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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.