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Psalm 7.1-8

Galatians 5.16-25

Virtue Won’t Hurt You

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was in college I played in the pit orchestra for a weekend’s worth of performances of Kismet, a 1953 musical set in a fictitious Baghdad during the Arabian Nights.  The show was memorable in multiple respects, not least of which was that, a week before the first performance, more than half the orchestra walked out because of a disagreement with the conductor.  I stayed, and even though we were able to scare up a few more musicians, some from my college orchestra, our numbers were considerably diminished for the show.  But the audience never knew and it went off surprisingly well given the circumstances.  I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I recognized a lot of the music, because it borrows heavily from Russian composer Alexander Borodin.  Probably the best known song is “Stranger in Paradise,” whose melody comes directly from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  Other melodies are borrowed from his string quartets and symphonies.  One that is not is a song that opens the show, “Rhymes Have I,” sung by a character who sells poetry for a living:

Rhymes fine rhymes sweet rhymes have I
Sly rhymes wry rhymes meet rhymes have I
To a world too prone to be prosaic
I bring my own panacea
An iota of iambic
And a tittle of trochaic
Added to a small amount of onomatopoeia…
Happy rhymes like money makes you sunny
Spicy rhymes like virtue can hurt you
Learned rhymes like the camel's a mammal
And others very various on matters multifarious…

And so it goes…

It is from Rhymes Have I that I borrowed this morning’s sermon title, although you’ll notice I turned it around a bit.  Where the character sings “Virtue can hurt you,” I switched it around to “Virtue won’t hurt you.”   Let’s see if that’s true.

Two weeks ago Travis Ikeguchi tore down a Pride flag that flew outside Laura Ann Carleton’s handcrafted clothing shop in Cedar Glen, California and began shouting homophobic slurs against her while she stood in the doorway.  A heated argument ensued until Ikeguchi produced a gun and fatally shot Carleton.  A search of the shooter’s online postings included a picture of a burning Pride flag with the question superimposed, “What to do with the LGBTQ flag?”  It also featured the words Pride Month with the first three and last two letters blurred out so that it spelled “demon.”  There were other anti-gay posts and slurs, but there was something even more disturbing.  Ikeguchi called himself a Christian and posted things like, “When your heart is hurting and you have nothing left to pray, speak the name of Jesus.  When the tears fall and no one else can see, whisper His name… God has chosen you to make you a blessing to many.”  How a person can claim to love Jesus but hate his neighbor is a mystery to me, but it is far from unusual.  One prominent conservative Christian called his perceived opponents “goblins” and “satanic.”  A South Carolina pastor told his congregation he is declaring war on every “demonic, demon-possessed Democrat that comes from the gates of hell.”  And Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, a self-proclaimed Christian, posted on his news feed just three days ago, “Whiteness is great.  Be proud of who you are.”

One of you was in my office the other morning and wondered why people are drifting away from the church.  We’ve said it from this pulpit before, and it cannot be said enough, that some of the loudest “Christian” voices in America are anything but.  Yet we all get painted with the same broad brush that characterizes the narrow minded as representative of the whole.  David French wrote in the New York Times last week,

“Simply put, America is increasingly beset by a version of cultural and political Christianity that bears little resemblance to the faith as described in the Bible.  It seems as if there’s an almost mathematical equation at work – when you combine theology and ideology but subtract virtue [there’s that word again], you’ve created a formula for viciousness and strife.  Raise the stakes to an existential or eternal level, remove the restraints of kindness and self-control, and watch the worst of humanity emerge.”

Kindness and self-control.  These are the words of the apostle Paul.  Perhaps his letter to the Galatians can help lead us through this conundrum of contradiction.

 It is likely that Paul’s words are familiar:  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  There is no law against such things.”  What Paul means by that last little bit, “There is no law against such things,” doesn’t mean you can express them because they aren’t against the law, but rather, there is nothing that can stop them, nothing that can restrict the power of these virtues.  By virtue of being the fruit of the spirit they blossom and grow in abundance from the heart of the spirit-filled person.  Think of them like the zucchini that won’t stop growing in your garden; after you’ve made everything you can with them – cinnamon-love loaf, faithfulness fritters, kindness carbonara, self-control smoothies, what else can you do with them?  Give them away indiscriminately!  Who cares if your neighbor has all the love, joy and peace they can use, you can never have enough right?  Share those spiritual fruits or virtues with everyone you see and the world will be a better place.

Because what is the alternative?  Paul tells us what the alternative is; he contrasts the fruit of the spirit with what he calls the works of the flesh:  fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like.  Friends, if you have a garden filled with these, you can keep them to yourselves; you’ll have trouble enough with your neighbor already, no need to give any of it away. 

And yet.  And yet, aren’t these among the very things that some expressions of the church have chosen to focus on as a way of drawing lines between themselves and everybody else?  But you see, there is the problem.  The so-called “faith leaders” David French wrote about who call their opponents demonic and satanic  tend to focus almost exclusively on the works of the flesh.  They focus on things like fornication, impurity and licentiousness – which is to say the licentiousness of others, never their own – and are blind to the rest of what Paul wrote.  Because if you’re going to stand in the pulpit of your megachurch and demonize everyone who disagrees with you, then is your work not the work of enmity, strife, anger, quarrel, dissension and faction?  Focusing on the vices of the flesh to the neglect of the virtues of the spirit is to flip the apostle’s words on their head and twist them to endorse precisely what they proscribe.

Pope Francis had some pretty strong words this week about the faith that divides rather than unites.  He was speaking specifically about certain expressions of American Catholicism, but he could have included a similar swath of American Christianity when he called out his colleagues who focus narrowly on issues such as abortion and sexuality and ignore the larger issues of poverty and hunger and homelessness and despair.  He called this kind of spiritual myopia “backwardness,” and “reactionary.”  “When you go backward,” Francis said, “you make something closed off, disconnected from the roots of the church…  I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

And then he said something that I think hits the nail on the head:  “Doing this, you lose the true tradition and you turn to ideologies to have support.  In other words, ideologies replace faith.”  Ideologies replace faith.  Ideology, a fixed, predetermined way of looking at the world that does not allow for growth or change.  By contrast, faith, a constantly growing garden of multiple fruits that change and evolve in response to their environment.  I’ve been calling them virtues this morning, but I can’t take credit for the term, I borrowed it from French’s piece in the Times I cited earlier.  Toward the end of it, he confessed, “When I was a younger Christian, I used to love theological debates and devour theological books.  But now I’m much less interested in theology, and I’m far more interested in virtue.  If theology minus virtue can equal violence, then perhaps theology plus virtue can enable justice.”  I looked to see how the word virtue is used in the Bible, and was surprised how seldom it is used.  But where it is used is telling.  Ruth’s decision to remain with and care for her widowed mother-in-law Naomi is virtuous.  And in both II Samuel and the Psalm Peggy read for us this morning, Psalm 7, the word virtue is associated with strength.  Not in the sense that strength is virtuous, but in the sense that virtue is a strength.  The fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, every one of these is a sign of strength, of a strong, authentic, confident faith.  Whatever is not is cowardly and divisive and weak.

If I may paraphrase the apostle, I would say that whatever divides us, or sets us apart from others for the purpose of affirming our own goodness and the other’s evil is the work of the flesh; whatever unites us and drives us to love and compassion and all those other virtues the apostle lists, is the fruit of the spirit.  And what do you do with all that fruit?  There is plenty for yourself, and so you give it away and there is still enough for everybody.  Because virtue won’t hurt you, and there is never too much of it.

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