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 Holiness, Not Moralism

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

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

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 Spirit.

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 friends.

So, here's my message in a nut-shell (as I understand Paul): the Christian life is about holiness, not moralism.

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 very well.

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 be commanded.

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 corpse".

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 God.

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. . . .huh.

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.


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