Spirit of Embodiment

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Last week I talked a little bit about how I am trying to be more healthy and strong and one of the ways I am doing that is by going to the gym.
I’m there four-five days a week and each time, while the majority of the exercises we all share together, there are a few movements where you can choose which equipment you use based on your level of experience and comfort.
This past week at the gym I moved from the beginner to the more advanced movements in our exercises. And, whew, I can feel it.
My back is still a bit stiff, my shoulders ache… My dad keeps telling me that I shouldn’t get old because this kind of soreness will just keep coming, but unfortunately that’s just a natural process I’m pretty sure I don’t have the power to stop.

Many of you have joined in prayers for my dad in the past couple of weeks. He is someone who works incredibly hard… always has… but who hasn’t always taken the time to stop and take care of his body. He gets so focused on the work that is before him and us Ziskovskys also have been known to have a bit of stubbornness when it comes to our diets.
He developed a sore on his big toe, which became a deeper infection, which eventually led to an amputation of that digit. He is recovering very well – body, mind, and spirit.

You know, sometimes we think of our bodies as just the physical container that holds the real “us.” We imagine that our lives will continue without the burden of flesh someday – either through technology or computers or floating around in heavenly places.

But the scripture constantly reminds us that our bodies are incredibly important.
They are an integral part of who God created us to be.
Our flesh and blood are not earthly things that we have to shed before we get to heaven… according to scripture – these bodies go with us – in one form or another.

Some of our sloppy thinking around bodies comes from a misunderstanding of the writings of Paul. In Romans 8:5-6, we read:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Our modern ears known what flesh is… our skin and bones… those things that ache and touch and feel and move around.
We know what our spirit is… our souls, minds, that of God which dwells within us.
So, bodies must be bad and spirit must be good.

Except, the word that gets translated “flesh”… sarx… has more than one meaning. It can mean our skin and bones – but it is also used to describe the lesser parts of ourselves – the animal nature, the cravings, the wretched parts of ourselves that keep holding on to sin no matter how hard we try to do what is right.
That is what Paul is talking about… not these good, old, sometimes worn-out bodies of ours.
In fact, this passage from Romans is a reminder that God’s abundant life, that God’s very Spirit dwells within these bodies. Far from being an argument against our earthly life – this is a challenge to live up to the potential of what we can in fact DO with God’s spirit living within us.

So this morning, we go all the way back to the beginning, to that time when God made the heavens and the earth.
As Mel shared with us, Genesis tells us that God formed humanity from the dust of the earth. We were made out of the same stuff as all of the rest of creation.
But then God did something amazing.
God breathed into us.
The breath of life filled us.
The Spirit of the Lord entered our lives and these bodies became God’s body. You and I became the hands and the feet of God in the world.

That doesn’t mean that we have responded perfectly. After all, one of the first things that Adam and Eve did with the Spirit of God dwelling inside of them was to focus more on their own desires than what God wanted them to do. They lived according to the flesh, the sarx, and allowed temptation to distract them.
They sought their own comfort and pleasure before the well-being of the world or God’s creation. Their sin had consequences for not only themselves, but all of creation.

But, our scriptures tell us, God found another way to empower our bodies with the divine spirit…
God came and took on our flesh.
In that tiny child in Bethlehem, in the incarnation of Jesus, the very Word of God took on our human life.
Every aspect of our bodily existence was experienced by God.
Love and loss.
Stubbed toes and broken promises.
Laughter and tears.
Fear and grief.
Jesus experienced the fullness of our lives – and the ultimate depths of suffering and death.
And then, Jesus gave the Spirit to all who would be his disciples.

All summer long, we have been talking about the blessings of that gift and what it looks like when the Spirit dwells within us. Our lives begin to bear the fruit of love and joy, peace and kindness, goodness and gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, community, surrender, and patience.
But none of it happens without our bodies.
The Spirit cannot move without these hands and feet, eyes and ears.
When we let the Spirit of God become incarnate in OUR lives, and to fill up OUR bodies, then we are empowered to live very differently in this world.
We are set free from sin and death.
We are set free to love God more than we love ourselves.
We are set free to participate in God’s saving work in this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about what difference it has made that we spent this whole summer talking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve been wondering what it might look like to really add flesh and blood to these words that we have been saying all year long.
And I realized as I have watched not only the devastation of Harvey, but also the outpouring of human kindness just how important and precious our bodies really are.
Perhaps you were as heartbroken as I when you saw the nursing home residents under water…
and then wept for relief when I knew they had been rescued.
All across the region, people pushed
and carried
and turned to one another for support.
and now countless folks whose homes have been destroyed turn to one another and to us.
What does it mean to be the church in the wake of something like Harvey? Or the landslides earlier this year in Sierra Leone? Or the flooding in India?
PUT ON UMCOR HAT –
It means that we roll up our sleeves and we get to work.
We send flood buckets to help clean up.
We turn our sanctuaries into shelters
We build up trained helpers who have the knowledge and skills to truly make a difference.
and through a simple thing like toothbrushes and soap, we help take care of people’s bodies.

Today – you’ll have the opportunity to give a little bit extra towards disaster response by writing in the memo of your check or putting in one of the envelopes in the pew, or giving online towards disaster relief.

But, I also want you to hear two specific invitations… ways you can use YOUR bodies to make a difference.
First… if you feel called to go and help and put to use your hands and feet there is an opportunity to join one of the Early Response Teams. There are a few fliers on the back table about a training that is happening THIS coming Saturday right here in Des Moines.
Second… as a church, I want to challenge us to help take care of some of those bodies by putting together health kits. Beginning NEXT Sunday, we will have a bulletin board right outside of the sanctuary where you can indicate which specific items you will commit to bringing as we first gather and then assemble these kits.
Then, for our Fifth Sunday Service Project in October we’ll put all of these kits together and send them out with the Thanksgiving Ingathering.

Whenever we let the Spirit of God live within us, the transformation of the world begins.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Two Texts: Iran, Cuba, and the Gerasene Demoniac

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This month, our “Two Texts” series takes seriously the advice of Karl Barth… that we should take the bible and take the newspaper and read both.

All sorts of stories have caught our attention over the summer and have led us to wonder what the Bible might have to say about that.

What do people of faith have to say about these issues of our day?

And how do we, as a congregation with many different perspectives, look at these stories in a way that respects one another?

I and Pastor Todd can’t claim to be experts on world events, politics, finance and sociology. But we do know this book. And so our series this month will not dive into the details of policies, but will instead point us to biblical themes that have a bearing on our world today.

Will you pray with me…

 

I must start in our exploration of diplomacy in the midst of disagreements by reiterating a confession I just made. I am not an expert on these topics. In fact, the roots of both of the conflicts we will talk about today started before I was born.

In 1960, Cuba took over and nationalized American-owned oil refineries without permission or compensation.   The Cuban Revolution had overthrown the Batista regime, Fidel Castro was in power, and the United States and our economic leaders were … well… not happy. October 19th of that year began the United States embargo against Cuba.

Our national relationship with Iran also changed as the result of a revolution. In 1979, their United States supported leaders were overthrown. Eventually Iran became an Islamic republic, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. There were a number of factors that eventually severed relations between our countries, but perhaps one of the greatest began on November 4 of that year. A group, angry that Iran’s former leader had been allowed into the United States, took over the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for over a year. Over the years that have followed, our sour relations have focused on the attempted development of nuclear weapons by their country.

Our anger, our fears, our troubled relationships have led us to keep both of these nations at more than an arm’s length. We see them as dangerous to ourselves and our interests. We have intentionally cut off our connection with both nations in an attempt to force them to change and keep ourselves safe.

 

When we turn to the pages of the Bible, I am reminded of someone else who was kept at a distance. In the region of the Gerasenes, there was a man no one could control. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and was causing chaos in his community. As the Message bible tells us, “no one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones.”

 

How should we respond to those we fear? Or disagree with?

Do we keep them at a distance?

Do we try to chain them up and isolate them?

Do we prefer to turn our backs, avoiding them at all costs, while they in turn self-destruct?

That is what the people in the Gerasene region did. They were helpless. They were scared. And they kept their distance. Can we blame them? They are human like we are.

 

But what do we do about a whole country?

We think of this biblical story as the story of a single person, but when we dive deeper, this is a story about communities.

As Jesus approaches the demoniac (the demon possessed man) he tries to cast out the spirit. And he asks the spirit’s name…

“My name is Mob.” “My name is Legion.”

The spirit was not one, but thousands. A Legion is actually a military term for an entire unit in the Roman army… between 3-6,000 foot soldiers.

An entire community was living inside that man, tormenting him and everyone around.

So the larger community did what they could. They couldn’t cast them out. They couldn’t change the man, so they chained him up. They isolated him in the hopes that the spirits would leave.

Much like the larger world community has used sanctions and embargos and severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Cuba in order to protect ourselves and to force a change in the regimes of these places.

 

This summer, we have seen our diplomatic ties with these places soften a bit. We have reached a historic compromise with Iran that we are now debating in our own country. We have warmed up to Cuba and will soon be opening a United States Embassy there. We have reached out as a nation to talk, to imagine new possibilities, to rebuild relationships.

 

When Jesus approached the Gerasene Demoniac, nothing about the man had softened or changed. He was still as dangerous as ever. But through God, all kinds of healing are possible. Where the rest of the countryside had given up, Jesus knew that the man could be saved.

And so Jesus and the Legion had a talk. They negotiated. They each made some diplomatic concessions.

 

There are three larger themes I think we can point to in this story.

First, knowing Jesus had the power to cast them out, they begged Jesus to be merciful.

Power is a dangerous thing. In each of the conflicts mentioned, military power has been a thread of both disagreements – whether it was missiles pointed at our country or the development of nuclear weapons. But our nation also has a strong measure of power that has kept the other at bay.

Each week this month, we are also including a bulletin insert from the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Maybe we can think of this as our third text. These are the official positions of our church on some of the issues we are exploring today.

This one, in particular, challenges us to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. It is a reminder that our first moral duty is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises. It is also a strong condemnation against nuclear weapons.

Above all, it is a reminder that our power to hurt one another is great. And as people of faith, our call instead is to always seek peace first.

Rather than destroy the mob of spirits, Jesus showed them mercy.

I mentioned at the start of the message this morning that I wasn’t even alive when these conflicts started, but I learned along the way that over half of the population of Iran wasn’t around for the beginning of this conflict either. Half of their population is under the age of 25. A quarter of their people are under the age of 15. They certainly didn’t start the conflict, but they are impacted by it.

Mercy in these situations looks like recognizing each nation as a part of the human family and prioritizing human values over military claims. It means listening to the hopes and concerns of the other as we seek a way forward.

 

Second, this story reminds us that there are no easy answers to these negotiations. There are sacrifices and consequences to be made along the way.

As Jesus showed the Legion mercy, he allowed them to enter a herd of pigs that were grazing nearby. As we heard our lay reader say, nearly two thousand animals were possessed and driven mad, they charged over a cliff into the lake and drowned.

While pigs are not clean animals and wouldn’t have been part of the diet of the Jewish families, this was a gentile region. Someone or many someone’s lost their entire herd that day. The economic livelihood of many families was probably destroyed.

Yet, you also have to consider that the economic well-being of the region was probably hampered to begin with if this possessed man had been terrorizing the countryside. Travelers and merchants probably avoided the area as much as possible.

Every negotiation has a give and take. Diplomacy is not easy and it is important to consider what must be sacrificed for the greater good. That doesn’t mean anyone will be happy… and the people of the region, though initially relieved were pretty upset with Jesus over the pigs.

In our diplomacy with Iran and Cuba, we might not all agree on the specifics of the deals. But we must remember that in all cases, a negotiation means we let some things go, so that we might reach other objectives.

 

Lastly, this is a story of reconciliation. Relieved, embarrassed, ashamed, the man who had been possessed by the Legion, now didn’t know what to do. He begged Jesus to allow him to run away with the disciples.

But Jesus refused. He ordered him to return to his own people, to his own community, to find his place there again.

In every encounter Jesus has with those who are displaced, shunned, or isolated, his end goal is to return them to their own community. It is not to rescue or remove them, but to reconcile them. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the prodigal son, the lepers or the hemorrhaging woman? In every instance, they are healed so they can return to their place in society.

If we are the Body of Christ, then we need one another. This church community needs those we disagree with and those we don’t understand. We all have something to teach one another.

On a global stage, we might not all share the same faith or belief systems, but we are all human beings. We breathe the same air and need the same water. Our economies and politics impact the people of this world, not only their leaders. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.

 

As we encounter the news and hear stories of our diplomatic ties to Iran and Cuba and other places where our relationships have been difficult, let us think of the Gerasene Demoniac.

Think of the man, the Legion, and think about how Jesus walked right up and offered a path forward. Not an easy path, but a just path, a merciful path, a path towards reconciliation.

May we seek these things in all of our relationships.

Amen.

Image: Second Coming of Christ With Two Gospel Miracles
Detail: Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac
Artist:  Alexey Pismenny

Both/And #reverb10

Being a fan of postmodern/emergent sorts of thoughts, I dig the “both/and.”  Down with dichotomies. Yay for integration.

This year, when did you feel the most integrated with your body? Did you have a moment where there wasn’t mind and body, but simply a cohesive YOU, alive and present?

What an amazing question!

Looking back on the journey of this year, there are two moments that really stand out as moments when I moved past the artificial distinction between my spirit and body and really claimed the fullness of who God created me to be.

The first would be my ordination.  So much of that day was surreal.  It was so large and expansive and crowded and yet intimate and personal.  My biological family and my church family came together to celebrate the day with me.  And kneeling up there with my mentors pressed in close around me, with three bishops’ hands grabbing a hold of me, I felt bodily the spirit that is within me.  “Take authority!” came the voice and the spiritual calling and the physical person became one.  The feel of the linen cassocks, the brilliant reds of the stoles, the warmth of the hands, the weight, the smell of bodies and perfumes, the light, the word being proclaimed, the touch of the bible under my fingers… each of those experiences of my senses was intensely spiritual and holy.
The second moment is a bit more casual.  At a training session for the church, five folks gathered together at lunch.  We were lamenting the fact that we had rushed through the process and felt like we were fumbling.  We had come up with a theme – a launching point – a framework – for this process we were leading the congregation through and it had flopped.  It was forced.  It didn’t work.  And we let go of it.
We sat there at lunch, near the warmth of the fire blazing at Pictured Rocks Camp, and we let the Spirit take over.  As we waited and listened and ate – we realized that eating is a spiritual discipline for our congregation.  Food is holy.  It brings us together.  The physical and the spiritual are one.  And when we got our own perspectives out of the way and made room for God it was amazing.  We transformed our entire process during that half an hour.