Thursday, July 14, 2011

Impossible

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
July 10, 2011 - Ordinary (15A)
Genesis 25:19-34
Romans 7:13-25
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Many of you know that I spent some time with my grandmother last weekend as she was, and still is, in hospice care. It was a holy time that I will cherish. During that time I experienced things that I knew to be possible and a few that I never expected to happen. Nothing particularly miraculous happened - unless you consider the miraculous quality of every moment of life. By that I mean the fact that we live and move and exist on this tiny spec of dust called earth that hangs in the vast expanse of the universe.

It is a miracle to me that we are breathing, that actions taking place on a subatomic level all around us allow us to blissfully choose to be kind or rude, generous or selfish, grateful or unappreciative. We can even be all of these at once depending on the person or the situation. Tens of thousands of variables effect our decisions at any given moment.

Since the miraculous is so hard to define - and may indeed be different for each of us - let’s stick to what we know. I can tell you that I did not expect to have any more meaningful conversations with my grandmother, and yet God gave us this gift. I did not expect to see friends that I have not seen in spans ranging from 2 - 30 years, and yet God gave me this gift. I did not expect to have the time to read a book or see a movie, yet God gave me this gift.

The movie was my first 3-D experience - Transformers 3: The Dark Side of the Moon. I experienced realms of perception of sound and light in this film that I simply did not know existed. Often it takes something that is outside of our normal experiences – something like loss, reunion, or just the decision to experience new things – to realize the possibilities that we walk by and dismiss as impossible every day.

Though it is a different context – the idea of the impossible existing alongside the possible is at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In chapter 7, Paul is addressing the complicated question of the importance of the law, the Torah, and its application for living. Jesus did much the same, though he focused on particular practices within the law (Sabbath keeping, justice, ethical behavior). Paul is instead talking about the human condition and the covenantal nature of our relationship with God.

So, although Paul uses “I” language and particularly talks about his own internal conflict, he is speaking to a particular people about what it means to be God’s people. Neither of these should be lost as we ponder the riddle of his words: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

What does it mean to us that Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, the evangelist who brought the Christian faith to the gentiles – Paul formerly Saul of Tarsus, struggles in this way? It means that each of us must struggle in the same way. It means that just because we have done the best we can do to confess and turn aside from particular actions of defiance to God there is yet something within us that yearns to take us in another direction.

Maybe it is a hunger. Maybe it is a fear. Maybe it is a desire that is disguised as a hope. Whatever it is that haunts us and gives us the desire to become self-defeating, Paul has named it as sin. The simple way to read this passage is to say, “Aha! See. The Devil made me do it.” Well, not so fast. Paul tells us that he is to blame – not the law, not the devil, but Paul. Why, because he is a human being. Because he has learned through the indwelling Spirit of God that anything he wants is tainted by the simple desire to find benefit and comfort for himself as long as he is given air to breath on this rock spinning through space. But fortunately for us, that is not the end of the story.

Some time ago I was reflecting on this passage and looking over some old sketches, and I found an image that repeated itself. It was a person hanging from chains at the wrists. As I continued to draw the image over the course of several years the cuffs began to disappear from the wrists even though the person was still holding on to the chains.



A friend suggested this meant something and that I might find meaning through scripture. Somehow God led me to this passage from Romans, and I realized that I had found my answer. The chains represented things that the figure had come to love: some were patterns of behavior, some were destructive, some were things that had once been helpful – even relationships and the expectations of friends and loved ones. All around the figure swirled the fires of chaos, and the person could be free but chose not to. That is how I have come to understand the internal conflict that Paul has described. Again – fortunately for us, that is not the end of the story.

For Paul cries out from his chains to acknowledge his limitations and give thanks to the God who has none saying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” 

Why? Because the wolf is always at the door. Because we come in from the field to smell the stew our brother has prepared and we are hungry. Why else would the law tell us not to covet? Earlier in Romans 7:7-8, Paul suggests that the law tells us not to covet just so that we know that we are doing it in the first place. Without the law, we would not know sin to be sin. Without a speed limit, we would not know that we were speeding. And here we have this story from the patriarchs that shows why we have always been blind to sin.

Esau comes in from the field and says, “What good is a birthright if I am going to starve!” Now I don’t know how hungry he was, but I doubt he was at death’s door – and I doubt that, being the firstborn, this was his only option. Whatever his motivation was, Esau was not just giving up the perks of the firstborn – a double share of the inheritance (no stew is that good!). He was giving up on his responsibility to the family. As the firstborn, he was responsible to see that the family and all of their descendants, crops, and livestock were accounted for and acknowledged before God with appropriate sacrifices and other rituals. There was no temple or priestly order. There were families, clans, and expectations for sons and daughters. Esau was not simply rejecting his inheritance. He was choosing to be self centered and driven by that which pleased him.

So here we sit with our chains and our hunger, longing to be free, to be transformed, to be fed. Jesus knows we long to be free, to be transformed, and to be fed. So, he tells us a story. He tells us a story so that word can become bread and freedom can be found in the chains we hold in our hands.

The parable of the Sower is so simple. Those who ignore the word of God are the ones on the path eaten by crows. Those on rocky ground have heard it but are not rooted in the truth of God’s word. Those in the thorns are strangled by the competition of the world, and finally those in good soil are the ones who hear and obey and yield good results.

So simple, yet there is so much that can be assumed about each of these statements. If we assume that God is the Sower and we are the seeds, there is comfort in the knowledge that we do not choose where we are sown. Yet I would not take that too far. This story is not an indicator of an unkind God who only expects certain seeds to yield. It is instead a description of the way things are.

We could also assume that the seed is the Word of God (the knowledge of Jesus as Savior), and we are the ground. That is the traditional approach (even though the text does not directly support it), but that also leaves us without much choice. We are either stranded in our sin or basking in the rewards of our faithfulness.

If we assume instead that we are the Sowers – empowered by God to demonstrate the salvation we have received through Jesus Christ – then a whole new realm of options and accountability opens up to us. For we may sow randomly on the path, idealistically in the rocks, or competitively in the world, but nothing will grow apart from the word we share that is consistent with actions that demonstrate the heart of God.

The world is hungry for transformation. You can see it all over thousands of TV channels broadcasting into the ether. Homes, restaurants, even human bodies are transformed because of the desire of the unloved to become valuable to someone or something. What more fertile ground can there be for the church? Might this be an invitation to look at the chains in our hands and let them go? If we are willing to – and if we will look close enough – I believe we will find that the chains have indeed become seeds that we may sow to the glory of God!
[Then I held out my hand and spilled seeds all over the pulpit and the ground.]

Now, I would also suggest that if you are worried about who will clean up the mess I just made you may have missed the point. For, you see, we hold both chains and seeds in our hands. Fortunately for us, that is not the end of the story but rather a new beginning!

For the Lord will bless the seeds we sow today. The Lord will bless these seeds if we, as followers of Jesus, can be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and willing to walk where God will lead us.

God will bless these seeds if we can be open to transformation and renewal and make every effort to accomplish that which God has called us to do. Who knows? We might just encounter the unexpected – or maybe even the impossible. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.
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