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Monday, August 21, 2006

Filled not with spirits but with the Spirit (Sermon for Proper 15B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
20 August 2006, Proper 15 B
at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Chicago, IL


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

It seems that there is no end of things to worry about these days. We hear of new threats of terrorism. Even as plots are foiled, we grow more suspicious of others and odd behavior can set us instantly on edge. Despite a tenuous peace, further combat in the Mid East seems imminent, with the inevitable cost in noncombatants and the impact it makes around the globe. The conflict in Iraq drags on as its costs, human and otherwise, soar. The five year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looms. And keeping in mind the attack not far from here this summer, violence and racial tensions here in Chicago exert their influence on us, too, heightening our anxieties.

Or when we consider our church in the wake of general convention, there isn’t the same cost in terms of lives certainly, but some have felt our disagreements so deeply they have walked away from the table and might at times feel hesitant to name us as brothers and sisters in Christ. Although we might not agree with them, we still feel the loss of them and the distance between us.

And perhaps some of us find ourselves upset by the wedding last month of Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock – whether this upset is out of dashed personal hopes or fear that they might reproduce, I refuse to speculate.

But seriously, it seems that there is no end of things in the world to cause us worry, anxiety, and fear. And a big part of what makes these events so worrying is a feature common to them all: we have no control over them.

Continue reading Filled not with spirits but with the Spirit

When we find ourselves in situations which have such a high cost, and we have no control over them, there are two common responses. One is to withdraw from the situation by giving up, by just losing all control and trying to escape. The other response, especially when the anxiety is as close as a family member or a situation at work, is to use as much power as possible to try to reassert control. We might say that we are caught between losing ourselves on the one hand and using ourselves to dominate on the other, between losing control and clinging to control at all costs.

Interestingly, the readings we heard for today give us some resources, as Christians, for how to deal with this bind.

First, let’s turn to something Paul says in his letter to the church at Ephesus. He says ‘Do not get drunk with wine…but be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Again, as I said last week, it might be easy to read Paul here as engaged in cheap moralizing, as if he were saying ‘shame on you! Drinking is bad! You should stop.’ But Paul isn’t just giving free advice; he is suggesting something far deeper and more important than that.

Drinking to excess can be a way of escape. I think Paul isn’t just saying that getting drunk is a bad thing. I think because it is a way of losing or giving up control, a way of escaping, that Paul is saying that it’s important that we don’t take ourselves out of action; that we don’t despair or give up. That’s not how we are to live as Christians.

So what does he say in response? I think this is the intriguing part. He doesn’t say ‘you people need to avoid demon drink’. This is important, because we can often be tempted in these situations to a kind of moral earnestness, what some would call ‘Puritanism’. We could be tempted to go to some lengths to avoid all drinking, and would work really hard to walk the straight and narrow. But sisters and brothers this would just be seizing control ourselves. Instead of giving up control, we would just be re-asserting it. But these are just two sides of the same coin in what should be a devalued currency. The issue is not, after all, whether we have too much or too little control.

To this dilemma, Paul suggests something quite different. He says, in effect, ‘do not be filled with spirits, but be filled with the Spirit.’

The real irony here is that, to outside observers, at first glance, there might not seem much difference. In the book of Acts, when the Spirit descended at Pentecost and filled the disciples, bystanders poked fun at them, saying that these people were drunk on wine. And Peter had to say to them, ‘No, no. We never drink before noon. This is the Spirit of God poured out. God is here, doing something amazing.’

Or if we return to what Paul is saying, we find that being filled with the Spirit brings joyous singing and effusive gratitude to God. The Spirit doesn’t bring stick-in-the-mud sobriety but joy, pleasure, delight. Being filled with the Spirit, we are no longer left to focus on ourselves and our control – or being out of control. We are drawn into the overflowing love, wisdom and joy of God. And in that, we are transformed. We grow in love for God and others. We grow in wisdom and joy. And how can we help but sing our gratitude to God, who made and sustains each one of us: everything we have and everything we are is pure gift. Being filled with the Holy Spirit changes us, frees us in just these ways.

It would be fairly easy to stop there. But the truth is, when we are no longer preoccupied with ourselves and our control but are freed to love others, we are also freed to bear the burdens and costs of that love.

We simply don’t have the time this morning to do justice to the richness of what Jesus says in the gospel reading about being the bread of life. But I will take a moment to mark one significant aspect. All that he says about being the bread of life, about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, all of this is sacrificial language, about him laying down his life in a way which is able to sustain his followers. This giving of himself gives life to others, but in the process he is consumed.

Friends, he was not blithely unaware of the cost of this process, but he undertook it willingly, for us and for the world, out of a deep and abiding love. And I think as we are filled with the Spirit, we too are able not only to feel the joy and gratitude of that love, but to bear its burdens and costs, too.

Oscar Romero knew something about this.

As Oscar Romero studied for the priesthood in El Salvador, he self-consciously separated himself from other seminarians that were interested in the liberation of the poor and oppressed. It is said that for years he distanced himself from any such activities, quashing “community-based pastoral projects that he felt were too radical” and he unwaveringly defended the status quo. This continued even after he became archbishop of San Salvador, turning a blind eye to state-sponsored terrorism and brutality against the people of that country.* But one day, an activist priest named Rutilio Grande was murdered, along with a little boy and a 72 year-old layman. This was the turning point. Gradually Romero realized that his call as archbishop was not just to protect himself, but to be a shepherd to his people. He was taken up with a passionate, selfless love for them. This meant working for justice, resisting state violence, and publicly denouncing the atrocities committed against the Salvadorans. Romero had started off with certain expectations about a comfortable and conventional life. But in seeing the bodies of these three slain people, seeing Christ there in them, it was as if he was filled with the Holy Spirit for the first time. His expectations, his episcopacy, his life had been shaken up and changed by the Spirit.

In this experience, he was given what must have seemed like new life. Not only that, in his love and passionate commitment to his people, he also gave his life. For his speaking out, he was shot by assailants on March 24, 1980, while he celebrated mass at an altar near his home.

Archbishop Romero knew what it was, in Paul’s terms, to be ‘filled with the Spirit’. He was filled with passionate love for God and others. He no longer needed to be in control, or worried about not being in control. He grew in wisdom, joy, and gratitude. The Holy Spirit freed him from being preoccupied with himself and his own safety. And the Spirit also freed him to bear the burdens and costs of that love.

For Romero, it led him to give his life.

But of course for us, who knows where it will lead? Perhaps as we continue to grow in being filled with the Spirit, it will mean overcoming our fear and becoming a friend to a neighbour or a stranger. Perhaps it will mean talking to someone else about why we sing our gratitude to God, and what Christ means to us. Possibly it would be something like being a blood marrow donor. Or maybe it will be sharing some of our gifts with someone else: tutoring a child or being a companion to someone who is alone. Just where it leads brothers and sisters is not something that I can answer for you, but something we discern in prayer and worship. It might be quite surprising. It will certainly be glorious.

I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I can tell you this much: in being filled with the Holy Spirit, we will be freed from our worries, our anxieties and our fear. We will no longer obsess about the need to control, or else the desire to run away. We will grow in love, wisdom, and joy, and we will be taken up in gratitude to God, and freed to love others deeply. And we will be freed to bear the burdens and costs of this love, sometimes in quite surprising ways. All of this won’t take away those things in our world which inspire fear, worry and anxiety; but it will give them all a new meaning, as we are filled with God’s love – a love which casts out fear. Amen.

* From “The Reluctant Conversion of Oscar Romero” in the Mar/Apr issue of Sojourners Magazine. Online at http://www.sojo.net/magazine/index.cfm/action/sojourners/issue/Soj0003/article/000312.html


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1 Comments:

Blogger PdB said...

Oh, you are in such trouble. I see that you were in Chicago, and ne'er a word or e-mail to let us know! We would have come to hear this sermon in person! Well, there it is. Maybe next time.

Monday, August 28, 2006 5:08:00 AM  

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