Sermon preached May 29, 2016
Texts: I Kings 18:20-39
In the late 1970s in the history of rock ‘n’ roll music, there was a movement to recapture some of the energy of earlier rock ‘n’ roll. You see, some thought the music had become too indulgent, too many long solos, too much artifice. Of course, there were also people who really disliked the disco music of the 1970s, too, though in many ways that music seems delightfully carefree.
So punk rock and new wave music hit the scene, and among the new wave rockers was a British musician, Graham Parker. All this simply to introduce the song from which I stole this morning’s sermon title – “Passion is No Ordinary Word” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPQWPxfPYKo
Passion is no ordinary word. Don’t we want some passion and energy in our lives? Don’t we want to feel some excitement? Scanning our culture, part of the appeal of team sports is the avenue they provide for passion and excitement, even though it is not always well-channeled. This seems true across cultures – soccer evokes a great deal of passion in many countries.
In an interview will Bill Moyers, the scholar Joseph Campbell once said: People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (The Power of Myth, 4-5)
We want some passion in our lives. We want to feel alive. Yet passion raises concerns. Consider our contemporary political scene. Passions seem to be boiling over in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominee for the Republican party generates a lot of passion. He draws huge crowds, and on occasion some of his passionate supporters have let their passion boil over into violence. There are others passionately opposed to Mr. Trump, and their passion has boiled over into violence. Bernie Sanders evokes a great deal of passion, and there have been times when some of his supporters have let their passion boil over into unhelpful behavior.
Politics can evoke passion and that passion can boil over into unhelpful and unhealthy behavior. We see similar things with athletics. Fans violent toward fans of an opposing team. Just yesterday in the Duluth News Tribune was the first in a series of articles on how parents are passionately advocating for their children with high school coaches, and how this passion has boiled over into bad behavior – violent threats, interrupted holiday meals.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition, was cautious about religious passion. In his day it was called “enthusiasm.” I am not sure Wesley would have been so hot on calling our softball team “the Methodist enthusiasts”!
Wesley defined “enthusiasm” as “undoubtedly a disorder of the mind… a disorder that greatly hinders the exercise of reason” (John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, 418). As such, it is “a misfortune, if not a fault” (418). Enthusiasm in general may be described in some such manner as this: a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God. (419) Wesley warned, “beware that you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast” (427).
Yet, Wesley was also an advocate of a religion of the heart. This past week, Methodists marked “Aldersgate Day,” a rather well-known incident in the life of John Wesley. Here is the famous quote from his journal about May 24, 1738. In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Outler, John Wesley, 66) Wesley thought that there is an affective dimension to Christian faith and life, a heart dimension, something we could feel, even feel passionately. In the same sermon which cautioned against “enthusiasm,” Wesley also wrote: But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,’ then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou are beside thyself’ [quoting Acts 26:24]
Heart religion, but with some reasonableness to it. Passionate faith, but not enthusiasm. This brings me to this morning’s text.
In this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we can see both an encouragement of passion and a caution about passion. Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – which god will light a fire, an image of some passion.
The prophets of Baal are full of passionate intensity as they try and get their god or gods to do something. They pray and dance. They then cut themselves and bleed. “As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” This is the kind of religious madness Wesley would describe as “enthusiasm.” There is a lot of leaping and dancing about, a lot of passion, but it is misdirected and is of no effect.
In contrast, Elijah is measured and systematic in setting up his altar. He even asks that water be poured onto the wood. He prays. Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.
The God of Elijah who wins this contest is a God of fire, a God of some passion. We want to know and experience and feel this God. We want some of that, to feel alive, to feel connected to a source of power and grace and love beyond ourselves. We want to care with passion for the world, and want a God whose love for the world embraces us and moves us to love and care.
In her devotional book Living Well, Sister Joan Chittister writes wisely about passion, what she calls “enthusiasm.” There is nothing in life that is worth doing that is not worth doing with enthusiasm. Anything else is simply a matter of going through the motions. (51) Enthusiasm ought not to be confused with hysteria. Enthusiasm is honest, positive response to a genuine issue. (52) A lack of enthusiasm erodes the heart. People who cannot develop an interest in anything beyond themselves are people without a life. (55) Enthusiasm is simply the willingness to try what we never tried before and find it wonderful. (56)
What I like best about Chittister’s reflections is the story she tells with them. She tells of a conversation she had with a woman who was eighty-one. The woman was planning on going to San Francisco by train with three other women. About herself, Joan says, I paused at the very thought of it. I was in my fifties, well-traveled, seasoned, but absolutely aghast at the thought of going by Amtrak all the way across the United States at any age, let alone at the age of eighty-one.(48) What comes next, though, completely floors Sister Joan. She asks the woman how long she plans to stay in San Francisco. “Oh, I think about three week. After all I’ve never been there before, and I have no idea how long it will be before I go again.” Go again, at age 81! Joan reflects: There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it. The problem is that I have seen apathy – that deep-down, bone-weary lethargy that passes too often, I think, for calm – and I know that, though it is not death, it is not life either. (48-49)
We want a little fire in our lives, without it becoming a destructive blaze.
A passion in my life is for reading and for books. Portland have one of the most amazing book stores in the country, and it was only five blocks from my hotel. At Powell’s I found a book written by a philosopher whose works I appreciate – Robert Solomon, The Passions. At the end of the book, Solomon writes: We must give up that tragic and confused dichotomy between “Reason” and “the passions,” as if only insanity and self-destructive obsessions could be “passionate,” and as if only the cold-blooded calculations of unconcerned “Reason” could be rational. We must instead develop a conception of rational passions, cultivated conscientiously as creative means to self-realization, living our lives as “works of art.” (430)
So what’s the payoff here?
In the days since the ending of The United Methodist General Conference, I have been reading analyses and Facebooks posts, and Twitter tweets. A long-time acquaintance of mine wrote that he was glad the United Methodist Church was staying “biblical” by which he meant we had not changed our current language on homosexuality or marriage. People are passionate about being biblical, though I am not sure that they always grasp what a complex idea that is. Others wrote about The United Methodist Church being bigoted. People are passionate for inclusion. I am passionate for inclusion. I also recognize how complicated that conversation is globally, when in many African countries even discussing human sexuality is legally problematic. Now may be the time for we United Methodists to be passionate about thoughtfulness, and thoughtful about passion.
But there are also questions for each of us in all this. Is part of the long-term decline of well-established Christian churches our failure to be passionate, to share how being a follower of Jesus Christ makes us feel more alive? Have we sometimes failed to have a little fire of the Spirit?
What are you passionate about in being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple of Jesus? What are you passionate about in being here at this church, about being part of this community of love and forgiveness, this community that is guided by the teaching and unconditional love of Jesus and that aspires to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? How are you balancing thoughtfulness and passion? How are you staying aflame in a world that often pours the waters of cynicism even on thoughtful religious passion?
The questions are meant for each of us, but also for all of us, together. May God send a little fire of God’s Spirit into our lives and into our lives together – to rekindle our hearts and souls, to help us feel more alive, and to reignite our deepest thinking. Amen.