Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Chillin' in Grand Junction

Oh my... It has been quite a trip back to Denver so far. It's been insanely hot the whole time (in the 100s). We stayed Monday night with friends in Boise, ID. Then Tuesday night with friends in Tooele, UT. On the way to Tooele, the car started to overheat a bit. We got there with no problems. Then we took it in to Jiffy Lube this morning and got everything filled-up and flushed. So, we headed off with the intention of getting to Mesa Verde for a two-day stay starting tonight.

We stopped in the afternoon at a little rest stop near the junction of I-70 and US 191, a little ways north of Moab, UT, in the absolute middle of nowhere. When we came back to the car, it wouldn't start. There was power; it wasn't turning over. So, after several failed attempts, we called AAA. That proved to be harder than we thought. There was virtually no cell reception. Once we did get through, we were connected to the Portland, OR office because our cells are from Portland. Anyway, we finally got through to Utah AAA and placed a call. "They should be out within the hour." It was blazing hot. No shade. So, about 1 minute after the successful call to AAA, the car started. We wasted no time getting back on the road, but we had to call AAA again to cancel the call. After about 30 unsuccessful or partially successful calls, we finally got through, to Colorado AAA this time, and got the call cancelled. We were in Loma, CO by then.

Anyway, we checked into a hotel here in Grand Junction. It's got powerful AC and high speed internet (hence the reason I can post this). We're going to bypass our four days of planned camping in the 100+ degree weather and come straight back to Denver tomorrow. For now, we are just enjoying the cold -- chillin' in Grand Junction...

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Sermon for Salem First UMC: I Did Not Know It

Here it is: the last sermon for awhile. Maybe I'll have something interesting to write again now.

I Did Not Know It

Sermon given by
Br. David D. M. King, OSL
at Salem First United Methodist Church; Salem, Oregon
Sunday 17 July 2005
Year A, 9th Sunday After Pentecost

Genesis 28:10-19a

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the LORD stood beside him and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’

16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ 18So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19He called that place Bethel;

Matthew 13:24-30

24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’

Sermon Text

Organ Interlude on UMH 563 ALBRIGHT

We have two texts this morning. The first is a rather familiar story known as Jacob's Ladder. Well, maybe the story isn't all that familiar, but the song is familiar. And the second, is a very unfamiliar parable (although it is one of my personal favorites): the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Two texts, seemingly not related, but one message all the same. Let's start with the story of Jacob's ladder:

Jacob is in bad shape. Do you remember the story? He has managed to cheat his brother Esau out of both his birthright and his father's blessing. But Esau, rightful upset at this unfortunate turn of events, is plotting to kill Jacob. When their mother, Rebekah, overhears Esau's plan, she warns Jacob to flee for his life and to find a wife among the daughters of her brother, Laban, back in her hometown of Haran.

So off Jacob runs. He doesn't take the main roads. No, he runs up into the hill country, either because he's only concerned with running or because he is trying to avoid detection by his murderous brother. And he finds himself up in the hills in a place called Luz. He is homeless – alone. He's left everything that he knows – on his way to seek refuge from relatives that he's never met. Mind is racing. What good was it to trick his brother if he can never return home again? He has instructions to go off and marry one of his cousins, which I guess might not be that weird when your own parents are cousins and your grandparents are siblings, but still seems a bit frightening to our modern ears. So he's there, exhausted from running, up in the mountains, alone, and the only pillow he can find is a big rock on the ground. It's there that he falls asleep.

And it is there that he dreams a magnificent dream. He sees a ladder ascending to heaven, with angels going up and down. God appears before him and assures him that he will be blessed, that God is with him, and that he will return to his homeland someday. God reveals Godself to be with Jacob always and in every place, even when he is in a strange land – God is with him everywhere.

And how does Jacob respond? He gets it all wrong. Rather than recognizing that God is present everywhere, Jacob assumes that he must have stumbled into some special place, the Gate of Heaven, where God's presence is especially strong. He names the place Bethel, which means House of God, and says, "Surely God is in this place and I did not know it." Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.

Verse 1: UMH 563 Father, We Thank You

But, you know, Jacob didn't need to be in that special place in order to be in God's presence. God's promise was to be with Jacob all of the time, wherever he might be.

But don't we make the same mistake that Jacob made? Don't we seek to confine God to the places where we think God should be, places where God belongs? And don't we work very hard to separate what is sacred from what is secular? When we do, we are missing the point.

Now, sometimes it can be good to separate out special places for God. We set aside this building for God. We set aside this hour in our week for God. We set aside a certain amount of our money for God. We set aside special prayer and devotional times just for God.

But, we should not be fooled into thinking that God ends at the border of what we call sacred. If we think that God will leave us alone once we spend an hour in church each week, then we are sorely mistaken. If we think that God's territory ends at the door of this building, we will be disappointed. If we think that once we give our share to the church and charity that God doesn't care how we use the rest of our money, then we will be surprised. God has a knack for showing up in the places where we least expect. Over and over God shows us that if there is any place where we think that God does not exist, that is precisely where God can be found. God will be in that place, even if we do not know it.

Verse 2: UMH 563 Father, We Thank You

Two thousand years after Jacob, a man from Galilee whose name is Jesus tells a story. It's a rather interesting tale about a farmer and his field. He has his servants plant the field with good seed. But, in the night, while no one is watching, one of his enemies comes and plants the whole field with weed seeds. That is quite a dirty trick, isn't it. Imagine you had spent all this time on your garden, planting each seed in its proper place, and in the night your neighbor jumped the fence and blew dandelions and thistles and all sorts of other nasty things all over your freshly tilled soil. Not very nice.

So, when the field started to sprout, the whole thing was an awful tangle on brambles and briers throughout the crop of wheat. The wheat and the weeds were all mixed up together – and there was no way to pull the weeds without destroying the whole crop. So, confounding his servants, the farmer let the weeds grow right along with the wheat. The farmer knew that there was still good in that field – a good that could not be quashed by the mere presence of a few weeds.

Verse 3: UMH 563 Father, We Thank You

When we look at the world, do we fail to see the wheat through the weeds? Do we see only the evil, only the pain, only the trouble, and assume that no good could be there? Do we think that God could not possibly exist in a place so filled with turmoil?

I think we do. We look out at the world and call it Godless. We see acts of terrorism and violence around the world and we call it Godless. We look at the state of political polarization and contention and we call it Godless. We see conflict in the church, even, and we call it Godless. We get discouraged because no matter where we look, we can't find anything that is wholly pure, completely good. We can't find anything that is unblemished. When we look for the fruit of God's kingdom, all we see is a field full of weeds. And we wonder what that means. Some of us are so concerned that we think the end of all things must be coming soon, because we can't tolerate the imperfection that we see around us. We can't find God in the broken and Godless world around us.

Jesus invites us to look more closely. Jesus invites us to look out on the world with new eyes. God is doing a new thing… do you not perceive it?

Jacob did not expect to find God in the godforsaken hill country of Canaan. And the servants did not expect to find good fruit in a field full of weeds. In just the same way, we don't expect to find God in our broken world.

But God is there to be found. In the peace of silence, or in the raucous shouts of praise; in the green fields, or the rugged mountains, or the parched deserts, or the city streets: God is there. In the patience of a teacher, or the diligence of an accountant, or the toil of a laborer, or the passion of an advocate; in sighs of the aging, in the questions of the middle-aged, or in the cries of the newborn: God is there. In the wide eyes of the innocent, the might of the powerful, or the struggle of the oppressed; in singing, speaking, listening, or screaming out in pain: God is there. In learning, welcoming, smiling, or suffering; in waking, working, or resting: God is there. In friends or enemies, loved ones or strangers; in the strong, the weak, or the disabled, the beautiful or the ugly: God is there. In Genesis, in Origin of Species, or even in Harry Potter: God is there. In black, brown, and white; in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic; in straight or gay, old or young, woman or man, rich or poor: God is most certainly there.

All we need do is open our eyes and ears and mouths and noses and hands in order to find God. All we need do is open our hearts, our minds, and our doors. For when we truly seek God, and when we are not afraid to see God in the most unexpected places, we will certainly not fail to find God. Right here, right now, and all around us, the kingdom of God is at work, sprouting forth in all its glory, in new and amazing ways, if we only have the eyes to see it. And perhaps we will be brought like Jacob to say, "Surely God is in this place… and I did not know it."

Verse 4: UMH 563 Father, We Thank You

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sermon for Seaside UMC: Hear, Understand, Bear, Yield

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’a

18‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.c 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Sermon Text

Good Morning. It's such a pleasure to be with you this morning. I've been preaching at several Methodist Churches while I've been back in Oregon for the summer – this is the sixth one, actually – but this is the only time when preparing a sermon has felt like a vacation. Honestly, how does anyone ever get anything done living here in such a beautiful place? I guess I've still gotten a lot done while I've been here; I've just been a lot more relaxed about it. This is a great place to get refreshed and centered and to feel close to God.

And it's interesting to note that that is precisely what Jesus is trying to do at the beginning of today's passage: he's trying to get away for a little break. Did you know Jesus actually had a little vacation home? A beach house actually, a little getaway for when he was tired of the road. Not many people notice this: Matthew is the only gospel that reports it. Way back in Mt 4:13 we find, "He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…" From that point on in the Gospel, Matthew is constantly reporting that Jesus is going to and from "the house" in Capernaum. So, there it is. Jesus has a little seaside beach house, and that's where he is at the beginning of this story.

And, as everyone likes to do when they’re at their beach house, Jesus decides to go out for a little walk on the beach and sit down and watch the water. I did that quite a few times this week when I was trying to get some inspiration, and it sounds like that's what Jesus was doing too.

Unfortunately for Jesus, he's a much more popular guy than I am, and people just can't seem to leave him alone for a second. A few people notice him there, "Isn't that Jesus sitting by the shore?" "Yes, I think it is." And before you know it, there's a huge crowd around him, jostling to get closer to him. They start pressing in on him so much that they're about to push him into the sea. Fortunately, there's a little boat just off shore, and Jesus climbs in to get a little distance from the crowd. ((Does that ever happen to you when you're walking on the beach, Pastor? No? Well, anyway…)) Jesus, interrupted once again but always the patient teacher, sits down and starts to tell a story.

"What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn't put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams. Are you listening to this? Really listening?" (The Message)

Now, what on earth does that all mean? It must be important because of that whole "if you've got ears to hear then you'd better listen to this" bit at the end. But do we have ears to hear this message?

This same story appears in the both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. In both, the story is left completely up to our interpretation. Matthew is different. Matthew decides to include a helpful little sermon on the topic. (See, this morning you're getting two sermons and you didn't even know it.) Anyway, scholars think that it probably wasn't actually spoken by Jesus, but added later, but it's still a rather interesting bit.

The sermon interprets this whole parable as a sort of allegory: a story where everything represents something else. The seed appears to be "the word of the kingdom," whatever that is exactly, and the story tells us about what happens when that word is sown on different types of soil: that is, different situations in the real world. So:

Situation number one: the seed on the path and eaten by birds is like when someone hears the word but doesn't understand it – it just gets stolen away. That makes sense, doesn't it? Haven't you ever read a passage of scripture or heard a sermon and you just didn't understand it? That happens to me all the time. Let's have a show of hands: is there anyone here who understands every piece of scripture that you read? Anyone? No I didn't think so.

Why don't we understand? Well, it's awfully confusing isn't it? For one thing, it's really long. And inside this [ lift up bible] is not just one book, but a whole library of different books, written in different times, different cultures, by different authors, and for different purposes. There's everything from legends to poetry to court records to love songs to letters to biographies in this thing, and it's hard to figure out sometimes. [set down]

On top of that, no seems to agree about what the Bible says. Even if a passage of scripture has some sort of defined meaning on the page, as soon as two people read it, it all of sudden has two meanings. Once ten people read it, it's got ten meanings. Once a billion people read it… well, you get the idea. How can we understand it when there are voices from all sides telling us that it means this, or that, or something else? Reading and trying to understand the Bible is not for the faint of heart; it can be a bit of a contact sport even, from time to time.

For me personally, I've just decided that if there's one thing I know, it's that I don’t know everything. I am not always going to be able to understand. I will make mistakes. Sometimes the word sown in my heart will just be picked up and eaten by the birds.

Situation number two: the seed on the rocky ground with the shallow root is like the fair weather disciple who gets really excited at first, but doesn't have the staying power to follow through. Oh, does that sound familiar. This is what I like to call "New Year's Resolution Syndrome." You know, we hear some word of faith, and we get all excited, all fired up – we're ready to change our lives forever – get out of my way, I'm moving, and then… um, we wake up the next morning? The fire isn't there anymore.

This can be really common among religious people. Have you heard people talk about a mountaintop experience? I'll bet a lot of you have had them. Sometimes at camp, or on a retreat, or at some big gathering – once in while (though not very often) even in response to a sermon – someone feels absolutely on top of the world. Everything has changed. They feel closer to God than ever before. It's a wonderful feeling, and then… it ends. Some people spend their whole lives just trying to get back up on that mountain and stay there.

But no matter how much we might want that, the truth is that the vast majority of life is lived in the valley. We spend most of our lives in the day-to-day ordinariness of real life. Sometimes it's hard to remember that God is still around when we're busy at our jobs, taking care of children, running errands, paying bills, cleaning the house, trying to get in our exercise, etc., etc… Sometimes it's hard to be a Christian once we leave the four walls of the church. Sometimes we just whiter out in the oppressive heat of the pressure-cooker that is the "real world". We get baked by the sun.

Situation number three: the seeds among weeds are like those of us who get distracted by wealth and power and all the other alluring things of the world. This is perhaps the most sneaky of all the situations. In USAmerican culture, we seem to be especially susceptible to the allure of wealth and power. You know, out of all the things Jesus talked about, the thing he talked about most in the Gospels – far more than any other topic – is not sex or marriage or crime or drugs or anything else that we seem to put into the category "morality" these days: it's greed. Jesus talked most about greed. And yet, in the richest nation in the world – did you know we have 10 times as many billionaires as any other country – we seem to just skip over that little bit about greed. We have books that tell us we should be "blessed to be a blessing", that is, that we should ask God to give us wealth… oh, yeah, and I guess we'll share it with others. This is a culture that demands we live extravagantly and keep seeking more and more. While millions of hard working people try to get by on less than a dollar a day, we never seem to be satisfied with what we have, no matter how much it might be.

Oh yes, money can be distracting. Some say that money in itself is neither good nor evil, and I suppose that that's true, but Jesus talks about money as if it is a rival God that is vying for our attention. Many of us fall in the trap. I imagine we all do from time to time. We let our desires, and wants, and even our fears get the best of us. We let the weeds and thorns of the world come up and choke us, and we end up not being the disciples that we could be.

So is there any hope? When we have a confusing message; and when we get so easily discouraged; and when we get caught up in our desire for more, more, more; is there any chance that we can be true disciples? According to this parable of Jesus, yes there is. Sometimes the word falls on good soil.

But how can we know when this has happened? What are the marks of Situation: Good Soil? They are this: we know that something good is happening when we don't just hear the word, when we don't just hear and understand it, but when we hear and understand the word AND… we bear fruit and yield. Bear fruit and yield a harvest. In other words, we know that we are in Situation: Good Soil when we actually do something about the lessons that we hear: when we live out our faith in the world.

But what does that mean? How do we live out our faith in the real world? Does it mean evangelizing a bunch of people? It might mean that, but that's not all it means. Does it mean being morally upstanding people? It might, but that's not all it means. Does it mean working for justice, making decisions about your money based on your faith, living each moment as if it were owned by God, treating other people as if they were Christ himself, loving your neighbor, loving your enemies? Yes, and more. That's what bearing fruit looks like. It's giving birth to the Kingdom of God right here in the here and now by the way we live our lives. When we are in Situation: Good Soil, we get to be like Mary on that Bethlehem night: an instrument for bringing God's love and grace into the world. It's not our own grace that we give. No, it is the fruit of God's grace sown within us. At it can yield a harvest well beyond our wildest dreams. It can truly change the world, if we let it.

Will we always be in that situation, when good fruit is being born inside of us. No, we won't. The world still has it's distractions. We are still human. But may we all be good soil, as often as we possibly can, by God's grace. Amen.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


We're here in Seaside, where I'll be preaching this Sunday. It's great: so relaxing. I'm really enjoying just chilling here in the parsonage by the ocean. I think I could handle this appointment. It can't be too bad if you get to see this every evening:

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sermon for Englewood UMC: The "S" Word

This is my first sermon on an Epistle text. I don't think it's my best sermon ever, but I learned a bit from doing it.

Romans 7:15-25a

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Sermon Text

The "S" Word. Since I came up with that title, I've realized that there are several possible candidates for what The "S" Word could refer to. There is of course a fairly common 4-letter curse word beginning with the letter s. But that's not it. Or, It could be referring to "sex". After all, the church is notoriously bad at talking about sex – so bad that more than 40 million people in the world are suffering from AIDS and we don't even know how to talk about it. But that's not it either. No, there is another "s" word that we have just as much trouble talking about. The "s" word I'm referring to is "sin".

Some would argue that we don't talk about sin because we just want to have a happy religion that never really challenges us much. I would argue that is oversimplifying the matter. I'd guess that those of us who don't much like talking about sin are in fact afraid of the damage that we might do to people, and with good reason. Many of us have experienced the wrath of fire & brimstone preachers. And I don't think that they really achieve the effect that they're hoping for. More often fire & brimstone serves to abuse the listeners, to create in our minds the image of a horrible, fearsome God, and to drive us away from both God and the Church. So it's natural for us to react to that kind of rhetoric by throwing out everything that reminds of the fire & brimstone model; we end up throwing out sin altogether.

This is a mistake. We certainly have the best intentions. We don't want to keep saddlling people with the burden of sin, to keep marking them with the stain of sin so that there is no way for them to escape its shadow. We've seen how all of this focus on sin can become itself a sin, and how it works against the freedom that God wants for us.

But even though a constant obsession with sin can become itself sin, that does not mean that ignoring sin makes sin go away. Sin is still alive and well, and it is working in the world. If we choose to ignore sin, then we are left dumbfounded and unprotected when sin sneaks up behind us and sabotages our lives. We are left not even knowing what hit us.

That's what Paul is taking about in the passage from Romans today. He's telling us that sin is very, very sneaky. Sin will take a hold of whatever opportunity is available. Sin is not afraid of disguising itself as righteousness in order to fool us. When we finally see the light and head off in the right direction, sin secretly and busily digs a hole right in the middle of our path so we fall anyway.

That's what Paul is so frustrated with. In fact, he sounds a bit desperate. "I do not do what I want, but do the very thing that I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." Paul's best intentions seem to be getting him into trouble. He just can't seem to escape; even when he is trying to do good, he fails. He even goes so far as to say that his constant failure is a law: "I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand."

Eugene Peterson's translation is particularly helpful in this section to help us understand Paul's struggle and desperation:

What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can't be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God's command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?

Wow. Paul is in bad shape. He knows that his life is messed up, and he's tried over and over to fix it, but he can't. He doesn't know what else to do.

Does Paul's story sound familiar? Do you ever do things you don't want to do? Do you fail to do the things that you want? It sure sounds familiar to me. I imagine it does to all of us.

We've all got our problems. We all have those particular ways in which me are most susceptible to sin. We all have our own ways that we are enslaved, addicted to sin…

You know what they are, don't you?… I could go through a long litany of examples, but I won't. You know the ways that sin has power of you. You know places where you seem to trip up every single time. You know the ways that you feel out of control… and the ways that you hate yourself for making the same mistake again. You know the places where you feel tortured. You know the chains that bind you.

We are all so susceptible to sin because sin is such a powerful, and most of all, a tricky thing. Sin has a way of hiding itself in things that are good, waiting until just the right moment to strike. I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis's book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil gives advise to his nephew about how to tempt good things into sin. I'm reminded of the movie The Devil's Advocate that paints a rather vivid picture of just how sneaky and covert the forces of sin can actually be. Sin is a powerful and real force, and just as Paul says, it has a tendency to work within us whether we like it or not.

Now, I imagine some of you are thinking, "Yes, but isn't all this talk about sin just a way of making excuses when we do something wrong? Can we really say, 'The Devil made me do it'?" Well, we can say it, but it doesn't really mean much. Blaming the forces of sin for our actions, even if it is deserved, doesn't do much for the situation. It doesn't make us guiltless. It doesn't change to consequences of our actions. We still end up in the same place.

So what good is it to know about the power of sin if it always seems to be one step ahead of us and yet we still can't blame sin when we do something wrong? What use is our knowledge of sin if it doesn't seem to help us? And what hope is there for us? If we are bound in slavery to sin, what can we possibly do to set ourselves free?

Well, it appears that we can't do anything to set ourselves free from slavery to sin. No matter how hard we try, sin somehow manages to trick us and to turn our good intensions into more sin.

So what can we do? Give up? Well, in a sense, that is precisely what Paul recommends. Give up. Give in. Wait a minute, can that be right? Are we really supposed to just throw in the towel and give in to our slavery to sin?

No, giving up to sin leads to death. But the way out of slavery to sin is not by fighting our way out, it's not by willing ourselves into a better life. Sin will always win that game. The secret, according to Paul, is to give up, not to sin, but to give up to God.

Trying to be better, to follow God's ways… it's all just beating our heads against a wall. We will never be able to make ourselves holy. But if we give up those delusions, if we give up everything we are and need and want and desire to God, if we become slaves to God – not just servants, but really slaves to God, giving up our will completely to God – that is when we begin to see God's work of salvation moving in us. It's counterintuitive. We want to fight. We want to resist. But sin turns our resistance into pride, which just turns to sin. We want to blame someone. But sin turns our blame – whether we blame ourselves or others – into hate, which just turns into sin. Somehow, what we have to do is to submit. The trick is to make sure we are enslaved to the right master.

Is it easy? No. Not at all. Does it happen all at once? No. Once we are under God, do we stop sinning completely? Unfortunately, we don't. The battle continues within. But the battle is no longer ours, but God's.

How does Paul answer the question, "Who will save me?" He doesn't actually. He simply says, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ." Somehow, just being able to ask the question, "Who will save me?" is something that is worthy of thanks and praise. Just crying out in desperation to God is the first step to becoming God's own completely.

A great Quaker minister, Isaac Pennington, very eloquently captures the heart of what it means to give oneself up to God. He writes:

Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

May we all be willing to trust God so completely.