To set the mind on the Spirit

Fifth Sunday in Lent

In the name of God: help us to embody the expanse of your vision.  Amen.

Michael and I went to an Oscars party a couple of weeks ago.  I had never been to one before, and to be quite honest, I don’t watch the show most years.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I did.  I certainly enjoy movies, but they are, by their nature, less communal than live theatre.  So I’ve never really gotten into celebrating the community and its achievements.  And, to be quite honest, I haven’t seen any of the movies.  We almost never see movies in theaters, so almost invariably, the movies we see aren’t the newest ones that everyone is celebrating.  The whole exercise just always felt foreign to me.

But what surprised me was that as we watched, I started becoming invested.  I saw various clips of these films that highlighted the actor or the technical element that was nominated, and I actually started to care about what was happening.  Similar to my love of live theatre, I was particularly impressed with the various technical and creative awards.  I know that acting is an important part of the storytelling in drama, but I’ve always been so much more interested in those other parts that build the world of the story and set the tone.

And I am awestruck by the ways that these creative geniuses can make a whole world outside of our own – one that exists solely for the majesty of a particular story.  With technical manipulations of lights and scenery, with stylistic choices of costumes and color schemes, they bring us along into their experience of something we would never be able to see on our own.

If life in this world, alone, weren’t enough to make you recognize that our stories exist as a part of something bigger than ourselves, the ways that stories are depicted and shared, and the ways that our focus is driven in the creative world should be enough to show you that it’s true.  The individual is never the whole truth, in a movie, in a play, or even in our own experience.

While I’ve never been a part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I do know that one of the central teachings they have about how to be successful on the path to recovery is about the importance of acknowledging and learning to rely on a higher power.  Whether that higher power is God or your faith, or even if it’s the community or the steps themselves there is a measure of healthiness and wholeness that comes from recognizing that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.

That’s a big part of the truth that’s being taught in the section from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that we read this morning.  “To set the mind on flesh is death,” he says.  “But to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…”  He goes on to say, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, [because] the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  Or, to put it more plainly in a way you may have heard it said: “we are not bodies that have souls, we are souls that have bodies.”  We see our bodies.  We experience the world through the senses of our bodies.  But the experience itself is the soul’s.  The sentience belongs to the body, but the perception - the awareness – the ways that we understand meaning – those belong to the soul.  And that’s what truly endures.

Our readings today all pull us into considering the body.  That classic and beautiful, if not a little bit gory story from Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones – they take on bodies simply from being in the presence of God’s words as shared by the prophet.  But the bodies aren’t really the point.  The point is the power of the message that God is longing to share with creation.  That’s what gives life!

And the lesson from the gospel is that memorable story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  His body had even begun to decompose and to stink, but even so, the power of God was realized in it.  It ceased to be an “it” and it became a “him” again.  The power of God’s words spoken through Jesus could not be contained.  Even what had seemed a foregone conclusion was suddenly turned around.  And life blossomed again, where it had been thought to have been impossible.

I love the quote that Christina chose for this week in our weekly email.  It was from Maya Angelou who said, “I have heard it said that winter, too, will pass, that spring is a sign that summer is due at last. See, all we have to do is hang on.”  I can’t think of a better way of expressing the Fifth Sunday in Lent.  We know in our minds and in our bodies that Easter is coming.  We just have to hang on.

But even that is just a shadow of the real truth.

We use our liturgies to practice the penitence of Lent.  We use them to remember that death is real so we can really appreciate the new life that’s coming.  Next week we’ll begin using liturgies to move even deeper into that practicing – we’ll move into Holy Week when we take steps to live alongside Jesus in his last days.  We try to come as close as we can to embracing his own experience, and the experience of his community around him.  We get as close as we can through our own modern experiences, even though they’re removed from it by all these years.

But even so, it’s not quite enough.  Our liturgies and our prayers – no matter how heartfelt – are just too small.  We try to make sense of the story and the meaning it still has in our own lives.  We try to give it structure so we might have some hope of wrapping our minds around it all.  But the spiritual truths that they point to are still just too great.  They are more significant and more complex than our best prayers and praises can contain.

That’s why I so deeply love the technical and creative people who bring a story to life in theatre and film.  With a kind of creativity that dimly reflects God’s own, they turn concepts and stories into experiences.  They use the humble elements of this static, tightly-contained world, and they make them have meaning beyond themselves.

In the spirit of Paul’s message: they use the flesh to reflect the Spirit.  They use the flesh because it’s the tools we have.  But they strive for the Spirit, which is the story beyond the words, the story beyond the costumes, the story beyond the actors and the lights and everything else.  The Spirit is how it all comes together.  The Spirit is where it finds meaning.

We’re called to do the same thing.  We are called to use these tools that we have to reach toward the Spirit.  We’re called to see how these elements we can hold might lead us to the truth that is beyond our holding.

We do the best we can.  But it’s no more than a shadow of the beauty, peace, and wisdom than God has in store.  We just have to hang on.  Amen.