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Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 23, 2018
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 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. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
On Monday afternoon, I was in my office meeting with our United Methodist Richmond District lay leader when my assistant Cheryl Arrington opened my door and said, “I am so sorry to interrupt you, but there is a tornado in the area, and the staff is evacuating Reveille House and going to the basement of the sanctuary.” So, we went.
What I thought would take about twenty minutes took over two hours, two hours of waiting, checking the news, checking the weather, calling loved ones, receiving calls from schools, seeing how things looked out the windows, going back to the basement, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Reveille’s Finance Committee chairperson Ted Cox was there; he had chosen either the best or the worst time to stop by the church, and as we waited for the storm to end, Ted, Terri Edwards, our church’s director of administration, and I passed the time by telling stories of life on September 11, 2001 and the chaos of the days immediately thereafter. Ted, it turns out, was working in midtown Manhattan on that day. He told us of walking with the crowds to the shores of the Hudson River, of taking one of the commuter boats that volunteered their services that day to New Jersey. He told us of trying to get home on a day in which he had four dollars in his pocket and had forgotten his cell phone, as fighter jets circled overhead.
As we talked about the days that followed, he told us what surprised him over the course of the next several days: everyone, it seemed, had suddenly become so kind. New Yorkers, with their sharp elbows, people who ordinarily would have fought over the next available taxi cab were generously offering it to strangers: “No, really, you go ahead. I’ll take the next one.”
In the midst of such fear, anger, grief, hatred, and violence, people responded almost instinctually with kindness, a kindness that would, in the days to come manifest itself again and again, mercy upon mercy, in story after story.
I was serving a congregation in Newport News, in the midst of the largest military community on earth. My wife Tracy was teaching elementary school in Hampton. On that day, we were keeping a secret that only we knew: Tracy was just couple of months pregnant with our first child, our daughter Ellen. I remembered how Tracy would tell me that evening about her normally collected, even-keeled principal coming over the loudspeaker that morning and instructing the teachers to immediately return to their classrooms and lock the doors, and how there would be no outdoor recess that day.
I remember how on that day, our bishop sent out a communique that all United Methodist Churches in Virginia who were in a locale with an airport should reach out to offer hospitality and lodging to stranded travelers. I called the Newport News/Williamsburg Airport and spoke with a woman who kindly informed me that everyone had departed, but that she appreciated the overture, and how at the end of the call, it seemed that, although we were strangers, neither of us wanted the call to end; how in a day of such depravity and carnage, how nice it was to think about others, to give and receive kindness, kindness that seemed ever so fragile and temporal.
In this morning’s text, Paul has a word for what we force ourselves to endure when we allow ourselves to be consumed by bitterness, hate, and our own self-interest. He says it in the fifth chapter of Galatians, the first verse. The word is slavery.
Then starting in verse thirteen, Paul draws a stark contrast from slavery. He reminds us that as baptized Christian disciples, we are not called to slavery, but to freedom, a freedom that breaks the yoke of slavery, the yoke of all of the things that weigh us down: the yoke of oppression, judgement, and an obedience to the Law that teaches us that we, somehow, can with enough determination, make ourselves righteous before God and one another.
In this morning’s text, Paul offers us another way, a freedom that we could never secure for ourselves, a freedom which only comes from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Stand firm,” Paul warns, “and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
It is an interesting verb that Paul chooses: submit. Paul is not warning us of an enemy who accosts us in the dark of night. Paul is warning us of a fate that we all too often choose for ourselves.
From here, Paul describes a fork in the road with two distinct choices: one is life in the flesh, and the other is life in the Spirit. He goes on to describe the outcomes of these two very different choices. Live in the flesh, Paul says, and you will produce works of the flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Then, by contrast, Paul describes what he calls the “fruit of the spirit,” which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
With a text like this morning’s, the temptation for the preacher is to turn it into a checklist, a series of simple “dos and don’ts.” The temptation is to look at each item on these two different lists separately, taking each item in turn, and then warning the congregation against the bad ones and cheerleading for the good ones. The problem with that kind of sermon is that it ever so quickly devolves into works-righteousness: “Just do these things and you will be right with God and neighbor.” And yet, that is the thing about works righteousness: it makes religion all about us, all about what we do and do not do, crowding the living God out of the picture, reducing our faith and life to some sort of practical deism, where our God makes the rules, delivers them, and then leaves the room forever, leaving us to attempt to be holy through sheer self-discipline and self-determination.
The problem with works-righteousness, Paul says, is that it is a yoke, a yoke of slavery, a yoke because it puts more responsibility of each of us than we can truly handle. The problem, Paul warns us in verse one, is that you and I are seldom captured and pressed into this slavery. Too often, our condition is the result of our own submission. Too often, we have placed the yoke upon our own shoulders. Too often, we have been unable to realize that what feels like the freedom to procure what we want for ourselves is actually slavery, the slavery of living in a world where everything, all of our success and all of our failure is all about us. In this world that which feels the most oppressive is really freedom, the freedom to be the people, and to live the lives for which we were designed.
When held at arm’s length, there is something that categorically sets the works of the flesh apart from the works of the Spirit, something subtle and easy to miss, if we are not careful. The works of the flesh that Paul gives to the Galatian congregations all, in one way or another, serve me, serve you, serve ourselves. These self-serving works of the flesh focus upon our own pleasure, our own desires, our own sense of right and wrong, our own want to elevate ourselves, even our own desire to make gods for ourselves. Each of Paul’s works of the flesh is about me, about what I want, elevating my own perspective above all others, my desire to control everything, even my most subversive and difficult to restrain desire: my desire, and your desire, to be God. What the works of the flesh have in common is that they are all self-serving, inward facing.
And yet, the works of the Spirit are all outward-facing. The works of the Spirit, by contrast, all place the life and well-being another first. All of the works of the Spirit look for the divine spark in someone else, and honors the divine in the other. Listen again to the list Paul gives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Indeed, there is something that benefits ourselves in each of these fruits of the Spirit. However each of them requires us to place the benefit and well-being of someone else above ourselves, to hear the plaintive wail or the still, small voice of God above the cacophony of our own self-centered desires, our own self-interest.
And friends, this is what good religion does. Good religion gets us out of ourselves, our of our navel-gazing, out of our innate, sinful desire to do what is best for others with the remnants left after we have first served ourselves. This is why Paul writes that the way of the Spirit is to love our neighbor as ourself, and why he writes that the alternative is the unthinkable, anathema to the gospel: that we bite, devour, and consume one another, swallowing others into the dark belly of our own self-interest.
This past week, I watched the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which tells the story of the life and ministry of Fred Rogers. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained as an evangelist, who spent his entire adult life in ministry to children through his television program “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” I grew up watching Mr. Rogers, and I found this documentary to be captivating, especially when it explored a question frequently asked about Fred Rogers: was his kindness a mere persona, or was he really that way?
Time and time again, the people who knew him the best said that the way he was experienced on television was exactly the way he really was.
I find this interesting, because I believe that the very question goes to the very heart of the human condition: when we encounter the fruit of the Spirt in the form of complete, unconditional lovingkindness, we seek for some way to dismiss it, some way to find fault with it, some way to find in it a hidden, self-serving agenda, as if it were the case that if we could somehow elevate our spirits by dragging others down to our own fleshy desires, as if we could raise ourselves up by pushing others down.
And we wonder how, when humankind encountered perfect love incarnate, we instead stood at the gate and shouted for the release of Barabbas, and how we only then looked at that incarnate love, shouting “Crucify him, crucify him, crucify him!”
There is a song from the 1980s called “I Know Its Over” that includes the lyric “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentile and kind.” And perhaps that is the call for the church today, and for us as Christian disciples: to be subversives through persistent, steadfast, unrelenting kindness, something Paul calls nothing less than one of the fruits of the Spirit of God.
Towards the end of his life, Fred Rogers said that “love is at the root of everything; all learning, all parenting, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
And there you have it: we have seen in the life and ministry of Christ the power of what love can do. We have even seen it in our own lives. We have also seen the destructive power of hate, of the absence of love, and how so much of our devouring of one another is rooted in that absence. And today, as was the case two millennia ago when Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, we are faced with a choice: the easy, natural, self-serving desires of the flesh, or the sometimes subversive, challenging-yet-world-changing power of kindness, of love, of serving others, of the power of the fruit that comes when we live lives filled with the Spirit.
In the early autumn of 1996, I was twenty-five years old and had been ordained for about three-and-a-half months. I was in my last year of seminary, and I had just begun work at Duke University Medical Center in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.
Because I was one of the few people in my cohort who was already ordained, I was called upon from time-to-time to the units of other student chaplains to baptize seriously ill patients, people whose situations were dire or at least uncertain enough that, in all likelihood, they may not make it back to their home congregations to be baptized there.
One evening, I was called upon to come to the room of a very seriously ill patient, an infant who had been severely abused and whose family wished to have him receive the sacrament of baptism before he died. It is quite likely that this was the first person for whom I ever administered the waters of baptism.
We stood there in the neonatal intensive care unit, which was dark, except for the bright light over the bed. The family gathered in a semi-circle around the child as I did was I was trained to do in these situations: to give a compressed primer on what baptism is, and what baptism is not. I explained to them that each of us would be making promises, promised to God, promises to this boy, promises to each other, promises about life and living for however long life endured.
Once this was done, I prepared myself to read the abridged baptismal liturgy that we use in the United Methodist Church for these kinds of situations, and as I paused, I heard a voice beside me say, “He promised us a home with many rooms.”
The words were said by a young nurse who worked there in the NICU, standing alongside us in her blue scrubs. I did not know she was even in the room. This young woman whose vocation it was to dwell there in that world, night after endless night, miracle upon miracle, heartbreak after heartbreak.
The words she spoke were words of such hope, such kindness, words from John 14 that spoke to his disciples on the last night of his life as he tried to describe resurrection, heaven, and eternal life to them in a way they could understand.
It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentile and kind. Twenty-two autumns have passed since that night, and time has only increased my appreciation for the faith, love, and courage it took for that young woman to step into the light and speak hope into the most desperate of situations; light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, faith in the midst of doubt, everlasting life in the midst of death.
What Paul does not say to the Galatians is the courage this life in the Spirit requires, when we give ourselves over to God’s will for our lives, eschewing the easy, fleshly desires that always seem to beckon so loudly. And yet, those fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, are hope for the world, and in and through them, we are never alone, there are angels everywhere, even here, even now.
After the September 11 attacks, Fred Rogers, who at this point had ended the filming of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood made a video for parents and children, and let’s face it, all of us. In that video, he reminded us of the call we all have to be what in Judaism is called “Tikkun Olam,” or “repairers of creation.” For Paul, our role, yours and mine, in repairing creation would come as the natural byproduct of our life in the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We know, do we not, how desperately the world needs these things, and we know, do we not, that people like you and I in our life together can show the world what this life in the Spirit looks like, inviting the world into it, for the sake of the world Christ gave his life to save.
What is the light into which God is calling you to step this week? What gutsy kindness is the Spirit calling you to show? How is the life of the Spirit calling you to step outside of yourself into the pain of another, so that God’s love may be evident in the fruit you bear, and where is God calling Reveille to show “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?” Where is God calling you to start a revolution of kindness in this world today?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.