By Becca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
June 26, 2022
This sermon series is called “Pieces to Peace: How God Puts us Back Together.” Adam preached about how God gives us a better story than the one we have been telling ourselves. I shared last week about how God puts an arm around those who have been demonized and heals the whole community. And this week, in a conversation about freedom and bodies and laws, Paul calls people away from reactivity to long-haul love of neighbor and other virtues called the “fruits” of the Spirit.
From Galatians 5:1,13-25
1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Let us pray: Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
When we moved into our house, it was 103 degrees, the hottest day of the year. We learned immediately a few key facts about our new home: that the air conditioning worked and the ice maker did not. Hauling all the contents of your life into a house when the heat index is about 110 degrees can make you reevaluate everything…. I started to think, we probably don’t need a bed. I am not sure our dog actually conveys. Hour by hour, more than a few of those fleshly vices Paul mentions in Galatians start to rear their head… anger, strife, dissensions, jealousy, sorcery or at least a lot of curses…. Even idolatry as you are confronted by what you will and won’t throw huge amounts of money at in the withering heat.
But eventually we moved in, and before too long, the novelty wore off. We weren’t new anymore. We kept learning things, but the learning was slower… By fall, we learned how enthusiastic our street was about Halloween décor and by spring, we learned what was growing in the yard that we didn’t plant. … That azalea is pink, those are leggy chrysanthemums, and here is a volunteer magnolia with hardly any space to grow. And then after about two or three years, the learning shifted once again, to the opportunity to cultivate something ourselves. We faced the fact that the retaining wall wasn’t going to fix itself and the magnolia as attached as I was to it was going to wreak havoc right next to the fence. We, mostly Dave, planted dahlias and tulips, hung bird feeders, and watched in awe as fists of flowers we had planted pushed through the mulch and bloomed.
I think about that because those cycles apply to many seasons of life. There are times of intense heated change or crisis. We’ll call that season reaction. After that, there is a window of adaptation to all that has changed. Then what emerges are the slow rhythms that go deeper than just reaction or adaptation. This is the terrain of cultivation, the terrain of disciplines, systems, habits, and values. Christians have words for all these seasons. But today, Paul is teaching about old-school, no-short cuts, purposeful cultivation. How do you know if you’re really following the Spirit? You know because its fruit and flower always look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It might seem here like Paul is against the body or against the flesh, as if it were just some vehicle prone to all sorts of break downs that is just there to tote our spirit around. But remember, Paul considers the body a temple, this example of unity and diversity that the church could really learn from, and God’s new home in the incarnation. So, the way I read it, Paul is pushing hard against the abuse of the body, abuses upon the community itself, and all the lazy life-hacks that bear no fruit and only yield a feeling of imprisonment.
And then, Paul paints a picture of something beautiful and different: a cultivated life marked by fruitfulness, primarily love of neighbor. And it is important to remember that love, in the Biblical idiom, is something you do, not just something you feel. Freedom is for the love of neighbor, a baton to be passed, not a prize to be won as others lose. A fruitful faith requires the slow cultivation of commitments that remain long after the flash of impulsivity and fatigue of adaptation fade off. We are called to show up and embody an alternative to the reactivity and non-love around us.
That is precisely what Paul was asking the churches he founded in the Roman province of Galatia to do: Be a cell of relational resistance to the prevailing social divisions of the Empire. As much as the deck seems stacked against you, be something different than conquered, defeated people. If you consider how loud the Roman imperial project was in Paul’s writings, the Galatians would have been inundated by a culture of domination and fear, daily enforced social hierarchies meant to sow distrust among people. They would have been surrounded by a brutal entertainment industry of gladiators where political and cultural enemies battled each other to the death for sport. That was the prevailing Roman religion, the “other Gospel” to which Paul objects earlier in Galatians (words greatly influenced by Rev. Roger Gench, “Love: The Foundational Fruit of the Spirit,” Presbyterian Outlook, April 20, 2021. https://pres-outlook.org/2021/04/love-the-foundational-fruit-of-the-spirit/).
And that is the stage where Paul makes a bold claim in his letter to the Galatians… that all the “us versus them” distinctions of the culture, slave, free, Jew, Greek, female, male, are washed away at baptism. The waters of baptism are meant to irrigate whole communities with the politics of love that stand in stark contrast to the politics of death around them. In a world of sweltering conflict and conquest, imagine if all people knew about the church was love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Imagine that. Imagine no hateful comment section. Imagine belly laughs and spontaneous singing. Imagine a room where everyone belongs and people smile from their eyes and give from their depths so that no one is impoverished. Imagine if leaders held as John O’Donohue wrote, “the springtime edge of the bleak question.” Imagine a community where people appreciate each other and work on themselves. Reminds me of what Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
And yet, that is exactly what we are called to cultivate. It is not quick. It is not easy. But it is delicious and the world is starving for it.
Walter Brueggemann said, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
This is still our call, as individuals and as a church.
Every once in a while, Arlene writes down what children say in Godly Play. Last week, they talked about freedom, in the Bible and also in the life of Harriet Tubman. The children wondered out loud. They shared how brave Tubman was to rescue all those people. They imagined how important it was that she was guided by the stories of the Bible and her faith. And around that little sand table, these children participated in an alternative vision of this world. The same Spirit that guided Moses and Jesus and Harriet Tubman and countless others toward freedom was budding in their minds. For freedom, Christ has set us free.
The pandemic caused a mass sense of disorientation around us and we felt like exiles from all we had known. For some of you, a death or a divorce or a diagnosis did that. You entered a time of forced reaction. I know that for many of you, the overturning of Roe v Wade feels like that. It is very fresh. It is painful. Perhaps it makes you very concerned in the ‘love of neighbor’ part of your heart when you think of women with few resources in heartbreaking situations. And some of you may feel differently, and even so, today’s text invites us all to be radically other-focused, exceedingly generous and kind.
And no matter what, as the cycle continues, we do adapt. We adjust our expectations with every new learning that comes. But there comes a point where reactivity and adaptation are not sufficient to God’s call. We need to cultivate. We have to put down roots and fix what is broken and see what we can grow here. In this church. In this new reality in our family and our community. And in those times, it is helpful to have a guide. We need guardrails of the soul, to keep us safe from the ditch of despair or ravine of rage or sinkhole of self-righteousness. I invite you to use the fruits of the Spirit as a trellis to support your growth. May they be like lattice, a framework, a check on our actions so that everything we say and do might look and taste and feel like holy produce from the true vine of Christ.
We need to shift out of reaction and adaptation mode into cultivation. And on days when I don’t have a clue where to start with that, it helps me to think about a man who adopted a similar meditation on the fruits of the Spirit some 900 years ago. About 12 people joined him. And over time, Francis of Assisi cultivated an order of juicy joyful Christians called the Franciscans who have nourished the centuries with a bold witness of Christian community, with the reminder that small acts of love over time, small groups of dedicated people, make all the difference in the world. In fact, they are the only things that really do.
I’ll end with his prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.