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Tending Our Garden:
Freed for Joy and Peace

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost • July 22, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Galatians 5:1-3, 13-14, 16-26
(adapted from The Message)
Pastor Jeff Wells

     Today is the second Sunday in our five-week worship series called Tending Our Garden, in which we are focusing on what the apostle Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit.” In scholarly bible translations, the list goes something like this: 

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”[1]

Paul did not intend this list to be exhaustive. He shared these as examples of what we might experience allow ourselves to be “led by the Spirit” of God. It is a good list, but I really love the creative re-envisioning of the “fruit of the Spirit” in the passage from the The Message bible. Listen to it again: 

“What happens when we live God’s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

Prayer: 
Please join me in a spirit of prayer. God of abounding gifts and extravagant love, we come to you with all of our longings for joy, peace, meaning and purpose, for your loving guidance, and for the ability to get out of our own way so we can connect deeply with you and with one another. Open our hearts and minds to the message you want us to hear this morning. Guide us in tending our garden so that we might experience the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Amen. 

     Today, I want to reflect with you on the fruits of joy and peace and what we have to do to experience them. I have to say that for a lot of people it would seem counterintuitive and counter to their personal experience to claim that we can have an overarching sense of joy and peace. How, they would ask, can we experience joy all or most of the time when our lives are filled with so much unrest, anxiety, abuse, and sadness? How can we have a sense of peace in a world that is so filled with hatred, violence, and injustice? 

    A part of the answer to those questions lies in our faith. When you have the gift of faith, you come to know that you are forgiven because God is merciful and compassionate. You come to know that God desires your well-being and provides guidance and strength for your life. You experience deep in your being that God loves you unconditionally and that nothing can separate you from that extravagant love. In the strength of our faith, we can know joy and peace because we rest in God’s love, we know that Jesus gave his life for us and to show us the example of how to live, and we feel the constant guidance and loving care of the Spirit of God. 

     As the call to worship this morning says, “we thirst for joy and we longing for peace.” Yet, still, we have trouble finding them. So much gets in our way. Paul implies in his letter that we either “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit,” or we are simply trying to get our own way all the time. But, if you think about that for just a moment, it doesn’t feel right and true. That does not match my experience. I think we know it is much more complicated than that. There are times when we are able to live in God’s love and guided by God’s Spirit, but other times when we struggle with selfish impulses, with despair, with self-loathing, with oppressive social systems, and so much more. We thirst for joy, but we are held captive. We long for peace, but our hearts are troubled. And, so, we cry out, “Show us they way, release our spirits. Free us to live in peace.”

     Then we hear Paul’s response: “Christ has [already] set us free to live a free life. So, take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” Oh my God, that feels like such good news everytime I read it! “Christ has set you free!” We are freed, Paul says, from slavery to the law. We are freed from those dogmas, doctrines, and church rules that seek to set up standards and barriers to membership in the community of Jesus’ followers. They work against mutual love and radically welcoming community.

     We are freed to let go of those things that get in our way. Things like: 

“repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never- satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”

Thanks to God’s mercy and Jesus’ own sacrificial love, we are have been freed from our captivity. Yet, here comes what sounds like a strange paradox. We are free, but we ought to use our freedom to “serve one another in love.” The Message paraphrase is weak here. Here is how the New Revised Standard Version presents the same idea:  

“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.” (NRSV)

First, Paul says, Christ set you free, now “don’t let anyone put a harness of slavery on you” and then he turns around and says, now, “become slaves to one another.” What’s going on here? Is Paul confused? Has he forgotten what he just wrote? 

     Not at all! He is urging these new followers of Jesus not to go back to submitting to the law that was intended to regulate our behavior. Instead, he implores them to become slaves to one another in love – “that’s how freedom grows,” Paul writes. And, he embeds this radical freedom to love in the foundational teaching of Jesus when he adds, “For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” This freedom is not for “me, me, me!” to choose to do whatever I want. This is freedom to choose love. This is freedom to choose to engage in the challenging struggle to love deeply – in community with others.

     Paul’s words speak powerfully today to us and to the whole church. So often, Christians have re-imposed law over love as the standard for our relationships. Dependence on law, rules, dogmas, and standards is a very deeply ingrained human impulse. It is based on the fear of chaos and disorder. Too often, we fear that love really cannot compete with human greed, envy, ambition, power-seeking, and prejudice. We believe human beings can only be disciplined by law. I see that in the majority in the United Methodist Church which – whether conservative, centrist, or liberal – has enslaved itself to what it perceives as “the law.” That “law” includes both biblical law and the law laid down in the Book of Discipline. Many centrists and some liberals argue in favor of allegiance to the law over the Spirit of Love. We have witnessed many examples of church leaders who claim to advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, but refused to act in opposition to the Book of Discipline. Yet, obeisance to perceived “law,” especially in the name of “unity” of the church, is actually the enemy of God’s call to serve one another in love. Promoting the “law” over love, always leads to putting up walls between people, instead of tearing them down. 

     It is jarring to hear Paul argue that we should become slaves to one another in love. Even in his own time, it would have shocked his audience. In Greek and Roman culture, the thought of willingly submitting oneself to slavery would have been absolutely horrifying. Yet, Paul is not advocating a hierarchical, oppressive system of slavery. He is proposing one in which we mutually give ourselves to one another. 

     That is so important for understanding Paul’s message and for how we can implement it. You see, Paul was not focused on individual salvation or transformation, but on building liberated and liberating communities. He wants us to see that God desires a radical freedom for us – not only freedom from the law, but from all sorts of injustice, division, inequality, oppression, exploitation, abuse, hardship. And God knows that we can only experience that in community with others. We can only be transformed in this way in communities that are truly welcoming and inclusive and that seek the radical well-being of all. The way of mutual, self-giving love is not a one-time choice. It demands making choices every moment of our lives to tend our communal garden in a spirit of love and service. God offers us the freedom and the strength to choose to love. When we do, we can experience the wonderful variety of fruit that results. This is the very foundation of our journey toward beloved community. 

     Here is the way Paul expresses this vision elsewhere in his Letter to the Philippians, in which he powerfully links our participation in mutually loving community with Jesus’ example of self-giving love:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. [2]

     None of us are perfect human beings and COTV is not a perfect community, but we are building beloved community in which mutual service in love is our bedrock. We seek to use our freedom to offer ourselves to one another. And I experience that in this community. 

See members deeply caring for one another.
Deep sharing and vulnerability in potlucks and small groups.
Overt verbal expressions of love.

     Friends, in our participation together in the Church of the Village, we have the extraordinary privilege of co-creating with God a new way of being in the world. This way of being – this way of life – is not focused on self-interest, self-enrichment, or on profit as the prime motivator. We desire – even if we cannot always fulfill our desire – to focus on meeting the needs of all and providing the basis for a rich life of spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being and fulfillment for all. We work hard to be welcoming and loving to all who come to our community. And we strive to build up love and justice between us and also in the world around us.  

     Our thirst for joy and our longing for peace can never be satisfied by exclusive concern for our own well-being or gratification. God calls us to tend our garden together in community and in mutual loving service. As we grow in our ability use the freedom God offers us to give ourselves to one another in loving community, we will experience a rich harvest of the fruits of the Spirit. 

 

[1] Galatians 5:22-23
[2] Philippians 2:1-8

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.