Seasonal Fruit

Abel has been going to the CSA pick-up practically since he was born. “CSA” stands for “community supported agriculture”; it’s a way for people to connect directly with small local farmers, paying in advance for a “farm share” of fresh produce. People get great local veggies at good prices, and farmers to get a stream of income that’s reliable, regardless of blight or bumper crops. I still remember our first visit: I was a new mom and a new upper-west-sider, wheeling the stroller the eight blocks down West End Avenue. I entered the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew, and made my way to the sanctuary, where the tables were laid out with lettuce and cabbage, carrots and beets, herbs and the omnipresent kale, all direct from the farm. He was too little to eat any of it, then or at the end of the CSA season in November, but by the time the next year’s CSA began in June, he had just turned one year old and had a clear favorite part of the CSA: the fruit table. After collecting our leafy greens and root vegetables and broccoli, we pick up our eggs and milk from the cooler area, and then go on to the fruit table, where we’re handed a quart of strawberries, or a half dozen pears, or whatever the seasonal fruit is that week. By the time Abel was a year old, he wasn’t talking, but he knew he wanted that fruit. With an imperious little pointed finger and a cry of “ADADADADADADADA,” he communicated his desire, and I handed him a single strawberry, separated from its leafy stem with my fingernail. By the time we got home, all the strawberries had been devoured and Abel’s little onesie was dyed pink with strawberry juice.

I thought about the CSA fruit table as I sat down to write this week’s sermon, because today’s epistle reading brings us this favorite passage from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control. There is no law against such things.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written as a response to news that Paul had received about the churches he had helped to found in Galatia. Paul understood his call to be “the apostle to the Gentiles,” spreading the good news of the resurrected Christ to non-Jewish communities all over the known world. In Galatia, he had helped to share this gospel among the primarily Gentile populations, then had eventually moved on to start other churches in other areas. However, in his wake had come other early Christians, who understood the relationship between Christianity and Judaism differently, and taught that all of the Gentile Christians must convert to Judaism in order to be part of the family of faith. Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia angrily opposes this teaching, and lays out a different understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Jewish law. Paul’s letter asserts that, in Jesus Christ, we are offered a new kind of relationship with God - one defined not by the law given to Moses, but by the grace we’re offered through Jesus Christ.

This raises a question, though: if we are no longer subject to the law, what happens to all of the good and helpful things in the law? What happens to God’s guidance about living well in community? What happens to all of the teachings about what it means to live an ethical life? If we are set free from the law, as Paul says, then it is possible to be in relationship with God apart from the traditions and codes that defined religiosity for Paul and the disciples. But are we set free from the requirements to practice justice, honesty, mercy, loving-kindness, and so on?

Clarifying his declaration of freedom from the law, Paul offers the image of “fruit of the spirit,” which has inspired Christian communities ever since. This image shifts the orientation, changes the order, from what people expected. Paul argues that positive character traits are not things we have to do in order to earn God’s love. Rather, they are fruit: they grow and ripen because God is cultivating them in us. God’s love comes first, poured out on us regardless of anything we do or fail to do, but God works on us like a farmer, laboring to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.

As I reflect on that image of “fruit of the Spirit,” the metaphor strikes me as surprisingly rich. I’ve been thinking about recent research that has shown the harmful effects of sugar on the body: the ways that cookies and cakes and ice cream disrupt our metabolisms, rot our teeth, and spur neurological reactions similar to the ones seen in drug addiction. Fruit is different, though. It is sweet, but it is also wholesome, packed with not only sugar, but fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and other beneficial things; the health risks of processed sugar don’t seem to be associated with fresh fruit. It’s sweet and appealing, but it’s good for us, as well. Paul contrasts the “fruit of the spirit” with “the works of the flesh” (although, of course, flesh is not itself a bad thing - God created flesh; God’s Word became flesh; Paul uses “flesh” as an expression to designate what’s contrary to God’s Spirit). The works of the flesh that Paul lists includes things like drunkenness, quarrels, jealousy, carousing — things that seem pleasurable at the time, but ultimately put us in a toxic cycle of seeking what can’t satisfy and ultimately will do us harm. The fruit of the spirit — love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — are things which are sweet and healthy; they bring us deep satisfaction and wellness.

They’re not easy, though. I’ve read more than one reflection on this “fruit of the spirit” passage, talking about how fruit grows naturally and effortlessly. Well, that may be. It’s not a soufflé, demanding time in the kitchen with whisks and bowls and measuring cups. But it’s not exactly effortless either. We recently went out to a fruit farm in New Jersey to pick strawberries as a family. I was struck by how much work had been done to bring the fields to a point where they were ready for people to walk through picking the fruit - preparing the earth, planting the seeds, watering the plants, weeding, and more. And the work wasn’t done, because once the fields were ready, people came with their baskets and spent hours crouching in the fields, inspecting berries to see which were ripe enough to be plucked. I was startled by how fatigued I was after an hour or two of work! Perhaps that’s true with the fruit of the spirit, as well. It may seem to appear, almost miraculously, a gift from God and not our own work, but there’s much that comes before it to make it possible: practices of being in community, of welcoming God’s work in us, of listening and growing and discerning, that makes it possible for those gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, and so on to come to fruition in our lives.

One last thing about fruit, which would have been obvious to Paul, but perhaps not so much to us: it’s seasonal. We’re used to walking into a grocery store where year-round you can buy strawberries, apples, mangos, grapes, bananas, watermelon, and more. But if you’ve ever been part of a CSA or explored a farmer’s market, you may have noticed that not all of those things are available all the time. Right now, in this part of the world, it’s strawberry season. If you take the time to find strawberries that are grown nearby, you’ll notice that they’re unbelievably delicious, packed with the kind of flavor you would never taste in berries that are grown thousands of miles away and shipped here in refrigerator trucks. It’s strawberry season, but it’s not peach season. Peach season is coming, and it will give way to raspberries, apples, grapes, pears, and then the winter, and then it will start all over again. Maybe the fruit of the spirit is a bit like that as well: maybe those traits don’t come all at once, forever, sitting there on the shelves of your soul like a grocery store refrigerated display. Maybe there’s a seasonality to them - times when you’ve really got a lot of generosity, but not too much patience; times when you’re joyful, but not so peaceful.

As we speak, the other part of our congregation is making its way downtown, waving the Broadway UCC banner, in New York City’s Gay Pride March. So if the fruit of the Spirit is seasonal, then perhaps the fruit of the Spirit that’s in season today is Pride. Not the kind of pride that New Testament writers are so critical of, pride which asserts its superiority over everyone else, pride which seeks to build itself up by tearing others down. When we say Pride, we’re speaking of the assurance that every single person made in God’s own image — gay and straight, transgender and cisgender, every single one of us reflects the very face of God. When we say Pride, we’re speaking about the trust that love — all love — is a good gift from God. We’re speaking about celebration of how far we’ve come since LGBTQ people could be locked away in prisons or mental hospitals just because of who they are, celebrating how far we’ve come since the uprising at Stonewall kicked off the movement for LGBTQ rights. And we’re speaking about how far we yet have to go, remembering the shooting at Pulse, remembering the people who still lose lives and jobs and families because of who they are, recognizing that it is still dangerous to be LGBTQ in this country. And we are praying for that Spirit that planted seeds at Stonewall, that Spirit which has been acting up in our communities for decades and centuries and since before time began, that Spirit which cultivated change in our courts and our legislatures and our church assemblies, to keep on moving through us. On this Pride Sunday, may God’s Spirit stir us to humble appreciation of all that God has done, cultivating in us the fruit of the Spirit, so that we and all of creation might sit down to a great feast at the table of God.