Pentecost 6, Proper 8: I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Ps 16; Gal 5:1, 13-25; Lk 9:51-62
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, June 26, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Galatians 5:5
The Broadway production Wicked is the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. It starts when Dorothy has just killed the witch by throwing water on her and the people of Oz ask Glinda if the witch is really gone. Glinda tells everyone that the wicked witch is indeed gone and that she knew her. Thus the story of Elphaba’s and Glinda’s acquaintance and friendship are told as the musical unfolds.
As in any good story, the story of the Wicked Witch of the West is one of misunderstanding, love, and betrayal. It explores how our assumptions about the way people look effect our belief about who they are and how the path to redemption is never an isolated one, though it can often be lonely. It is the story of friendship that blossoms from adversaries and becomes one of deep empathy and care. It is a story that will defy gravity”not simply because witches and monkeys fly, but because true freedom is the loosening of the hold that our expectations and pre-determined ideations have upon us.
More than anything else, as I watched the touring production of Wicked, I was drawn into the great debate of flesh and spirit. The musical itself is a little preachy about animal rights and social activism, but the unwritten theology that unfolds is a sermon on how judgmental we can be in our perceptions of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.
It seems to be as old as time, but we equate flesh with our more base or sinful nature and Spirit with those more positive qualities that we so often fall short on. In Wicked, the green skin of Elphaba makes her an easy target to project our feelings of fear and disorder, the negative aspects of the flesh. She is born out of an affair, her skin is green, and she does nothing to endear herself to those around her. If we were picking the works of the flesh from Paul’s list to the Galatians she would already be guilty of impurity, scorcery, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and a product of fornication.
By contrast, Glinda seemingly represents the fruit of the Spirit”her airy transportation by floating bubble, her blonde hair and peppy personality all point to joy, patience, kindness, generosity, and gentleness. But as the story progresses, our prejudice are revealed for what they truly are: preconceived opinion not based on actual experience. The truth is that matters of the Spirit are not quite as incarnate as we make them out to be, nor is flesh always bad.
In the portion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning, we are given two lists; one is the works of the flesh and the other is the fruit of the Spirit. I can appreciate what Paul is trying to do here, but I wonder if his desire to make things a little simpler has really complicated our understanding of good and evil and how we are to be Christian. He uses an ancient rhetorical device, common in the days in which he wrote: it is the use of lists as a method of arguing one’s point. These lists are one-sided, not well rounded, exclusive, and written to give credence to one way of thinking. They are often placed against a diametrically opposed list written to reinforce the other list. This way of making lists is less Rory Gilmore’s pro/con list as to whether or not she should go to Yale and more a list that points out all the cons of Harvard and all the pros of Yale.
Paul makes a list of all the cons of the flesh and the pros of the Spirit. He does so because he is trying to make a particular point to a particular audience. Though he entitles his list, the works of the flesh, we would do well not to accept that as a blanket statement. Yes, the things Paul lists in conjunction with the flesh would hardly be called virtues, but flesh is more than vice. Paul uses this list to help us understand what it means to live according to our self-indulgences and that list is a whole lot longer and may include items that we have misconstrued as virtue.
This is the great irony in Wicked and the reason our prejudice is exposed for the shallow truth we too often cling to. Galinda, who will later become Glinda, the Ga is silent, is incredibly self-indulgent. She is infatuated with sorcery, envious of Elphaba’s opportunities, a little bit carousing and a little licentious, and causes enmity and strife amongst her peers”all works of the flesh. Whereas Elphaba is concerned with the rights and care of others, motivated by love to care for her sister, kindness in standing up for those whose voice is being taken away, and faithful to her understanding of right and wrong even when it costs her reputation and life: sounds a lot like the fruit of the Spirit.
Glinda will change and become the person everyone already thought her to be”the Good Witch, but Elphaba will never be given the chance to prove her worth. She is labeled as wicked and we are all ready and willing to believe it. Maybe, deep down, we wish we were better than that, but somehow labels always seem easier especially if they match up with the preconceived notions of our own lists and categories. If we simply have a list”no matter how corrupt or false that list is”we can categorize everyone and every action; we can simply say this is good and that is bad, this is the work of the flesh and that is the fruit of the Spirit. Those categories are simple and easy and in the complex times that we live we are sorely tempted to follow an easy God.
Maybe its because we are lazy or we lack imagination, or maybe we are afraid we just aren’t smart enough or our faith isn’t strong enough”whatever it is, we like rules and categories. They help us to create order. And if we read Paul’s two lists simply and think we understand what it means to inherit the kingdom, then we have lost our inheritance. Paul’s point is less that flesh is bad and Spirit is good; though there is truth in that it is not a complete truth. Paul’s lists are rhetorical tools to make a point based on an earlier premise that is easy to gloss over: to love your neighbor as yourself it to become slaves to one another”mutual submission. To follow Christ is to deny self in favor of one’s neighbor. To have freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for self-indulgence but an opportunity for love, enslaving yourself to the good within you, to the good within others even if that means you get labeled as wicked or crucified on a cross.
The freedom we find in Christ is vastly different from the freedom we find in a democracy or an economy driven by capitalism. The freedom we find in Christ is not about getting what you want or even getting our fair share. Freedom in Christ is always about the other”making sure their needs are met, their voices are heard, and in that process allowing them some small part in transforming one’s self. Elphaba and Glinda begin to realize this in the journey to friendship. Each is vastly different and values different ideas and beliefs but both desire the other to be happy and recognize that they would not have become the redeemed people they are without the others’ friendship and influence in their lives. It is a complex and difficult process for enemies to become friends much less transform one another. For Elphaba and Glinda it will involve loss and betrayal and brokenness. But for them the path to redemption is worth it. I wonder if it is for us?
Lists and categories seem like an easier approach to faith and discipleship in following Christ. No offense to Paul and his letter to the Galatians, but I think lists can too often complicate our beliefs and tempt us to a faith based on rules rather than relationships. They encourage and/or thinking and strive to make things black and white even when we know they won’t fit neatly into any given category. And somehow trying to make things fit into neat categories is harder than we think. But, if you really want or need an easier approach to being a Christian, then I offer this: for every action, thought, ideal, or goal you have measure it in this one way”is it self-indulgent or self-denying because only then will you know what love is.