Today we find ourselves at the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, which means that we are about three Sundays into what is often thought of as Ordinary Time, and this liturgical season lasts more than 20 Sundays leading up to the beginning of Advent. Like most folks, I’ve been struggling to keep track of the weeks as the calendar keeps moving along, but one of the things that helps me remember how much time has passed is how things around here seemed to be frozen in Lent. In a very practical way, though we have changed the altar hangings with each shift in liturgical season, lots of other stuff around the church building are still set for the penitential season. Because if you will remember, we shifted to Church at Home in the middle of Lent, and although we have walked through Holy Week, Easter and Eastertide, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, there are a lot of things that remind me that while the calendar continues to flip, we, at least in some ways, still find ourselves in a penitential season. Now, I love Lent, and part of what I love about it is the opportunity to cut back on those things which pull us away from who we want to be in our lives of faith, and while we aren’t technically in a penitential season currently, I think that our passage from Romans speaks to the reality that maybe we are still in a season where we ought to take stock of who we are and how we navigate the world.
And, y’all know that I love Saint Paul; this love for the author of a significant portion of our New Testament scriptures is hard won and not without criticism. I have struggled with Paul’s works because they have often been used to silence me and to erase feminine voices from the Christian tradition. And many of Paul’s works, and others from our holy scriptures have been used to support and even prove a God-ordained understanding of enslaving other humans that bear the image of God upon their souls. There is much redemption to be done around Paul’s writings, and it definitely takes time and prayer to wrestle with the scriptures that we have inherited in this Christian tradition of ours. Even in our passage from Romans, one of Paul’s greatest, most pastoral of works, we find this language of slavery, and he uses the language of slavery because it was a well-established system in the Greco-Roman context into which he was preaching. Our task today is to wrestle with this text from Paul to see where God is speaking to us, both as individual Christians and as members of Christ Church.
Our passage from Romans today comes after Paul earlier in the chapter talks about all the gifts of God’s grace bestowed upon us at our baptism, and today’s readings gets to the reality that this gift that is bestowed upon us at our baptism is not one that can be assumed or taken advantage of. Because, as Paul tells us, the gift of a full and God-centered life is not a special badge that we get at our baptism, but is an intentional choice. The eternal life that Paul speaks of here isn’t the punch on our Heaven Card that helps us narrowly escape some sort of understanding of the fiery flames of Hell, but this eternal life, this salvation from death, is salvation from a way of life that insists that we sacrifice the things in this life that are full of God’s grace and love for the things that feed into our sinful ways of life. And, of course, sinful ways of life can look like a lot of things, but it’s often less of a torrid picture, but usually a sinful life looks like one that is self-focused and isn’t mindful of all the ways in which the normalcy of one’s life can be built upon the subjugation of others, that one’s life is literally built upon sin and death.
Part of the reason that I have come to so deeply value and love the writings of Saint Paul is that he rarely writes for the individual. Paul’s epistles are letters to whole congregations of people, many of them not unlike us here at Christ Church; the communities to which Paul usually writes is full of difference and disagreement, and also usually joy and delight in each other. But as varied as Paul’s letters are, they almost always speak to the collective whole. The things that he shares are rarely for individual Christians, but rather for the whole community, and this is true for the ways in which he talks about sin. Sins can be private and individual, and that’s where I think most folks go when they hear about sin, but they can also be collective and whole.
Folks, it is important for us to talk about sin outside of Lent, and I’m not just saying that as your preacher, but as a flawed Christian who struggles just as much as many of you do. We have to talk about sin because it is everywhere, and it is literally killing us: “for the wages of sin is death,” as Paul puts it. When we let that which needs to die because it is the result of sin, we are granted access to the gift bestowed upon us at our baptism; when we let sin die, we immediately come to life. So, let it die. Let all the ways and things which draw you away from who God is calling us to be die, because death is not to be avoided at all cost, but rather we are to avoid those things which feed into death through sin. Whether it’s systemic racism, unjust healthcare practices, neglecting our families, or whatever things we have done or left undone, we have to let it die.
There are many ways to understand and receive baptism, but a key aspect is the way that baptism signifies death. And our salvation doesn’t happen solely at our baptism, rather our baptism is the beginning of the process of being saved. Every day that we wake up and choose to navigate this world in light of our baptism, we are choosing to continue to step into that salvation. We are choosing to let the results of sin in our individual and collective lives die so that we might be saved.
So the challenge laid down by Paul today is that we take time to consider this week what exactly needs to die. What in our lives, individually or collectively; as members of Christ Church and as citizens of Bowling Green and of the Commonwealth, as mothers and fathers, as high school and elementary school students, as college professors and as folks out of work. The question to all of us, no matter how many categories one could put us in, is what do we need to let die? What in our lives pull us not toward the hope of the resurrection and to God’s grace and love, but rather pull us toward little or big sins that ultimately lay the foundation of death? What can we cut from our lives so that it can die before it pulls us into the very death to which it is heading (and do we need an x-acto knife or a machete)? Change is scary; to let something that is a part of you die will be uncomfortable, even if you know that you will be better without it. But friends, this life is too short to be solely oriented to death, so when it comes to sin, we have to let it die.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via Livestream on June 28, 2020 for Proper 8A.