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Led by the Spirit

Sermon - 6/11/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 8:12-17

Our passage for this Sunday after Pentecost, appropriately enough, comes once again from the 8th chapter of Pauls' letter to the Romans, verses 12-17:

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Several people asked me this week if I saw the column from Molly Ivins, I think it was in Thursday's paper.  I don't know why people always ask me these things, but Molly reported in her column on Thursday that the Republican Party of Texas has named God as their chairman.

I was curious, how they got her to accept the position J.  So I checked the web site, and I found out it wasn't quite the case -- Molly wasn't being totally straight with us in that column.  The Republican Party did not elect God as chairman.  In fact, there web site lists Tina Benkiser still as chairman of the party.  It turns out that Ms. Benkiser, in a very enthusiastic, spirit-filled speech to the party faithful earlier this week, made the affirmation that God is the chairman of their party.  Which I simply take as a claim that God is on their side.

Now, there might be in the grand state of Texas, a few Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, folks of other political affiliation, who also happen to be Christian.  I realize it's a stretch of the imagination, but there might be, there in Texas, folks of other political persuasions, that might take exception with chairman Benkiser.

And that raises a thorny issue:  who has the right to speak for God in our world?  To say which side God is on, or not.  

I was at a ministers gathering years ago, and made some comment in the course of conversation of the task of interpreting scripture while preaching.  One of my colleagues, from another Disciple church (this was down in California) said in all sincerity that he didn't do that.  He did not interpret scripture.  He simply said whatever it is that God told him to say to the congregation!  Didn't have to interpret it through a human mind, it came to the congregation unfiltered.  And I thought, how nice it must be!  How simple it would be to prepare a sermon because you wouldn't have to think about it.  Just tell them what God tells you to say.  Why should preachers be the only ones with such clarity?  Why shouldn't we all just say or do whatever it is that God tells us to?

Having difficulty to decide what to wear in the morning?  Just ask God.  Trying to make up your mind what car to buy?  Well, do whatever God tells you to do.  Should we bomb Iran to keep them from getting a bomb?  Well, what does God tell us?

Instinctively, I think most of us here know that such thinking is religious nonsense.  Eighty to ninety percent of the time.  Not all of the time, granted, but most of the time whenever someone says "God wants me. . . . ", or " God tells me. . . .", run the other direction, as fast as you can.  

I'm convinced that when people talk like that, what they're really saying is 'I am so sure that I am right that not even God would disagree with me'.

Reminds me of the old story I think I've told a time or two of Rabbi Moshe, who was in a debate with other Rabbi's, 4 of them.  Rabbi Moshe seemed to always be on the losing side, but the rules of the debate were that the majority wins.  The vote was 3-1, so the other Rabbi's were trying to convince him that they were right and he was wrong.  But Rabbi Moshe was convinced that he was right, and he said to them:  "If I am wrong, may God strike me dead, but if I am right, may the breath of God blow out this candle".  Sure enough, the storm clouds began to gather, the wind began to blow, and whoosh!, blew out the candle.  Rabbi Moshe said "See!".  The other Rabbi's said "So?  The wind blows all the time.  What does that prove?".  Rabbi Moshe said "If I am wrong may God strike me dead, but if I am right may lightning strike that tree".  And the storm clouds began to gather and the sky grew darker and it began to thunder and sure enough, lighting came down and struck the tree, split it in half.  And Rabbi Moshe said "See!".  And the other Rabbi's said "So?  Lightning strikes the earth 100 times a day, what does that prove?"  Rabbi Moshe said "If I am wrong may God strike me dead, but if I am right may the voice of God speak from the heavens and justify my cause".  And sure enough, the skies split open and the voice of God thundered down and said "Rabbi Moshe is right, listen to him".  Rabbi Moshe said "See!".  The other Rabbi's said:  "So?  Now the vote is 3-2!".

There are those times of absolute clarity when we may be certain of what God's will is for our lives.  But the hard reality is that's simply not how it works most of the time.  God gives to us tools and resources, the stories of our faith, the scriptures, the community of faith, our tradition, our own minds, all things that we can and should use (with prayer) to discern the will of God.  But it's pretty much up to us to figure it out for ourselves.

Do you know what that's called?  That's called spiritual maturity.  We don't get spoon-fed answers for every situation.  We have to do the hard work for ourselves.  God is not going to do it for us.  

We were doing that hard work yesterday in our church planning retreat, about 50 of us gathered in the chapel to consider what the priorities of the church should be in this time, to help us make some funding decisions in the next couple years ahead.  One of the things that we discussed was how we would 'market' ourselves, how do we get our name out, how do we get an image, find a logo that we can use that people will recognize and they will understand that's what this church is about.  I've often threatened to use the one image which really doesn't say so much of what we are about as what we are NOT about -- a man with tape over his mouth, and the caption that says "The only problem with churches that have all the answers is they don't allow any questions".

We encourage questioning, we encourage thinking.  That's the kind of church that we seek to be.  We don't have all the answers in a nice, neatly wrapped-up little package so that we can say 'this is what God wants us to do'.  What we do have, however, is the promise from Paul, that even if we cannot know the mind of God, we can be led by the spirit of God.  What does that mean?

With Christian groups working on the opposite sides of almost every issue facing our nation today, from building walls on our southern border, to drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, what does it mean to be led by the spirit of God?

Paul gives us two clues in this text to help us.  One negative, one positive.  Keep in mind this not my interpretation, I'm just telling you what God told me to tell you J.

First, the negative.  Those led by the spirit, Paul says, put to death the deeds of the body and do not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.  Those two phrases -- 'deeds of the body', and 'spirit of slavery' -- suggest personal morality-plus.  That is to say, personal morality is very important.  Living lives of integrity, fulfilling family and civic responsibility, sexual fidelity, being faithful partners in our relationships and maintaining trustworthy relations in our partnerships.  But it's more than that.  It's personal morality-plus.  

Think about what a spirit of slavery was in that first century context, when all economic activity, from harvesting crops to building roads, was heavily dependent upon slave labor.  It's hard for us to imagine what such a world was like.  Mildred Hawley, is a member of our spiritual formation group on Thursday mornings, actually a member over at a Springfield church, and she referred to this as maybe a 'spirit of addiction'.  It's a good analogy, because I think many of us know, through personal experience or that of a loved one, what addiction is like.  How controlling and frightening it can be.  But a spirit of slavery what not just the problem of an individual or even a group of individuals, it was a problem that gripped the entire world.  So take that spirit of addiction and multiply it millions of times the world over and you get a sense of the fear behind that.

And yet, in Christ, Paul says, Christians have been freed of those bonds and that fear.  It's very clear in his letter to Philemon that as the master of the slave, Onesimus, Philemon must welcome him now not as a runaway slave but as a long-lost brother.  The call of Paul to reject the spirit of slavery here is a call for Christians everywhere to accept their social responsibility in every time and place.

To be led by that spirit, then, is to live lives of personal morality plus social responsibility, rejecting the way of the world, or the way of the flesh as Paul calls it, in favor of the way of God, the way of the spirit.  To reject the way of death in favor of the way of life.

Phrased in the positive, Paul characterizes this way of life as the spirit of adoption.  Those led by the spirit are not only children of God, they are heirs of a divine inheritance.  

Now we use 'children of God', too much, I think, almost -- we over-use it.  And so we take for granted that everyone is a child of God and hence it ceases to be anything special.  But again, in that first century Roman context, it was a different story.  There were many children of many Gods, but these were usually legendary war heroes, like Achilles, or the heads of state like Caesar Augustus.  To be called a child of God was more than an affirmation, it was a declaration of immense value and worth.  So valuable, in fact, Paul calls us 'joint heirs' with Christ.  It doesn't get any higher than that.

Thus, in this brief paragraph, Paul has taken us from debtors of flesh to divine inheritance.  From a spirit of slaver to heirs of God as people led by the spirit.  What does that mean, then, to be led by the spirit?  How do we know if we are?

Again, this is just one pastor's interpretation, take it or leave it, but what it says to me is that when we help people realize their God-given potential, we are led by that spirit.  When we de-humanize an demonize others, we are not.  When we show love and respect for every human being as a valued child of God, we are led by that spirit.  When we treat others with contempt, we judge them as worthless, we are not.  When our respect for human rights are not limited by the bounds of our minds or the borders of our land, we are led by that spirit.  But when we use race and creed, nationality, political ideology and sexual identity to determine who is welcome and who is not, who is 'in' and who is 'out', we are not.  When we can stand together with all of our brothers and sisters of the human family -- not because we share the same faith or the same ancestry or the same color of skin or the same ideology or even the same desires -- but because we share the same inheritance as children of God, we know that it is as Paul says, that very same spirit, bearing witness with our spirit, that we are all children of the one God in whose love we are joined.

May it be so here, may it be so everywhere, may it be so now.


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