Dying to Be Alive – 7/6/2014

After a little research into this passage, I’m going to start it 2 verses earlier than the assigned suggestion. And I want to read it this morning from the Message. You would more easily recognize the NRSVersion, but I think the Message is easier to understand and in this case, does not distort its meaning. By beginning 2 verses earlier, we get a better understanding that Paul is not talking about a personal problem when he says ‘I do what I don’t mean to do, and what I mean to do, I don’t.” He’s talking about the general human condition.

Romans 7: 13-25  I can already hear your next question: “Does that mean I can’t even trust what is good [that is, the law]? Is good just as dangerous as evil?” No again! Sin simply did what sin is so famous for doing: using the good as a cover to tempt me to do what would finally destroy me. By hiding within God’s good commandment, sin did far more mischief than it could ever have accomplished on its own. 14-16 I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. 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. 17-20 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.21-23 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. 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? 25 The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. 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.

July 6, 2014            

Dying to Be Alive      

Yesterday I went to a funeral for Michael Washington. He was the son of Father Paul Washington, the well-known activist and rector of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. He was the brother of Kemah Washington, who was one of the people who got arrested with me a few years back protesting gun violence. Until he died, I did not really realize that Michael Washington was Kemah’s brother. (The paintings on the slides today, by the way, are from the Church of the Advocate, painted by brother Richard Watson, who lives just around the corner and attends church here from time to time.)
When my son Elijah was a baby – some 18 years ago, I went to an anti-racism seminar. Michael Washington was one of the leaders and I have never forgotten his answer to a question I asked. I don’t remember the question very well, but I remember his answer. I was worrying about being a parent; I asked a question worrying about how to raise my bi-racial son in an inhospitable world – how to keep him safe and secure.
Michael answered me that in his experience it was more important to keep his children active than safe. He said he took his children to demonstrations and actions from the time they were quite young. He acknowledged that might not be the thing that keep them the most secure and safe, but that it was what the world needed to become safer for everybody.
I thought it was a brilliant and helpful answer. I tried, over my years as a parent to follow his advice, but I can’t say I have been totally successful.
It seems to me that Michael Washington’s answer to my question points at the kind of dilemma Paul talks about in Romans, as he highlights the human condition in this famous passage. Paul understands in the passage that we human beings consistently do some things that we “don’t mean to do” and that we don’t do things that we really know we ought to do. He notices this is the case for himself, and he senses that it is true for every human being – even the most religious and devout among us, even those who are trying especially hard. Paul knows that when he was at his most “religious,” advocating for his faith with passion and dedication, he went around doing anything he could to challenge and persecute young Christians.
In fact, he notices that sometimes people who are the most sure of their faith and their “rightness” are ones who are most likely to step on other people. He notices that the most well-intentioned people- the ones who most think they are serving God, himself included, still cannot avoid doing things that hurt and distress other people. Amazed at how pervasive human failures and shortcomings can be, he decides that all humans are lost in sinfulness and that there is no hope for us – aside from one thing – the power of God in and through Jesus Christ.
Paul knew that good, well-intentioned people in the world want to do right, but time and again decide to cut corners, opt to take an easy way out, maintain the safety of their families or friends, end up thinking about themselves first and everybody else second, last or not at all. And that is why passionate, God-connected worship was so important for Paul – because in worship that is honest and powerful, people learn that we are like everyone else, that we fall short like everyone else – and that God loves us anyway.
That’s why we put so much energy into our worship – to spread the good news that God loves us as we are and that because of Christ our good intentioned foul-ups and our bad intentioned moody ill tempered lives are transformed.  God in Christ transforms our hearts with grace and we respond with worship filled with praise, confession, thanksgiving, and care for all God’s people.
As we come to the communion table this morning, we recognize that this bread and this cup are a means of grace by which our lives are transformed, renewed even today, so that we can accept God’s love and pass it on to others. Knowing that we still won’t always get it right, we accept that grace this moment, living toward the truth that, though we struggle with our own shortcomings, the outcome of that struggle is already decided because of the powerful love and witness of God in Christ. In this meal, we too are called to eat with sinners (– with each other!), to be God’s presence for each other in our brokenness, pushing each other, nudging each other, and loving each other into wholeness.

Communion hymn 2202 Come Away with Me