Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 18, 2023
Romans 8:12-17 “Alternative Power Source”
Last summer I was lying in bed getting ready to get up. I was thinking I might drink my coffee out on the patio that morning and was looking forward to it. Then a loud bang from outside the house startled me. It was the transformer in the alley, it had blown and much of the neighborhood lost power. Not a particularly interesting story, I know, we’ve all been there. And the power was only out for a couple of hours before the power company came to fix it. But, I kept noticing myself doing something. I kept reaching for light switches. I opened my computer before remembering I didn’t have internet. I even started to get ready to take a shower before remembering I wouldn’t have hot water – I have an on-demand water heater, meaning I don’t have a tank of hot water to draw from. I went to the garage to drive somewhere to get coffee, hitting the button to open the door before remembering I needed to manually open it. Even though I knew the power was out, my long-learned habits kept me doing the same things even though they wouldn’t work. I kept catching myself moving through a familiar routine. We all do this – it’s muscle memory – you walk into a dark room, you reach for the light switch without even thinking about it. So, even though my system was disrupted, I kept trying, without thinking, to move within a system that quite literally had no power. I needed to move within a different system, but the habits of the old were so entrenched, I kept taking actions that got me nowhere.
That is the best metaphor I can think of to help explain what Paul is trying to get at in his letter to the Romans. He is trying to help those early followers of Christ move into a new system, a system powered by the Holy Spirit, and away from the system powered by the flesh. Which is where we run into our first problem. That word ‘flesh.’ Often, too often, that idea has been mis-interpreted to mean that we cannot be held to the desires of our bodies. Usually that leads to someone standing at a pulpit and railing against their personal ideas of what is sexually appropriate and what is not. But, that is not at all what Paul is getting at. He is trying to set up an alternative to the systems that are in place that keep us trapped in cycles that hold us back from what God created us for and hopes for us. Cycles of greed, addiction, perceived scarcity, fear of other, selfishness, extractive capitalism, power over, and exploitation. Those systems which humans have created in order to maintain and regain power at the expense of the other.
Those systems often get us nowhere. It is like the saying ‘history repeats itself’. We, as a society, often do the same things over and over again. Yes, they might look differently each time, but ultimately they are the same. It is because that is what we are used to and what we are told is normal. It is like walking into a dark room and flipping the light switch, even though the power is out, because it is such a habit we don’t even notice we are doing it. But then we are surprised, over and over again, because we are not getting the result we expect.
We need to develop new habits, Paul is saying. New ways of being in the world that break those destructive cycles we are stuck in and actually move us forward. Paul is calling on people to plug into the same system that powered Jesus – the Holy Spirit. The essence of God that moves in and through all of us and the rest of creation. That system which is powered not by our human frailties but by God’s love and peace. It is a system that binds us all together as equals, helping us to remember that we are only well if our neighbor is well, and our health is only possible if our planet is healthy. It is a web of interconnectedness that cannot be broken, and one that, if we all choose to live in, will break those destructive cycles we seem to be trapped in.
What I think is remarkable about all of this is that both of these systems can exist at the same time. It is not one or the other. In fact, we often need both. But, if we choose to draw our strength and inspiration from the Holy Spirit and use that to power the human systems we exist in, then the two begin to be in alignment. Rather than bumping up against one another, jockeying for space and attention, they can begin to be integrated. And our human systems become ones that cease to be destructive and begin to be healing.
Let me take an example from my week. As many of you know I attended a training this week at the request and invitation of the county’s emergency management director. This training was to learn about a process that has been created to reunify parents with their children following a shooting at one of our schools. For those who were here last Sunday, you heard me share the reflection on that training Jerry Locula offered, our friend from Liberia who has a masterful way of mirroring back to us America culture that we have a hard to seeing. He said that having such an established process in place and a sophisticated mechanism for teaching that process means that we in the United States have accepted the fact that school shootings are a reality. Therefore, we have created responses to that reality. Our responses, the procedure of reunification I was trained on, are part of moving through that human-created system that we have in the United States that makes room for, and even encourages, gun culture.
But that does not mean the training I received wasn’t immensely beneficial. It is reassuring for me to know that there is a plan that can be implemented that will make a horrifying and chaotic day just a half a degree less chaotic. I, and others in our community, will know what to do in that moment. It won’t make it easier, but at least we won’t have to make it up as we go along. However, if I am to do as my faith calls me to do, to seek the help, inspiration, and power from God and the Holy Spirit, then I cannot stop there. I refuse to just accept the reality of gun culture that is killing our children, and I will seek to disrupt that system, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in any way that I can. For me, that means I have a pulpit and listening audience. For you that may mean asking candidates for our votes their own plans to disrupt that system and then holding them accountable. For some it may mean learning to have a conversation about guns that includes talking points that seek to educate and not bludgeon. It could mean choosing to destroy your own gun, so there is no less in the world. And we all can, we all should, remain amazed by not allowing ourselves to be apathetic to this horrifying reality. I suspected the training would wear on my Spirit. And, while it might be odd to say, I was relieved that it did. The moments when my eyes teared up and the sleepless nights that followed reassures me that I have not yet become immune to the trauma. I reinforces for me that I know this is not who we are, that we can do better, and gives me the strength, drawing on power from the Holy Spirit, to keep working for a world where such a training is not needed.
We exist within human-made systems and their power sources, and at the same time God offers us an alternative power that we can draw from that will make those human-made systems more just and healing. That system, the Holy Spirit, the spirit of gentleness that has moved through creation from the beginning and that continues to move through us today, is our gift and our possibility. If we can shift our habits, to draw on that source of strength instead of the power that erodes our souls, then we will find a never-ending source of hope and inspiration and peace and love that will strengthen us for whatever we may face. For many of us that may mean we have to create entirely new habits. Going back to my over-simplified metaphor of the power going out, it is like learning how to reach for a candle instead of the light switch. But, we can learn anew because we have a teacher to help us. Our guide to moving within a system powered by the Holy Spirit is Jesus Christ. More than any other he sought to disrupt the human-made systems that held humanity away from God’s great hopes and possibilities. He did so in small ways – sitting with the stranger, feeding the poor, caring for the sick, challenging practices – small ways, yes, but its culminative effect was such that 2000 years later we are still seeking to go and do likewise. So, let us remember to draw from that same source that strengthened Jesus – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of restlessness that stirs us from placidness, and with bold new decisions we will arise. Amen.
Good and loving God, your essence is experienced in our lives at all times through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this source of strength and inspiration, hope and healing, we give you great thanks. And it is in that gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
We know that we exist within systems that keep us entrenched in cycles of destruction and trauma. We pray for ourselves as we grapple with the effects of those systems. And we pray for those for whom choices are not available, whose power and privilege have been so eroded away that their only choice is to seek to survive. We pray that you may comfort them and us, and at the same time we pray for your calling upon our lives to be so loud we simply cannot ignore it anymore. We pray that we will be filled with the power of your Holy Spirit.
On this day, God, we in particular pray for all of the fathers in our lives, those men who have been and continue to be and will be in the future fathers to us in so many different ways. So now in these moments of silence we open ourselves and our spirits up to you, asking you to fill us with your love…
Good and Great God, your Spirit holds us together with one another and connects us with you. May we use that gift to guide us in all that we do, following the example of Jesus Christ our guide and our teacher and the one we echo as we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…