Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: "SARX WARS, or, How the Apocalypse Stole My Fruits" (St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians 5/6)

"SARX WARS, or, How the Apocalypse Stole My Fruits of the Spirit" (St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians 5/6)

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
30 June 2013
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Text: Galatians 5.1, 13-25 (NRSV, Message)

Click here to listen to "Guided by the Spirit," a simple song I wrote for worship, inspired by the work of Organic Faith's "Devotion" service.


-So, after four weeks of theology and idolatry and time-traveling apostles, we seem to arrived at something that feels a lot more...practical.  In today’s reading from Galatians, we’re given two lists: works of the flesh, and the fruits of the Spirit.  FINALLY!  Clear.  Simple.  Practical.  God bless lists.    

-And of, if only the preacher would just focus on what to avoid so we don’t do wrong, and what to do so we can do good!  Kindness, patience, gentleness, joy, peace, generosity, and love!  You can’t go wrong with that!  And Paul says there’s now Law against these things!  So can’t we just get down to the business of talking about living the faith, about what we need to do?

-Of course...not!  And, lest you string me up and run me out of church, please allow me to blame it on St. Paul.  No, seriously, it is all Paul’s fault.   With a little assistance from our good old friend, the old self/idol-maker, the Ego.  Because, see, Paul isn’t ready to give us the to-do’s yet.  (That’s next week, I promise!)  But where a book of the Bible holds out a list, the Ego in us is ready to be be taken in, like a toddler running full speed at a clear glass door.  The ensuing result can be pretty hilarious - but also, is a case in missing the point!

-Because, see, Paul is still telling the story.  The same story he’s been telling this whole letter.  The Gospel of Freedom.  The Good News about how Christ has come to set us free.  Free from all the ways in which we ourselves, and others, try to define who we are by standards other than God’s promises, and how Christ comes to reclaim us from deception for Himself.  It’s important enough to him to tell it one more time.  Except, this time, on a massive, epic, even COSMIC scale.  

-But first, let’s recap.  See, Paul started out with the story of the Gospel.  The cross.  Then showed how it changed his own story.  Then how it challenged the story of the early church, particularly between codependent Peter and Paul.  And then, he showed how it changes each of our stories, as Christ comes to dwell supernaturally in our hearts.  THEN, he showed how all of our stories are part of Israel’s story - the story of an exodus from slavery into freedom.  And now, for the grand finale, the final cosmic confrontation.  The Last Battle.  The End of Time. (WARNING: Excessive Sci-fi referencing ahead)  

-Now, you might be wondering, if it’s all so cosmic, then where exactly are all the, you know, cosmic thingies?  Shouldn’t there be X-Wings and Death Stars, or Cybernetic Archangels and Demon Hunters and Klingons and Daleks and the like?  

-Well, there is.  Not Daleks, sadly.  But believe it or not, Paul finally peels back the curtain of the present moment to reveal the greater drama going on, in, behind and through every day events.  What we call “apocalyptic,” which is just Greek for a “revealing.”  He’s just waited all this time, because he wanted us to make sure we understood the stakes in our own lives and the work of Christ, before rocketing us into the next realm.  Cause frankly, if he led with Daleks, I would have been just fine staying there.

-The cosmic battle is against something far more insidious.  It’s called “the Flesh.”  Or, in Greek, the “Sarx.”  Throughout much of the history of Christianity, it’s been common to identify the Sarx with the body.  Or, rather, for people who have it in for the body to identify them.  Particularly when people dislike or want to control the particular color, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity of that particular body.  Or, just want to make it seem like Christianity hates bodily things.    

-Which is just plain nonsense in light of Christ’s Incarnation.  Jesus takes ON flesh - not Sarx with a capital S, but actual flesh and bone and muscle.  Jesus becomes human, thereby redeeming and transfiguring material reality.  So even if unhealthy humans have often been rather masochistic towards their bodies, it’s not something that came from the God who shaped bodies from dust, kissed them with the breath of life, and called them Good.  

-En contraire, for Paul, Sarx is something quite different.  Sarx is more like a kind of cosmic power, an entity, a disembodied shadow thing that is everywhere present and nowhere visible in itself.  The Sarx is a kind of Matrix, that human beings have created, continue to fuel, and cannot control.  It is a power that is fundamentally opposed to God.  

-But it’s not a demon or a Satan or the Dark Side.  More like a Frankenstein monster, or a Terminator, or Neo’s machines.  That’s key.  Its the collective consciousness of our self-focused, self-made, self-perpetuating works.  It is an idol.  The Idol.  And it is an Idol that has stolen a life of its own.  From our lives.  Stolen power.  Out of the ruins of our freely surrendered freedom.  Assimilated us into the Borg collective.  Turned us into Darth Vaders.  Half-human; half-machine.  Fully enslaved.     

-We know it is there, claims Paul, because its works are evident.  And I think that the Eugene Peterson Message translation really captures this poignantly.  Let’s hear it again: 

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;  20 trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits;  21 the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

-We know it is there, in other words, because it pretty much describes the broken world that we all live in.  The broken world that we ourselves have made in our own image.  The broken world in which power is about competing and controlling one another.  The world that seems so real and immediate, and yet, feels so fake, and so fleeting, so unfulfilling.  The world that is a mirror of our own darkness.  

-Sort of like a prison.  Or a Matrix.  The Sarx is what happens when we take the image of God in us - the capacity for limitless and bountiful creation in community - and we turn it to our own devices.  When we make reality all about us, when we create idols and then believe their promises.  It’s a prison.  And in trying to make each other into each other’s slaves, we all end up slaves of the Sarx.

-And the Sarx grows and becomes more its own entity because it feeds on our actions.  It can only exist, in fact, by the unrestrained actions of self-serving human will.  If we all suddenly stopped being selfish, it would vanish.  It would be powerless.  But we cannot stop.  And the more we struggle to overcome it by trying to be “good,” the more we create its power.  And with it, its systems of oppression, and of slavery, of abuse, and of destruction.  We are the human batteries that keep the Matrix turned on.  

-Pretty bleak, right?  But see how it’s cosmic?  How Sarx and Sin are so much more than simply character defects that keep us from being existentially fulfilled?  The power of the Ego, of Idolatry, and of Sin, it spoils the story.  From the most personal life to the farthest-reaching corners of the cosmos.  It takes good things, good gifts, like sex, and food, and beverages, and words, and relationships, and joy, and celebration, and community - and twists them all into chains of shame and self-seeking.  It takes life, and turns it into a desert of isolation and loneliness.  

-Paul puts it quite bluntly: if we bite and ravage one another, in no time we will annihilate one another. Consume each other.  Exterminate one another.  I’d definitely take the Daleks over that.  

-But see, I wonder if there’s another reason Paul has held off on the whole cosmic Sarx thing until now.  Because, see, if all along we could just blame some cosmic baddie like the Sarx for all of our problems, we probably wouldn’t have listened to the other stuff.  About salvation.  And our desperate need for it.   

-I wonder if Paul wanted to help us see how we were powerless first.  On our own, ordinary, every day terms.  That our lives are unmanageable, our anti-creations beyond our control.  And the story of the Sarx, portrayed here - it’s like that scene in a sci-fi movie when a character gets a glimpse of the ravaged future.  “This is where your will takes you” says the guide or mentor.  This is the end.  You live in the moment before the end.  But this desolation - that’s the result.  It’s where we’re headed.  

-Because with Sin and Ego, with Sarx and Self, we are playing with power we do not understand.  Our actions have consequences and responsibilities to them far beyond the scope of our comprehension.  Like bad karma channelled into a dark crystal and then placed in the heart of a chaos bomb that will consume individuals, friendships, communities, histories, ecosystems, worlds, the entire cosmos.  And what we thought was freedom to do what we wanted "as long as it doesn't hurt others" - that's the Sarx too.  Playing us with the song of self that we first sang.  A song that has become a dirge.  

-But that’s not all that Paul has given us.  Because he’s also given us the story of the resistance.  The way out.  The story of God’s very nature in Christ Jesus, coming to dwell supernaturally within us.  Paul’s given us the Gospel, the story of how when we were powerless - not powerful - Christ came to set us free.  And with Christ, the Sarx has been crucified and defeated.   

-The battle cry.  “For freedom,” he declares, “Christ has set us free!  So do not submit!  Do not give back your power and your lives and your freedom to the Sarx!  If you haven’t gotten it by now, then look at this final, apocalyptic vision, and take the better path.  The path, not of Self and Ego.  But of Love.  And Faith.  And Joy.  And Patience.  And Gentleness.  And Kindness.  And Generosity.  Take the path that I am giving to you.  The path that leads to the fruits of the Spirit."   

-For freedom Christ has set us free!  And along with a vision of armageddon, Paul also paints a more powerful portrait of freedom, of a kind of Eden, in which human beings follow the Law of Love, and so, share the Fruits of the Tree of Life and of Knowledge.  The Fruits of the Spirit.  The practices of community with God and neighbor.

-And see, that list of “fruits of the Spirit” - it’s not just a check list of how to be a good person.  Even if it were, the Sarx would just find a way to use it to compare, and to hold power over others.  “Well, if HE really believed in God, then he’d show more patience,” or, “look at how I’ve collected seven of nine fruits!  Can’t wait to complete my full set!”  As I hope we’ve learned by now, Paul is far too clever for that.  Besides, it’s not exactly a revelation to be “kind,” right?

-Rather, I think the Fruits of the Spirit, as a kind of vision of paradise, are there as enticements.  As sweet temptations.  As a lover’s promises, set before us like a dream just about to come true.  They are what God is making us into.  Because they are, first and foremost, not about us.  They are not the Fruits of Good Deeds and Devotion.  They are the Fruits of the Spirit.  Rooted in the very character of God, shared with humanity.  

-Because it is first God who is love, love without end.  It is first God who takes joy in God’s creation and beloved children.  God who is patient and gentle and kind to us, even as we are impatient and violent and towards him, repaying God’s generosity with a cross and a collection of idols.  And, in Christ, it is God who is peace, and has given us peace, and desires peace for all.  This is the character of God, revealed in the Incarnate flesh of Jesus.  And shared with us in our hearts and lives by the gift of the Spirit.  

-It’s a picture of who God is making us.  A promise of what we will be.  Hear the Message again: 

He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments,  23 not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

-And it’s also a pathway.  To follow in the footsteps of the Lover.  Or, if you like, a collection of clues, foretastes, bread crumbs.  Eucharist crumbs.  Hints of heaven.  Fruit snacks.  So that it’s not so much “did I achieve kindness today,” as it is, “I seemed to be able to exhibit kindness to the guy who was pissing me off, a kindness far beyond my ability.  I wonder where that came from?  I’ll follow where it leads.”

-As you may have heard, fruit grows from seeds.  And see, in giving us the Spirit, God has planted, not so much full-grown fruits, as tiny seeds.  Or, in a way, a Holy Kudzu, Benign Viruses or White Blood Cells, that are slowly but surely eating away at the cancerous chains of the Sarx’s slavery.  Grace is downloaded into our Sarx-systems and, day by day, step by step, and failure by failure, is transforming us.  Making us free.  Making us God.

-And that’s where the sailboat analogy comes back.  Us positioning our sails to catch it.  Because it’s not just a vision already achieved.  It’s also a present work.  Hard work.  But it’s not a chore.  Not something we should see as a tedious struggle of achievement.  Granted, it will be challenging.  As Rilke once wrote, nothing of value is without challenge.  It's learning to see the Sarx for the Matrix it is.  It's also discovering the true beauty of embodied reality, as if for the first time.  And it's a hell of a ride.  

-Like early sobriety, as addicts can tell you.  The fruits of the Spirit are the steps we take towards spiritual recovery and sobriety.  Towards a new freedom and a new happiness.  They are what is given us when we finally come to see that we are powerless to overcome this anti-creation we have spawned, this Sarx.  When we cease struggling.  And start letting God do what we cannot do for ourselves.  Then, we are given the power to take up the promises of God, and to embrace the discipline of becoming who we really are.

-And it is a discipline.  But not like punishment, which is fear-driven.  It is a discipline that leads to freedom.  That leads to fruits.  A training.  A commitment.  Just as daily weeding and watering leads to a fruitful harvest, so in our lives, the journey of commitment, into community with God and one another - of risking gentleness and generosity, faithfulness and self-control, and believing that joy can come where power is abandoned - these disciplines give us freedom to live freely, animated, guided by the Spirit of Life itself.  Commitment and submission to God and one another in prayer, worship, community, and service - that’s the freedom of love.  

-And we will find that, in fact, the whole thing is not a cosmic battle after all.  Because God is peace.  And rather than eradicate the Sarx, God is actually seeking to reclaim from the Sarx the goodness of creation.  Starting with you.  And with me.  And then, our gifts and talents and joys.  And yes, sex, and celebration, and especially, a family.  A community grown from the compost of our Sarx.  Pulling from the fertile soil of failure the blessings of the body.  Our bodies.  Our world.  And offering them back.  As gifts.  So that we may be gifts to one another.  

-So, in many ways, I can think of nothing more practical than Sarx and Spirit.  Because it is the story of us all.  Reminds us that slavery really is slavery, however good it feels in the moment.  That we really were slaves of our own making.  And that Christ truly has set us free.  Placed us on a different path.  That Christ is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  It’s less a check-list of to-do’s.  More of a promise of the Power by which we can actually do good things.  The Power that makes us good.

-And that's why we cannot make this part of Galatians into a list.  Because God is not giving us the fruits of the Spirit so we can be better than others.  God is giving them to us so we can be more like God.  And so, better for others.   

-So do not submit!  Do not obey the Sarx.  Do not return to slavery.  Live free, guided by the Spirit.  Because once we have tasted life - true, abundant, completely free life - then believe me, nothing else will ever be the same again.     


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