A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 5 ~ Romans 7:15-25 (MSG)
I had a hard time getting started in writing this sermon – not because the text was difficult to understand, but because it was so easy to understand – so personal, so human, so true. I’d wager this might be just about THE most truthful and applicable scripture passage you could find. It absolutely nails the human condition, and speaks right to the very heart of us. Listen again, very slowly…
Romans 7:15-20 – 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.
(Here comes the really honest part!)
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.
The something that has gone wrong gets called ‘sin’. Again, please don’t trip on that word. It literally means to fall short of our intention to love. We are all sinners or sinful, in that all of us aim to love as we understand God intended, and for any number of reasons we often fall short of loving. Something (goes) wrong deep within (us) and gets the better of (us) every time.
We act in ways that we would rather not act, but yet we act in them anyway. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you’re most likely kidding yourself. Because for most of us…
Verses 21-23 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin (my tendency to fall short, usually by being self-centred instead of other-centred) 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 want to do good – I know the right thing to do – I know the healthy thing to do – I know the loving thing to do – I mean to do those things – but somehow, I keep tripping on myself, and all too often I end up not doing it. Oh, there are a thousand good and worthy reasons contributing to our falling-short-edness.
I don’t think Paul wants to beat us up here. I don’t think he’s wagging a finger saying, “Bad Christian!” I hope we don’t hear this as judgement – because it doesn’t have to be judgy to be an accurate analysis of how things are. Hear this! You’re not a bad person – you’re human – and humans often tend to fall short of loving. Don’t worry, I’ll suggest a remedy in a few minutes. I won’t leave you hanging. But in the meantime I want us to sit in the discomfort of acknowledging that we fall short, but not feeling guilty about it. Instead, feel convicted to want to love better. And loving better includes loving yourself better too!
When we talk about passages like this one I think we may automatically think about those great big life problems that people have – like unhealthy behaviours, like addictions, like negative personality traits – or maybe the so-called seven deadly sins – pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Yes, those are all sinful, in that they are unloving, either toward self or others – but I don’t think that’s what Paul is really talking about here. If you happen to be suffering under the weight of some of those big challenges, of course you should (I should, we all should) pause, reflect, and pray about them to seek God’s encouragement, strength, and help in addressing them in your life. Absolutely.
But I think Paul is more talking about the little things rather than the big things. Little things like how we interact with people on a daily basis – how we treat strangers – how we think about people we see – how we come here and talk about one way of living, in radical hospitality and loving-kindness, and then when out in the wilds we don’t always live it out, we don’t always ‘love’ it out – we fall short – even though we deeply want to do better and be loving. That’s the struggle.
I saw a thing on the interwebs that showed a guy in a car honking at a person driving very slowly in front of them. Then the person looked lower and saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “Physically challenged – please be patient.” The driver’s perspective immediately shifted. The internet meme then asked ‘why do we need to see a bumper sticker to make us more loving?’ And what if that bumper sticker said: Lost my job, Fighting cancer, Going through a bad divorce, Suffering Emotional abuse, Lost a loved one, Feeling worthless, Financially messed up? Doesn’t everybody have some kind of bumper sticker?
Why do we need an excuse to be more loving? We don’t, obviously. But in our day to day moments we get so tied up in our own selves that we find it hard to see past our own needs – which may well include things on that bumper sticker list I just quoted – to attend lovingly to others. That’s the challenge Paul is issuing.
Let’s think about a strategy, an answer, a way to be more loving in the moment – a way to do the good we want to do. Unfortunately, popular culture and Western society conspire to distract us and send us down an unhelpful path. On one level, the advice is good. “Just do it!” That’s helpful if you’re trying to get off the couch and get into more physical activity. Just do it. Or maybe “Work harder!” That’s helpful if you’re looking for inspiration to dig deeper into something you’re already striving for, maybe in your career, or your goals. But those don’t feel very Jesus-y yet.
Perhaps we could turn to the great font of modern wisdom? Star Wars! Let’s ask Yoda! In the first Star Wars movie, which was actually Episode 4 (don’t ask), a young wanna-be hero is being trained by a wise sage. Luke is the hero – Yoda is the sage. Here is their famous interaction when Luke is trying to harness the power of The Force by using his mind to move objects. He can move small objects – now Yoda is asking him to move a giant, heavy star ship:
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
Yoda: No. No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try.
Yoda: No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.
First, there’s this golden nugget: You must unlearn what you have learned. Yes! This is so wise. We encounter this in church all the time. Most of us come here with all sorts of embedded theology and tons of baggage from well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful versions of Christianity, and we have much to unlearn. Unlearning also applies to issues of culture, and race, and class, and any number of things. Letting go of assumptions – being willing to question – realizing that ‘the way we’ve always done it’ may not be helpful anymore. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Ok, I’ll give it a try.
Why is that wrong? It’s because it’s uncommitted. “Give it a try” carries the unspoken assumption that you’re going to fail – so you fail. To just ‘try’ gives us an out – an excuse to explain why we didn’t make it happen – because we never really expected it to happen anyway.
Instead, Yoda says, “No. Try not. Do…or do not. There is no try.”
That doesn’t mean that you can’t fail. Of course you can fail. We can always fail at something. No one is perfect. Declaring your intention doesn’t automatically mean you’ll succeed. But approaching the challenge with the attitude that you are going to do it – with conviction, and expectation that the doing is possible, and worthy, and desirable – that changes your perspective. If you’re going to do it, then do it. Commit. If you’re not going to commit, then ‘do not’.
I think Paul is Luke here (not Luke of the bible, Luke of the Skywalkers). He’s trying to figure out what he’s missing. He wants to commit. He wants to answer Yoda’s challenge. He wants to ‘do’, not just ‘try’. Listen to what he says.
Romans 7:24 – 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? Isn’t that the real question?
Did you notice the language? I’ve tried everything. I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve exhausted all my will, and my courage, and my strength. What’s missing?
God. Jesus. The Holy Spirit. Our will, and our courage, and our strength isn’t enough – because it’s kind of the wrong place to focus. Stay with me. Every week when we get to the Offering part of the service I introduce it with a reminder that what it is we’re offering is actually God’s love through us. It isn’t just my love – it’s God’s love, through me. We affirm that God’s love fills us to overflowing, and that so-filled we need to express and share that love in the world.
Let me be brutally honest – I’m not all that loving a person. But when I let God’s love flow through me, I actually start doing the good I want to do. On my own, left to my own devices, I’m more likely to be focused on looking out for number one (and that’s me!).
That’s why I hang out here – in places like this, with people like you! The more immersed I am in Spirit, the more likely I am to draw on God’s love in me rather than just my own power. And in typical, upside-down Jesus fashion, the way to draw on that loving power is to let go of my need to control everything – to let down my guard – to open myself – to surrender. These are very contrary things to our usual ways of doing things – and that’s exactly why we don’t do the good we want to do, and end up doing the bad that we don’t want to do.
Paul says that it isn’t him that’s acting badly, it’s the sin within him. It’s his tendency to be self-focused, and to fall short in loving-kindness toward others. If we accept that that is true, then we can’t take all the credit when we do it well. If it’s sin that’s acting badly in me, then it must be God that is acting lovingly through me.
So what’s my job? To let God love! To get myself out of my own way, and let God’s love flow through me. To commit to loving with my whole self – not just to try, but to ‘do’. Try not. Do.
This is the message of the entire life and teaching of Jesus.
Romans 7:25 The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does (show us the Way). He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
Jesus lived in complete selflessness. Jesus embodied God’s love so fully and completely that it still shines as a beacon for us two millennia later. Jesus gave of himself, in love, and he never said it was him doing it. He always said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and if you have seen me love, you are not so much seeing ‘me’ love, you’re seeing the love of God through me.” (Ok, that’s not an exact quote, but I think it captures the truth of Jesus.)
God, through Jesus, says to us, “Love!”
We say, “I’ll try.” And we mean it very sincerely. But as Yoda knows, that’s not enough. Try not. Do…or do not.
I hope and pray that you’ll choose ‘do’. And I hope and pray that you’ll remember when you stumble that it was probably because you were trying to go it alone, instead of allowing love to love through you.
And with that, there’s only one thing left to say. May the Force be with you!