Don’t Give Up

Dr. Eugene C. Bay
Pastor, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Sermon
Saturday – November 6, 2004

 If you have come to this concluding moment of our conference expecting, perhaps even desiring, something more on the topic of sexual ethics, I must apologize. I can neither add to nor improve upon what has already been said. My aim, instead, is to send you on your way with a word of encouragement. I want you, the members and friends of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, to persevere in the work to which you have committed yourselves, to trust that your labor – our labor – is not in vain. To this end I take as my text words of the Apostle Paul found in the sixth and final chapter of his letter to the Galatians. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
Were you to read Galatians from beginning to end you would find much of it to be argumentative, even polemical. Paul’s dander is up big time. His message, and indeed his entire ministry, have come under attack. He writes, not just to answer his critics, not only in his own defense, but to challenge what he believes is a serious distortion of the gospel. In Galatians the apostle argues passionately that a person is “justified” – that is, brought into a right relationship with God – “a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Among the baptized, Paul contends, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” – and were he writing today I believe he would add, there is no longer gay and straight – “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “The only thing that counts,” says the apostle, “is faith working through love.”The end of the letter is of a different character. Having made his case, Paul concludes with a series of seemingly disjointed admonitions.

He says, first of all, that those who have been “detected in a transgression,” those who have behaved in a way embarrassing to themselves or to the community, are to be restored “in a spirit of gentleness.” All others are to be mindful of their own vulnerability, to remember, as one translation has it, “you yourself might be needing forgiveness before the day is out.”(1)

Paul goes on to charge his readers to “bear one another’s burdens” æ to be there for one another, to care for each other in time of need. Then in what on the surface may seem a contradiction, but isn’t, he sounds the note of personal responsibility: “All must test their own work,” he says, “all must carry their own load.” As individuals we are responsible for our own actions, but as a Christian community we are responsible for each other.
Finally, Paul turns to the image of sowing and reaping. “Do not be deceived,” he writes; “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. Sow to the flesh, and you will reap corruption. Sow to the Spirit, and you will reap eternal life.”

Let me take a moment to help you with Paul’s vocabulary because it can be easily misconstrued. The word “flesh” in this instance is not a reference to our physical bodies æ this stuff that you can see and feel, our skin and bones. As Paul is using it here, “flesh” is a shorthand way of referring to any and all of the attitudes or actions that reflect our lesser selves, our destructive impulses, our unworthy desires. By “the Spirit” Paul means not just the opposite, a way of life that is under the higher and better influences but, in particular, the kind of life that is under the sway of Jesus Christ. The kind of life that, in the chapter just before, Paul describes as having the qualities of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When Paul says that one kind of sowing results in a harvest of “corruption” and another kind in “eternal life,” he is talking about the “here and now,” this life and this world, not just about some future life, some world to come.

“… You reap whatever you sow.” What about that? Is that the way it works? Is this a truth about life? I think we have to say it is the truth, but not the whole truth. Life is not just a quid pro quo arrangement. We don’t just get out life what we put in, what we deserve. Often we get more – whether of blessing or bane, of good or ill. Surely if you reflect on your own life and experience you know that. I certainly cannot tell those Russian families in the village of Beslan whose school children were the victims of that terrorist attack a few weeks ago that they are reaping what they have sown. I don’t believe Paul would want to say that either. Yet what I think you can say is that years of sowing one kind of violence and oppression are very likely to result in a harvest of other kinds of violence and oppression. When you sow violence and warfare, you are very likely to harvest violence and warfare. You might think we would have learned that by now, but we have not.

Quid pro quo? No. Yet, “soon or late (we all) sit down to a banquet of results and consequences.”(2)  “There is a relation between deeds and destiny,”(3) between choices of a certain kind and the consequences that follow. The consequences are not always immediately evident. There may be a long lapse of time between sowing and reaping. But in time, and over time, Paul believes, and I must say I do, too, there is a connection between what we sow and what we reap.

Let me illustrate with something I observed this past summer during a visit to South Africa. One morning I spent several hours with the leaders of a ministry called “The Healing of Memory.” It’s a ministry that brings people together to help them overcome the hurtful consequences, the emotional scars, the painful memories, of the Apartheid years. It has been more than a decade since the end of Apartheid. But the sowing of those abusive, dehumanizing seeds is continuing to produce a harvest in the lives of the people. And not just in the lives of the black people who were the victims of the abuse, but also among the white people who either committed the atrocities or did nothing to stop them. The whole society of South Africa is still reaping the harvest of those earlier years and will continue to do so for a long time.

On the other hand, there is the on-going presence and influence of Nelson Mandela who emerged from all those years of imprisonment on Robben Island, from all that time of slave labor and solitary confinement, with the kind of magnanimous spirit that is hard to comprehend. He might well have sown the seeds of revenge and retaliation – precisely the seeds that are being sown today in Zimbabwe. What Mandela sowed instead were seeds of reconciliation, of generosity, of good will, of magnanimity, enabling his country, as one distinguished white South African told me, not to waste time hunting down the abusers of the past, – “the Nazis,” as he called them – but to get on with the business of building a new society.

Two very different kinds of sowing and reaping are visible in South Africa today: the results of the Apartheid years, and the consequences flowing from the choices made by Nelson Mandela. It makes you wonder if maybe history does swing on an ethical hinge after all. “God is not mocked, for you reap what you sow.”

There is a warning in those words, of course, and my hunch is that more often than not it’s the warning that most preachers have stressed. We are well to be warned. And for Presbyterians on both sides of the matters over which we are so deeply divided I think the warning is that we had all better pay attention to means as well as ends. We would all do well to remember that sowing the seeds of disrespect, discord, and division will likely produce a harvest about which our Lord is not likely to say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” The option is not to forgo the struggle, as some would have us do, but to engage in it in a way that honors the prophet’s admonition “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The warning is there and we should not ignore it. Yet, it is not the warning so much as the promise of the text that we need most to attend to. Paul wants to encourage the Galatians æ and now, encourage you and me –”not to grow weary in doing what is right.…”

It may well be that the Galatians had grown weary. Maybe they were wondering if their efforts to do “what is right” mattered at all. Perhaps they were doubting that the purposes to which they were devoted were making any headway. And such a mood is not entirely foreign to us, is it? The Covenant Network has been working for several years now to remove the barrier that is preventing some of our sisters and brothers from participating fully in the life and work of the church. Some of you have been working far longer toward that day when the church will have something other than condemnation and exclusion to offer the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender children of God. And sometimes we wonder if we are getting anywhere, if we are changing any minds and hearts. With the psalmist we can get to whining, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

I remember the time when Oscar McCloud sensed that mood at a meeting of the Covenant Network Board. “What did you expect?” he asked. “Why did you think this struggle would be over in five years or ten years or even twenty-five years? Oscar went on: “Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties, sixties, and seventies learned something important. The battle is hard and the struggle is long when God’s justice is at stake. So we keep on working. We keep on dreaming. We keep on hoping. We keep on keeping on. And we never let the vision die.” Oscar did not quote Galatians 6:9 that day, but he might well have. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

Paul does not say it will happen tomorrow, or the day after. The harvest of good, as with the harvest of evil, may take a long time. But Paul’s is the conviction, and I would say it is a basic Christian conviction, that what we do matters. Our choices, our integrity, our faithfulness, the good we try to do: none of it is lost. So then,” says the apostle, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

That phrase – “the family of faith” – reminds me that there is more at stake in our current struggle than merely the removal from the Book of Order of G.06106.b. What is at stake is the future of the church – “the family of faith” – and especially that part of it that goes by the name Presbyterian.

If there is to be a church that is “as just and generous as God’s grace,” we must “not grow weary in doing what is right.” If there is to be a church that respects its tradition but is not imprisoned by it, a church that knows:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would be abreast of truth – (4)

If there is to be such a church, then we must “not grow weary in doing what is right.” If there is to be a church that takes the Scriptures seriously, yet understands that not every word of Scripture reflects the wisdom and will of God, we must “not grow weary in doing what is right.” If there is to be a church with the courage to live with moral ambiguity a church that has the humility occasionally to confess, “we don’t know,” we must not grow weary in doing what is right.” If there is to be a church that will remind this nation that among the “moral values” of the Scriptures are the matters of justice and peace and compassion for the least and the left out, then we had better not grow weary in doing what is right. If there is to be a church that one day not only permits, but blesses same sex covenantal relationships, “we must not grow weary in doing what is right.” If there is to be a church that not only respects diversity but delights in it, a church that speaks truth to power, a church whose face is turned toward the world and whose ministry is in the world, if there is to be a community of Christian conviction that is neither so arrogant or so ignorant as to think God has nothing to do with people of other faiths, then we had better not “grow weary in doing what is right.” We had better believe that “we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

I do believe that we are getting somewhere. I believe hearts and minds are being changed. I believe the seeds we are sowing of generosity, of justice, of compassion are taking root and growing and will produce a harvest one day. I believe, as the Roman Catholic Donald Cozzens puts it, that “in every age the Spirit nudges the collective consciousness of the Church to see ever more clearly the radical new order of the gospel message.”(5)

But you know what? Whether we are getting anywhere or not, we have work to do and a witness to bear. Our calling, it seems to me, is not unlike that of Father Elias Chacour over in Israel. His “educational program, ranging from kindergarten classes to university courses, brings together Muslims, Christians and Jews. As students graduate from his school to undertake a wide range of jobs, he asks each of them to commit to a common vocation: to become ‘peace builders.'”

A recent visitor to the village of Ibillin, where the school is located, describes what he saw and learned. “Stretched across the fellowship hall of a new church on the campus is a long bridge with stones painted on it. This year, for the first time, each student who graduates will climb a ladder and sign his or her name on a stone, committing to be a ‘peace builder’ for life. Father Chacour hopes that years from now these students will bring their children and grandchildren to see how, in 2004, they committed themselves to peace as a way of life.”(6)

What enables Father Chacour to conduct such a ministry in the midst of the never-ending strife between Israelis and Palestinians? Surely it must be his belief that “God is not mocked,” that “you reap what you sow.” Undergirded by that conviction, he keeps on keeping on. And so, too, should we.

I myself have been at this kind of work for more than forty years. It was in my very first parish, a small, rural congregation south of the Mason Dixon Line, during the height of the Civil Rights struggle, when that little church had welcomed its first African American family into membership, that I happened upon an anonymous poem that I have kept close at hand ever since. Sometimes when I get to wondering about this business of sowing and reaping, I take it out and read it again. It goes this way:

You say the little efforts that I make
Will do no good.
They never will prevail
To tip the hovering scale where
Justice swings in the balance.
I do not think I ever thought they would,
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right
To choose which side shall feel
The stubborn ounces of my weight.

Sometimes in this life we are fortunate to reap the harvest from the good seeds we have sown. At other times, perhaps even most of the time, we have to wait for the harvest. But we have this promise – that “we will reap …, if we do not give up.” And we are always free to choose which side shall feel “the stubborn ounces of (our) weight.” With the apostle, then, let me encourage you: whenever you have an opportunity, which is most of the time, by the way, whenever you have an opportunity, work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

1. The Message, (Colorado Springs: NAV Press, 1993).
2. Raymond T. Stamm, “The Epistle to the Galatians: Introductions and Exegesis”, in The Interpreter’s Bible, George A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953), Vol. 10, p. 580. 3. John Claypool, “Sowing and Reaping: Warning and Promise”, in Lectionary Homiletics, date unknown.
4. James Russell Lowell, Once to Every Man and Nation.
5. Donald B. Cozzens, The Changing Face of Priesthood, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), p. 92.
6. L. Gregory Jones, “Hemmed IN,” Christian Century, July 27, 2004.

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