Joel 2:23-32; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14
What is being poured out? The Spirit? Us? Our hearts? There is a rawness to the texts for this Sunday, a very un-Presbyterian emotional honesty, that may make us uncomfortable. There is the vindication of the people in Joel accompanied by the charismatic outpouring of the Spirit that prompts prophecy from unexpected people. Those long silenced find their God-given voices. Then there is the unguarded complaining in 2 Timothy, a sense of woe-is-me that refuses to buck up and get over it. “I am being poured out. I have fought the good fight. All deserted me. It is me and God against the world.” The Gospel gives yet one more outpouring, the soul-baring prayer of the tax collector as he cries out to God and beats his breast in grief and shame. These are not scenes of civil society and, well, we Presbyterians have often put civility next to godliness.
Cathleen Kaveny, in her book “Prophecy Without Contempt, Religious Discourse in the Public Square,” makes the case that Protestants have valued civility to the point of idolatry and to the determent of true community. Citing John Murray Cuddihy, Kaveny writes, “Protestant denominationalism ‘institutionalizes agape as civility.’” The problem with this is, according to Cuddihy, civility does not enable “the warm, dense closeness of ‘real’ solidarity. It is ‘formal’ solidarity. In a regime of civility, everybody doesn’t love everybody. Everybody doesn’t even respect everybody. Everybody ‘shows respect for’ everybody. … In short, the Protestant ethic of bourgeois civility defers full community indefinitely in order to forge a workable, limited formal community here and now.”
Civility, coupled with “a certain type of self-denial and self-restraint,” curtails community, solidarity and vigorous disagreement. Our politeness enables us to be far off from the tax collector and feel close to God, instead of being painfully aware of our distance from both the Holy and our fellow human beings. We tithe. We fast. We follow the rules of polite society. There will be no crying out, breast-beating or spontaneous prophecy from our corner of the Kingdom, thank you very much. Additionally, it is in poor taste to carp publicly about brother Demas and Alexander the coppersmith. If you don’t have anything nice to say, well, you know the rest!
But what are we missing when we put civility next to godliness? It seems we could use a good dose of civility this election season, doesn’t it? These biblical texts tell us that perhaps it isn’t civility we need so much as a willingness to both be poured out and receive God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Such outpourings are often chaotic, sometimes painful and never concerned with the being socially acceptable, respectable or polite.
Taking each text in turn, the preacher or teacher this week might want to consider where there are outpourings taking and place and how those outpourings might be honored and joined so that true communion can happen. We might also want to take a look at when we attempt to bottle them up and why.
All three of these texts have to do with community, God’s people brought together for God’s purposes, rather than isolated, separated, segregated, gradated. That vindication in Joel that gets repeated in Acts 2 is about the entire community being given a voice and heard. It is about the ability and desire of God to work through all people, regardless of their gender or worldly status. When the Spirit is poured out the word of God is amplified. New visions emerge and people dare to dream. No one is shamed; everyone is valued. Real communion is possible as the voices of those long silenced are heard. Where is the Spirit being poured out in our world? Who is speaking the word of God? What visions and dreams are becoming visible as a result?
What about those in your midst who feel that they are being poured out and wrung out and left hung out to dry? Who is it that needs you to bring them their cloak or their books, or, please, their parchments? Are there some among you who need to share their hurt and pain at having been abandoned by their brothers and sisters in the faith? Jacques Ellul in his book “The Presence of the Kingdom ” writes, “so long as solidarity between Christians is not expressed in mutual help, which will permit everyone to find a balanced life, to discover a style of life that truly expresses his faith, it will only be a matter of words.” When have we talked about Christian compassion but failed to bring our poured-out brother his cloak? When have we said, “Jesus loves you” but not visited our deserted sister?
And isn’t there a time to pour out our soul to the living God? Or stand close by to someone else who is beating their breast in pain? If we look on another’s lament or confession or penitence with a sense of superiority and a smug pride about our own righteousness, we prevent true communion not only with the one wailing, but with God, too. Our certainty of our rightness and righteousness distances us from everyone, including our true selves. If we can’t pour out our hearts to God, we won’t open our hearts to others.
The poem, “How do I listen?” by Hafiz seems appropriate for this Sunday of outpourings.
How do I listen?
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me
How do we listen this week for the last words of our Master? The ones that come before the last days? The Word in flesh appearing? The words of hurt? The cries of anguish? The cherished, costly words of breast-beating tax collectors, sinners like me and like you? We may have to lean in close, forget a safe distance and an observer’s stance, and pour out our hearts to God and to one another, so that the Spirit will make our voices heard, our vision clear and our dream of community real.
- Do we value civility over honest community? How is civility helpful, how does it hinder relationships?
- Have you ever experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? A real sense that God was speaking through the voices of others or yourself?
- What do you make of the details in this 2 Timothy text? Leave in those middle verses that the lectionary skips and consider why things like cloaks, books and dealings with coppersmiths are relevant to a life of faith together.
- When have you prayed like the tax collector in this Luke text? The Pharisee?
- The refrain that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted” is repeated in Luke. Where? What are the similarities of context? Differences?
- Is humility a trait that is valued in our culture? How about in our churches?
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