Today’s lesson from Galatians has always been a lesson that tends to stand out when thinking of the most important pieces of scripture in my faith journey. About 5 years ago, the lesson began to stand out for another reason.
One of the most faithful lectors was reading at the early service at All Saints’. He was always sort of a bull in a china shop kind of reader, but he read with passion. And let’s just say he wasn’t boring to listen to. I liked it. You never knew what he was going to say next.
So he got to the list of vices that we see in Galatians. He read, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity…” He paused for a moment. I looked down at the text and saw the word “licentiousness.” I waited with great anticipation to see how he would handle this one.
I could see the wheels turning in his head. And then I saw a light bulb go off. He went back to the starting line and started over on the list. He blurted out, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, and other bad things…” And like a kid in a china shop who just broke the Nancy Regan place setting, he turned to me with a huge grin before returning to the text.
And other bad things. Over the years I have come to appreciate this interpretation as more than just a liturgical goof. Even if our spiritual vices don’t appear on this list, we all know a little bit about those other bad things. Like St. Paul said elsewhere, we all know what it is like to do the things we don’t want to do and not do the things we want to do.
We are like that person who goes to Wendy’s fully intending to order a salad from the healthy menu. We drive up, roll down our window, and the aroma of freshly cooked French fries wafts through our window.
We are seduced by the smell, rendered powerless, and order a number 2. And when the teller asks what size, we make it a large size. What to drink? A diet soda because that will compensate for the 1,000 calorie meal we just ordered!
The problem, for most of us, is that we are well intentioned people who end up doing other bad things despite our best efforts. And the temptation is to look at these lists as a check list of things to do if you want to be a Christian. And it seems the harder we try to do the things we want to do the more self-absorbed and obsessed with our righteousness we become, and we end up simply living for ourselves—breeding the other bad things.
Don King, our Verger—not the boxing promoter, told an old Cherokee parable last Tuesday at our book study. It is called “Two Wolves.”
An old Cherokee chief was talking to his grandson about life. He told the boy, “There is a great battle going on inside of me and it is between two wolves.” He said, “One wolf is anger and pride and lies and self-indulgence and greed. The other wolf is kind, gentle, disciplined, humble, and full of compassion.”
He said to the boy, “The same fight is going on inside of you—and everybody else, too.” The boy thought for a minute and his curiosity asked, “Which wolf will win?” The chief said, “The one you feed.”
The theologian inside of me wants to issue a warning and say that this parable comes dangerously close to perpetuating the heresy of dualism—that is the idea that evil and goodness are the products of two separate creations. I.e. God is good and the world is bad or we are good and they are bad or there is a good Jack and a bad Jack. I’ll simply say this. In the beginning God made creation and all that is in it and called it “very good.”
Okay, back to the Cherokee parable and how this parable can inform how we are given the ability to exhibit all those good things instead of other bad things...Obviously, we would all like to feed the good wolf inside of us and let that wolf win. But based on experience, feeding the good wolf isn’t as easy as it sounds.
We often treat St. Paul’s list of virtues like something we can just pick up at the grocery store. But at the grocery store we also have to go to the check-out line that is filled with sugars and candies and tasteless magazines—we are overwhelmed by solutions that look flashy on the outside but leave us empty on the inside.
Even more, trying to pick up the things we need at the grocery store is like trying to carry around a greased watermelon. At first we can manage. But after a while, we start to lose our grip. Until finally the watermelon explodes at our feet at the check-out line. And what is at the check-out line? We pick up the most convenient options instead.
When we run out of the kind of food the good wolf needs to survive, we resort to the most convenient food—sugar and carbohydrates—the cheap stuff. We resort to the food that makes us bloated and tired just a few hours after consumption.
We resort to quick fixes, to the stuff that fills us up quickly only to leave us in a world of hurt a few hours later. We resort to the kind of things that con us into believing we can pretend the bad wolf inside of us doesn’t exist. It has been said, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.
The truth of God tells us that the food that feeds the good wolf comes from a source bigger than ourselves. Like Jamie tells Mary Katherine, we eat the food that God gives us—fruits and vegetables and water and bacon. We eat the food that most grocery stores don’t carry.
This is the food that cleanses us and restores us. This is the food that gives us a better chance of survival in a world that is saturated with cheap solutions. This is the food that gives us the energy to run with endurance patience the race that God has set before us—a journey marked by kindness and mercy and discipline.
A life lived according to the fruits of the Spirit is maintained not because of our own will—no matter how good our intentions. Instead, a life that exhibits the fruits of the Spirit is maintained because we return to worship the One whose life oozes with kindness and compassion and gentleness and self-control. We are maintained in the life of God by consuming food from God.
Our worship calls us to consume the life of God in Christ through his Word and Sacrament. In worship, our words are shaped by the Word. In worship, our life is shaped by the life of Christ. At the Lord’s Table, we receive the body and blood of Christ and are reminded that we are what we eat.
Our worship and our consumption of the life of Christ frees us from worrying about whether or not we are living right for we no longer live for ourselves—we live for God; we live for each other—we live for the One who was freed to live for us. And when we live for God, we are committing to a faith that believes Jesus is converting all those bad things into good things.
St. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. 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.”
Like Paul says, our freedom in Christ is not a freedom to indulge in all the other bad things and live any kind of life we want. In fact, this is no freedom at all. Instead, this kind of indulgence will make us slaves to people and ideas and idols and solutions and agendas and cheap food that will fail us every time—and if they don’t fail us they will certainly fail those around us.
Instead, the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about is a freedom that is found when we get outside of ourselves. Paul is talking about a freedom that releases us from being over infatuated with ourselves and our livelihood. When we focus too much on ourselves and our own needs, we breed those other bad things—idolatry, anger, dissention, jealousy, etc—we feed the bad wolf.
At Rotary Club a few weeks ago Bill Gamble gave us one of his famous truisms. He said, “the quickest way to forget about your own problems is to help somebody else with theirs.” From day one on this earth, Jesus was flooded with problems. But Jesus committed his life to helping everyone else with their problems.
And Jesus’ solution had to do with leaving behind a world that is obsessed with trying to fix the problem with the most convenient solutions and leading us into a life that is done with temporary fixes. Jesus is taking us on a journey where the other bad things become less and less tempting because Jesus is showing us a God whose food will satisfy our hunger to the point where our cravings for the bad stuff are converted into a passion and energy for a God who fills us and creation with all good things. Amen.