June 26, 2022
I heard a story on the radio recently about a man named Kenny Butler. He grew up without a lot of options, hemmed in by poverty and community violence, and ended up joining the ranks of the Crips gang. Well, as time went on he ended up in and out of jail, until he landed in federal prison on a plea deal. That should have been the end of the story—one more man caught up in the crackdown of law and order—except that Kenny had a realization in prison, that he didn’t want to be this way. He started studying, and by some miracle it just happened that he was able to earn his Bachelor’s degree. One thing led to another, and he reached the point where he was organizing a community program to reconcile former gang members for the good of their communities.
Deep down, we all want to be good people. We want to do the right thing, even when we sometimes don’t know exactly what the right thing is. In the case of Kenny Butler, he was given the opportunity—you might say the grace—to grow into a person who could do the right thing. We all need the grace to try to do the right thing, and become the kind of people that God is calling us to be.
And that’s what was going on with the Galatians, the recipients of the letter we read this morning. The Galatians were a collection of churches in what is now central Turkey, and they had embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were on fire with hope, wanting to serve God and love their neighbor and do the things that God was calling them to do. They were earnest in their desire to be better than their past lives. So when some other church leaders came by who told them they needed to follow Jewish Law, get circumcised, and follow food laws—they did it. They trusted these leaders who told them how to better follow God’s call for their lives.
It was this earnestness to be better that made Paul so passionate in his letter to the Galatians. If you take the time to read it, you’ll notice that you can feel Paul’s anger coming off the page. Here were the Galatians, who wanted nothing more than to be transformed by God’s grace and be the people they believed God was calling them to be, and Paul saw these other teachers coming through and putting completely unnecessary roadblocks to letting God’s grace reign in the Galatians’ lives. They were insisting that the Galatians needed to do more, to be more, to heap up more tasks, to earn the grace that God offers. As if following the Law was what saved, and not Jesus.
Paul was having none of that. The Law doesn’t save; God’s grace does. When God decides you are saved, that’s the end of the deal. And today, what we read from Paul’s letter is the point where he explained to the Galatians what the Law was for, if it couldn’t save. The Law, he insisted, is meant to show us what a saved life looks like. It’s a roadmap for how we are called to love God and our neighbor. It’s what your transformed life, a life that embodies love for God and neighbor, looks like—not the things you need to do in order for God to love you.
And what does that life look like? Paul said it: “the entire law can be summed up in the word: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” The transformed life that God’s grace gives us points us away from self-justifying works like eating certain foods and observing certain holidays and fretting over our appearance, and instead turns us toward what the purpose of the Law is. Love others as you love yourself. Consider the lives of others as important as your own. Make decisions about who you are and what you do by imagining the impact it will have on others.
It sounds reasonable enough, right? The straightforwardness of “love your neighbor as yourself” has worked its way into a cultural phrase, as much as “a penny saved is a penny earned” or “choose kindness.” But what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? What does it really mean? It really takes some deep empathy to imagine yourself literally in someone else’s shoes—not with all your own upbringing or supports or knowledge, but truly in that person’s own situation. How would you want to be treated? Would you accept living in fear of your family being split up, as many immigrant families of mixed legality do? Would you accept having the worst aspects of your life dredged up after you died, as too many Black men have in recent years? Would you accept being forced to carry a child that isn’t living anymore to term because your body hasn’t recognized you’ve miscarried, as our 1849 law now requires? Would you accept your lived experience being rejected as hysterics and overly sensitive whining by people who have never imagined living your life and who have never faced the unique challenges you have? If we wouldn’t accept something for ourselves, then why would we accept it for someone else?
And that is radical! Empathy as deep as we are called to have should challenge us to our core. This empathy is so radical that Jesus warned us about how life-altering it was going to be, how completely out of sync with the world we’d become, when we are transformed by God’s grace. When confronted with rejection by the Samaritan city, Jesus didn’t rebuke the city for rejecting him—he rebuked his disciples for thinking they should be punished! Jesus is not interested in our systems of violence to enforce his will because violence is incompatible with empathy. He warned those potential disciples that they might see homelessness, or be separated from family, or be asked to go and not look back, because empathy is dangerous when closed-mindedness is more useful for the powers and principalities. It sounds harsh to our ears but the point Jesus was getting at is that while grace is free and God’s love is unconditional, the way our lives will be changed by it will make us unrecognizable to the world.
And that transformation has had real effects. Loving our neighbor as ourselves made the abolition of slavery possible. Loving our neighbor as ourselves led to the end of child labor in the developed world. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is why war is so repugnant to us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is what inspires a church to interrupt farmers with a simple lunch and a thank you. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is what leads us to install an elevator or build a ramp to make it easier to move around our church. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is only possible because of God’s grace, and it’s inevitable because of God’s grace. Because if God is so gracious to us, it lets us turn with empathy toward our neighbor, imagine their circumstances, and treat them the way we’d hope we would be treated in the same situation.
I know we are earnest, like the Galatians. We want to be good people, the kind of people that God is calling us to be. We want to please God, love our neighbors the way God wants us to, and participate with God in this grand endeavor that is the Spirit’s work bringing about the kingdom of God. So let’s focus on that one word that sums up the whole of the Law: love your neighbor as yourself. Do for others what you would hope they would do for you. Share grace and understanding. Give second chances. Work for justice and peace. Love without condition. Practice deep, life-altering empathy. Don’t look back, because God is beckoning you forward into God’s own longed-for future.
Thanks be to God. Amen.