When I was growing up, in high school, my parents set an 11:00pm curfew. Well, one night, I was on a date with Sarah Crossman. We went to a movie – I believe it was a Woody Allen movie – with another couple. When the film was over, we went to get a pizza. And I remember looking at my watch and thinking, “Uh-oh, it’s ten of eleven and our pizza hasn’t arrived, so what do I do? I’m never going to get home in time.”
I had a dime for the pay phone (remember no cell phones) and I was going to call, really. But my parents, I knew, were already fast asleep. We were not doing anything wrong. There was no hanky-panky, just a real nice date and so I decided, instead of waking Mom and Dad up to tell them that I would be late, I would let them sleep and I would probably be home absolutely no later than midnight. Nice considerate kid, right? I thought so. I was not trying to be sneaky.
So I get home a little before midnight. Go up to the front door. I have a key for the main door, but not for the storm door because that was never locked. Well, it was locked that night. And as I stood there thinking how I could break in to my own house, the porch light came on, the door opened and there stood my father. He did not look happy to see me.
As I think about that incident the words of St. Paul ring true: “I can will what is right, but cannot do it! Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
I wonder what Dad would have done if I had quoted those verses at him that night?
Sometimes it is the little things, and sometimes it is quite a bit bigger! Sometimes it is personal. Sometimes it is institutional.
The intention of this year’s Stewardship campaign was to be more personal and friendly. We found out on Wednesday that on the pledge sheets names of spouses and partners (mostly women’s names) were left off. Inexcusable! We intended to do good. We sinned. Everyone felt wretched Wednesday morning.
Our best attempts bring unintended consequences. You try, you fail.
You didn’t mean to say the wrong thing but you did. You have addictions that lead you to make choices that you know are not healthy but you do them anyway.
You try to do everything right. You follow the law. It just seems to get all screwed up sometimes. Wretched woman, wretched man that I am. 3 a.m. comes and you awake; the hour of wrestling with both the demons and the angels. You second guess, you overanalyze. “I do not understand my own actions.” (v.15)
What Paul writes may be cumbersome. The words in our translations may be difficult to unpack: “evil,” “slavery,” “flesh.” Those words are obstacles for me. By all means use other words then. It is hard to read a first century writer in the 21st century. I don’t agree “…that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.” You and I are made in the likeness and image of God. Lots of good things are going on inside!
But still, I know in my gut what Paul is getting at, because, even in the height of optimism and self-confidence, I feel that shadow. I delight in the good, the true the beautiful, but the bad, the false and the ugly are ever so close – as close as the click of the mouse, or as close as a bottle or a Big Mac, or a needle, or a need.
I get it. We live in a broken world. I am a broken man. I pray, I study the bible, I don’t lie (intentionally), cheat (well, maybe a little bit in certain games), or steal (although I stole the apple idea from last Sunday’s sermon from another preacher! – you are only as good as who you steal from.)
We are led by imperfect people. We create imperfect systems. Disappointment is inevitable. As the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: “The only verifiable doctrine in all of scripture is original sin: just read the newspapers.”
St. Paul is just being descriptive of what happens every day to you and to me.
Who will rescue us from this body of death? Not eternal death, but everyday death. How do we have hope that we are freed from this loop, this “slavery” so to speak to the “same old, same old.”
Paul makes an outrageous statement. There is no condemnation in Christ Jesu,s so stop condemning yourself. In verses 14-25 Paul uses the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” 40 times. Being so self-consumed does feel wretched. But listen to this good news: God gets you. God loves you. God forgives you. So forgive yourself. Forgive others. Lighten up! Be in community. It is not what you have done, or not done, it is about what God has done and is doing. It is about forgiveness. There is no longer any condemnation.
And so, Paul encourages you and me to set our mind on the Spirit of life and peace. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (4:8): “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Isn’t that lovely?
Set your mind on that which builds up. Orient yourself by the love of Jesus Christ – this is how you will be able to let go of the stress a little bit, and pick up the pieces.
Last week, right before the children’s choir practiced, a young lady climbed into the pulpit and found a pencil, an ornament and what she thought was a compass. Well, it is not a compass but rather a clock (that doesn’t work!) But I liked that, for the time we strive to be good is not nearly as important as trying to get our bearing by the compass of the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
We sin, we fall short, that is just the way it is. God forgives, God does not condemn, THAT is just the way it is. Christians trust this because of the story of Jesus. We fail but we are not defeated. We fall but we get up again. We die and we live again. We lose our way but we are led home. As Simon Tugwell once wrote: “God has followed us into our own darkness; there, where we thought finally to escape God, we run straight into his arms.”
Hear the words of Thomas Merton. In fact, I want to pray his prayer over us.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” AMEN.
Who will rescue us from this body of death? Jesus Christ! The unintended consequences of our lives are met by the VERY intentional consequence of our Savior’s love.
Thanks be to God!