A sermon delivered on July 9, 2017 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Romans 7:14-25a.
The camera pans across the inside of a small, quaint house as jolly piano music plays; the wooden front door opens and in walks a pleasant looking man with a friendly smile dressed in a tie and sport coat. He begins singing a simple song as he takes off his sport coat, opening his closet door, he grabs a sweater to replace it. Sometimes the sweater is red or blue or green or gray, but there is always a sweater. The next thing he does is to take off his dress shoes and put on a pair of sneakers, all the while continuing to sing his simple song about being a neighbor. This, you may know, is the how the television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood began nearly all of its 33 year run from 1968-2001. It was a simple ritual; it was one that shaped many generations of young children, myself included. It was then, and perhaps is even more now, a concrete reminder that how we intend to spend our time, shapes how we live our lives. In shedding the “work wear” of sport coat and dress shoes, Mr. Rogers indicated that this was a dedicated time for imagination, play, and caring for others. In real life Fred Rogers was a man of intense discipline and daily rhythm; rising everyday at 5 in the morning to go for a swim, to spend an hour or two in prayer, and to write letters to those whom he loved; he was a man who understood that to live the life that he wanted to live, he must do so with intentionality, attention, and constant adjustments.
In our Epistle lesson today, St. Paul takes us on a whirlwind.
It is nearly a mind-bending use of words that sounds almost like a tongue twister, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We may end up confused from this passage what Paul is doing, what he wanted to do originally, or why he didn’t do the thing he wanted to do in the first place, and depending upon one’s location in history and the theological convictions that one holds regarding humankind’s general goodness or general evilness, this passage may take on a variety of meanings.
Is Paul here saying that we are frail humans that, despite our convictions or our salvation, will continually fall into the trap of sin and death? Have we or God’s beloved in Rome to have any hope of living a righteous life when St. Paul himself posits that even he cannot break the bonds of the life lived according to the flesh. Yes…and no. Paul, in his brilliant, but oh-so-confusing style speaks rhetorically here, playing off of the classic question, why do people do what they do not what to do? Using the first person pronoun here is not Paul’s attempt to make an autobiographical account of the struggle to live this life, but is rather an attempt at portraying the reality of life lived outside the life of Christ.
Both in the chapter before and after our passage, Paul makes clear that in Christ there is freedom from this way of life; there is a freedom found in a life shaped by the crucified and resurrected Christ. Life according to the flesh is self-centered, it is one that thinks that we can rely on our own abilities and that our choices don’t affect others; a life not shaped by Christ is one that makes our own experiences, life, or knowledge to be the standard for how we spend our days. Liberation from this way comes only through letting our life be shaped, over and over and over again, by the reality and the hope of the crucified and resurrected Christ.
Not too long ago, a fellow Christian came up to me and said, “You know, here at so-and-so church, we don’t really like to talk about that ‘sin’ thing.” Before I could get my whits about me to think of a gracious, kind, and sincere response, they moved the conversation along to the how the church addresses a specific, and very important, social justice issue, but if I had been able to articulate a response to the reluctance to talk about sin, it would be to say “I don’t like talking about it either, but this is why we must.”
The reality that St. Paul lays out rhetorically here in our Epistle passage today is one that is marked by right intentions being spoiled by lack of orientation to what is guiding us toward the good. To live a life shaped and marked by the law of God rather than the law of the flesh is to live a life with intentionality, attention, and constant adjustment. To live fully into the freedom that we are granted by our baptismal vow, we must continually return to it; we must live a life continually shaped and reshaped by the truth of the resurrection, not just for ourselves, but for others around us and for the whole world.
And so we pray. We pray for the church, our country, the world, for those who are in need in our own community, and for those suffer and are in any kind of trouble. We pray and we give thanks to God for the gifts of our salvation as it is meet and right so to do (right and good). We pray not just because the longings of our heart will not go away, but we pray because to pray is to orient ourselves to God, and this is the only path to orienting ourselves to care for others.
And so we hear. We listen and we read the holy scriptures, not just because it is the standard of practices for our particular denomination or the Christian tradition at large, but we do so because to hear the stories in our sacred texts is to be reminded us that while things are hard and difficult now, we are not the first, nor the only, Christians to walk this path of discipleship in uncertain times.
And so we receive. We come and we kneel at this altar rail and hold out our vulnerable,soft hands to receive the gifts of God, for the people of God. We come and we receive not just because this is the next part of our liturgy, but because to extend our hands is a sign that we cannot do this alone, and that perhaps it is not solely the refugee, the homeless, or the poor who are in need, but so are we. We receive the body and blood of Christ as a sign that the hope of the resurrection life is for all.
And so we go out. We go out this Sunday much like a multitude of Sundays before and hopefully many more to come. We leave this church in the confidence and power inherent in our baptism to notice the other, to see the ways in which we might act or react and to choose to have those actions shaped by the faith and love that we proclaim; we go out to do the things we want to do. At the end of our liturgy, Kellie will give the familiar dismissal and we will all respond joyfully with that equally familiar refrain. This dismal doesn’t just mark the end of our Sunday liturgy, it marks the beginning of the liturgy that you live outside of this building.
We go out, leaving this place reminded that we are shaped not just by our time here today or next week or the next, but we are continually shaped by how we live every day. One of my favorite quotes, one that you may hear more than once throughout my time here, is from Annie Dillard, in which she makes a comment on this, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” We must continually reorient ourselves to this freedom and hope, letting our days be shaped by faith we proclaim, as it is only through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord, as St. Paul says, that we will be able to do the things we want to do in this world.