Well, the irony of our heating system
-- I was going to boast of its efficiency. We got the heating bill (and
yes, we did pay it :). Our steam heat in October last year was $1,500.
The cost for our heat this year was $67! [Applause].
Now we know why -- the heat doesn't turn on [it was cold in the church
on this day]! I went upstairs to check the system, to see if I could
feel some heat, and discovered that you actually have to feed the
hamsters that turn the wheel. They forgot to tell us that :).
The text this morning comes from 1 Thessalonians, Paul's letter, chapter
4, verses 1-12. You may, I encourage you to follow along in your own
Bible or the pew Bible (which is the New Revised Standard Version), but
this morning I'm actually going to read from Eugene Peterson's
paraphrase known as "The Message", because I think it really captures
the essence of this text very well:
One final word, friends. We
ask you, urge you is more like it, that you keep on doing what we
told you to do to please God. Not in a dogged religious plod, but in
a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines that we laid out
for you from the Master Jesus: God wants you to live a pure life,
keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity, learn to appreciate and
give dignity to your body, not abusing it as is so common among
those who know nothing of God. Don't run roughshod over the concerns
of your brothers and sisters, their concerns are God's concerns, and
He will take care of them. We warned you about this before. God
hasn't invited us into a disorderly and unkempt life, but into
something holy and beautiful -- as beautiful on the inside as the
outside. If you disregard this advice, you're not offending your
neighbors, you're rejected God, who is making you a gift of his Holy
Regarding life together, and getting along with each other, you
don't need me to tell you what to do. Your God taught in these
matters. Just love one another. You're already good at it, your
friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it
up, get better and better at it. Stay calm, mind your own business,
do your own job. You've heard all this from us before, but a
reminder never hurts. We want you living in a way that will command
the respect of outsiders, not lying around sponging off your
So, here's my message in a nut-shell
(as I understand Paul): the Christian life is about holiness, not
If you were following along in the
New Revised Standard Version, you'll note in verse 7 that Paul writes:
"God does not call us to impurity, but in holiness". Only sometimes I
think 'holiness' has a negative image, because it conjures up images of
a 'holier than thou' attitude. But holiness is simply about making that
inner connection with the divine, which is the opposite of the 'holier
than thou' attitude, which really comes out of moralism.
And I think Peterson captures the essence, then, of Paul's message very
well when he writes, in his paraphrase: "Pleasing God is not a dogged
religious prod, but a living, spirited dance. Something that is holy and
beautiful, as beautiful on the inside as the outside". That captures it
This is precisely the difference, I think, between holiness and
moralism. Moralism is something that is imposed from without. Holiness
is something that comes from within. That's why I said
a couple of weeks ago that
you can't command love. Love is something that has to come from
within you. And so the great commandment -- Love the Lord your God with
all your heart, soul, and mind -- is not really a commandment at all.
It's a commitment that we make from that deeper place within us. If it
has to be commanded, it's not love. And if it's love, it doesn't have to
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest that I've quoted many times, founder
of the Center for Action and Contemplation, has become, I think, the
nation's leader for both Protestants and Catholics on spiritual
practices, has made this one of his central tenants of his teaching. And
he told those of us that went up to hear him this past Wednesday in
Portland (speaking at Trinity Cathedral), that spiritual practice is
about unlearning dualism and moralism.
So, what does he mean? Dualism separates the world into two opposing
realities. Flesh vs spirit. The worldly vs the Godly. Now, of course the
physical is bad and the spiritual is good. And so, for instance, sexual
pleasure becomes synonymous with the fall from grace, the fall from the
Garden of Eden, so those that wish to avoid evil temptation of the flesh
must live a life of celibacy, right?
You know the story about the Pope who wanted to read the scriptures in
its oldest, most original form, right? He goes into the archives in the
Vatican to find ancient manuscripts. He's in there studying when all of
a sudden an enormous wail could be heard throughout the Vatican. His
aides go rushing in and said "Your Holiness, what's the matter?". He's
weeping over this ancient scroll, and he says: "The word isn't
'celibate', it's 'celebrate' :).
So Paul uses the term in this text
that is usually translated, for instance in the New Revised Standard
Version, as abstaining from fornication, which has taken on all kinds of
meanings and interpretations, usually out of this kind of dualistic
thinking that says if it's physical it must be bad (because it's not
spiritual). Peterson, however, chooses to use the term 'sexual
promiscuity', which I think gets to the real heart of the matter. The
sin is not in the physical, the sin is in the broken relationship, that
which belittles or cheapens human love that is supposed to mirror God's
love. That we be committed to one another as God is committed to us. And
that's what true love is about. And promiscuity is the opposite of that.
So when we separate the spiritual from the flesh, the human from the
divine, our lives become and endless pursuit of satisfaction in that
which is ultimately empty and destructive. Be it promiscuity or drugs or
alcohol or wealth or power. Addictions of all kinds are rooted in this
dualism, this separation of flesh and spirit.
By the way, we heard the same thing from
John Dominic Crossan a few
weeks ago when he was here with us, who told us: "When you take the
spirit away from the body, you don't get 2 realities, what you get is a
So spiritual practice is about re-discovering that unity of spirit of
flesh that we have in God. And that's why Paul talks so much in his
letters about being "in Christ". Or as he puts it in this text: If you
reject this advice to live in a way of holiness, that is, living in a
way of union, of bringing the spirit and flesh together, the human and
the divine, which is the way of Christ, the incarnation, then you are
rejecting God's free gift of the spirit.
And that, you see, is what leads to moralism. Because we separate flesh
from spirit, we have to impose rules -- the religious plod, as Peterson
puts it. That oppressive, authoritative hierarchy from on high, rather
than teaching that which is liberating and life-giving -- a living,
spirited dance. That's what holiness is about.
So, Rohr says that we attack the shadow rather than face the ego. In
other words, we see the enemy as something 'other', separate, apart from
us, rather than anything that is within us. And never forget, Jesus
taught us: love your enemies. Which is simply another way of loving
ourselves. And instead we project onto our enemy the dark side of
ourselves. And so moralism is our attempt to protect ourselves from that
dark side that is within us by externalizing all of that, externalizing
our fears and then protecting ourselves with a list of rules to give us
a false sense of security in how good we are by keeping those rules.
I think a perfect illustration of
this contrast between holiness and moralism is in the play The Laramie
Project, that Sheldon Theater is doing (Nancy Anderson is the Director).
Thurston High School is going to be doing it next weekend. The play is
about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd, you may remember about 10
years ago, the gay student at the University of Wyoming. In this one
scene of the memorial service for Matthew Shepherd, you see the
congregation being led in worship by a minister, and in contrasting to
this very peaceful celebration of life and grief all wrapped into one is
the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers, the fundamentalist preacher
from Kansas with their signs of how God hates gay people, protesting
during this service.
It's just a very powerful contrast that the students do so well, and I
recommend that play to you. But not all moralism is of the Fred Phelps
variety. Much of our legal code is based on the moral code of the 10
Commandments -- thou shalt not lie, murder, steal, and the like. And
such moral code is necessary for the development of society. But
moralism does not instill any inner compulsion to do good. It only
restricts that compulsion to do evil. The desire to do good, to do the
right thing, comes from within. You see, that's holiness.
Paul says he does not have to tell them to love one another. Why?
Because they have already learned that from God, from within. They
already have that. Rohr says that rather than to give people a list of
do's and don'ts, we need to put a greater emphasis on spiritual
practice. To teach people how to find that inner sense of the sacredness
of life, the presence of God that is available to all of us that is
already within us.
One of the techniques that he uses to help people experience that deeper
reality is called "the breath prayer". And this comes from something he
learned from a Rabbi (and I've shared this with you once before a few
years ago), that the name of "Yahweh" in the Jewish tradition is
something that you never pronounce. Indeed, it's something that you
cannot even pronounce, because it's simply the sound of breathing. "Yah.
. . Weh, . . .Yah. . .Weh. . . .Yah. . . Weh". That's the name of God.
It's on our lips with every breath we take.
So he was sharing this in a retreat, and someone came up to him all
excited afterwards and said: Do you know what the name of Allah means?
The Arabic name for God? Written properly, it's Alla'h. What it
literally means is the 'very 'huh'. "All. . . .huh. . . .All. . .huh. .
. Yah. . .Weh". That's the name of God, in Hebrew and in Arabic.
So Rohr said this, and if there's one quote that I'd like you to
remember from him, it's this: that prayer is not something you do,
prayer is something you allow. Like breathing.
And for us, to seek God is like the
wave trying to seek the ocean. Imagine yourself, you're this little wave
going along in the ocean, and you want to 'see' the ocean, and so you
muster up all your energy to get up high above the surface so you can
see all around and all over. . . . . . it's everywhere. You can't seek
it, you can't find it, all you can do is fall back into it.
God is not something 'out there' or 'up there', separate from us. God is
everywhere, all around us, within us. All we can do is fall back into
One of the sayings of Jesus that I so love, that did not make it into
the Gospels (it's found in the Gospel of Thomas) is: Split a piece of
wood, and I am there.
The first time I heard that I thought it was a strange kind of saying.
In the Jesus Seminar, they rate it 'black', which means they consider it
something most likely that Jesus never said. Whether or not that is the
case, I think it still expresses a powerful spiritual truth. To live in
Christ is not about obeying a bunch of rules, it's a way of living in
union with Christ. In union with that spirit that is everywhere, that is
all around us, that is as accessible to us as the oxygen we breathe.
That's a different way of living.
Mona Simpson, who is a best-selling author, discovered at the age of 25
that she had a rather famous brother, that she did not know because he
was put up for adoption at birth, and then he got in touch with her
through an attorney. He said you have a brother, he's quite well-known,
do you want to meet him? So they set up this meeting. Turns out her
brother is Steve Jobs. And she says that she'd always dreamed of this
dark, handsome man in her life, and come to find out it was her own
brother! And they became best friends, spoke to one another just about
every other day. And she was there when he died a few weeks ago, with
the rest of the family members. And in her eulogy for her brother, she
revealed (this was published in the NY Times) the very last words on his
lips before he died: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow".
I invite you to simply breathe with me: Yah. . . weh. . .. yah. . .weh.
. . . yah . . . weh. . . . yah. . . weh. . . .all. . . .huh. . . .all. .
The very first words you spoke when you were born, the very last word
you speak before you die, is the name of God. Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.