I feel a bit like Admiral James Stockdale right now. Some of you will remember him as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. His opening comment in the vice-presidential debate was unforgettably parodied by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live: “Who am I? … Why am I here?”
In my case, most of you know the answer to the first question, but the second is a bit harder to answer. Let’s just say that I suspect Rev. Rebecca may have heard from our former minister in Pelham where I filled the pulpit on a few occasions. We’re very fortunate to have Rev. Tim Wildman available for many of the weeks that Rev. Rebecca will be away, but this weekend he has been in New York City and Massachusetts celebrating the ordination of his daughter into the Episcopal priesthood. He will return next week. Meanwhile, you have me.
This morning, we’ve heard from Psalms in our Call to Worship, from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah, from James and from the Apostle Mark. All these readings are suggested in what is called the “Revised Common Lectionary,” which is a kind of liturgical guide used by many denominations to determine which scriptures to use on any given Sunday for readings and as inspiration for sermon preparation. Happily, several of these readings mention “fruit”, which is what I really want to talk about today.
About 7 years ago, I was visiting my son and his family in San Francisco. I asked him about Facebook, which seemed to be becoming popular with people my age. He showed me what it looked like and helped me get signed up for a Facebook account. When I got home to New Hampshire, I began logging on to Facebook a few times a week. I’d look for people I knew to “friend” them, I’d post a few things about what was going on or what I was thinking – but no cat videos. My list of friends grew, albeit slowly. It was quite fun reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in years. Some were from my past in the Air Force, some from college. Most were current acquaintances from work, or church, or the neighborhood. And of course many were family scattered around the country.
After living in many different parts of the United States and a couple of other countries, we have a Christmas list of over 140 people – and that’s after having been trimmed a bit. At some point a year or two later, we’d had so much fun with Facebook that Milli and I did our annual Christmas letter in the format of the Facebook newsfeed. That was really fun.
I should have realized it would be inevitable that, as with so many other aspects of modern living, social media would morph into another forum to express uncensored opinions, outrage, and just plain meanness. I like a good argument from time to time … a good argument being a lively discussion in which different opinions are rationally expressed, without ad hominem attacks, and certainly different from a shouting match. And on Facebook, I’ve been involved in a few very good arguments, especially when they’ve been initiated by my younger brother. Lately, I’ve become far less inclined to participate in discussion of important issues in social media. When I’ve tried to offer another viewpoint, more often than not I’ve been shouted down not only by my friends, but their friends, as well – people who don’t even know me. And all too often, it has involved insulting, unkind words.
I suppose such reactions are to be expected nowadays. But what is really disappointing and disconcerting is when the unkindness, either towards me or towards others – and especially towards the disenfranchised – originates from people who self-identify as “Christian.” In one breath they rage against the so-called “war on Christianity,” while in the next they castigate immigrants, welfare recipients, Muslims, gay people, or whatever other group they think is getting something they don’t deserve.
The little song we did with the children this morning lists the several attributes of the Fruit of the Spirit that Paul talks about in Galatians, chapter 5. At grandparents’ camp, we found ourselves humming the song, or singing it again and again when hiking, or around the campfire, or during a devotional period. The kids caught on very quickly. We older folks took a little longer to get it straight. And there’s something I found interesting about this passage, something I’d never thought about, which I’ll talk about in a few minutes.
So Paul wrote this letter to the churches in Galatia, which is a region that we know today essentially as the central highlands of Turkey. The inhabitants there were Gentiles, believed to be descended from Celtic tribes who had settled there a couple hundred years earlier. The Romans called them Gauls which became Galatians. He wrote his letter because in very short order after they were established – Paul says he was “astonished” at how quickly this occurred – the churches there had been led astray by arguments about the requirements of being Christians. One group insisted that in order to be considered a Christian, people first had to observe certain laws of Judaism, then as now, numbering 613! It’s not clear to me if they thought all 613 laws needed to be followed, or if they “cherry picked” those laws for the ones they liked; the text suggests the “cherry picking” approach, at least it does to me.
What is abundantly clear is that this was in direct contradiction to what God had revealed to Paul through his knowledge of Jesus Christ and what Paul had taught to the churches in Galatia. Since the Galatians were Gentiles, they did not have a knowledge of Jewish law. I suspect this probably made it easier to influence them that these legalistic requirements were important. Paul considered this an attempt to “enslave” the believers, denying them the freedom of Christ’s redemption. You know …, you can’t be a Christian unless you believe these particular doctrines and follow these particular rules. Sound familiar?
When I was in college, I spent one summer as a door-to-door salesman. I was among a small group at our college who were recruited by a master salesman into a multi-level sales organization selling the Nave’s Topical Bible. It seemed like an almost sure thing item, especially since we’d supposedly be selling it through referrals in areas of the Bible belt. Of course, that only worked if we had transportation to go to select homes, which I did not. So I had to go door-to-door, never knowing quite what I’d encounter. Yep, I was a door-to-door Bible salesman.
We had weekly sales meetings where about 50 or more salesmen gathered to be motivated and share our weekly success. I must admit, my efforts were not very successful very often. One of the things that struck me that summer was the implication that if we were not doing well, it was because we were “not right with God.” I’m sorry, WHAT? Maybe some of us just aren’t very good at sales?
I learned many things that summer. I learned that if you can get a person to say yes three times, your chances of closing a deal are much higher. I learned that you really have to believe in your product to be successful in sales – either that, or you need to be able to fake enthusiasm. I learned that I absolutely, positively, did not want to be in sales. And I learned that some people will use the language of religion to convince and even control other people in matters having nothing to do with faith – and sometimes, not so kindly.
Paul reminded the Galatian churches that he had even called out Peter to his face on Peter’s hypocrisy. When originally in Antioch, one of the cities in the region, Peter would eat with the Gentiles, something observant Jews simply did not do. But when “certain men” came from James, from the context these were the so-called Judaizers, Peter drew back from the Gentiles because he was afraid. Paul said “Peter, what’s the matter with you? You know that as Jews who follow Christ, we know even better than the Gentiles that we are now justified by faith, not by the old Jewish laws.” He reminded Peter that they were free from those laws.
Galatians has only 6 chapters. By the 5th chapter, Paul has pretty well chastised the Galatians for having been easily swayed. He then reminds the churches of his original message, reminds them of how depraved they had become, and how they had been redeemed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. He tells them that they will be known by their actions, which apparently had begun to indulge the sinful nature. Paul said that those who displayed immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, and so forth would not inherit the Kingdom of God.
And then he shifts gears:
The Fruit of the Spirit
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity (goodness), faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
And here’s what I found interesting and new about this passage, something I’d never really paid attention to in the past. Notice that Paul says, “the fruit of the Spirit IS…” It’s not plural, not “the fruits of the Spirit ARE…” The fruit of the Spirit IS love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity (goodness), faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s one fruit, with nine attributes. That’s sort of like saying the fruit of the apple tree is mostly red (okay, sometimes green), sweet, tart, has seeds, it’s wonderful when baked into a pie, it’s nourishing, and healthy.
You can’t say an apple is red and sweet and ignore the rest. An apple “is” all of those things. You really can’t pick and choose. When we see the apple on the tree, we know it’s an apple, and therefore we know it’s an apple tree. We know the tree by its fruit. We know the tree by what it produces. We might suspect it’s an apple tree by the shape of the tree, or by its location in an orchard, or by the shape of its leaves. But when we see or taste the fruit, we know for sure.
I mentioned earlier that we went to grandparents’ camp in early August. This was our second year. Some of you have met Henry and Fiona – we love them very much, and they really love grandparents’ camp. One of the activities this summer was to make a necklace. We had a string of beads and attached a cut-out that we had decorated. We were to choose one of the attributes of the Fruit of the Spirit as a theme for the decoration. I chose “kindness.” So did Henry. Henry said he chose kindness because, he said, sometimes he is not very kind to his older sister. Wow. Such insight from a nine year old.
I consider myself a very patient person, maybe sometimes to a fault. I tend to let things be and excuse the actions of others as without intended malice. Milli will tell you that’s true with one glaring exception – I have absolutely no patience with those idiots on the highways. I will shout at them and attribute all sorts of motives to their careless ways – windows closed, of course. I just know they are out to get me, personally. But I’m working on it.
I’m also working on trying to be a little kinder. There are kinder ways to disagree with someone than calling them an idiot. Try, “have you considered the possibility that they’ve had a rough day?” Or how about just counting to ten? When someone disagrees with me on something I feel strongly about, my first reaction is often to go into a defensive crouch. Unchecked, that almost always leads to some sort of angry or unkind response.
Look, I think we all know when we’ve been unkind. And most of the time, we know when we’re about to be unkind. I’m not talking about being honest with someone else, I’m talking about being mean – even just a little mean. We can be angry or upset without being mean. We can disagree with someone, we can correct our children’s behavior, we can suggest a change in someone’s attitude all without being mean about it. Jesus said to love each other as you love yourself … which is not always so easy.
When it comes to social media, I’ve decided to try really hard to sit out this political primary season. I see a lot of really inflammatory postings on Facebook. In the past, I almost always responded. But for the past month or two, I’ve resisted the urge to respond, not only to avoid that knee jerk reaction that may be a bit biting and unkind, but also to avoid tempting others to fire right back with their shouted replies. It became a bit easier once I realized that in almost every instance, no one’s mind is changed in a social media exchange … the only thing that happens is the two sides feel their own position is justified and both parties get put out with each other.
There are certain of my friends who are capable of rational argument, and I feel a bit safer in those discussions – but I’m still trying really hard to see another’s point of view. And from what I continue to see, I suspect at some point resistance will become futile and I’ll no doubt lash out in withering dissent … only to wish I hadn’t.
And I’m also trying to remember that little song when dealing with other people … even when driving:
‘Cause the fruit is Love, Joy, Patience, Peace; Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness; Gentleness and Self-Control … Love, Joy, Patience, Peace, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness; Gentleness and Self-Control.