The Fruit of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.4-11; Gal. 5.22-23)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
August 28, 2016
I was on my bicycle riding toward him when I saw it happen. On my way to meet my son at the end of the school day so we could ride home together. It wasn’t a long ride, only about a mile, and I was pedaling slowly on the shady side of the street when I saw a different boy coming my way. He was younger than mine, perhaps first or second grade. He pumped his bike hard, wobbled under the weight of his backpack, hit a slick patch of dried leaves on the sidewalk, and went down. It was a hard fall, his bicycle slipping out sideways and coming down right on top of him. I was still half a block away and pedaled quickly to reach him. When I got there he wasn’t moving.
I jumped off the bicycle and bent to help. Are you all right? I asked. The boy craned his neck to look at me. His glasses were bent and his helmet skewed. He grimaced and tried to speak, but he had the breath knocked out of him. He nodded and I put a hand on his shoulder. Let’s get you untangled, I said. Does this hurt? No, he shook his head. And we gently unthreaded him from underneath the bicycle. He raised himself to a sitting position and began to draw deeper breaths. We took a look at him. Nothing seemed to be broken or even terribly swollen. But his knees and elbows were bloodied, his face and helmet were covered with dirt and leaves, and his glasses needed adjustment. Where’s home, I asked him, and he pointed across the street. He was almost there. And before I could offer to help, he sprang to his feet, jumped on his bicycle, and darted across the street, looking back with a big grin. I watched until he reached the driveway where his mother was waiting. I saw him showing her his knees and elbows, collecting a hug. I climbed back onto my own bicycle and continued on, charmed by the boy’s combination of fragility and strength. Aren’t we all like that, I thought.
That boy occurred to me this week as I reviewed some of Sharon Welch’s work in preparation for her visit as our fall theological lecturer next month (Sept. 23rd and 24th). Sharon is arguably the most significant feminist ethicist of the past generation, though her work is more well-known to divinity students and professors than to the general public. Yet her ethic was embodied by the boy who got back onto his bicycle and rode home, not five minutes after being rather badly shaken. And it was captured by the smile he shot me, the backward glance of gratitude, and the resilient pumping of the pedals. Having lost control, having suffered the scrapes, and knowing the risk, he went right back to it for the joy of riding. . .and for the promise of home.
At the heart of Sharon Welch’s ethical project are the ideas of control and risk. We have spoken of her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk in previous teachings and in our theology book group, whose podcast is available online if you’d like to hear it. But the short version is that she invites us to do ethics, to live and be and act in the world, in ways that are not focused on control. We cannot control the outcomes of our work. We do not have certainty about how things will go. We are never sure what exactly will happen once we begin to work for social and environmental justice. Welch reminds us that people of privilege, particularly white and educated people, are accustomed to exercising control and having things go as we expect. When they don’t, we are tempted to give up quickly. This is too difficult, we say. It isn’t working. What’s the use? Sharon says this as a highly-educated white person herself, who has spent much of her life working in the struggle for justice in the privileged contexts of divinity schools and universities. She saw this “ideology of cultured despair,” first hand and sought to counter it. She wanted to build a more resilient ethic. Why stay on the ground when you could get back on the bicycle?
Her subsequent ethic is an ethic of risk. In it, she draws from communities that have not always held power or who have had it taken from them, particularly African-American communities, indigenous communities, and communities of women. There she finds an ethic that is not based on control or outcomes, but seeks instead to exercise itself over long periods of time without ever giving up. An ethic of risk acts not out of certainty, but out of love. It invites people to join in the movement for freedom because the work itself is beautiful and has value, bringing joy and community in the here and now even as we work together for the someday. An ethic of risk does not promise that we will not fall of the bicycle. It knows we will fall off many times, perhaps becoming badly hurt. All it promises is the fun of riding in the first place, the vivid, sensual reward that makes the risk worthwhile.
As a part of her ethical project, Sharon Welch always maintains a stance of self-reflection and critique. Part of the risk she invites us to take is to ask, over and over again, if the work we are engaged in is healing and healthy or if it could be turned toward harmful ends. She sees religious experience as fundamentally amoral and the only way to judge the quality of a religious experience is to ask about the effects it achieves. Does it lead us to be resilient, compassionate, generous, and grateful? Or does it lead us to be fragile, judgmental, acquisitive, and unappreciative?
In an essay she wrote on the Spirit for the Constructive Theology Workgroup, Sharon wrote of the Spirit as she was brought up to understand it. “I was raised in a tradition in which we were taught to welcome the gifts of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence was varied as the pulse of life itself—sometimes wild, fierce, and tumultuous, but just as often, just as important, quietly gentle, reassuring, and sustaining.” The Spirit, then, brought gifts that were multiple but constitutive of good ends. It was made manifest through people in any number of ways. Just as the old letter to the Corinthians reminds us:
There are diversities of gifts but one
Same spirit. And there are
Of services and one same lord. . .
But the manifestation of the spirit
Is given to each one so as to gain
From it the good. . .
The letter offers a brief litany of gifts—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy—and celebrates that we are all different yet held by a common breath, a spirit that lives and moves and breathes through us all. But Sharon Welch reminds us that self-reflection and critique are themselves gifts of the Spirit. She writes:
As much as we were taught to welcome the gifts of the Spirit, we were also taught to discern the Spirits. My uncle taught me that one can recognize that a Spirit is to be welcomed if it leads us to feel more love for other people. . .[but] we learned to question people who claimed to be led by the Spirit but used that power to denounce others or to distance themselves from others self-righteously. We questioned the Spirits who brought fear and established fear-based hierarchies.
“By their fruits you will know them,” she says, and then speaks of the fruits of the kind of Spirit that we might welcome. The good fruits are the embrace of others, the celebration of texture and difference, the inclusion of the many, the inculcation of connection with our neighbors and our earth, and the delight and mystery we feel at being a part of the natural whole. These are the fruits of what we might really call the Holy Spirit, because they help us to hallow, to revere, to bow before all that is and then to relate to it with an ethic of reciprocity and care. These are fruits that people have always recognized.
The old letter to the Galatians offers its own litany:
But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy,
Peace and long-suffering, kindness, the good,
Faith, gentleness, and self-control.
And if we had a little more of these things in our religion and culture, we might be all right. A little more love and joy and peace and long-suffering. No giving up. Just getting back on the bike. Pedaling our way to the someday, even as we savor the dappled shadows on the leafy sidewalk. Sure, we might slip on the same leaves. But we might also find each other there, one knee in the dirt, one arm reaching out. Are you all right?
This is all metaphor, of course. I’m talking about our work for social and environmental justice in South Carolina. I don’t just mean riding bicycles. I mean working to desegregate our schools, I mean trying to restore broken trust between the community and the police, I mean fighting for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, I mean protecting voting rights, I mean pushing for access to health care for all, speaking out for living wage and equal pay for women, protecting our delicate coastal ecosystem, rendering white privilege visible and beginning to dismantle it in our lives and institutions, speaking out for bicycle lanes and public transportation, and remaining deeply committed to the freedom struggle in all its forms, the movement for dignity and equality that continues in our day and time. This is incredibly difficult, lifelong work. And we have no guarantee of the outcomes. The only promise we have is that we won’t see the end of the work. We are simply here to play our part, to fulfill our role, to honor those who have gone before and imagine the ones who will come after, and to use our gifts as best we are able to bring a little more love into the world. We have fallen off the bicycle many times in the work. And we will fall off again. But our charge is not perfection. Our charge is to keep on pedaling.
I was thinking of that boy earlier this week as I rode home with my son from school. I hadn’t seen him in a while and wondered how he was. And as my mind began to drift, I was pulled back to the present moment by an unpleasant sound. It was the skid of tires on gravel and my son slowly going down in the road, skin onto hot cement without anything I could do. I jumped off the bicycle and bent to help. Are you all right? I asked. He looked at me and smiled, untangled himself, and sat for a moment rubbing his sore knee. Then he asked for his backpack and reached inside. He had packed Band-Aids for just such an occasion.
But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, and long-suffering. Kindness, the good, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Blood, dirt, and leaves. Band-Aids, balancing acts, big grins, and the courage to try again.
 Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 104.
 Sharon Welch, “Discerning Spirit: An Interrelational Communal Perspective” in Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes, ed. Serene Jones and Paul Lakeland (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 266.
 1 Cor. 12.4-5, 7, The Restored New Testament, trans. Willis Barnstone.
 Welch, “Discerning Spirit,” 266.
 Gal. 5.22-23a, The Restored New Testament.