Pick a Fight
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, March 7th, 2021
We know nothing about the childhood of the Apostle Paul, but clearly his parents taught him good manners. Most of his letters begin with words of commendation and thanksgiving, words intended to make the recipients smile and feel good about themselves. Not the letter to the Galatians. In this letter, Paul’s manners take a serious nosedive.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul is not in a thankful mood and he is in no mood to commend the churches in Galatia. From his opening sentence, Paul picks a fight with them and not because he woke up on the wrong side of bed. He begins by defending his call from God to preach. He makes a no-mistake defense to the Galatians that just like Peter and James and John, he too is an “apostle,” one called and sent by God to tell the story of Jesus. Evidently there were preachers who followed Paul in Galatia who suggested otherwise. You can almost see the steam coming out of Paul’s ears as he writes, “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul tells the Galatians, “You want to question my authority to preach the Gospel?! Well, take it up with God!”
To be honest, I hesitated to use the title, “Pick a Fight,” for this sermon. It seems like a particularly poor preaching metaphor for the 21st century, especially coming from a preacher who espouses non-violence. “Pick a fight” has a violent ring to it in an age in which there is already far too much violence – actual and verbal. The metaphor also seems to suggest an “either-or” position, insisting that one is either on the right side or on the wrong side of a fight. I can hear some of you saying, “Surely, Gary, you could have chosen a less combative and less binary metaphor to use in a 21st century sermon on this passage from Galatians.” Of course, you are right and I blame the choice of this title all on my friend, Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary. “Pick a Fight,” is the name of a tremendous sermon Brian preaches in which he argues that followers of the Risen Jesus are sometimes called by God, not to acts of violence, but definitely, to “pick a fight.”
In his sermon, Brian preaches about contemporary social and economic inequalities that surely make God weep and he challenges God’s Gospel people not to remain silent before such injustices:
“You know about a world where the 200 richest persons hold roughly 8 times as much
money and assets as the populations of the 43 poorest countries. What kind of human
equation is that? Pick a Fight! In our own country, 1 percent of the people control 48
percent of this country’s wealth. . . .Pick a Fight! You know about a world where domestic
battering threatens the lives of more women than cancer, car accidents, and physical
violence by strangers combined. Pick a Fight! You know that according to the U.S. Census
Bureau that just a few years ago 41% of poor people in the U.S. were living at 50 % or
less of the poverty line.”
God did not call the Apostle Paul to pick a fist fight or a gun fight or even a Twitter fight. God called Paul to pick a theological “fight,” a Gospel “fight,” a Truth-telling “fight” against those Christians who reduce God’s claim on us to pious platitudes or happy talk. Paul picks a fight with those faux preachers who followed him in the Galatian churches and offered up a heaping helping of “just follow Jesus and prosperity will follow.” They were skilled preachers of Gospel-Lite.
What would happen if the 21st century church followed Paul’s lead here? What if we “pick a fight” with all those contemporary preachers who preach a “prosperity Jesus” – a Jesus who wants us all to be prosperous and comfortable, while forgetting that it was Jesus who told his followers to deny themselves and follow him, the same Jesus whose very clothes were gambled off before he was publicly executed? What if we also “pick a fight” with all those who preach a “tough Jesus” – a Jesus who wants
people to pick themselves up from their bootstraps, even when they cannot afford a pair of boots, while forgetting the Jesus who went out of his way to invite the excluded and the broken and even a convict hanging on a cross to feast with him?
Throughout the Galatians letter, Paul, the newest of the Apostles, can hardly contain his disappointment at those in Galatia who have rejected his preaching and have settled for Gospel-Lite. He has barely finished his less than enthusiastic greeting to the Galatians when he rails: “I am flabbergasted that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--notthat there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want
to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
Paul is ready to “pick a fight” today as well with any who doubt that sharing the good news of Jesus makes any real difference in our secular age. Of course, preaching the Gospel makes a difference in any age, especially in a secular age! Never forget it! For this proud Apostle, it makes all the difference in the health and well-being of the church and the Gospel is never to be “dumbed-down.” The Jesus that Paul preaches cares about complex and intricate social, economic, political issues and would have us do no less. The Jesus that Paul preaches does not call us to enjoy a private, spiritual massage, a feel-good Christianity; he calls us to “fight” against every power and system that keeps people poor, keeps people hungry, keeps people living on the streets, keeps people thinking skin color is a good way to evaluate people, keeps people thinking that women lack many of the basic capacities of men.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a substantial gospel that calls for substantial preaching and dedicated discipleship – in every age. The Apostle loves this community of churches in Galatia enough to forego good manners and “pick a fight” with them; he loves them enough to rail against faith based on something less than the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we lift the bread
today, Paul would have us remember that we are lifting high the One who broke bread with deniers and betrayers, with men who were nowhere to be found when violence had its way at Golgotha. When we lift the cup today, Paul would have us remember that the cup is stained with blood, blood that is both life-taking and life-giving.
Lutheran Pastor Heidi Neumark will “pick a fight” with any form of antiseptic Christianity. “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you,” Heidi writes, “these biblically recorded words are repeated in Christian churches of all denominations when Holy Communion is celebrated. At least that’s what I thought until I visited a megachurch in Las Vegas that featured a sanitized Eucharistic prayer with no mention of blood. The pastor explained that ‘seekers’, people unfamiliar with church traditions or people who’ve found the church irrelevant are searching for spiritual meaning in their lives, would be turned off the mention of blood . . . The pastor continued to explain how we need to take people’s culture and context seriously.” Heidi goes on to ask, “Is bloodless Communion really so culturally
relevant? What culture would that be? People in Las Vegas don’t bleed? I know that most of the architecture is fake, but it seems an insult to imply that the people are, too . . . If our sanctuaries remain bloodless enclaves of sweetness and light, we risk far more than offending spiritual seekers” (Breathing Space, pp. 254-257).
Maybe it is time for the church to “pick a fight” with preachers more concerned about the title before their names than calling the faithful to live into the claim of the Gospel. Maybe it is time for us to “pick a fight” with churches more concerned about the size of their endowment than the call of Christ to give extravagantly and sacrificially to others. Maybe it is time for the church to “pick a fight” with the “church police” more concerned with making sure the church does not change one iota than in following the One who makes all things new. Maybe it is time for people of faith to refuse an anemic communion for in Heidi’s prophetic words, “it dishonors those who died in the fight for justice and truth. And it fails to take our own wounds seriously” (p. 250).
So, even though my manners today may be as poor as Paul’s when he writes to the Galatians, my friends, maybe, just maybe, it is time for us to “pick a fight.”