The Works of the Flesh ~ Galatians 5: 16-25
To me, who is not a theologian, this text sounded pretty simple: bodies bad, spirit good. But this is what I want to say to you today: I do not know how to give or get the fruits of the spirit without my body.
Did you know that there are 100,000 miles of blood vessels inside your body? That every day your heart creates enough energy to drive a truck for 20 miles? That in its lifetime, your brain’s long-term memory can store 1 quadrillion pieces of information. (That’s 15 zeros. I looked it up.)
This is a miracle. (Holds up hand, flexes, and closes.)
What Fern does playing our pipe organ is a miracle.
Taking a 22 and a half-foot, well-defended, fall-away jumper to score a three pointer is a miracle. And by miracle I am not talking about a 52-year curse, I am talking about the brain and the body’s capacity to calculate the precise force and arc needed to nail the basket under great pressure.
I know bodies are inexplicably astounding, but this Galatian’s passage makes it solely seem to me like bodies are led astray to do evil and harmful things.
I know, however, because I phoned a friend in Denver – yes, that friend – that Paul was speaking with the Galatians about the building of their community. He was trying to share that disordered desires break down and harm society, and that God offers something greater: freedom from the laws of the flesh to the freedom given to us when we follow the law of love.
But to me, who is not a theologian, this text sounded pretty simple: bodies bad, spirit good.
Despite the celebratory carousing I did last Sunday night with the rest of Cleveland, I know that drunkenness, impurity and licentiousness, among the other things that Paul lists, can get us into a bit of trouble, maybe a whole huge mess of trouble. It’s true. I don’t need Paul to remind me of that.
But this is what I want to say to you today: I do not know how to give or get the fruits of the spirit without my body. Spiritual work is not about the spirit alone. It is about the ways we use our eyes and hands and legs and bellies and ankles and elbows to experience that which is sacred.
Take any of these fruits of the spirit – love, patience, self –control – and ask yourself, “How do I harvest that fruit, how do I ripen that fruit, how to eat and digest that fruit except through a body?”
Love: As felt by a warm hand tucked into your elbow, waking at 3 am to feed the baby, or tend to a fever, or rush to the hospital because that is where your brother has landed. Love takes bodies.
Joy: From sound of children playing or laughing so hard you cry. Joy takes bodies.
Peace: Light filtering through the canopy, bending your rickety knees to get onto the meditation pillow. Peace takes bodies.
Patience: Showing a calm face in turmoil, taking a deep breath, settling your anxiety as the clock ticks past the appointed time.
Kindness: Holding the door open, penning a letter to an old friend, choosing to sit beside a stranger.
Generosity: Making cookies for your new neighbors, reaching to grab the dinner check, donating blood in Orlando, Florida.
Faithfulness: Waking up, brushing your teeth, driving the car to get here today, or to a GCC meeting, or to your therapist, or to a job that challenges you day after day.
Gentleness: Speaking softly, slowly, to someone who is worried, nodding your head when your friend speaks about her husband’s death. Gentleness takes a body.
Self-control: Scanning the refrigerator and grabbing the bag of carrots instead of Fudgsicles, experiencing road rage without reciprocation, listening for understanding instead of pushing your agenda.
We need our bodies to be God’s people. Our bodies are the only way to know and reach God’s blessings and grace in this world.
I’m not Paul. I was never blinded by the voice of the Lord. I have not spent my life proclaiming my faith nor will I be persecuted and killed for my fervor. I’m not Paul. But, lordy, I have been blinded and scales have fallen from my eyes.
I remember being at a retreat, and the retreat leader was playing the drums, hoping to evoke a meditative state in the participants. It did not work on me at all, but I began sobbing unexpectedly. It was because, after 48 years, I realized, for the first time, that my heart had been beating my whole life. That my heart carried me through tough times. That my heart kept beating through broken bones and a broken spirit and broken heart. That the actual muscle and electrical impulses had been more faithful to me than my spirit had been.
I remember breaking that arm, breaking it so badly that my nerves did not work for six months. Breaking my bones so badly that they exploded and were so butterflied apart and twisted that my doctor said there was nothing to do other than to assume the ends of the bones would somehow find each other. It took 8 months, but they did. My bones were more patient and generous than my wavering spirit was.
I remember when my mother was dying and she lost her voice, lost her ability to move, lost her ability to eat, but she told me she loved me with one tear that fell down her check, and a nod.
Our bodies speak for us when words falter. Our bodies heal us when we are dead set against recovery. Our bodies take us to edges – secular and sacred – that make us bigger, better, more holy people.
How do we ritualize and worship the triune God? With water on our foreheads, with bread on our tongue. With bittersweet grape juice, with ashes on our brow, with palms waving in our hands, with songs coming from our throats.
And how did Jesus show his love? By sitting down, eye to eye, with the woman at the well. By making loaves and fishes to feed the people. By eating with his best friends. By extending his scars to Thomas and saying, “Go ahead – feel for yourself.” By allowing a woman to anoint his head with oil, and dry his feet with her hair. By carrying the cross, by suffering the lashes, by feeling his heart beat beat beat until it beat no more.
I do not know where your legs have taken you – St. Peter’s Basilica? The NICU to see your new grandbaby? Down the aisle to say I do to the person you love most? My legs have taken me to the bottom of the Colorado River in Utah where I saw the most wondrous sunset I have ever seen. My legs walked down the pea gravel path at Kenyon College where I fell in love for the first time. My legs walk my spirit around this world and, thank you God, I am grateful for them.
I do not know where your knees have bent – in a garden in Amsterdam? To pull a turkey from the oven on the Thanksgiving when your prodigal son has finally come home? To place a stone on your grandmother’s grave while you prayed? My knees bounced around the courts at Howe School playing tennis past dark against friends. My knees bend under the desk in my computer room waiting for words to spill from my fingers. My knees, thank you God, have helped me understand the faithfulness needed to exercise my gifts.
I do not know what your hands have touched – a microscope when doing critical research, a paintbrush when finishing a well in Haiti, a spoon that stirs a soup that will be served down the hill in East Cleveland. Mine hold the handlebars of my scooter that brings me a great sense of freedom and joy. More importantly, my hands have held Helen and Sarah and Grace and John and Tavish and Sheridan and Fiona and Aria and Eli, children who are not my children but the children I have been given to love. When I am sad and worried and lonely, I do not hold out my spirit, I hold out my hand. And when my love grabs hold, something within me settles. Peace.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells us in one of my favorite books, An Alter in the World, “To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir…In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind (us) that faith is a way of living.”
Most of you know that I’m a teacher. This year I did a unit with third graders about the traits of plants that help optimize their survival. We learned about xylem and phloem, photosynthesis and chlorophyll, stomata and root hairs. In the last session, students learned how pollination is key to creating flowers and fruit. We talked about bees and birds and butterflies and bats creating seeds. And, while the kids were fascinated with all of it, I had this sermon mulling around in my head too, and what I really wanted to talk with them about wasn’t about plants – it was about us.
There are no fruits of the spirit without us buzzing around each other. Getting the pollen of life onto our paws and faces. There is no fruit unless we fly away and drop a little bit of us behind. There is no fruit without the womb, patient and willing within us. There is no fruit without the scattering of the seeds on good and ready soil. There is no fruit without the warmth and water of spring in seasons of resurrection. There is no fruit without the seed coat cracking. There is no fruit without us becoming vulnerable with and dependent on each other. And all of that happens – the pollination and planting of the fruits – with our bodies, loving each other, sharing joy with each other, being patient and kind and generous with each other.
As Barbara Brown Taylor tells us, again from An Alter in the World, “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from bodily experiences. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
So let’s go forth on this bountiful day. Let’s pollinate each other, let’s bear and eat fruit together, welcome in the wide and blessed circle of our gracious and merciful God, who teaches us the freedom in love, and gives us – through our beautiful beautiful bodies – the harvest of the Spirit.