring. Basically, Abby and Anne are friendly advice givers; they give advice on basic, fundamental, everyday human problems.

Today is the last in the series of sermons on the book of Galatians, and the last chapter of Galatians is filled with friendly advice for everyday living.  This last chapter of Galatians sounds somewhat like a Dear Abby column, and it is the Apostle Paul who is giving practical suggestions and everyday advice for everyday Christianity.

In most of the Apostle Paul’s letters, the first several chapters articulate his theological doctrines; and in the last chapter or chapters, he will briefly spell out the practical consequences of his doctrines. The first part of his letter is theological; the second part of his letter is practical. … It would be like hearing a fine lecturer by an intelligent Biblical scholar and then you are allowed to ask questions. And so you ask the question: “I enjoyed your lecture and what you had to say, but what does this all mean for my daily lives? What implications does your lecture have for my marriage, my job, and the way I raise my children?” … I personally used to do this often in my young life as a pastor. I would attend a theological conference and hear this outstanding lecture, and I almost always asked the question: “How does this help Mrs. Betty Woodward, my neighbor?” If the theology could not be brought down to the people who live on Main Street but was geared to those who live on High and Mighty Street, then I was not as interested. I also remember a quotation: Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. He didn’t say. Feed my giraffes.”

So the Apostle Paul always brought his theology down to earth in order to feed the sheep. His theology didn’t remain high and abstract, way up in the clouds, feeding only the intellectual elite. And so it is with this last chapter and all last chapters of his letters: Paul deals with practical, everyday concerns and questions that the people were asking.

In the study of Chapter Six of Galatians, the designated epistle lesson for today, there is no single, theological motif to the Apostle Paul’s thought process. Instead, he outlines the practical consequences the congregational members are facing. The Apostle Paul knows of six or seven problems which these people are facing, and he anticipates their questions by giving some practical answers in chapter six.

The title of the sermon for today is “Dear Abby. Dear Paul.” I will walk through the last chapter of Galatians, issue by issue, concern by concern. The sermon will be in the form of a “Dear Paul Column.”

“Dear Paul. We have this person who is a friend and part of our church. He has been doing some things that we feel are wrong, and yet we are afraid to talk to him about it. We are afraid to say anything unless we offend and hurt our friendship. Do you have any advice? Signed, Concerned Friends.”

“Dear Concerned, (I will be using the translation of the New English Bible for Paul’s responses.) If a person should do something wrong on a sudden impulse, the people who are wise and mature in Spirit must set the offending person right again, but very gently. And look to yourself, each one of you. You too may be tempted. Bear each others burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

As Christians, are always confronted with others around us who we feel are doing something contrary to the will of God, and we are afraid to say anything about it. We are safely silent with our adult children, close friends, parents. We have learned to keep our mouths shut. We don’t want to be nosey; we don’t want to be pushy; we don’t want to give advice when it is not asked for; we don’t want to appear to think we are better than they are; we don’t want to strain our friendship with them; we don’t want to make it “testy” between us. Or maybe we are plain timid or chicken or gutless.  And so for a whole variety of legitimate reasons, most of us are reluctant to tell another person our honest feelings about what they are doing.  And so we silently watch each other. We silent watch a man have very little time for his wife because he is too absorbed in his work. We silently watch a woman become so preoccupied with her job that she doesn’t have time to mother. We silently watch as a couple indulgently squanders all of their money on themselves. We silently watch children acting rudely to their parents, grandparents and others in authority. We silently watch a friend drink too much and become consumed by alcohol. We silently watch a friend consistently lose their temper.

And in almost all of these situations, we say nothing. The social mores are very firm: don’t get involved; don’t push your way into another person’s problems; don’t say anything personally negative to another person if you value that person’s friendship. The social guidelines are not only firm; they are rigid.

Because of the strong social mores, almost none of us can be truly and fully honest with each other about each other. None of us can be truly and fully honest about the way we raise our children, about the ways we spend our time and money; about the ways I personally conduct my parish ministry. Almost none of you can be fully honest with me, and almost never can I say such things to you…except of course, to talk about each other behind one’s back.

How unfortunate. How unfortunate that honest, wise, sage advice from loving people cannot be given, weighed and considered. So many times I would have like to give words of advice to fellow Christians who are good solid people, but I just don’t dare. It would not have been right. How unfortunate that we don’t allow such openness with one another.

The Apostle Paul counsels: “If you do speak to others, be very gentle. If you do speak to others, be humble and not self righteous, being very aware that you too fall short of the glory of God and succumb to temptations. If you do speak to others, it takes maturity to gently reprove another person. It takes a combination of kindness, love and insight, blended with wisdom, to speak a wise correcting word to a friend or relative.

I sometimes go blackberry picking in the autumn because those black berries are ripe and so luscious that they just fall into your fingers from the vine. But you have to be very careful when picking blackberries; those thorns are atrocious. Those thorns prick and scratch and zap you if you are not inordinately careful. That’s why the blackbirds and other feasting birds leave the blackberries alone; there is no way to easily get at the ripe blackberries. And so when you want to speak to a family member or close friend about a problem that you think they are having and needs to be addressed, you approach that person like you approach a blackberry bush, very slowly, carefully and thoughtfully.

Here is another letter. “Dear Paul. We have this person who is really a braggard. She love to tell how good she is. She is also critical of others and pulls them down as if to constantly compare herself to others. She is hard to be around because she is always putting us down and building herself up. Signed. Getting Tired of It.” … “Dear Getting Tired of It. If a person imagines himself or herself to be a somebody, when he or she is nothing; that person is deluding himself. Each person should examine his own conduct for himself. Then he can measure his achievement by comparing himself with himself and not with anybody else.”

We are all aware of this tendency in ourselves to compare ourselves to other people. It happens all the time, when we measure ourselves against people we know and associate with. We measure ourselves against other people, comparing ourselves to others. Such as, I am as good as that person; I am better than that person; I am not as good as that person. As parents we are forever comparing our own children to other children: my child is as good as that person’s or they aren’t as good as so and so’s children. And so after comparing ourselves, our spouses, our children, our jobs, our homes, our lifestyles, our values, we walk around depressed because we are not good enough or we walk around feeling smug, that we are as good as the person we are comparing ourselves to or perhaps even better.

And how foolish this is, to compare ourselves to other people as a means of determining our own worth, or their worth. As if the worth of a person can be determined by their wealth, their intelligence, their job, their looks, their personality, their kids, their home, their car, and all those other qualities that our society values so much. How foolish to play all of these games: that my status is enhanced by associating with such higher status people or that my status is lowered by associating with people of lower status. Who cares? Who cares? But in reality, we all care. In our sinfulness, we all care, to one degree or another. How foolish.

Christ is the power who sets us free from the need to elevate ourselves, thinking we are better or more worthy than others; that we are more superior. Christ is the personal spiritual power who sets us free from feelings of inferiority; that we are not as valuable as so and so who has the big bank account, the big brains, the big house, the big car, the big job. Christ is the indwelling presence of God who frees us from all that nonsense about superiority and inferiority, allowing all classes and grades and types and styles of people to be friends and love one another.

The hidden tragedy of this whole disease of comparing one’s self to another (superiority complex, I am better than others; inferiority complex, I am worse than others) is that a person is not free to love the other person. A person is so busy comparing himself or herself to others, we become preoccupied with ourselves and how we are doing and not really celebrating the other person and their life. To be free in Christ is that Christ liberates us from the disease of superiority or inferiority.

Here is another letter to the Apostle Paul. “Dear Paul. We don’t like our preacher very well and we would rather than pay him much. Shouldn’t he get a job like you, being a tent maker, and thereby earn his own living? It seems that a preacher shouldn’t get paid for such a sacred calling, but do the ministry out of the love of his heart. Signed, Ms. Frugal.” Paul responds, “Dear Ms. Frugal. When a person is under instruction in the faith, he should give his teacher a share of all the good things that he has.”

I don’t think I am going to comment about this subject, how much to pay a preacher, if at all. There is safety in silence and I think that I will be safely silent.

As a footnote, even if Paul was a worker-priest and worked a job as a tent maker for his income and is adamant that he has received not any money from the church to do his job, he also suggests that a person needs to feed the oxen for the work the oxen does and so you also need to feed the preacher for the work he or she does. Speaking with Sergie the other day, our Russian janitor who is the lead pastor of a huge Russian congregation, larger than our own, he mentioned that his congregation was getting ready to hire him full time which, among other things, would mean we would lose a fine janitor. It seems to me that when a ministry gets large enough, those Christian people come to the conclusion that they want to pay their pastor for full time work.

Here is another letter addressed to the Apostle Paul.  “Dear Paul. Sometimes Christianity does not seem to pay off. In the Bible, there is all that stuff about God blessing the good people and punishing the bad people. Yet I know a lot of so called bad people who have made it pretty well off. They seem to mock God’s laws and nothing happens. Their lives don’t seem to be so punished. I must confess that every once in a while, I feel like caving in and doing what they are doing. What do you think? Signed, the Questioner.” Paul responds: “Dear Questioner.  Make no mistake about it. God is not mocked. A person reaps what he or she sows. If he sows in the field of his lower nature, he will reap from a harvest of corruption. If he sows in the field of the spirit, the spirit will bring him a harvest of eternal life. So let us never tire of doing good. For if we do not slacken our efforts, we shall in due time reap our harvest. Therefore, let us work for the good of all people, but especially for the good of those who are Christians.

You reap what you sow. This is as fundamental as the law of gravity. This is as fundamental as the law of thermodynamics. This is as fundamental as the law of energy, E equals MC squared. Whoever sows of the flesh will reap corruption; whoever sows of the spirit of God will reap the blessings of God.

What is this life of the flesh? What does Paul mean by flesh? Paul outlines his ideas plainly and simply. Although the centuries have changed, our human nature has not changed. Our fundamental problems of being a human being have not changed throughout all the centuries. What is flesh? What is human nature? We of human nature, we of flesh, have always struggled with sex, whether you call it fornication, impurity, or lawlessness about sex, making up our own rules about sex.  We of human nature, we of human flesh, have always struggled with idolatry, worshipping the creation of our own hands, our homes, our cares, our stereos, our latest gadget. We as human beings have always loved the creation more than the Creator. We of human nature, we of human flesh, have always struggled with anger, tempers, bitterness, strife, conflicts, war. We of human nature, we of human flesh, have always struggled with selfishness, jealousy, envy, greed, comparing ourselves to others for approval or disapproval. We of human nature, we of human flesh, have always struggled with drugs, booze, highs, mind expanders, call them what you will in this current generation. The centuries have changed; the labels have changed; but human nature has not changed. The human flesh has not changed throughout all these centuries. The Apostle Paul said: “God is not mocked. The person who gives into his flesh, into his human nature, will experience the punishment of God.” However slowly grind the mills of God, those mills of God are forever grinding. God is not mocked. There is no doubt that God threatens we his children with punishment and is deathly serious about us controlling our flesh and human nature that daily and minutely challenges us.

A consequence of living a life in the flesh, of being controlled by your lower human nature, is that people always get hurt. People always get hurt. That is the way it has always been, and that is the way it will always be. Live a life of the flesh. Cave into your lower nature and people always get hurt.

The life of the flesh or life of the spirit grows. Evil grows; goodness grows. In communities, families, cities, nations. I certainly had a first hand experience recently about God’s goodness growing. I recently attended a family reunion with more than a hundred people present there in southwestern Minnesota. In this family, with so many people, you could literally see that the goodness of God had grown in this family and was continuing to grow. And some other families? You have literally seen those families destroyed by evil.  … Paul says simply: you harvest what you sow. That is fundamentally true about so many different levels of life.

Finally, one more letter to Paul. “Dear Paul. What really counts? You have been writing letter after letter after letter. Now, tell us plainly and clearly. What really counts for you? What is really important to you? Sum it all up for us. Signed, the Heart of the Matter.” …

Dear Heart of the Matter. All the religious rituals that you have learned from childhood are not that important. Circumcism. Uncircumcism. These are nothing. The only thing that counts if a new creation; that you are a new person in Christ Jesus.”

The new creation. The new person. The Apostle Paul, when it is all said and done, wants one thing: that we are to be new people. He echoes this theme in several of his letters:  From II Corinthians 5:  “When anyone is united to Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has begun.” From Ephesians 4: “You are made new in mind and spirit. Put on the new nature of God’s creation.” From Colossians 3: “Stop lying to one another, now that you have discarded the old nature with its deeds and have put on a new nature. The new nature is constantly being renewed in the image of God, the Creator.”

What does Paul want for us? That we are to be new people, in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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