2017 February Issue
Sermon Ideas For Galatians 4:4-7 Part 3
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir....
Paul presents the new life that the Galatians enjoy through faith using three powerful, interlocking images. The slave is set free. The lonely one becomes part of a family. The child becomes an adult. These are powerful images for us, because they are the stuff of so much of our literature and art. They are the stuff of so much of our literature and art because they work so powerfully on us.
Freedom is not "just another word for nothing else to lose." It is, we have come to believe—particularly in the West—essential to the (truly) human condition. Its importance to us may be best seen in how we transfer it to others. Consider John Fandel's homely little poem, The Bee.1
Into the room of the narrator of the poem comes the "zig-zag bee," not of his own volition but "carried there/While he worked on a flower, unaware." But carried into the room, the bee is trapped, the screen intended to keep him out now keeps him in. His imprisonment robs him of his very bee-ness. He buzzes as he flies toward the screen, but when he hits it, "his song" stops. Without "his summer," "his privilege of flowers," without "his freedom," he is no longer what it means to be a bee.
The narrator takes an envelope and tries "to maneuver him to crawl inside." At first he is unsuccessful. Then risking being stung, he nudges "him with my knuckle,
Then carried him outside like a note for mailing. I opened the envelope, and the bee went sailing. Into his freedom as his thunder began Again. I felt aliveness as a man Should. I felt the summer rise in me. I saw a million flowers for the bee.
Fandel's wit can make of this homely scene an almost epic adventure, because both he and his reader value freedom so highly. It is not only what enables the bee to bee; it is what makes the poet a man, what makes us what we are.
In Paul's interlocking imagery, the slave is not only freed, he/she becomes "child," part of a family. Many of Raymond Carver's2 short stories are about families, about what it means to belong and not to belong to other people who try to love us as best they can. "A Small, Good Thing" begins in another homely scene.
"Saturday afternoon she drove to the bakery in the shopping center." She is Ann Weiss, and she has come to choose a cake for her son Scotty's birthday party on Monday. She chooses one with a rocket ship and a sprinkle of stars and planets and his name SCOTTY "in green letters beneath the planet." She gives the baker her name and phone number and arranges to pick up the cake on Monday morning.
But on Monday morning, Scotty is hit by a car as he walks to school. He gets up from the accident (and the driver drives away), and he walks home where he passes out on the couch.
"Of course," Carver writes, "the birthday party was canceled." And, of course, his parents stay with him at the hospital. All day and all night. All the next day and all the next night. As the doctors reassure them and wonder (privately) what the tests are not showing, until their son suddenly dies, they stay. Lest we miss the point, Carver tells of another family, who is also waiting. They are not a family like Weisses. They are poor and black and sloppy. Their son has been knifed at a party. His teenaged sister smokes and stares rudely at Ann when she stops to talk with them. But they, too, are there. They stay.
"Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die" (Romans 5:7). For a slave one would rarely, if ever, stay. But for a son...."
Maturation and initiation has been an especially fruitful theme for American writers from Hawthorne and Melville (My Kinsman, Major Molineux, Billy Budd, for example) to Hemingway (the Nick Adams stories), Carson McCullers (A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud, Reflections in a Golden Eye) and Richard Wright (The Man Who Was Almost a Man, Black Boy). But to another story with a homely setting—John Updike's A & P3 begins:
"In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits." The narrator is Sammy, "in the third checkout slot" at the local A & P. "They didn't even have shoes on." Clearly, they are improperly dressed. And clearly, something will have to be done about it. Certainly, the draconic store manager Lengel will do it. As certainly, when he does, Sammy will pick up his lance to slay the dragon. At that point, as Sammy himself puts it: "Everybody's luck begins to run out."
The girls leave, Sammy quits, "their unsuspected hero," for by the time he's put aside his apron and bow-tie, heard Lengel's lecture, and gotten out into the parking lot, they're gone.
Lengel's lecture begins in the realm of family: "Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad." And Sammy acknowledges that he doesn't, but "it seems to me," he says, "that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it." So he does, and when he does, he enters a world that is not only sunshine but a young married woman trying to get her screaming children into their powder-blue Falcon station wagon, a world that is always going to be "hard" thereafter.
The world in which the Galatians find themselves is a world no longer and already and not yet. No longer are they slaves to the elemental powers of the universe. By a fatal gesture, carried through, they have been set free. Already they are in right relationship with God, adopted children and heirs. But not yet are they ready. In the face of the difficulties of their new, adult life in Christ, they want to turn back, away from freedom and maturity. The new life requires courage. But can we turn back? What are the alternatives? What Paul asks the Galatians, he asks us, "Do you want to be slaves all over again?" (4:9)
Richard S. Dietrich
1. "The Bee" comes from John Fandel's The Body of Earth and Other Poems,( Charles A. Roth, Inc., 1972). It is reprinted in the wonderful anthology Imaginative Literature edited by Alton C. Morris, Biron Walker, and Philip Bradshaw (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., Fourth Edition, 1983), p. 672. (Fandel, poetry editor of Commonweal, also teaches English at Manhattan College.) 2. Raymond Carver's (1938-1988) award-winning stories are collected in several volumes, including Cathedral (1983) in which "A Small, Good Thing" appears. The story is anthologized in Fictions edited by Joseph F. Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1985), pp. 138-154. Space does not permit comment on the role the baker plays, a man unable to love and not even knowing how to act because he has never been part of a family. 3. John Updike's "A & P" comes from his collection of short stories, Pigeon Feathers (1962). It is also anthologized in Fictions, among many other places.