I was a bit of a star-gazer as a kid. I grew up near the ocean in Cape Elizabeth just on the other side of Portland, in a setting where - much like here - there was little light pollution. I would sit on the back deck of the house and stare for hours up at the endless night sky, not thinking about much in particular -- merely taking in the vastness of it all. As I grew older, I took just about every book out of the public library on space and astronomy and it didn’t diminish my wonder -- in fact, it served to increase my amazement as I would look up at the heavens and be fascinated by the light that was formed thousands of years ago from distant stars only just now reaching earth, amazed that our galaxy was only one among thousands of other galaxies, and humbled by the notion that life existed in connection to the vastness of the universe.
My curiosity about the world as a child wasn’t limited to the very big -- it also included the very small. I remember being about seven years old and sitting on my dad’s lap and asking him what the world was made of. And he uttered this magical word that changed my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. “Atoms” he said. My young brain puzzled over that one for awhile, because there was this kid in my Sunday School class named Adam, and I wasn’t quite sure how there were little, tiny, Adams making all this stuff. Once I figured out the difference, I was still mystified as to how - if we were all made of atoms - that glass looked like glass and wood looked like wood and - was even the moon made of atoms? So back to the library I went and checked out every single book in the children’s section and learned all about electrons and protons and neutrons and the elements and thus my interest in physics was born.
I followed these passions to being a math and physics double major at college, and it hasn’t left me even in my pastoral ministry. If you could take a look at my bookshelf, you’d see “The Elegant Universe” sitting next to “The Cost of Discipleship” next to a book on Chaos theory next to some worship resources and my journal,...all next to some science fiction. It took me many years to realize that God was speaking to me in the beauty I saw in the stars and in string theory, in the aesthetic of mathematical equations or quantum mechanics, even though I think - even as a child - it was something I grasped intuitively.
I think this is part of the reason that I love the creation story so much. I find such connection to this image of God hovering over the waters, of God’s breath reaching out over the deep, dark, chaotic void to draw forth light and form and substance and life. Everything from the stars in the sky to the grains of sand on the beach, from the largest black hole to the smallest quarks - God’s design called it into being, and God called it all good. We are all connected and sustained by these holy words that God spoke to call the universe into being.
This is the other reason I love this story - the sense of awe and wonder when we look out at the created world. How many of us find ourselves drawn to God when we look out at nature? [show of hands?] For me, there are times when I’m out for a walk, or sitting on my porch, or on vacation out in the Berkshires and I gaze at the mountains, or watch hummingbirds dive bomb each other at a feeder or seeing the clouds roll in for an approaching storm when I am just struck and humbled by the incredible power and mystery of this God who keeps life moving, who holds all things together, who continues to create and call new realities into our lives and into this world, and I know, without a doubt, that all creation was intended to be good....and no matter how bad things may get, all will become good once again.
I sometimes wonder if God might have been a little short-sighted when God put us human beings “in charge” of creation. It’s a responsibility that I’m pretty sure we’ve taken advantage of and abused, even as many have worked to off-set the damage that we around the world are doing to our planet. In some ways it’s a blessing that we live here in this beautiful place, where we on the whole understand our reliance upon the soil and the waters, where we try to live in harmony with the land, where we receycle and upcycle and reuse and reuse and reuse again. It’s amazing the incarnations of various items you see around the place. Even this morning at the hall with the craft item swap -- very few things go to waste around here. And yet, even we aren’t free from the effects of the harm being done to our planet. Much of the air pollution we experience here in Maine doesn’t come from our state - but is carried here on the windstream from coal plants in the south and the midwest and in exhaust emissions from DC northward.
We as a country don’t even have it that bad as compared to other places around the world, with countries like India and China becoming much more industrialized. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to India as part of a class for seminary. We traveled around Southern India, visiting various cities and villages, travelling primarily by train. You would think that traveling through the countryside in an exotic place like India, you’d want a window seat on the train. Not so. The land around the tracks was filled with trash - old tires, bottles, cans, papers, most anything imaginable lined the landscape, and it was horrifying to see the marred beauty of the landscape, to think about the toxins leaching into the soil, to know that unless someone or some organization spends major resources, that trash will be around forever.
Somedays, it feels like all of creation is groaning under the weight of our failed responsibility as faithful stewards of the earth. In dooming the earth, we are dooming ourselves. Even the seemingly most insignificant change can have drastic effects. We may not think that our small actions make a difference, but what one person does affects all of us. Throwing a bottle into the trash instead of in the recycling bin, the byproducts of manufacturing plants trickling into the ground or into our water supply, the extra pollutants in the air on account of our reliance upon cars. Habitats for animals destroyed. Resources depleting. Ozone thinning.Mountains - gone. You can google ways that humanity is changing the planet and see before and after pictures from NASA of areas of earth - deforestation, water shortages, erosion, and more.
It’s a little terrifying to think of. And it’s even more terrifying to think of the effects that will eventually be felt more keenly by humankind within a generation - and how much more those effects will be felt by those who are poor - from famine and drought, to rising sea levels that make areas uninhabitable.
And I imagine God weeping at the thought of this beautiful world being taken apart, piece by piece.
What affects one of us, affects us all.
We’ve seen on the screen all throughout worship these images of creation - the majesty and splendor and awe - and the ordinary beauty that surrounds us every day. I feel so blessed to live in a place where you can see that beauty every day, like in last night’s gorgeous sunset after a hot and steamy day. Such scenes remind me that we are all connected - that the same God who orchestrated the sunset is the God who created me and who fashioned the rocks and trees and water and animals who inhabit it - and that we need to preserve and protect it, even when it means making inconvenient choices. Maybe it’s a call to think twice when we put our junk mail in the trash, or to stop using styrofoam coffee cups at the workplace, or to make a choice to buy products with minimal packaging - or to carpool with friends when going to work or doing errands on the mainland. Perhaps it is to take a more active stance in state and federal government with the standards around emissions and preventing the escalation of climate change.
I believe there is always more that we can do to be faithful stewards of this world that God entrusted to our care. We’re lucky here to live in a place that remains so beautiful -- but we want it to remain this way for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and for generations to come.
So I invite all of us to remember the ways that we are all connected with one another and with creation -- that harm done to one is harm we all experience, and that care and compassion shown to one is a step in healing and restoring all there is. God’s work is about redeeming the whole world - not just humanity but all of creation. Justice in God’s kingdom includes justice for the rocks and the trees, the birds and the insects, humans and rivers and forests and oceans, the sun and moon and stars together. Let’s do our part to be faithful stewards of this universe that God has created, and to bring healing and wholeness to our Mother earth. Amen.
Yet you, Lord, are our Parent.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.
- Isaiah 64:8-9
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. - Jeremiah 18:1-4
Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. - Jeremiah 18:6
Has anyone here ever worked a pottery wheel?
In high school, my youth group every year would do a 40 hour famine where we would fast for two days to raise awareness for world hunger. We would break our fast with a ritual meal similar in tradition to that of a Jewish Seder -- where each item on our plate symbolized some aspect of the Passover story -- and while I won’t get into detail about some of the cultural issues inherent in the appropriation of such a ceremony -- part of our preparation for this experience was making our own plates out of clay. We’d spend weeks on our projects -- my youth group leader had a pottery wheel in her basement, and each of us would take turns getting our hands dirty in the wet clay, trying to shape these lumps of earth into something resembling plates. After firing them in her kiln, we’d glaze them and refire them into semi-useable objects.
Now I am definitely no expert in ceramics -- this is all based on my very limited knowledge of pottery, but working with clay is a lot more difficult than it sounds. First of all there’s a certain degree of coordination involved with kicking your feet at just the right speed to spin the wheel. Once it’s up to speed, you have to keep the motion going while at the same time working the clay with wet hands to shape it the way you want it. It’s almost like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time -- all the while trying to figure out how you are ever going to bring forth something out of this formless lump on the wheel.
Secondly - the clay has to be perfectly centered on the wheel. If it isn’t centered, the force you apply to the clay won’t be even and you’ll end up with a wobble that gets drastically more wild the more you work with it. So you first spend a lot of time making sure the clay is centered -- molding it with your hands and pushing it toward the center as it spins around and around until you have a centered lump. This is, of course, after you have presumably wedged out all the inconsistencies and air bubbles in your lump of clay - if you haven’t, you’re in for trouble down the road.
Next, you start to shape your piece. In my case, we were making plates, so it involved applying a steady, even pressure with the edge of your hand on top to open the clay. Vary the pressure - even a little - and the clay can go off-center.
Suffice it to say, you can’t force the clay to do one thing or another. If you do, you won’t end up with what you want. The clay will work against you, fighting with your will. To put in in the words of Jane Gross in a column on the On Being blog, “try to bully the clay with strength, not stillness, and it turns into a guided missile rather than a bowl.” You can only patiently shape it with steady guidance. If you apply pressure in the wrong place or in the wrong way, it can go out of balance. It’s easy to trap air bubbles, end up with weird ridges, or have your piece collapse on you. And then it’s back to the drawing board. Throwing a piece takes time, patience -- a steady, gentle hand -- a mindful presence.
So when I think about God being the potter, and us human beings as the clay -- I think about this experience, and imagine God at the potter’s wheel...slowly shaping and forming each of us -- working with each of us gently and patiently -- centering and recentering us when we wobble out of place, smoothing out our rough edges, opening us surely to be fashioned into the beautiful pieces we were intended to be.
God doesn’t bully us into shape. God doesn’t force God’s will upon us - but instead God guides us and fashions us.
The Genesis story calls out that we were made in God’s own image. That each of us bears the divine likeness within. But it takes God molding and shaping us to bring it to its fullest beauty -- making and remaking and remaking us again into vessels for God’s holy work in the world.
When we stray -- when we falter -- God doesn’t throw us off the wheel. Instead God takes us once again, centers and grounds us, and makes us anew.
We are all formed and fashioned by God. We are all works in progress.
I think about this fact in light of the events of this past week - with the violence and fear suffered by our African-American sisters and brothers, and with the violence experienced by the police officers in Dallas. I find it terrible to think about the ways we perpetuate cycles of hatred and violence -- and how a disproportionate amount of that violence is experienced by Black young men. The same blood flows in our veins, the same God created us all - and yet, our system is rigged to privilege one class of people over another, simply based on the color of their skin.
It’s not the only place we have gone astray as a nation -- but it’s one where God and God’s people are going to have to do a lot of reshaping to fix.
That is the call -- as people who are created and formed by God to be vessels of God’s spirit, to be agents of transformation, we have a responsibility to be a part of the redeeming work God is doing in the world -- the fashioning of a kingdom of peace and justice, of righteousness and compassion, of hope and love.
Later on in our time of worship, we’ll have an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to that work by remembering our baptismal vows.
That work requires us to be open -- open to God working in every part of our lives -- even the parts that we prefer God to stay out of. It means that we have to yield our spirits in service to God’s. It means that our say over our lives is only good insofar as it’s God’s say over our words, our actions, our time, our energy, our money, our resources, our gifts, our very being. God’s gotta work through all of it. There is no part that is free from God’s transforming touch, from God’s patient and steady hand, from God’s reshaping power.
The words of the hymn we just sang - Have Thine Own Way, Lord -- it’s our daily prayer, so that every part of who we are is open and at the ready for God’s spirit to fill us so that it’s Christ only, always, living in each and every one of us, willing to go forth to participate in the healing and mending of a broken and hurting world.
Let us continually invite God to shape and mold us. To be the clay in God’s hand, who creates us - recreates us -- into vessels for God’s holy work. And may our prayer always be,
Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!
Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.
We’re here at the end of Galatians. We’ve been looking at these early followers of Jesus and their struggles to faithfully live out the Gospel message of freedom in Christ that Paul had originally proclaimed to them. They had gotten swayed by a distorted message - one that said that in order to fully become part of the church, they had to follow the Mosaic law -- follow the rules, regulations, and festivals of the Jewish faith -- including circumcision.
We’ve used the challenges facing these churches to examine our own congregation more closely, and the invitation for us to become the church that God wants for us to be and the church that this community needs for us to be. Most importantly, we’ve been looking at what it means to live out the Good News of God’s kingdom here on this island - and again this letter from Paul to the churches in Galatia offers some guideposts for us. I invite us to hear these words from Galatians chapter 6, verses 1 through 16:
Scripture - Galatians 6:7-16 - NRSV
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
11See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
You can see across the street the small garden that Ben and I are trying to cultivate. It’s two and a half beds - with peas and beans, kale and zucchini, and soon some potatoes. We started with crops that are relatively low maintenance but that are favorites of ours -- after all, you can’t beat the fresh taste of a vegetable that you picked from your own garden.
Now, you might be thinking that it’s rather ambitious of us to attempt this feat of growing vegetables - after all, we are new parents and are spending incredible amounts of time and energy on growing and nurturing our tiny human. You’d be absolutely right in this assessment. We started it way too late, we haven’t been very diligent about watering, Ben’s beans have been nibbled by deer, God only knows why the kale hasn’t even come up, and the potatoes to be planted are still sitting on the porch. I am, however, quite proud of my peas, which -- to my delight -- are actually growing, and hopefully will produce a harvest.
However, the time and attention that we are giving Michael - at the expense of our garden - will produce a harvest of a different sort.
I guess you really do reap what you sow.
Paul here is giving some final reminders to the Galatians about how to live this life of freedom in Christ - freedom from the laws and rules that governed God’s people. Paul proclaimed that in Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the law and that we were freed to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves. But this freedom comes with a responsibility -- we aren’t free to do whatever we may like.
Here, Paul goes into a bit more detail about what the responsibilities are for those who have this new life in Christ - to bear one another’s burdens, to hold one another accountable in love, to work for the good of all -- reminding them that in all things, you reap what you sow...not as warning that a punitive God is going to get you...but as an admonition that the consequences of our actions rebound in our communities and in our lives.
“Bearing one another’s burdens” is a phrase that you hear in churches all the time. We talk about it when we ask for prayer requests. We use the phrase when caring for those who are sick or are in need of some extra help. Indeed, one of the most important things we can do for one another in the church is to help each other through hard times.
It’s also a reminder for us to think twice about the burdens people carry as we go about our day to day business. There’s the saying “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Or -- “be kind to unkind people -- they need it the most.”
It’s an understanding that we are all in the same boat -- we all face challenging times in our lives, we’re all susceptible to sin and temptation, we all experience brokenness and are in need of healing.
This advice to bear each other’s burdens might appear to conflict with what Paul has to say in verse 5 with “each person carrying their own load.” It means that while we are responsible for one another, God is the only one who can ultimately judge our hearts. We can’t compare ourselves to one another -- and we can’t keep account of who has done what for whom, or whose turn it is now to step up or step down -- we can only examine our own lives to see how well we are walking according to the Spirit. We can offer words of encouragement or guidance, but our final accounting for our lives is not to one another -- but to God. Our work is tested by God’s hopes and desires -- not by our own.
Which isn’t to say that we aren’t called to hold each other accountable in love. Paul is clear that in cases where members of the community have gone astray, that we are to restore that person in a spirit of gentleness -- again, not in a spirit of judgment or self-righteousness, but in love -- knowing full well that we could be the ones in need of help and forgiveness next time...and that we are all in need of extra help and encouragement as we are on this journey of faith together.
I’ve been a part of a couple of covenant groups in my lifetime. Covenant groups -- or accountability groups, as they are sometimes called -- are small groups of people who commit together to help each other grow in their faith -- usually by committing to follow certain spiritual practices together, or by stating certain goals around spiritual growth. The hope is that others in the group can encourage and inspire each other in the faith, and can serve as motivators to actually living out the practice you commit to. It’s the same principle behind having a gym buddy -- you are more likely to work out if you know that someone’s relying on you to go with them.
There are two in particular covenant groups that came to mind as I was thinking about this passage and how difficult it can be to hold each other accountable in love.
The first was when I was in college. A group of us would get together every week to “check in” with how we were doing in our devotional time with God and how we were doing in living a life of faith on campus. Incidentally, some of these folks were also my roommates -- which made things complicated at times. We’d meet together and we’d talk about how much time we had spent in prayer or journaling that week. Inevitably, one person would say that they struggled finding the time to read their Bible or didn’t journal like they wanted to, and then the can of “shoulds” came out. “You should read your Bible first thing in the morning.” “You should put your Bible on top of your laptop so you can read it before writing your papers.” “You should have read your Bible instead of going out with your friends last night.” “You should follow this daily Bible reading check-list so you can read a little bit every day.” “You should do this and you should do that…” And it was all well-intentioned, to a large degree -- but it also led to an atmosphere of self-righteousness...like everyone else had it all together, and I was the one who couldn’t make the pieces fit. If you were on the receiving end of the “shoulds” it was not a comfortable - or very loving - experience.
Later, because I’m a sucker for punishment, I decided to give covenant groups another try. This one was formed with some other young adults at Green Street United Methodist Church in Augusta where I was attending at the time. And the vibe of the group was completely different. When someone mentioned that they hadn’t lived up to what they said they were going to do - people asked questions like “What do you think caused you do to that?” or “Where is that struggle coming from for you?” “In what ways can we as a group support you?” “How can we pray for you?” “What do you need to do to live differently?” It was night and day -- and I felt supported and uplifted, even when we had to have hard conversations. There was the sense that we were on this journey together and that we could rely on one another in our spiritual struggles and celebrate with one another in our growth.
In many ways, these groups are intended to function much like the early Methodist societies that John Wesley founded -- groups of people that committed together to a rule of life. [quote from brochure]
The General Rules of the United Methodist Church are to do no harm, to do good, and to attend upon the ordinances of God. Which brings us to Paul’s third recommendation for living out this new life in Christ found in verse 10 - “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
There’s a saying that is attributed to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement. “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
The working for the good of all - as John Wesley understood it - is comprehensive -- body and soul -- tending to physical needs by giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, helping those who are sick or imprisoned, and tending to spiritual needs through encouragement or instruction. He even went so far as to talk about helping each other out with employment or business deals.
I think we could add to this list all the ways that we are called to work for the good of the community - volunteering in our schools, caring for the environment, or standing up to injustice. Basically -- make the world a better place, all around you, wherever you find yourself.
As we consider our own congregation -- and to use the harvest language that Paul uses in this passage, I believe we’re in a season where we’ve got a lot of sowing to do. To be sure, there there are some things on Paul’s list here that we do well. We are a congregation - in fact, we as a whole community - bear one another’s burdens pretty well. And we are certainly a group of people who do a whole lot of good in the world. But I would invite us to consider what ways are we in ministry beyond bearing each other’s burdens? What ways are we contributing to the spiritual growth of one another and those on this island who need hope and encouragement? What good are we - collectively, as a congregation - doing?
We’re not at harvest time yet. We’re in a season of planting seeds - of sowing life in the spirit -- of turning over and preparing the soil of our hearts to see what new life Christ will grow in and among us. We live in this reality that Christ has made us into a new creation - that promise holds for each and every one of us -- and it’s a promise that holds true for us as a church as well if we will only step into it and claim it for ourselves.
We are on this journey together. My hope and prayer for us can be found in the words of Paul -- that we do not grow weary in doing what is right. I pray that we can take the time to seek out God’s Holy Spirit as we work for the good of all - as we bear each other’s burdens, as we hold one another accountable in love. I pray that this church is a place where all can find hope and healing for the road ahead -- where those who are troubled can find peace, where those who are questioning can find a listening ear, where those who are bent over from life’s burdens can find a hand or two to help, where those who yearn for more are invited into the depths of God’s love, where each and every one of us can live as a new creation.
May we continue to sow seeds of God’s spirit, trusting that God will work in and through us to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our communities. Amen.
Scripture - Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - NRSV
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13For 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. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For 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. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, 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. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
A friend and colleague of mine this week posed a question on her Facebook status, and I was so intrigued by it, I asked if I could borrow her question and ask it of my own Facebook friends. (By the way -- Facebook is a great source for sermon research).
The question was this: What is the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase “Christian Values”?
-- what are some of your responses?
What I saw on Facebook to be honest, the results weren’t pretty.
To be sure, there was some of what was shared here -- things like faith, hope, charity, acceptance, treating others as you want to be treated, love and kindness and sacrificing for the needs of others.
But almost twice as many people had a negative reaction to the phrase, saying that they first thought of hate, judgement of anything different, discrimination, closed, mean, conservative, sexist, and homophobic -- and it wasn’t just non-Christians who had these reactions.
Even my own reaction to hearing the phrase “Christian Values” was similar - that it was a phrase used by people when they wanted to discriminate against others or express hatred or disapproval of people or practices.
Isn’t it unfortunate that for so many people - even for so many Christians - the phrase “Christian Values” garnered such a negative reaction and that the assumption is almost automatically that it’s being used by a group of people for their own self-interested gain?
Many people were aware that this shouldn’t be the reaction they have - and instead expressed that instead of thinking these negative thoughts they hoped that values like loving your neighbor, justice, kindness, embracing all people, being like Jesus, or living humbly would come to mind first.
I think about this contrast a lot -- the difference between Christian values as we hope they should be and how they are most often experienced, and I read Paul in our passage from this morning in some ways trying to get at some of the underlying causes of these differences.
Paul starts by reminding them of the freedom they have in Christ - that Christ has set them free for the sake of this life in the Spirit. But he warns them that this freedom isn’t so that they can now do whatever they want to -- but this freedom is for a purpose -- this freedom in the spirit is so that they might love each other better. It’s not for self-indulgent purposes, it’s not for self-interest, or to live however they want to live or say whatever they want to say without thinking about the impact of other people.
Paul iterates that the law of Christ is summed up in one single commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But he continues and says, If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
“Bite and devour one another.” Isn’t that a great image? It brings to mind animals locked in a struggle to the death -- or I picture a bunch of ants or carrion birds swarming around roadkill on the highway. It’s a bit grotesque, to be sure, but isn’t that a great description of what we oftentimes do to one another with our words and actions? Pick apart one another piece by piece through what we say about other people behind their backs, or to their faces, or in our plotting and scheming. So and so did this to me, so now I’m going to do such and such back?
I don’t think I have to go too far in naming examples of where we’ve seen this play out in our nation’s politics, in our state government, or even in our own community.
Paul pretty starkly contrasts this kind of behavior - these “works of the flesh” with what he later calls “fruits of the spirit” - saying that you can’t live both ways at the same time. The Message version of this passage puts it a bit more clearly than what we read earlier. It says, “Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.”
Paul is clear -- we have been freed so that we can love one another more fully. We don’t need the full set of laws and rules anymore to tell us how we are to love God and how we are to love our neighbor, because Christ summed it all up for us -- love your neighbor as you love yourself. And so it’s this spirit of freedom that guides us in our interactions with others as opposed to self-interest.
When it comes to self-interest, Paul has this pretty extensive list of behaviors that fall under this category -- and it’s not even exhaustive: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. These “desires of the flesh” aren’t necessarily about our bodies and its desires - though certainly some of these fit that category. But they are all practices that affect our relationship with God -- and with one another. They are matters of the heart, of our minds, and of our speech that lead to broken relationships, with God or with others, broken communities, and a broken world. They happen when we put our own selves ahead of God and others, rather than thinking about the consequences of our actions or our words. Paul’s words here serve as a warning that a lack of mindful and intentional relational living leads to practices that actively work against the unfolding of the kingdom of God.
And yet the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control -- that’s a hard list to live up to all the time. I know that I don’t feel loving all the time -- even to the people I like and enjoy spending time with. I’m certainly not always patient or generous or joyful.
But this is the picture that Paul paints of what a life looks like where the Holy Spirit is at work. It brings to mind Jesus’ saying “you shall know them by their fruits” -- the hallmark of a disciple of Jesus being one that bears good fruit. Just like you know an apple tree because it produces apples, Paul remarks that you can tell one who follows in the way of Jesus because of the presence of these characteristics.
There’s good news in that having a life marked by these fruits doesn’t mean we feel them all the time. I think about the time I was in Guatemala a few years ago with Linda -- Eldon was on this trip, and Mike and Ariette -- and we were working at Salud y Paz improving their facility, and one of the projects that we were working on was digging a trench for them to lay down some pipe. They marked out the line and told us it had to be however deep and wide, and so we spent all afternoon in the sun, fighting the heat and dehydration, digging this trench...only to be told that they had changed their minds about the layout, and so it had to be redone. And we did it -- but you can better believe we weren’t necessarily filled with feelings of love as we were doing it -- and yet I think you would all agree that through our actions, we were loving our neighbors from this part of the world.
These fruits of the Spirit - the hallmarks of a life of freedom in Christ - are seen again in the quality of our relationships, not necessarily in our emotions. They come about as a result of Christ working in us, and are a sign that we are guided by God’s spirit.
Now to be sure, we will not always exhibit these in our lives -- Thanks be to God that we have forgiveness in Christ and that we always have the opportunity for second chances! We’re always learning and growing - that’s part of what a journey in faith is all about. But a life in Christ gives us the ability to shift our mindset towards intentionality and mindfulness in our relationships with others so that in all things we are glorifying God and being like Christ to others as we go along the way.
Which brings me to our church...and to our community...and to our opening discussion of Christian values.
Each and every one of us is a representative of the church and a representative of Christ on this island. We’re blessed to live in a community that by and large supports and cares for one another in hard times, that reaches out to love our neighbors and sometimes our enemies, and where there is this strong sense of togetherness that knits us together. There’s the understanding that we need each other to survive as a town and as a community.
But we all know that sometimes, we don’t treat each other very well. Some of the time it’s not intentional, though often it is. There are times we look to tear each other down for what we think of as the sake of the community. And a lot of the time we don’t talk about it because it’s not in our self-interest to have the hard conversations, and so we sweep it under the rug until the next time we all get embroiled in the next crisis...and so the biting and devouring continues on and on, sometimes for generations.
We, as a church, are called to be different. We are called to be a witness of what it looks like to be together differently, of what doing business together looks like, of what having hard conversations in love looks like, of what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like, and what it means to carry love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into all of our relationships -- especially those times when we aren’t necessarily feeling very loving or kind.
What would it look like if people’s experience of us as a congregation could help change the way they thought of Christians and Christian values? What would it look like if the next time there was a conflict, the church could serve as a reminder of a different way to work through divisive issues? What would it look like to be a model and to lead by example of creating a truly loving and inclusive community? Where self-interest wasn’t the primary motivating factor in our life together, but the question “how can I love my neighbor” guided the process by which we made every single decision?
As we look toward our visioning process and think about who we are and who God calls us to be...and as we think about who our community is and what it needs - sometimes those needs aren’t physical needs. Sometimes those needs are spiritual needs. And for all the wonderful things about this place, I think there are places where the church can help teach and guide our community to be the best expression of itself - a welcoming, loving, joy-filled place.
It takes practice, and it takes work. But I believe that we as individuals and as a community can commit together to undertake this task that is before us -- that we as people, guided by the spirit, can joyfully respond to God’s work all around us - and see the opportunities for these fruits of the spirit to be made real in our relationships and in our community. The same is true for our congregation -- that we as a church look toward loving and serving this community so that God’s kingdom might be made real - that this might be a place of justice and peace, of love and equality, of welcome and hospitality.
Let us continue to work together to love our neighbors, to have the mind and heart of Christ, and to bear fruit in our lives and in our relationships. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.