Sermon for Proper 8C
Did you ever learn something that was a game-changer? You know, like one day you knew how life worked, but then you learned one little thing, and boom! Life is different, you see the world anew, a light goes on.
I know that the best kind of learning is slow and nuanced, where knowledge becomes wisdom, but sometimes, a powerful learning can be summed up in a bumper sticker-like pithy saying. For me, several years ago this happened when I came upon the dual saying: the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. Have you heard this phrase?
It basically means that the means of signification and language are in fact not what they refer to. I’ll probably say something that refutes all this when we talk about sacraments at the end of July. But for now: The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. What’s that mean? To me it means that we have to continually remind ourselves that the tools we use to make sense of the world are no the world itself. Actual maps can get you from point A to point B, but those maps look nothing at all like the territory you are in. The difference between a two dimensional map and the Grand Canyon, for instance, couldn’t be more different.
Likewise, the menu is not the meal. The menu hints at the meal, it gets you to the meal, but you don’t eat the menu, you eat the meal.
Both the map and the menu though are pretty darn useful, they get you somewhere or something. The map gets you to the Grand Canyon, then you put the map away. The menu gets you to the meal. Once you order your food the server takes the menu away.
I’m bringing all this up because we need to talk about Paul. It’s funny, we need to talk about Paul, as if we were going to hold an intervention. Paul has gotten a great deal of grief from the church in recent years, some of it deserved, mostly not. I think that the main problem that most people have with his writings is that he wasn’t just like us, he wasn’t as politically progressive as we would have him. Hopefully I can help repair Paul’s bruised reputation a little today.
The reading we get from Paul today is from his letter to the church in Galatia. Because Paul’s writings were put into the Bible, many of us just sort of assume that these writings fell out of heaven, fully formed. But that’s not it at all, Paul was always writing to a specific community, that he usually knew very well. All of Paul’s writings are, what scholars call, occasional writings. It doesn’t mean that wrote when he felt like it, it means that he wrote for particular occasions, he had a reason for writing.
The reason that Paul is writing the Galatians is because they have heard and responded to God’s loving acceptance in Jesus Christ, but in his absence they have fallen back into their old ways of expecting certain behaviors and life-styles for members of the church. Paul is writing to chastise them for their exclusion and condition making.
And here is where we get the map and the territory, the menu and the meal. Paul uses two symbol systems to outline his argument: slavery and freedom, and flesh and spirit. I’d like to dive into these in detail but always remember that the map is not the territory.
First Paul says that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He’s using this dichotomy of freedom and slavery because, everyone in that age would have understood exactly what he means, those who were listening either, were slaves, had slaves, or knew one or the other. Slavery in the first century was extremely commonplace. Paul is sometimes criticized for not coming down hard enough on slavery. To those I would say, read Paul, you’ll be surprised. That does not take away the fact that preachers in this very city in the 18th and 19th centuries used selective citations of Paul to prop up their own evil economic system.
But when Paul talks about freedom from slavery he is using the culturally resonant metaphor to reveal the fact that the Galatians, and by extension, us, are reverting back to an old understanding of what it means to be accepted by God, namely that we must submit to laws of behavior and winning God over. That’s slavery. Freedom on the other hand, through Christ means that we are free from the slavery of winning God’s love. And that freedom also means that we are free from expecting others to have to earn our love.
The other symbol that Paul uses us flesh and spirit. Remember that he is trying to communicate a deeper truth, the map is not the territory. Believe me I could give you twenty minutes on the different Greek words for what we would call the body, but what matters is what he says. The flesh and the spirit and vying for control of the full human being, in each of us. If we let the flesh drive the bus then all those bad behaviors follow, he ends his list with “and things like this.” It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even definitive, you know what he’s talking about: fear, lying, unfairness, callousness, the list is almost endless. But when the spirit drives the bus, when the spirit is in control of the human being, then that life takes on the shape of a human that is in close contact with God, a life like Jesus’, a life that bears fruit, like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
So, keeping in mind that the map is not the territory and that no metaphor is perfect: We are no longer owned, enslaved, to the notion of living that would have us have to earn God’s love. In Christ we are made free to come to God. And because we are now free in Christ, the spirit can now run our lives, not the flesh. That’s Paul 101, that’s Christianity for Dummies.
Now, listen to me. I need you to go from hearing these words to listening to these words. Everything I’ve been saying, you think is about someone else. But it’s not, it’s about you. I was thinking about you when I wrote this. I do that a lot, much more than you might be comfortable with, I write sermons with specific people in mind. This one is for you, all this stuff about being set free from the slavery of impressing God is real, it’s real that we don’t earn love, and it’s real that we should extend that same unconditional love to other. It is real. And it’s about you. And you’re not doing it. And if you did, you’d be, if not happier, you’d be free, free with God.
Look, I know the political system is rough. Lord knows that the last few weeks have been bad weeks for the world. And, frankly, I don’t have the faith in the moral arc of the universe. I don’t have faith that everything happens for a reason, or that everything will work out. But I have faith in God and God alone. I trust that God has accepted me and you and the entire creation, without condition, full-stop. And that sets me free, it sets me free to love. It sets me free to throw a wrench into the machine of condition and exploitation.
That’s the territory, that’s the menu. This place of love is our destination. If Paul’s maps and menus don’t get you there, then set them aside, but don’t set aside where he’s trying to get us. Come up with your own maps and menus, but make no mistake, the territory is God, and the meal is Jesus Christ.