Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sermon -- peace, fruit, st. Augustine and the Holy Spirit.

I should try harder to come up with titles for my sermons.... or to focus on ONE thing not FOUR. In any case, here it is:

Galatians 5:16-26
secondary passage: Isaiah 32:11-18

I want to start off with my honest opinion on this text: I’ve had some discomfort with it. Today is a Sunday we are supposed to be celebrating Christian Peacemaking efforts, and we get a text that sounds a lot like an inner war. It says: “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you intend to do.” And what this seems to tell us is that that there is a war within our own selves, between one’s physical body and one’s personal spirit, or soul – between good and bad within us. And this passage from Paul could certainly be used to bolster that idea, that we have a war inside, and we have to get on the right side: to overcome our physical nature and make our higher spiritual nature conquer it. Ra, ra, ra, fight fight fight!
This may sound true. Many if not all of us sometimes experience life as an internal struggle, where part of us wants to do something, and part of us wants to do something else, and we end up doing something we didn’t really want to do at all. We know what it feels like to try to conquer and overcome part of our own self.
But thinking about the soul and the body this way just leads us down a very dangerous road. It has brought some people to believe: “I should fast, I should starve my body in order to conquer it.”
Some people think: “I should deny all my human desires, and punish myself for even having these desires. I shouldn’t want anything.” It leads to the bad line of thinking, going back all the way to good old St. Augustine, that “sex is bad,” and even that “bodies are bad,” because they tempt us with physical desires. In this modern world that line of thinking may be foreign to you, so to get us in touch with it I will read an excerpt from St Augustine’s confessions: in this particular section he talks about the problem of food, but rest assured that he writes exhaustively about the temptations of ALL of the five senses. Read…
"For hunger and thirst are in some sort pains; they consume and destroy like unto a fever, unless the medicine of nourishment relieve us. This much hast Thou taught me, that I should bring myself to take food as medicine. But during the time that I am passing from the uneasiness of want to the calmness of satiety, even in the very passage doth that snare of concupiscence lie in wait for me. For the passage itself is pleasure, nor is there any other way of passing thither, whither necessity compels us to pass. And whereas health is the reason of eating and drinking, there joineth itself as an hand-maid a perilous delight, which mostly tries to precede it, in order that I may do for her sake what I say I do, or desire to do, for health’s sake. (Confessions X,31)

Augustine was tormented by trying to put his body into subjection.

Do you see the problem, then? Paul’s words about the flesh and the spirit could really be taken down a very wrong road, blaming all our problems on our bodies and our natural desires, and imagining that salvation would be to be set free from our bodies and our desires. Now it’s true that our natural desires do take us into this recklessly divisive place where we hurt each other… because – they do. As Steve has said on occasion, “do they teach a class, Selfishness 101? No, it comes naturally.” But here’s another problem. Guess what… the more refined and spiritual parts of ourselves – our brain, our heart – aren’t always that much better. Somebody could sell all their possessions, move out into the mountains and live a very strict life of simplicity – praying all the time, no drinking, no dancing, no fancy food, no creature comforts – a very focused very spiritual life – and you might say that their spirit or at least their brain is what is controlling their life. They are clearly not living according to the “desires of the flesh,” but this person might still be very unhappy, judging others, angry and resentful, and clothing these angry thoughts in religious words about how they are on God’s side, and everyone else is wrong. Many religious people – monks, nuns, priests – through the ages have come to realize that simply denying our desires does not remove our problems.
So I struggled with this text for a while. A lot of the books I read about it seemed to say that yes, Paul thought there was a war within us, where our bodies were bad, and our souls were good, and we should pay attention to our souls and disregard our bodies, that’s the moral of the story, body vs soul, take it or leave it – I’d rather leave it, because that’s not how I experience life. If it weren't Scripture I would just leave it. It doesn’t make sense to me. My heart is just as bad as my body, if not worse.
And the turning point in my understanding was so minor it’s barely even worth talking about. This is NOT an exciting scholarly breakthrough at all… no Greek or Hebrew was involved... it’s not even a change of a word, or a letter or a single punctuation mark. The turning point for me was when I noticed the capital S on the word Spirit. I don’t know how it is written in your Bibles, but I found a capital S in mine, and I am going to propose that in this section we really HAVE to read the word “spirit” with a CAPITAL S. It is not my spirit or my soul which is opposed to my flesh, it is The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, it is God’s own self, that last 1/3 of the trinity.
If that is true, then there is not a war between MY body and MY spirit – it is the contrast between me and God. It’s not “my good side” versus “my bad side,” it’s all of me – body, mind, spirit, good and bad – vs “the Holy Spirit living in me.” Yes, there still is fighting within my own self. But even the “good side” of me is not “good” enough to win that fight – because I am human and flawed. Paul really wants us to contrast our whole identity, as we used to know it, to our new identity as Christians who have the Holy Spirit living in them.
The good news here is that even though there may be a war going on within us, we do not have to fight that war. We are not out to conquer our own, old, natural selves, our lustful bodies that cause us so much sin and suffering – we let The Holy Spirit do that work. The Holy Spirit is what can lead us away from the bad and toward the good.
I guess we need to stop here and talk about the Holy Spirit a bit, which is not something we do very often. Just as a frame of reference, there are 591 hymns in the red hymnal. The hymnal has about 50 hymns about God the Father, 120 about Jesus Christ, do you want to guess how many are specifically about the Holy Ghost?
there are twelve. That’s about 2%.

In comparison to Jesus, who lived his life on earth, and had specific things written about him… the Holy Spirit is, well, vague. It’s hard to get in touch with it. You can’t really define the spirit, or put your finger on it. But I believe the Holy Spirit is something we all experience, from within, in our own particular way. Some people may say that the Holy Spirit was the voice inside that led them to turn their lives around toward God. Some people say that the Holy Spirit shows them how to understand Scripture. We also know that the Holy Spirit prays within us, especially when we do not know how to pray.
I believe ALL of us, whether we know it or not, have the Holy Spirit living within us. It is a promise that Jesus made to us – that the Holy Spirit would be with us forever.

And one way we can tell the Holy Spirit is with us is quite similar to the way I (a city girl) would tell one tree from another. I’m sure some of you (who grew up in the country!) can tell by looking at a tree, what kind it would be – but I, lacking this wisdom, just wait and see what falls off its branches. When the Bible talks about fruit, this is one of the meanings it has. So when Paul says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc.” he is telling us that these things indicate the Spirit is within us. The fruit that the Spirit produces in us is the “proof of the pudding,” so to speak, the final say. Evidence that the Spirit is there.

And another meaning of “fruit” is what we heard from the Old Testament Lesson Joyce read to us: it is a blessing from God. Joyce read from Isaiah about an episode in which God threatened a punishment of drought, and famine – UNTIL, Isaiah said, “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field becomes a forest.” He said “the fruit of righteousness will be peace,” and he’s talking about the blessing that only God can give, expressed in this case through nature’s abundance toward us. God’s blessing is fruitful fields, justice, peace.
So the fruit of the Spirit can mean “the proof that the Spirit is there,” or it can mean “God’s blessing through the Spirit,” but there’s one more meaning that “fruit” can have. And this comes from contrasting it to the “works of the flesh.” In the two original lists the “works of the flesh” are compared to “the fruit of the Spirit.” And the “works” are all actions, things someone could DO. The “fruit of the Spirit,” however, are not actions- they are states, the results of the Spirit’s presence within us. Works, on the one hand, take, well, labor and effort. When Paul talks about the works of the flesh, like quarreling, factions, sorcery… you could imagine this effort and agitation working really hard to produce these harmful actions. Fruit on the other hand certainly does take some effort on the part of the tree, but you never see a tree sweating. From our view it is effortless, natural, abundant. I’m thinking back a few weeks ago when every fruit tree in this county seemed to suddenly produce at once. Apples, pears, and plums were falling off the trees, rotting on the ground. Whenever I made a call to visit someone, I’d get asked “would you like a bag of apples?” “can I give you a few boxes of plums?” “how about some peppers?” I would go home loaded down with everyone’s harvesttime generosity. The gifts of the Spirit are like that – “can I give you a few boxes of plums?” “really, I have so much, I want to give you more.” When we follow God’s call, the fruit of the Spirit overflows in our lives. It is like we heard in the anthem: Peace is flowing like a river, flowing out from you and me, flowing out into the desert, to the places where it is so badly needed, setting captives free.

There are many manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit, but today we focus on Peace because of the peacemaking offering. It is a time for us to think about peace, look at the tree that is our own congregation, and ask ourselves if there is fruit dropping off the branches, and if not, what we might do to increase our yield. Peace is not something we should have to force, or fight for – it’s fruit, not work, remember? Peace is not about forcibly compelling people to stop hurting one another; it is about growing together in a way that allows each person to exist without being troubled. As I said with the kids, it’s important to have fairness if you want peace. Children have a great sense of when something is FAIR or not. Whenever we treat someone unfairly we decrease the likelihood of being able to live peaceably together. Are we treating one another fairly – making room for peace?
This is a time for us to look at ourselves as a national and an international community, and ask if we have placed any logs in the stream that ought to be a river of peace. Wars, arguments, and political disagreements clearly divide us from one another and block the flow of peace. But even if there is no active fighting, like I mentioned with the children, if you simply separate the fighting parties, you don’t have peace, you have quiet. The Berlin wall was torn down many years ago, but there’s a wall dividing Jerusalem even now. A wall dividing a city does not make for peace at all. Those kinds of walls block the path of peace, settling just for “quiet” instead.
Sometimes we stick logs in the stream because we just don’t want to look at something. The bulletin insert today talks about a church that paid attention to the migrant farm laborers who were being abused by their employers. But how many churches just looked the other way and chose not to “see” these migrant laborers? Sometimes we try to control where the flow of peace will go, keep it with “my people” not those “other people…” but the congregation featured in the bulletin insert was willing to let the Spirit take them wherever they needed to go.

Veteran’s day is coming up this Wednesday. It is an important time set aside to honor those who have seen the worst of this world, and those who were sent to the places where there really is NO peace. This year I invite you to pray not only for our veterans and for our active soldiers, but to pray for our enemies, and for the whole world. Pray that the peace flowing out of us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may have no obstacles to bringing peace to the whole world. And if you see an obstacle, do what you can to remove it. Jurgen Moltmann said that participating in the kingdom of God is a matter of “seeing the world as if it were put right and then acting as if it were true.” May we see the world put right. May we truly see the river of peace flowing from the Spirit through us and all over the world – and may we act as if that were the only thing that mattered.

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