Sunday, July 06, 2014

I’m So Confused -- A Sermon for Pentecost 4A

Romans 7:15-25a

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh.”  Those words come right before our reading from Romans.   According to Paul, it’s difficult to do the right thing, even when you know what the right thing is! Does that seem to describe your reality?  Could it be that there is a war going on inside us? Paul seems to think so, which is why I titled the sermon: “I’m so confused.”

In Romans Paul talks a lot about how difficult it is to keep the law of God. While the Law reveals God’s desires for our lives, it doesn’t have the ability to help us fulfill these desires.  The Law is good.  As the Psalmist puts it:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.  (Psalm 19:7-10).

From experience, however, Paul has discovered that as wonderful as the Law might be, he struggles to keep it.  It’s as if there’s a virus, like the shingle’s virus, that is present in his system.  Every once in a while it kicks in, throwing him off course.  He knows where he’d like to go.  He has his map and his G.P.S., but for some reason the G.P.S. has an error embedded that leads him astray.

Long after Paul wrote this letter, St. Augustine had a debate with another monk named Pelagius.  Pelagius believed that if we work hard enough we can live without sin.  He was righteous man, but like the Pharisees that Jesus encountered, he laid on people expectations beyond their capacity to keep.  His religion was a rather harsh one.

Augustine, on the other hand, knew from personal experience that the more he tried to please God the more depressed he became.  Martin Luther had similar issues.  In his Confessions, Augustine tells the story of how he and a group of young men came upon a pear tree.  They decided to cart off a load of fruit, not because they were hungry, but simply because it was there.  He writes of this escapade: “Perhaps we ate some, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.” [Confessions (Penguin Classics), 2:4,  (Penguin Books, 1961), p. 47].   Augustine knew the difference between right and  wrong, but there was something inside him that made the forbidden fruit too enticing to avoid!

Has that ever been true for you?  I know it has been for me.

Augustine seems to understand what Paul meant when he confessed:  “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  John Newton also understood what Paul meant by this statement.  Newton had been slave ship captain, before becoming an Anglican priest.  Now, on a different path, he took solace in the grace of God: “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”   Before we get to grace, it’s good to think a bit more about that virus present in our system.

Since it’s the Fourth of July Weekend, it’s appropriate to turn to our own national history for examples of what Paul meant by his statements about sin and the ability to overcome it.  Would you think with me about our nation’s founding documents?  Think about how we as a nation have struggled to live up to the aspirations present in these documents.  When Thomas Jefferson sat down and penned the Declaration of Independence, he established a powerful call to equality.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These are words to take delight in.  They’re worthy of being celebrated with parades and fireworks.  But, we’re still learning what these words mean.
On Thursday, we observed – rather quietly – the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This act of Congress guaranteed full civil rights to every citizen in America, male and female, no matter one’s ethnicity.  This law declared that legal segregation would no longer be tolerated.  But, the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people wasn’t over.  Businesses still discriminated against women in the workplace.  States found ways of keeping people from voting, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, guaranteeing every citizen in American the right to vote.  By the way, the President who had the courage to pursue these two landmark pieces of legislation was a Disciple – Lyndon Johnson.  The Declaration of Independence laid out a principle of equality, but the nation – even the Founders themselves – resisted the implications.  It would be more than a century before women got the right to vote.  It took a Civil War to end slavery.  It took another century before Jim Crow was overturned.  Knowing what is right, doesn’t mean we always do what is right.
Paul understood this quite well.  The Enlightenment vision that caught the attention of the Founders of the American Republic and the denomination of which we’re members, had a blind spot.  They seemed to forget that there’s this virus present in our members, ready to wreak havoc at any moment’s notice.  While I want to believe that I’m incapable of engaging in the kinds of horrific activities attributed to Hitler, Stalin and Mao, that’s not necessarily true.  Sin, as Paul suggests is at war in me and in society as a whole.  As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it, sin is “a power in which individuals, groups, and nations can become ensnared, like fish caught in a net” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 73].  And we all get caught at some point in our lives.

At the Regional Assembly we had a presentation on the Congo.  Things are bad there, but that’s nothing new.  The current situation is just an extension of what’s been going on in the heart of Africa since King Leopold of Belgium went looking for an empire in the late 19th century.   Because Disciples have a connection to that nation, I decided to do some reading.  I started with King Leopold's Ghost,  which tells how Leopold took control of the Congo basin and began extracting everything he could from the land and the people, while portraying himself as their protector.  He fooled a lot of people – though not the people who lived in the Congo.  One of the things that stands out in this story is how people who went to the Congo to work quickly got sucked into the evil morass that was his empire.  As I read this history, I was enticed to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel that became the basis of the movie Apocalypse Now. The novel, which is set in the Congo, tells the story of one man’s encounter with the way in which evil can take control of a person and people.  Before long they were engaging in behavior that they should have considered abominable.

You can know what is right.  You can delight in the Law of the Lord, but you can also be easily corrupted.  Think about peer pressure.  Think about the way people get drawn into bullying a person.  They know it’s wrong, but they don’t want to disappoint their “friends,” and so they join in.

The pictures on the wall tell the story of LGBT clergy who have faced discrimination and exclusion because of who they are.  The pictures in the fellowship hall share the stories of families who look a little different from what we’ve understood to be traditional.  They face many challenges – often at the hands of religious people.

  I’ve been sharing a rather disheartening story.  But fortunately it’s not the end of the story.  Although Paul confesses that he is a “wretched man,” he concludes with this declaration:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  What the law cannot do, God can do through the amazing grace that John Newton sings of.  What we cannot accomplish, God can accomplish by grace, extending to us the love that is God through Christ.
Now grace doesn’t just cover our deeds.  Grace takes hold of our lives and begins the process of transformation.  Later in Romans, Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  It’s by grace that we’re empowered to walk with Jesus.  And when we’re walking with Jesus, God makes us whole.  Then, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we’re able to join God in being “a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.”  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
July 6, 2014
Pentecost 4A

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