Be the Difference.
“Be the Difference”
June 26, 2022
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Third Sunday after Pentecost
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.
I’m sure every pastor’s office has things that just come with the office, passed down from one pastor to the next pastor either because they are really special or because they are… not really special and just don’t want to be moved. Here is no different. And when I moved in as your pastor three years ago this week, I found that the office came with a basket full of plastic fruit, naturally. On closer examination, though, they are not just plastic fruit. They are plastic fruit with labels. The pear is labeled peace, the kiwi is labeled faithfulness, the apple self-control, the plum patience, the pomegranate kindness, the grapes generosity, the peach love, and the lime joy. They are the Fruit of the Spirit. And having inherited such a priceless possession as your pastor it seemed that using this lectionary passage from Galatians today where the Fruit of the Spirit is the focal point was almost obligatory.
Don’t let the plastic fruit fool you, though. Even though this is one of the most popular items in my office when little friends visit, the Fruit of the Spirit is not just a cute children’s metaphor. In fact, most children these days know very little about what it actually takes to grow a piece of fruit when it just appears in the grocery store and on the plate at home. So let’s pretend these are real for a moment and think about how real fruit is actually a really great metaphor for talking about something that is not instantaneous or easy.
Fruit is hard to grow and it takes a lot of time and patience. It takes 8 years for an apple tree to produce apples from the time it was planted, for example. Growing fruit also takes careful pruning, cutting away parts of the plant that are not helping the fruit to grow. It takes the right amount of water and well-drained, good soil. In short, growing fruit takes a committed gardener. And so it is fruit, of all things, that Paul, the author of Galatians, uses to describe something else that is hard to produce, signs that the spirit is working through us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the outcomes in our lives that demonstrate that the Spirit of God is actually working through us. They sound pretty and the look nice embroidered onto throw pillows, but as actions in real life, they are actually really hard to produce. Plastic fruit doesn’t do the metaphor justice.
We are in our third and final movement in our vision for how to be a faithful church full of faithful Christians. In the first necessary step, we must find the blessed assurance that we are loved totally and unconditionally, nothing else can happen until we know this and those around us know this; in the second step we must be accepted and brought into the fold of a community that makes us feel like family, a place where we can be our true selves, fully and confidentially; then in the third and final step, we finally understand that given the love and the belonging we have felt by God and our community, the only possible outcome is for us to turn around and share that love and belonging with the rest of the world with acts and behaviors that demonstrate joy, self-control, patience, etc. You see, if we’re doing things right as a church, we are creating good growing conditions for producing the fruit of the Spirit. And as such, we’ll all have the freedom and the responsibility to use our behaviors, our words, our prayers, our time, our money, and our activism to make an actual difference in the world.
This was Jesus’ ultimate end game. That he and we would be difference-makers. He took one look at the societal norms of his world, a world where the religious leaders were corrupt and beholden to the empire. A world where religious laws were used to exclude and punish those who were different and unprivileged. A world where some humans were the property of other humans. A world where human dignity was a commodity that could be degraded and crucified just for practicing unconditional love. Jesus came to earth and witnessed that world and saw firsthand the appalling behaviors of humans when left to their own instincts.
And then he prayed a prayer that went like this. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven. Thy kingdom come. God’s kingdom. On earth. Come. With this prayer and again and again in his teachings throughout the gospels, Jesus refocused the earthly conversation not on what was but what could be. Not the Kingdom of Caesar. The Kingdom of God. By coining this phrase, Jesus was trying to get his followers to understand the concept of “kingdom” differently. Jesus was trying to get his followers to not only understand the difference between the Empire’s vision for the world and God’s vision for the world, Jesus was trying to get his followers to be difference-makers in that world. To be people who shifted the balance; tipped the scales of justice; and subverted the power-hungry, hierarchical Empire of oppression into a dominion of mutuality, respect, freedom to live life unafraid, generosity and compassion. Jesus needed his followers to be difference-makers; he needed his followers to be in the difficult and time-consuming business of producing fruit of the Spirit.
Bearing fruit that makes a difference in the world is our Christian obligation. But it’s certainly not easy, is it? Being kind in a conversation with someone who disagrees with you ideologically? Being patient when something is done wrong for the 10th time at work? Being generous when your own budget is pinched by rising inflation? Being faithful to commitments you’ve made when time and numbness has worn down your first passion? Remaining gentle when you’re being treated unfairly? Practicing self-control in a society that makes it easy to over-indulge at every opportunity? These are the kind of scenarios that sneak up on us and eat away at our resolve. This is why we slip and falter and become apathetic and then decide that the world’s problems and our problems are just too big to tackle, so why bother?
One of you shared with me a beautiful image this week that moved you and it moved me, too. I’m going to have Jeff show it on the screen now so you can see it, too. It says “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete work, but either are you free to abandon it.”
Exactly the moment we want to check out and give up is exactly the moment this world needs us. Because all it takes is one moment to choose between doing something that has the power to lift up and doing something that has the power to break down. Jesus could have responded in any number of ways to the religious and political dysfunction of his day. He could have walked away and said, “not my problem.” He could have formed an arsenal of weapons and fought the empire back with violence. He could have amassed the fame and glory he got as a wise teacher to become wealthy and powerful. Instead he turned every temptation into a an opportunity to flip the script. Where there was greed, he sowed humility. In places of power, he lifted up the powerless. At tables with abundant food, he invited the outcasts. Where women and foreigners and children were treated as sub-human, he brought them into his circle and gave them dignity. He stood in the gap between what was and what could be. And he asks us to do the same.
We’ve got a lot of mixed up and messy understandings about how to honor the lives of others in a nation that thinks of itself as Christian. There are hard conversations going on now and will be for a long time to come. All I can ask of you today is to not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. To take Micah 6:8 as instructions for getting through each day. In the small decisions you make and the large ones, too: choose to do what you do with justice; choose to love with mercy; choose to walk with humility. We don’t have to finish the work or even see the end game that Jesus had in mind, we simply just must not walk away.
I am proud of the ways this church works hard to stand in these gaps and engage in the work of the Spirit. We know we can’t solve world hunger, but at the food pantry, we serve over 800 household each year and that makes an impact in this local community. But what I love about this ministry is that it’s not just about the food. With patience and love, our volunteers go above and beyond to help those in need maintain their human dignity, to feel like they actually belong here and are loved. Similarly, our church thrift store not only gives the community a place to share it’s used belongings, it raises tens of thousands of dollars each year that we give to agencies and organizations that stand in the gaps that we ourselves can’t stand in. There are many other ways our church steps up to the work of producing fruit: supporting the Crop Walk, funding kids to go to summer camp, supporting mission work around the world, creating safe and nurturing places for children and youth, and more.
We are working hard to stand in the gaps, but the work continues for our church. The gaps grow and change and as a church and as individuals who follow Christ, we must be on guard for the ways we are being called to stand up and speak out.
If you’ve been loved well, and if you’ve been brought whole-heartedly into the circle of God’s community, there is only one outcome. You will be changed. The unconditional love you have experienced shifts your focus. When you no longer hate yourself, you begin to see how it’s possible to not hate other people. And not only that, not hating other people leads, with practice to actually loving other people. And with more practice, love can lead to kindness, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Don’t let these fruits be a centerpiece on a nice-looking table. Let them be a rallying call to be a difference-maker in a world of injustice and on-going harm. Let yourself be part of the different world Jesus pointed us toward, Kingdom of God. Here. Now. On this earth.
Are you in? If you’re in, can I get an amen?
Let us pray.
Grace and Peace,