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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I enjoyed it. :) Are you willing to talk about what you learned about preaching from epistles? I've done that a couple of times, but I'm not sure that I learned anything very epistley from it....

Mary Ann

4:37 PM  
Blogger david said...

Well, mostly I learned that I'm terrible at preaching on Epistles. No, actually I think I learned that it's really necessary to come up with lots of examples and anecdotal stories when preaching on Epistles. I'm not very good that, though. That's why I prefer Gospels, especially narrative passages, because they are their own example.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, I see! :D Thanks for answering. :) As I idly made up answers to my question, what I was thinking of was the need to "place" the epistle for the congregation-- whom Paul is talking to, what their condition is, and so on. But I definitely agree that stories are vital. So far I haven't had to strain for them, after a long career of nosiness about the lives of the living and the dead. But I keep thinking that that time is likely coming....

I'm glad ou're having a good time this summer! and that truly is a stunning sunset. We have good ones here, too, but of course they're drier. :D

Mary Ann

7:01 AM  

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