July 9, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 7:15-25a
I’m not much of a fan of the Apostle Paul, so I appreciate his comment in First Corinthians that it’s following Christ that matters, not following Paul. From my modern perspective, I find Paul’s acceptance of slavery as a social institution and his devaluing of women totally unacceptable and inconsistent with the apostle’s teaching regarding God’s abiding love for all. But, despite those reservations, I have chosen this morning to work with the passage from Romans 7 which is today’s epistle lection. I have made that choice for several reasons. First, it is one of a handful of texts from the Pauline epistles where the apostle uses the first person singular and thus appears to be speaking about his own spiritual condition. Second, the passage has a universal quality about it, addressing the human condition generally even as it is cast in the first person. And finally, and perhaps most important, the passage speaks to me. It feels directly relevant to where I am right now on my own journey.
So let’s look again at Romans 7:15-25a. And, in the words of the Christmas angel, “Do not be afraid!” I am definitely not going to dwell on Paul’s discussion of the nature of sin and its relationship to the Law of Moses, even though this topic is a main focus of the passage. My attention was captured by verse 15: “I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do but rather the things I hate” and by verse 19: “What happens is that I don’t do the good I intend to do, but the evil that I do not intend.” [This and all biblical quotations are from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, 2009] Paul goes on to argue that it is not really me that does the evil but “sin that dwells in me.” That comment could lead to an interesting psychological conversation about how we understand that which is part of us and yet causes us to behave in ways that do not seem right. I think of Carl Jung’s concept of the “autonomous complex,” for example. But that psychological conversation, interesting though it may be, would be a digression. What matters here is Paul’s point that there is that within me that sometimes causes me to behave in ways which are contrary to my values and to my larger sense of who I am and what I believe. And I dare say that the same is true for you.
In my life right now, this problem shows up in several ways. One is with respect to my hearing. It has deteriorated to the point that I should be wearing hearing aids. This is the conclusion of an audiologist who has tested my hearing, but more to the point, it is my own conclusion. I miss hearing consonants at the beginning of words and words at the end of sentences. In a group setting, I often miss more than that if the person speaking is not facing me. Sometimes I guess at what I have missed, trying to make inferences from the context. Sometimes I impose on others by asking them to repeat, and yet other times I simply do without knowing what they are saying. None of these are good solutions to my hearing problem: I know, beyond any doubt, that I need hearing aids, and in fact I own a pair. They sit on my desk in their case not ever coming close to my ears. I have no rational basis for not wearing them. To paraphrase Paul, I don’t do the thing I want to do and therefore do that which I prefer not to do. If you just came in the room for my last paragraph, you might be thinking, “Well, Ken, if you really want to do it, that is, to wear the hearing aids, why don’t you just do it?” That question gets to the crux of the problem, the inner conflict between what I want to do and what I am actually doing.
Another place in my current life where this issue comes up is around exercise. I need it for the same reasons we all need it, to have energy, to control weight, and generally to stay healthy. In addition I have a special need for exercise for my left shoulder. [Hold both arms above head.] As you can see, the reach of my left arm is less than that of my right, and there are other ways in which the range of motion of my left shoulder is limited. My doctor tells me that this is because I have arthritis in that shoulder which is far more advanced that would be expected for my age. In addition, health care professionals as diverse as an orthopedic surgeon and a massage therapist have told me that I will eventually have a frozen left shoulder which will require surgery. I have been given a set of simple exercises that I can do at home to strengthen the muscles in my shoulder and make those outcomes less likely. I am currently not doing either the shoulder exercises or the more generic aerobic, strength training, and flexibility work. This is true despite the fact that I have access to a gym and a trainer at Collington, the retirement community where I live. Again, I am not doing that which I say I want to do, exercising, and instead am doing the opposite, to the detriment of my health and probably my longevity.
Unfortunately, this tendency shows up in at least one other area of my life, and this one is relational. Please know that I tell you about this with the knowledge and permission of Jane, my dear wife. Jane suffers from bouts of depression. When she is depressed, she needs me to reach out to her and to be a comforting presence. I find this very difficult to do, despite my clear understanding that this kind of loving comfort is what Jane needs. Although I well understand the origins of my resistance in my own history, that knowledge is of little help. Sometimes I am able to be with Jane in the way she needs me to be and as I want to be, but often this is not the case. Again, I am not doing what I say I want to do, and Jane does not get the comfort she needs.
I have cast this matter in terms of some specific issues in my life. Bruce Epperly, who teaches at Wesley and blogs at “Living a Holy Adventure”, offers a more generic statement of how this dynamic works in our culture. Bruce writes as follows:
While we may not share Paul’s understanding of sin as a force that possesses us, warring in us contrary to our highest desires, we recognize the reality of sin, embodied in the interplay of family of origin, genetics, environment, economics, gender and sexuality, and personal decision-making. The heaviness of the past, confirmed by thousands of habitual responses, can seem to overcome our best intentions. We want to lose weight, but we can’t help ourselves from enjoying a coffee roll or piece of cake. We want to exercise, but we can’t motivate ourselves to get up a half hour earlier each morning. We want to stay sober or virtuous, but the lure of alcohol or pornography or illicit relationships is overwhelming. We want to spend time with our children or spouse, but the lure of work entraps us, and we immerse ourselves in email correspondence to the neglect of the ones who need us most. We want to reach out to the poor and vulnerable, but we worry about the time or money it may entail. And the list goes on; we are a bundle of ambivalent feelings. We feel trapped by ourselves and only grace can save us, only grace, the surprising transforming unexpected love of God that frees us to claim our imperfections and ambivalence as vehicles of God’s grace [Bruce Epperly, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2017/07/adventurous-lectionary-fifth-sunday-pentecost-july-9-2017 ]
Paul, in the last verses of our passage writes, “How wretched I am! Who will save me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God – it is Jesus Christ our Savior!” Through God’s love for me revealed in Jesus the Christ, I am not only forgiven, I am set free. I have strength and energy and courage to confront and overcome that within me, however understood, that would prevent me from being who I really am, from living the life and making the choices that are truly mine to live and to make. In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul elaborates on this promise concluding, “For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither heights nor depths – nor anything else in all creation – will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.” I can’t tell you exactly how this promise will play out in those areas of my life that I have shared this morning, but I have full confidence that this will happen in my life and in yours as well. God’s love for us frees us to be who we truly are. “For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither heights nor depths – nor anything else in all creation – will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus.”