The Steward in the Square  Romans 8:1-11     July13, 2008

Venice: one of the places to see is Saint Mark’s Square, the spot Napoleon called “the drawing room of Europe.” But if you go there, make sure your belly is covered up. There’s not exactly a dress code, but there is an expectation of decorum.

Venice had 20 million visitors last year, so at any given time, there can be thousands of people in this famous square, which is surrounded by magnificent architecture, artwork and sites of historic importance.

But some people just don’t get it, and they aren’t above wandering onto the square bare-chested or with their midriff exposed. Some carelessly drop litter and others try to set out picnic lunches on the square. Still others treat the nearby Grand Canal as if it were a beach.

The city leaders view these behaviors as disrespectful of the place. City council member Augusto Salvadori, who is in charge of tourism and the city’s image, explains, “Venice is a city of art and a city that belongs to the world. Guests are welcome — but Venice has to be respected.”

City leaders have no interest in keeping tourists away, but they do want a proper decorum to be observed. So recently, in addition to posting signs naming the prohibitions, they have started employing a squad of women as stewards of the square to make sure tourists are not taking unwarranted or offensive liberties.  By definition, a steward protects the property of another and sees to it that it is handled wisely and correctly.

These stewards, several of whom can speak more than one language so as to deal with foreign tourists, patrol the square and are ready to intervene at the first sign of unacceptable behavior. They wear special T-shirts to identify their role, and they try to do their work in a friendly way.

For example, if a family starts to lay out a picnic, a steward will direct them to a location where such activity is permitted. And most visitors who are corrected by a steward respond positively. However, when tourists turn belligerent, the women are able to call in police backup who can hand out fines ranging from 25 to 500 euros.

Actually, the stewards aren’t there to stop people from enjoying themselves, but to remind them of the importance of conducting themselves in a way that honors the historical grandeur of the place.

Most locals agree with having stewards in St. Mark's Square. They appreciate that some standards are finally being imposed in order to preserve the beauty and serenity of their city.


Incidentally, Venice is not alone in its efforts. You can’t go into St. Peter’s in Rome in shorts or sleeveless blouses. Other significant tourist spots around the world maintain certain specific standards.

All of us can think of certain places or events where a Standards Steward might be helpful. I've heard of funerals, for example, where someone has shown up in cut-off jeans and flip-flops. That would undoubtedly strike most of  us as disrespectful.

The reason for discussing all this is not to bemoan the state of our dress or manners, but to illustrate that there are times and places where we need a Steward to direct us in how to be in the square of life. That might be hard to hear in our individualist, don’t-fence-me-in society, but it is true nonetheless.

And that brings us to our reading from Romans, where the apostle Paul contrasts what he calls life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. The gist of what Paul’s talking about is that there are two possible ways of being in the world. One is guided by our human nature and the other is guided by the Spirit of God.

Paul describes the first by using the phrase “walking according to the flesh,” but in this case, he’s not referring to the physical body or to what we sometimes call “sins of the flesh.” Rather, he means our human nature, our humanness with all of its vulnerability to sin, with its inclination to be self-serving, with its attachments to the immediate moment as opposed to the longer range.

Left to its own devices, our human nature moves in the direction of lowering standards, of considering acceptable what previously was not. Our human nature wears sweatpants and a tank top to the formal banquet of life, and sees no problem with that.

It isn’t that walking according to the flesh, to use Paul’s phrase, is always evil; it’s that it’s unregenerate. Its only standard is itself and what it feels like at the moment. When we operate solely out of our human nature, we need a steward of some sort just to stay out of trouble. However, mere laws, guidelines, prohibitions, rules for admission and the like are not enough. Our inner human nature is a self-centered rebel.

Or as Paul put it here in Romans 8, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot ...” (v. 7, italics added) To walk the straight and narrow, we need the Spirit as a steward within us. We need someone telling us when we’re straying; maybe even calling for backup if we get too off the beaten path!

That's when the work of the Holy Spirit comes in. He is our counselor, comforter, teacher. The Spirit prays through us to God the Father and even for us when we don't know how or what to pray.

Paul calls the other way of being as “walking according to the Spirit.” He is of course referring to the Holy Spirit, the indwelling power of God. The biggest difference that makes is that the overriding motivation and guidance the person in the Spirit receives is not from his or her human nature but from God.

 

The steward in the square in this case is the Spirit of God within us. Thus, walking in the Spirit, we can live in a way that is pleasing to God and life-giving to ourselves. On the latter point Paul wrote, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life ...” (v. 6). In John 10:10 Jesus says that He came to give us life, and that more abundantly. A full life, a spiritually fulfilled contented life.

In some circles, to speak of being “converted” or “born again” or “deciding to follow Jesus,” refers mostly to a moment in which a person changes direction, or repents; but of course, that is only a beginning. Paul here talks about walking in the Spirit as allowing that moment of change to blossom into a way of life. That way of life, that walking in the Spirit, can be characterized as listening to the internal steward/Spirit.

Our spiritual ancestors understood this need. Years ago in the church, members often urged one another to “go on to perfection.” They spoke of seeking “holiness” or “sanctification,” of “total surrender” or of receiving “the second blessing.” These terms essentially meant the same thing, but the reality to which they referred was what Paul means by “walking according to the Spirit.”

Or, to use our current metaphor, they had a steward in the square of life to guide them in how to walk in the Spirit — not to keep them from having a good time, but to show them how to conduct themselves in ways that recognize the sanctity of being in God’s presence.

And that’s how it still comes to us today — by asking God to daily send the Spirit into the square of our lives, to show us how to walk the walk, and to experience deep, life-giving joy in doing so. Amen.

 

Rev . Rosemary Stelz

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Source:

Gumuchian, Marie-Louise. “Visiting Venice? Mind your manners.” ShanghaiDaily.com, September 1, 2007, shanghaidaily.com/article/print.asp?id=329468.


 

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