Let me begin by wishing you a Happy New Year. You may find that a bit odd on the 31st day of August but it is the reality of our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. You may think that the new year begins on January 1st but you know in your heart that it does not. You may join the Church in our hopeless attempts to show that the year begins with the First Sunday of Advent which comes right after Thanksgiving. Nobody really believes that one although we give it solemn lip service. The fact is that there is built into our minds if not our souls the fact that a new year begins when school starts. And that is tomorrow, the day after Labor Day.
Whether your life is consciously geared to the rhythms of schools or whether you are long separated from it, there is an impulse to buy new pencils, change our habits of dress and get serious about what we do. Labor Day began as a tribute to those who do blue collar work in our community. That remains a worthwhile acknowledgement of contributions of great value to our common life. But the day itself has become symbolic of the real new year, the time when we shift gears from summer’s ease to the focused endeavors of Fall and Winter.
I want to think with you this morning about the change of attitude that this day triggers in us. The lessons for this morning tell a wonderful tale of a discovery made by our spiritual ancestors. The discovery has to do with a fact of life and an awareness that the wise bring to the endeavors of life. As we set about gathering ourselves for the tasks of this new year, lets listen to these texts and stand in the light of our ancestors insights.
We begin at the beginning, the earliest of the writings, found in the Book of Deuteronomy. People are exhorted to do what is right. We are told that knowing what is right is a wonderful gift given by God. People who ignore that gift — those drawn to the Baal or god of Peor for example — meet with severe consequences. Those who honor the gift and live righteously can expect prosperity. It is a neat and uncomplicated formula, the Gospel According to Nike. Just do it! Do what is right and all will be well. God has left a gift at our door and the rest is up to us. The Gospel tells us that Jesus puts a little spin on the “it” we are expected to “just do.” It is not outward ritual, he says. Not following rules of piety, ritual and observance. I hate to tell you this but going to church on a holiday weekend when everybody else is at the beach is nice but Jesus says it is not the point. It is about what is in your heart and what comes from your heart. It is about integrity and hope, joy and compassion, generosity and forgiveness. It is not just what we do, it is the motivation behind what we do. That is a distinction that the laws of Deuteronomy could not make because it has no way to determine what is inside of a person. That is why Jesus got into such trouble with the laws of his day. He is saying that the business of life involves subtleties that the law cannot grasp. That is an important development but the great discovery belongs to Paul who wrote the Letter to the Ephesians. He says that when we step into the new year we find that there is more going on than just our tasks and our willingness to do them. There are, says Paul, spiritual forces at work. Deep and powerful cross currents that lead, pull, push and trip us up as we go about the business of our lives. Things that Paul calls cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. In his Letter to the Romans he talked about his experience of those forces in his own life. See if this rings a bell with you. “ I can will what is right but I cannot do it. …I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rms 7: 18-19). Anybody who has ever tried to lose ten pounds, control a habit, break an addiction, save a marriage, break out of the ghetto or keep a promise knows the Truth that Paul discovered.
God has shown us what is right and wants us to do it. Jesus has made clear that doing what is right is about our hearts as well as our public acts. Paul tells us that there is a lot more going on than just knowing what is right or wanting to do what is right. There are spiritual forces and realities in this life — and waiting for us in this new year —that need to be taken into account, realities that require us to wear what Paul calls “the whole armor of God.” You don’t have to be a Christian to know that he is right. Anyone who has experienced life at any depth whatever knows what he means.
I do not know what you are gearing up for in this new year. I do not know where you will be or what you will be called upon to do. But I do know two things. Whatever you do will involve contending with the cosmic powers and spiritual forces that Paul identified. The other thing I know is that if you carry out your life in the United States of America you will be in the presence of an unintentional attempt to un-discover what Paul discovered. We live in a society that is losing its ability to acknowledge the realities of spiritual forces—both good and bad. Every individual knows the reality of those forces no matter what they might call them but our nation is in denial. What is happening is that a good thing is having an unintended and unfortunate consequence. In our attempts to maintain the separation of Church and State, which is a good and wise thing, we have come to rely upon the law. A step that certainly makes sense and I would not have it otherwise. But the law is like our first lesson. It cannot distinguish what is in the heart. It cannot grasp the subtlety that Jesus describes. So in the course of separating Church and State we are unwittingly separating Spirit and State. We can order people to remove the Ten Commandments from a courthouse which is probably the right legal thing to do but we are left with the sense that our courthouses are not attached to anything larger than life. We can take prayer out of schools, which I think is a good decision, but we are left with schools that have no way to acknowledge greater context in which all learning finds its meaning. We can discourage evangelism in the workplace for reasons that are good and obvious but then we find ourselves spending the bulk of our live in places that deny that which is at the center of our lives.
We all know the truth of what Jesus and Paul are adding to the good words in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy says that our lives are better when we do what is right. Jesus says that involves our inner lives as well as our outer actions and Paul reminds us that it is carried out in the presence of spiritual forces that push and pull us. Individually we know it. Corporately, nationally, legally we deny it. Not because our laws are wrong or our leaders are behaving badly. It is because we know how to separate the institutions of Church and State but we do not know how to do it without separating the State from works of the Spirit at the same time. It is like a sailing ship that knows the wind but not the currents, a hospital that tests blood but not organs, a budget that tracks income but not expense. It is a disturbing fact of our common life. You may be waiting to find out the solution that I suggest. Alas, you will wait in vain. I have no solution nor even a positive suggestion as to how our nation might learn to distinguish between the institutions of religion and the realities of the Spirit. I do not know enough about the law or the workings of our nation to do more than point out the problem. But I do know something about being a Christian. I know that we are called to bear witness to the Truth as God reveals it to us. We are not called by God to stand around like cattle waiting for the world to affirm or express our faith for us. As a matter of fact a great deal of our faith is expected to make a distinction between itself and the affirmations and expression of the world. Being a Christian involves living in the reality that our faith proclaims. And today that faith is reminding us that our lives work better when we do what is right; and that what is right involves our inner integrity as well as our outward actions; and that our integrity and actions are influenced by the realities of the spirit, both good and bad.
I will give you a word to describe us. It is a lovely snob word that you will enjoy saying in front of your friends because they will not know what it means. That is a rotten thing to do but we who go to church on a holiday week-end ought to have something to show for it. The word is pneumatokos. It is Greek and it means “Spirit bearer.” In a world that is in denial about the realities of the spirit, we are called by our faith to bear witness to the spirit’s truth. We are called to be spirit bearers, pneumatokos.
I am not suggesting that the laws are bad and should be violated. I think the laws are good but do not quite reach to the truth of today’s lessons. I am not suggesting that you ignore the policies about conduct in your workplace. I think that if you accept their money you should accept their rules or work appropriately to change them. I am suggesting that you go from this place wondering what it might mean for you to be pneumatokos in the community and the workplace in new year that is beginning tomorrow.
The lessons for today remind us of a great Truth, a truth our world is in the business of forgetting. We must be in the business of remembering. Happy New Year.