Full strides and half measures

[A sermon based on Galatians 5 preached Sunday November 8 at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg]

I clearly remember my first encounter with what I guess could be called proper philosophy. In high school I was taught an ancient Greek story in which Achilles is running a race. As the race was going on one philosopher said to another, Surely before Achilles finishes the race he must pass the halfway point? There was of course agreement. The philosopher went on, and surely he will then encounter the halfway mark of that distance. Again, agreement.

But you can see where this is going. The question finally comes out, How can Achilles finish a race without first accomplishing the infinite task of passing through these half-measures? Now you might think this is the worst sort of abstract philosophizing and perhaps this explains something about my preaching but this story stuck with me and I think it is in fact quite telling.

There are ways of engaging life that are presented and accepted as completely true and factual and yet can alter life completely. And so thinking of Achilles in his race listen again to the Apostle Paul as he spoke to the Galatians, You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?

When we as staff were talking about potential themes that would best accompany our adult education series I suggested that we have a Sunday where we consider science. In retrospect I realized that I was maybe not talking about science exactly or exclusively but rather a way of approaching life, the way we understand and use things like facts, reason, and laws.

The need became clear to me in ongoing debates about the church’s understanding of same-sex attraction and relationships. As segments of the church continued to use scripture as its measuring stick I noticed another claim at accuracy and authority emerge. This time it was the citation of scientific journals and studies. I would here about the mating patterns of frogs, the latest exploration of DNA research, as well as anthropological case studies. Soon enough people with opposing views on this topic were bringing out what they claimed to be scientific facts in support of a particular position. It seemed that almost anyone could produce ‘facts’ on the matter. And I use the word produce very deliberately. Facts are those things we produce after we have applied a particular method of observation and measurement. Facts are human creations.

Now before I am misunderstood there are facts that have proven themselves immensely durable, useful, and accurate over time. Many are indeed straightforward observations like retreating glaciers and shrinking polar ice caps. But of course many other facts have proven to be completely wrong or if not wrong, and this important, they have proven to be damaging and destructive.

Think about the notion of intelligence testing? Many of these tests simply privileged particular cultural knowledge or access to resources. And yet, those were still facts. They were the clear results of a specific process. A clear measurement. Frantz Fanon, a black philosopher and psychiatrist, put it this way when he tried to live by the measurement of the white culture around him. “My unreason was countered with reason, my reason [was countered] with real reason. Every hand was a losing hand.” Imagine Fanon running the race with the so-called experts on the sidelines always pulling out the measuring tape, hey not bad but look you’re still only halfway there!

In the recent movie depicting Martin Luther King Jr’s work in Selma Alabama we see scenes of King meeting with President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson repeatedly tells King, look at the progress, see the measurement, see how far your people have come, you are already halfway there, but you can’t expect to cross that distance all in one stride, no you should stop your running, take account and give thanks for what you already have.

It is interesting that even today we hear criticisms of Justin Trudeau wanting to have an equal distribution of men and women in his cabinet. While even the critics acknowledge that the cabinet was never really based on merit in the past and yet when someone takes a long stride in simply demanding balance in this area then suddenly the merit measuring tapes come out.

I could of course have used the way dominant cultures have measured and hindered others as disabled, mentally ill, or unfit in other areas.

Who tells these facts? Whose hands hold the measuring tape? Or again, to bring it back to Paul, You were running so well, what got in your way?

The science of accurate measurement has of course made tremendous impacts on our life. But to think that we can live by these measurements is to get it the wrong way around. To measure something means to cut out some aspects of life out. We can’t take everything into account when we measure. This has been true with attempts to measure the properties of light. When scientists used one tool the properties of light showed up as a wave and when they used another tool it showed up as a particle. Both were accurate and were facts but both were incomplete cutting off the full nature of light.

We can learn tremendous amounts from scientific measurements and technologies but we cannot assume to live well by them if we keeping pace with the Spirit.

Paul says,
You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. You who wanted to get it technically right (in this instance about circumcision), in the way you tried to get the facts straight you have cut yourselves off from your source of life. You were running well, but want happened? Well we saw someone that looked like they were doing it wrong. We took out our measuring tape and tried to set them straight with the facts. Or conversely, someone pulled me aside and told I really wasn’t ready for this race yet, that I was getting ahead of myself and needed more time.

The point of faithfulness is to experience the light of God and not to know a collection of facts about light. And I think Paul is getting at some of this when he wrestles between notions of Spirit and Flesh in this chapter. Perhaps the Flesh, according to Paul, is the result of our attempt to measure and get the facts of the Spirit? We may learn some interesting and even helpful things but to continue the process leaves only a corpse not a life.

In an attempt to clarify this point Paul spends some time illustrating how to identify the works of Flesh and the fruit of the Spirit by giving a list of activities. I usually just gloss over these sections viewing them as a checklist of things we’re not supposed to do. Ironically, then, we use these lists as the facts of sin or a measuring stick of unfaithfulness.

But if Paul is getting away from this approach I wondered what else might be happening in this list. First off I realized that I had no idea what some of these words mean, even in English. I mean fornication, okay I think maybe I know what is going on there but licentiousness, I am not sure I could point to licentiousness if I saw it. Sorcery? I see witches over a bubbling pot. Carousing, well geez, I am beginning to wonder if I haven’t caroused a time or two in my life! In any event, these lists often get blurred into some general sense of those bad people who do things we consider inappropriate or distasteful.

As I did some nosing around into the Greek terms translated here I began see an interesting theme. I am not claiming that this fits perfectly with all the terms but given the context of Paul talking about the people cutting themselves off from the life of Christ I do find this theme intriguing. Nearly all the terms relate to the way we also cut ourselves off from the parts of life we can’t handle or don’t want to deal with.

The first term fornication is the Greek word porneia which can often also be translated prostitution. What is prostitution and sexual abuses but the cutting out of sexual acts apart from a mutual relationship?

Then there is idolatry. What is idolatry but the cutting out of an image of god that suits us better then the sometimes challenging, sometimes mysterious reality of the living God?

The word sorcery comes from the Greek word that we also translate as pharmacy as these practices often included taking drugs. And what is drunkenness and drug-abuse but our attempt to cut-out ourselves out of life due to boredom or stress.

And then there is the long section referring to hatred, envy, factions, fighting, etc. These seem to point to all the ways in which our competing measurements, our competing accounts of life cut us out from one another.

The works of the flesh are simply half measures and short cuts and they are understandable. We start, in many cases, running well but something hinders us. A relationship breaks down, we suffer setbacks or even abuse, our beliefs are challenged, our basic image of God is put into question. Somehow we no longer measure up. We stop. We react. We get defensive. We take our own measurements. And before we know it we find ourselves in an endless cycle of half-measures cut off from what once nourished and inspired us.

How have you been hindered? Who was it that told you that you didn’t measure up? Who gave you false hopes always telling you that you were halfway there? Do you find your faith cut off from what nourishes and bears fruit?

What are the measurements that matter? What difference does it make if science tells us that same-sex attraction is genetically determined or a result of environment? Does a loving and faithful response look different depending on those facts? Or must we always take responsibility for bringing facts into the rhythm and stride of what is life-giving?

Paul offers an unnerving statement when he moves from the works of the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit. Paul says that if you are led by the Spirit you are not subject to the law, that indeed there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit. This should give us some pause, it is really quite an unnerving statement. Being led by the Spirit means outpacing the measurements of the law or of science. To bear fruit is to stay connected to the source of life.

I was worried this sermon would come off as anti-science but the points is that science and laws and reason have never been neutral. Human’s practice science and we inevitably involve it in our values and perspectives. The life of the Spirit allows us to move forward when these practices become a cycle of half-measures cutting us off from what is good.

I have a mixture of sadness and joy after hearing the testimony and Clare and Kathleen last Sunday. There is some sadness because if the Apostle Paul had asked them who hindered their running, the answer may well be the Mennonite church. As someone gifted in ministry it would be difficult if not impossible for Clare to find a position as a minister in Mennonite Church Canada. As a couple they are also not allowed to volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee because of their relationship. There is almost no place for them in the Mennonite church.

But fortunately they are still running in the Spirit of their faith and have, at least for now, needed to run past us and will be volunteering in a Christian peace and reconciliation organization in Ireland. This is good. They shouldn’t have to stay as we continue to size them up and see if their faithfulness measures up.

I understand that there remain very real issues surrounding the state of marriage in our culture, the nurturing of healthy relationships, and the development of appropriate sexual ethics. And there remains very real differences within our church here as well as nationally in how we approach these topics. Even respecting that diversity I can’t help but wonder though if there is something missing when can’t see the strides particular individuals and couples are taking in their faith and acknowledge the fruit of the Spirit wherever it might bloom.

Paul gives us a bit of advice in the next chapter on how to proceed. He says to bear with one another, to be careful not to get conceited, and to not fool ourselves when we think we are acting piously. Life can be overwhelmingly hard and we need all the strength and endurance we can muster for the journey ahead. We see enough church in-fighting, bitter divorces, workplace disputes, family disputes with everyone believing they have the facts on their side. There are things worth fighting for but only in support of those hindered from running the race; this means coming alongside those in the unwinnable position of having to make up an infinite number of half-measures.

How have you been hindered by being told you don’t measure up?
How have we hindered others from bearing good fruit?

May we learn again what it is recognize and keep pace with faithful strides. It is my hope, for those of us a little out of practice, that we might feel again that simple joy of running well and of running together.

Amen.

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