Sunday, June 30, 2019
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Open and Affirming Sunday
Kilkenny is a medieval town in the southeast Ireland. Its grand Kilkenny Castle was built in 1195 by Norman occupiers from the northern region of France. The town has deep religious roots and many well-preserved churches and monasteries.
Who would have thought that a story about two cats would shed light this morning on our reading from the letter of Paul to the church Galatia. In the troubled times of the Irish rebellion of 1798 it was said that Hessian soldiers who were quartered in Kilkenny used to amuse themselves by tying two cats’ tails together and throwing them over a line to fight. Thankfully, their officer upon hearing of this, ordered that there should be no more cat fights.
But on a certain day it is said that two cats were found hanging on a line when the officer was heard coming. In the emergency one of the troopers drew his sword and cut them down leaving only the tails hanging on the line. The officer on reaching the spot asked “Where are the cats?”
One of the troopers explained that they had fought so furiously that they had eaten one another except for their tails. As terrible as it sounds, it is said the story was too good to be suppressed and has since helped to extend the fame of Kilkenny around the world. The story was immortalized in the following limerick:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
They scratched and they bit;
Til, excepting their nails and the tips of their tails;
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any!”
Whether or not the writer of the limerick meant to paraphrase a sentence in the text of Paul’s letter, there is a certain resonance in light of his warning to those in the church in Galatia. “If . . . you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).
Paul offers his words of caution aware that it was for freedom that Christ has set us all free. But he is also aware of the dangers of being free. He highlights the dangers we must all face.
First, freedom requires us to be mindful of our responsibility to others. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” he writes. “But through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13).
Second, freedom may destroy our sense of what it means to be the church. We are called to a life of loving service to others and reminded that this is the essence of the law (Galatians 5:14; Leviticus 19:18; Romans 13:8-10).
The danger is we may be tempted to view our interpretation of that freedom in an overly individualistic way. Our tendency would be “to pursue our own needs and desires, oblivious to the common good” (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, age 318). That was an issue in the early church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 8-10; 1 Corinthians 8:9) as it was in Galatia. Freedom became the pursuit of the individual with no commitment to others. It is an issue we face in the church today.
It would be too easy to conclude that Paul is issuing a singular warning against sexual laxity (Romans7:8), but there is much more to consider in distinguishing the “desires of the flesh” from the “desires of the Spirit.” It is much too easy for us to be captivated by behaviors of “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, drunkenness and carousing” (Galatians 5:19-21).
We may see ourselves as free from such desires while ignoring how easy it is for us to sow hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, and envy and to create dissensions and factions within our families, churches, and communities. But if we live by the Spirit and if we are guided by the Spirit, we will do so with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
To say that the Spirit is under siege throughout the world would be an understatement. We need not look far from our own communities and countries.
Those who knew her said she was a cheery child. Not even 2 years old, she loved to dance, play with her stuffed animals and brush the hair of family members. Her father was stalwart. Nearly always working, he sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States.
He and his wife wanted to save up for a home. They wanted safety, opportunity and a better future for their daughter. They traveled more than 1,000 miles seeking that future.
Once in the U.S, they planned to ask for asylum from the violence that has driven many Central American migrants from their home countries every day. But the farthest the family got was an international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.
When they arrived they were told the bridge was closed and to return the next day. The family was desperate. Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America looked within reach. Father and daughter waded in, but before they all made it to the other side to Brownsville, Texas, the river waters pulled the father and daughter under and swept them away. They were later found along the river back.
Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and Valeria Ávalos Ramirez, 2, both drowned. Valeria was tucked under her father’s tee shirt, her armed draped across her father’s back.
In our worship bulletin this morning, you will see on page 18 a reference for “continued prayers for the more than 65 million men, women and children who have been affected by wars and armed conflicts around the world.” That number includes those fleeing natural disasters, religious persecution, hunger and poverty. While I was in Milwaukee last week for the 32nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ, one of the presenters noted that that number now stands at 70.8 million people.
The massive dislocation of people will continue and while we are tempted to build walls across our borders and around our hearts, one of the pastors at the gathering in Milwaukee reminded all of us about the account recorded in The Gospel According to Matthew the feeding of the more than five thousand men, women and children (Matthew 14:13-21) who gathered to see Jesus beside the Sea of Galilee.
“When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them and cured the sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ʻThe hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ʻThey need not go away; you give them something to eat.’
They replied ʻWe have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said to them, ʻBring them here to me.’ Taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to crowds. And all ate and were filled.”
Clearly, Jesus did not ask the disciples how much they had only what they had. For the disciples, what they had seemed inadequate and so their impulse was to say, “We have nothing.” But they had two fish and five loaves of bread.
As we think about Óscar and Valeria and the needs of the vast multitude of people who have been displaced in our world, will we dare to also say, “We have nothing”? “Go away!” If we are to live by the Spirit, what will be our response to Jesus’ reminder that “the whole law [not our human-made laws] is summed up in a single commandment, ʻYou shall love your neighbor as yourself’”? (Galatians 5:14). “If we live by the Spirit, [then] let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Amen.