Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Human Dilemma: Sermon on Romans 7:15-25

When I hear Paul say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” it is very, very hard for me not to think of chocolate chip cookies. I have had an almost fifty-year long love affair with chocolate chip cookies. I may, in fact, have ingested more chocolate chip cookies than any other single food item. And I have wonderful memories associated with chocolate chip cookies. Here’s one: baking chocolate chip cookies with my children while we danced around the kitchen improvising three-part harmonies to Shawn Colvin songs. Still, on the whole, that love affair has not served me well. Chocolate chip cookies, or, more specifically, the way I used them as a kind of mood-altering drug, got in the way of my relationships with God and with people. And that’s what sin is: anything that harms our relationship with God, and prevents us from being in relationship with people.

Much as I hate to admit it, chocolate chip cookies are my way into a discussion on sin. Sin as the human dilemma. Sin as that thing we do, despite our best efforts, our vows to stop. Sin as the thing that, in many ways, defines what it is to be human—after all, our cousins in the animal world are really not capable of sinning, are they? In order to be able to sin, we need to be capable of knowing the difference between those things that are life-giving and those things that are death-dealing, spiritually speaking. The name of our species says it all: homo sapiens, Latin for “wise man” or “knowing man.” We know the difference. That is what makes us capable of sin.

Presbyterians, following in the footsteps of Calvin, have always had a keen interest in sin. That is probably because Paul, who writes about sin more extensively than any other New Testament writer, is sort of our Presbyterian Godfather. It is Paul’s influence that brought people like Calvin to the conclusion that we are helpless to deal with sin without God’s intervention, without Jesus’ gracious actions, and without the work of the Holy Spirit. When I attended my ecumenical seminary, students and professors took turns leading the daily chapel services. And you could always tell when the Presbyterians were leading worship, because we unfailingly included a Prayer of Confession. We Presbyterians have a reputation for having a strong sense of the danger of sin, which, as you might expect, is a fairly counter-cultural thing to have. It makes us stand out.

Paul certainly had that same strong sense. Now, a lot of folks have been discussing, for a very long time, exactly what it is that Paul is referring to in our passage. And there are varying theories. Is this outright autobiography? One theory holds that Paul is telling what life was like before he found Christ, how very much he was a captive of sin prior to his conversion. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There is one glaring flaw with this theory. It seems to rest on the presumption that Christians don’t sin. This is an idea which I don’t believe I have to spend any time at all debunking. I leave it to each one to ponder and to prove.

This conundrum was pretty well described in one of the questions on my theology ordination exam. The question went something like this:

You are a pastor in a church, and a man who recently joined the church comes to meet with you in your office. The man tells you that, for years he was a drug addict. He had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on his drug habit, and had lost the trust of family and countless friends. However, within the last year, he had been brought to the church by a friend, and had found the love of Jesus compelling and inviting. He had been welcomed into the church and baptized, fully confessing his new faith. There is just one problem: he is still not able to kick his drug habit. He is stunned. He says to you, “I thought when I found Jesus that I would be healed of this sin! Does this mean I’m not a real Christian? How can I stop doing this thing to myself and those I love?”

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Christians sin. Christians harm themselves and others with cocaine and cookies and guns and words. Christians do pretty much everything that non-Christians do, good and bad, with the possible exception of belonging to a church. Paul was not, in my opinion, describing life pre-Christ. He was describing himself, Apostle, tireless bringer of the Good News, planter of churches, and writer of some of the most treasured words to be found in Christian scripture. Paul was describing the truth of the kingdom of heaven. It is already here, and it is not yet here. Christians, because we know the effects of sin, because we recognize it, live in that place between the promise of God’s time of complete renewal and the still-present realities of life as we know it. “For now the believer is caught in-between.”[i]

Aside from referring him to a good 12-step program, inpatient treatment and therapy, this is what I would have said to the hypothetical man in the exam question: “As Christians, we know that God’s desire is to forgive and restore us. We know that we live in that promise of forgiveness. Knowing we are forgiven gives us the opportunity to focus more on the work of the Spirit as we witness it in our lives, and less on the Catch-22 that is sin, what Paul calls, ‘this body of death.’ As Christians we understand what sin is, we see how it separates us from God and one another, and we want that to change. That doesn’t mean we are immediately successful in making that change. But it does mean that we can be more diligent, and more vigilant, and we can, begin to move away from sin and towards more abundant life. One step at a time.”

We know what sin is, and we know we are forgiven already—that is what causes Paul to end his anguished speech with words of praise: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Thanks be to God! You hear this all the time in 12-step meetings—people giving thanks that they are alcoholics, or drug addicts, or food addicts, or gambling addicts. Thanks be to God, because knowing the truth about myself is the first step towards a new life, by God’s grace. It isn’t the last step, it isn’t a magic wand, and it isn’t a pass a la, “the Devil made me do it.” It’s the first step towards a life lived in grace and responsibility, and with an ear and a heart open to God’s leading us to more and more life.

A few months ago I had the joy of hearing Susan Werner in concert. She sang this song, which I believe beautifully captures the blessing of knowing we are sinners. The song is called “Did Trouble Me.”

When I closed my eyes so I would not see

My Lord did trouble me

When I let things stand that should not be

My Lord did trouble me

When I held my head too high too proud

My Lord did trouble me

When I raised my voice too little too loud

My Lord did trouble me

Did trouble me

With a word or a sign

With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind

Did trouble me

Did stir my soul

For to make me human, to make me whole

When I slept too long, slept too deep

My Lord did trouble me

Put a worrisome vision into my sleep

My Lord did trouble me

When I held myself away and apart

My Lord did trouble me

And the tears of my brother did move my heart

My Lord did trouble me

And of this I’m sure, of this I know

My Lord will trouble me

Whatever I do and wherever I go

My Lord will trouble me

In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song

My Lord will trouble me

To keep me on the path where I belong

My Lord will trouble me[ii]

Jesus acts to set things right in this life of contradictions where we want to serve God with all our heart and mind, but are pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. Jesus longs to “make us human, to make us whole.” And so, he “troubles us,” letting us know when we are straying. Living in that “in-between-place” means that sin is still our human dilemma to reckon with, but also that our Lord will trouble us, and remind us, even as our Lord will lead us to a better place, a place where our renewal and the whole world’s will be made complete. And for that, we can say with Paul, Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Walter F. Taylor, “2nd Reading, July 3, 2011, 3rd Sunday After Pentecost,” at Working Preacher (

[ii] More lyrics:


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Great sermon!!

I do have a question. Here's the bit that really struck me as I was reading it:

And that’s what sin is: anything that harms our relationship with God, and prevents us from being in relationship with people.

What do you mean by the last part, "...prevents us from being in relationship with people"?

I ask because I can think of a lot of people who don't want to be in relationship with me because of my feminist/political views--but the idea of backing down from those views in order to "be in relationship" is a non-starter for me.

I'm really wrestling with my responsibility in all of this, so I'd love to hear your take! :-)


Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks for the comment Doxy!

Well, I didn't necessarily say whose sin, did I?

I do believe sin alienates us-- it can render us incapable of acting for the common good, for example. And, in my own case, I used sugar/ flour products as a drug to dull my own pain and keep those who should have been closest to me at a distance.

I hear the pain in what you are saying. I think to authentically inhabit your convictions is so painful, at times. It can certainly leave us feeling isolated. But that does not indicate that it is you who are acting "sinfully." In my opinion, it is the misogyny, the homophobia, etc, which are the sinful stances. You do what you can to put what seems to you the most faithful message out into the world, you experience rejection because of it, and, of course, relationships are affected.

I think we always need to be ready to restore relationships, but not at the cost of these kinds of convictions. These are the ways in which you are following Jesus.

Does that make sense?

Peace, dear friend. You are very much my hero(ine).