Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Parable of the Sower . . . or the Soil? (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

It doesn’t take a seminary degree to observe that the parable itself in 13:1-9 puts the emphasis on the sower who sows the seed. It’s called the parable of the Sower in verse 18. But the interpretation that is given in verses 18-23 of the parable of the sower puts almost all the emphasis on the soil. If you give credibility to scholarly work on sacred texts as I do, it’s not difficult to understand what is going on.

The parable itself which is no doubt very close to the story as Jesus most likely told it was probably told as an encouragement to his disciples whom he sent out to preach the kingdom of God. He knew they would face opposition and he warned them that they would be like sheep among wolves. It would be easy to become discouraged in such a climate. The parable assures them that while, yes, there will be those who do not hear and receive their word, there will be some who will receive it. There will be some whose minds and hearts will be open and receptive to the message.

The interpretation of the parable goes in a different direction. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship it is likely that the interpretation originated very early on when this story was being passed down orally – by word of mouth. In the course of this oral transmission this interpretation developed among Jesus’ followers. If Jesus had given a particular interpretation to his parables he would have defeated the purpose for telling parables in the first place, namely, to tease the mind and heart into active engagement with spiritual truth. He would also limit the meaning and restrict the impact of the parable by giving it one, particular interpretation. So it’s not likely this interpretation originated with Jesus. When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written some 5 or 6 or even 7 decades after Jesus, this interpretation had become such an integral part of the tradition that it was incorporated into the Gospel story as the interpretation of Jesus, even though it arose in the church. That’s the consensus of mainline scholarship which you may or may not accept.

I do accept that explanation and on that basis I want to make a point here that I think is very important and I will begin with a common experience. Have you ever read a scripture passage, maybe you even studied the passage or pondered it at some length, and it impacted you in a certain way? You discovered such and such meaning in the text. You believe God spoke to you in a certain way through that text. But then later, maybe a year later, maybe 5 or 10 years later, you came back to that text, and that same text impacted you in a very different way. And you believe that God spoke to you through that text in a very different way than God spoke to you initially through that text. I’m sure many of you have had that experience.

Why is that? It is because sacred texts are fluid and dynamic. The symbolism and meaning in those texts can change for us as the Spirit makes use of these texts and as we are open and ready to receive what God is trying to communicate to us through them. There are scriptures that I read and apply today in a completely different way than I did a decade ago. Why is that? A lot of it has to do with the journey we are on. Maybe we are at a different place today than we were then – a different place spiritually, psychologically, theologically, and socially. God can use a text to speak to us in many different ways at different times and in different contexts in our lives.

That is the nature of God’s word. God’s word is not limited to scripture and it’s not a static thing. The word of God is God speaking. If you read a text of scripture and your mind and heart is not open to hear and receive what God may want to say to you through that text, then that scripture is not God’s word to you. The word of God is God actively wooing, drawing, enticing, revealing, and engaging us in a variety of ways.

Certainly, scripture is one of the key ways, one of the more important ways through which God engages us. This is why we give such great attention to scripture in our worship and in our study and mission groups. Sacred scripture is really important to us. And of course, we believe Jesus to be the living word par excellent. We believe that in the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, in out sacred scriptures we have been given a definitive revelation of what God is like and what God’s will is for humanity. This is why the lectionary puts such emphasis on the Gospels. Every Sunday there is a reading from the Gospels. The lectionary is structured around the life of Jesus. So scripture is very important to us. But the word of God is not limited to scripture. The word of God is God speaking and God can do that in any number of ways.

The word of God is a dynamic reality and we may never know the full impact of a word of God on a person.  Sometimes we write off people as having closed hearts to the word, but we never know really. The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching in Atlanta and was called back to Oklahoma for a funeral.  The man who died had been a good friend in the little church that Craddock served there.  It had been years since they had talked, but they were good friends. 

The voice on the phone said, “Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So he went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family gathered around.  Kathryn was there.  She was the oldest daughter.  When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old.  Fred says, “I remembered her when I left. She was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention.  When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’”

Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company.  She and her dad were real close.  Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.”  She said, “It is tough.  When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something.  Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.”  And she went on to tell Dr. Craddock something he had said in the sermon which apparently made a difference in her life. It gave her something to hold on to when she needed it most.

We just never know do we? And this is encouraging. Some seed land in good soil. And even when the soil may not be so good, some seed may stay put long enough to eventually do some good. This is a real encouragement to those in the business I’m in. We don’t know what might get through, and so we keep sharing the message, we keep teaching and preaching and writing and sharing because we never know. 

But this also should encourage you, because you are also sowing seed. We all are. One of the primary ways God speaks to people is through people. We are the body of Christ. We are called to scatter God’s love and grace. And we are not to discriminate. It is not for us to say who is good soil or bad soil. It’s not for us to say who is deserving or undeserving. There is a sense in which none of us are deserving and there is a sense in which we are all deserving. We are all God’s children. We all bear the image of God, no matter how marred that image may be. The Spirit resides in all of us whether we know it or not. Who knows when a closed heart will become an open heart? Our job is not to judge. Our job is to scatter the seed.

Whenever you offer hospitality and welcome you are scattering seed. Whenever you stand with and for the most vulnerable you are sowing seed. Whenever you do some work of mercy or share some word of kindness, or whenever you give of your resources and time to others, you are scattering and sowing the word of God. God is revealing God’s self through you. God is speaking through you. We are all sowers of seed.

And if we are not sowing good seed, there is a good possibility we are sowing bad seed. Jesus also told a parable about a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit. Are we sowing love or hate? Are we sowing inclusion or exclusion? Are we sowing affirmation or condemnation? Are we sowing courage or fear? Are we sowing humility or pride? We are all sowing seed.

We are also different types of soil at various times in our lives. The interpretation of the parable by Matthew should cause us to ask, “What kind of soil am I? So on the one hand we ask, “What kind of seed am I sowing?” And then on the other hand we must ask, “Am I the kind of soil in which the seed can flourish?” We can be different kinds of soil from one hour to the next.

Please don’t read this parable from the perspective of your own ego. If you do, then you will think of yourself as good soil and you will place others in the different types of soil. The people who believe like you do or think like you do or practice their faith the way you practice your faith you will designate good soil. If you do that, you might be anything except good soil. If we assign people and groups to various types of soil we will have then set ourselves up as judges and gatekeepers and our hearts will be just as closed as the religious gatekeepers in the day of Jesus.

We don’t need to be labelling or categorizing anyone. We need to look at our own hearts. Because the fact is, on any given day or moment our minds and hearts may be like any of these different types of soil. Let’s be honest. Some days we are like the hardened footpath. The seed doesn’t have a chance. There are days I know I am hard soil. And there are days I know I am preaching to hard soil.

One Sunday the preacher announced his sermon title as “Ignorance and Apathy.” A church member leaned over and asked his wife: What does he mean by ignorance and apathy. She replied: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Unfortunately, there are some days where that’s where we seem to be. And the seed doesn’t have a chance.

There are other days when our minds and hearts are like the soil that is shallow and full of bedrock. There are days when disappointment or disillusionment set in, when our physical or emotional suffering becomes a barrier of bedrock preventing the good seed from sinking down into the depths of our hearts. Suffering may make us better or bitter. Some days it makes us bitter.

There are other days when our souls are full of weeds. These weeds are identified in the interpretation as the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. We know about these weeds don’t we? The lure of wealth may not be the wealth itself, it may be the power and position and place that comes with wealth. These cares could be anything – not necessarily bad things, but preoccupations and concerns that distract and keep us from doing what is really important like loving others. These cares and aspirations choke out the life of the good seed.

For many of us it doesn’t take much to distract us and turn us away from the wisdom and truth that could make a huge difference in our lives. C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters describes a man who goes into the library to read and think. His mind is suddenly opened to thoughts of God and what that might mean in his life if he took God seriously. But then, his attention is drawn to the sounds on the street, to the newsboy calling out the latest news, and to the fact that he is hungry. And that’s all it takes to get his mind off of God. He, then, becomes consumed once again by the cares of the world.

Keeping the weeds out requires fairly constant attention. I have a goldfish pond in my backyard and I have some plants and rocks as the setting for it, and I have a heck of a time keeping the weeds out. It requires a little bit of attention every other day. If I let it go several days which I often do, weeds seem to sprout up everywhere. The same is true of our souls. This is why some spiritual writers insist on the practice of contemplative prayer or centering prayer, because it’s a way we can quiet our hearts and open them to the Spirit. In order for the divine life that is within to flourish it needs some space to set down roots and grow. That falls on us. We must make some space and invite God to speak and work in our lives. If we are focused on getting more stuff, or making a name for ourselves, or if we are constantly worried or anxious, there is no space in our lives for the life of Christ to live and thrive.

The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ.” How often can we say that? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these other things will fall in place.” Jesus asks us to move from being torn and divided about many things to being committed to the essential thing – God’s good and loving will for humanity and the creation. 

We can’t make the seed grow, but we can clear away some of the stuff that prevents the seed from growing. So much of the spiritual life is about subtraction, it’s about letting go – letting go of our many worries and fears, letting go of our infatuation with our own importance, letting go of our need to be in control and on and on it goes. We must let go of those things that prevent the life and love of God from growing in our lives.

So these are the two critical questions we face today. First: What kind of seed am I sowing? We are all sowing seed. Am I sowing good seed or bad seed? And second: What kind of soil represents my heart and mind most of the time? Is my mind and heart closed? Is it distracted or preoccupied? Or am I open, receptive, and ready for what God wants to show me and teach me?


Gracious God, may our hearts be open to receive your word to us. Help us to make space for your word to take root and grow. And help us to realize too, that just as you speak to us through others you speak to others through us. Empower us to sow seeds of peace and hope and love everyday. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The way of wisdom (Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30)

Bass fisherman talk about active fish, neutral fish, and inactive fish. There are periods of time, actually fairly long periods of time where big bass are dormant. They suspend in open water or they hover deep in cover, but either way, they are uncatchable. If you could precisely locate where one is and dangle a bait right in front of its nose, it will not take the bait. When a big bass is inactive, it is an uncatchable fish.

In our text today, we are introduced to some uncatchable fish. You may remember that Jesus employed a fishing analogy when he called some fishermen to be his disciples. He said, “Follow my way and I will teach you how to catch people in the net of God’s kingdom.” I suppose if you are fishing by means of a net it’s a bit different, but even then, I can imagine fish residing in cover that the net cannot penetrate. While disciples feel a sense of mission to share the wisdom of the way of Jesus with others, we know that there are folks who simply will not bite. And there are, I’m sure, all kinds of reasons for that, but all these reasons are reflective of the state of one’s heart. If one’s heart is closed, it is closed, and it cannot be forced or pried open.

Our Gospel text begins with a depiction of closed hearts. John and Jesus both come preaching the kingdom of God. John’s understanding of certain aspects of the kingdom of God no doubt differed from Jesus. John roared and thundered. He emphasized God’s judgment and called his hearers to repentance. He dressed like Elijah, had a strange diet of locusts and wild honey, and drew people out into the desert to hear him. He baptized those who welcomed his message. On the other hand, Jesus baptized no one. He traveled all around Palestine. He dressed like a rabbi and taught the way of wisdom. Though he, too, functioned as a prophet and called people to repentance he told stories and utilized short, witty, sometime shocking proverbs and sayings to make his point. He was known not for his thunderous speech, but for his compassion, for eating and drinking with “sinners” – those judged as unworthy by the religious establishment.

Now, I suppose it would be easy to say that Jesus’ approach was the right one and John’s not so much, but I’m not so sure that is the way to look at it. I think there are times we need both. Sometimes we may need to hear a hard word, a stern word, a challenging word; sometimes we may need to be hit over the head with the truth. Someone may need to shake us awake. Then, there are other times we need a more a sensitive, caring, gentle, and compassionate invitation. Both John and Jesus called their hearers to change, though they went about it in different ways. But some folks, like so many of the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day, are calloused to either approach. They are not going to bite. Their hearts are closed.

Today’s text echoes in several ways two strands of ancient Hebrew teaching and tradition. One is the tradition dealing with Moses and the law. And the other is the tradition dealing with wisdom. In several Jewish sources, including Proverbs in our Old Testament, divine wisdom is personified as a woman who assumes divine characteristics and attributes. This is what some teachers are referencing when they speak of Sophia or Lady Wisdom. Sophia is the Greek term for wisdom, which is feminine. The writer of Proverbs, for example, introduces the wisdom of God this way: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice . . . How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . . Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.” That’s from Proverbs 1. Divine wisdom is personified as a woman. She invites her listeners to give heed to what she has to say. And when you consider the patriarchal culture of ancient Jewish society this is pretty radical stuff.

I can understand why wisdom is personified as female. I was in my study on Wednesday working on this sermon, and Matt, our custodian, came in and said, “You have a net in your car?” I said, “No, why?” He said we have a bird in the fellowship hall.” I said, “Ok, I will run home and get one.”  I came back with two nets. I have one I use in my kayak to land those big bass I rarely catch, and I have a long net I use in my goldfish pond at home. When I walked in with the nets I noticed the doors to the fellowship hall were open and Karen and Betty were standing there. I said, “Did the bird fly out?” They said, “Yea, we opened the windows.” Duh! Now, can you just Imagine me and Matt chasing a bird around the fellowship hall with fishing nets. Probably would have made a great “You tube” video though. I thought of this passage where Lady Wisdom says, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

What this passage is suggesting is that Jesus drew from both the law and the wisdom traditions in Judaism. He summarized the law as the law of love and he embodied and taught the way of wisdom. But not all were ready to receive and emulate his love and his wisdom. In fact, Jesus says that the way of wisdom is hidden from the wise and the intelligent, but revealed to infants.     

Now what does that mean? Wisdom hidden from the wise and the intelligent? It means that enlightenment and wisdom are only given to those who have the humility to receive these gifts. No one who overly cares about position or place or power, no one who wants to control others, can receive these gifts. The religious elites, the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day were closed to the wisdom of God. Why? Because they lacked the humility and readiness needed. They were not about to welcome truth from John or Jesus. They had the truth. They had the answers. They were the gatekeepers. They said who was “in” and who was “out.” They were the gatekeeper of a worthiness system. They labeled and categorized people according to who, in their judgment, was worthy and unworthy. And you know sisters and brothers, there’s a lot of religion, particularly a lot of Christianity just like that today.

Without humility, without recognition that we are all infants in need of being nurtured and taught the way of wisdom, there can be no growth. Wisdom cannot be received by the proud, by the know-it-alls, by those who think they are better or smarter than others. This is just how grace works sisters and brothers. The grace of enlightenment, the grace of wisdom, the grace of being able to understand and receive and live the way of Jesus is given to us in response to our awareness of how desperately we need such grace, how desperately we need the wisdom of God.  

Christians talk a lot about grace, but I’m not sure we all get it. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about becoming irate one afternoon when she was at Yale Divinity School in the 1970’s. The books she wanted she couldn’t find in the library, even though there was no record at the front desk that they had been checked out. When she asked the librarian what was going on, he told her that the Divinity school had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university. Barbara said, “How embarrassing. Why do you suppose that is?” “Grace,” he said, with a rueful look on his face. “You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want.”

Terrible isn’t it? That sense of entitlement is not grace at all. It’s interesting how many Christian folks get this all screwed up. I am going to venture into the health care discussion for a moment or two. I am not going to name any names so don’t worry too much, but there is a point here that needs to be made about grace. As you well know Congress is trying to push through a bill to repeal and replace the ACA that will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, give a number of tax breaks to the wealthy while it will over the next decade push millions (not thousands, millions) of low income persons and families off of health insurance. Health insurance will be so costly that low income folks won’t be able to afford to get it or what they can afford will be so bad, it would be like not having any coverage at all. Here’s the point I want to make about grace. Some (not all of course, but some) who support this bill argue that the people who will be pushed off of health insurance don’t deserve it any way. They argue that they don’t deserve it because they haven’t worked as hard as those who deserve to have the tax breaks. They argue that somehow those who get the tax breaks deserve them, while those who are struggling just to make it from day to day are, for whatever reason, not entitled to receive government subsidies to help them get decent health coverage for themselves and their families. The people who make this argument, many of them Christians, may talk about grace in their churches, but they have no idea, no clue what grace really is. By the way, in my judgment for what it’s worth is that adequate health care should be no different than public education. It should be the right of everyone who lives in this country.

The worthiness system that Jesus challenged and contended with in his day in his own religion is really no different than the worthiness systems we experience today in Christianity, and I’m sure other religious traditions in their own way contend with this  too. Life transforming faith, authentic faith, faith that heals the broken, that forgives and restores sinners, and that liberates and frees the oppressed is never about being worthy, it’s never about rewards and punishments.  Worthiness systems close and harden the heart to true grace. They turn faith into a system of comparisons and competition. They divide and label and offer condemnation rather than salvation. Worthiness systems spread fear and insecurity and they produce anxiety.

But the way of wisdom, the way of grace, the way of true enlightenment and transformation nurtures the very opposite. The way of Jesus is rooted, not in a system of meritocracy, not in a system of rewards and punishments, but rather it is rooted in the unconditional love and graciousness of God who abolishes all exceptionalisms and elitisms. The way of Jesus breaks down barriers of division and brings us all to the same table to share the same meal as sisters and brothers in one family.

And yet the wisdom of God while freely given does not come without some costs, which is why Jesus also advised his would-be followers to count the costs. The way and wisdom of Jesus is called a “yoke,” but it is also called an “easy” yoke. Now, it’s not “easy” in the sense of what this wisdom asks of us. Jesus said, “If the world/the system persecuted me, it will persecute you (his followers).” Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to walk in the way of wisdom, then you must deny yourself (your ego self, your little self), and take up your cross and follow me.” "I’m headed toward a cross, says Jesus, and you must be willing to follow me there.” How is that easy? That is not easy. And yet, here’s the paradox (almost all spiritual truth is paradoxical) when one truly encounters real grace and comes to see just how gracious God is and how connected we all are and how beautiful life is, then following the way of wisdom is an “easy” decision that brings “rest” to our weary souls.

If you are unsure whether or not you are operating out of a worthiness system or whether you are living out of the experience of divine grace you may want to engage in a little self-inventory. Ask yourself these questions: Does my faith cause me to feel better, more special, more chosen, more blessed than others? Do I think others are excluded because they don’t believe or live like I do? Do I feel some fear and anxiety in practicing my faith? If you say yes to any of these, then there is a possibility you may be caught up in a worthiness system.

But if you are walking in the way of wisdom, if you are living out of a sense of union with God and connection to everyone else, if you are living and experiencing grace, then you will know something of the deep “rest” of God. You may be going through hardship, you may be encountering suffering and living under great stress, you may face opposition and rejection, but paradoxically and inexplicably you will also know at a deeper level peace and gratitude and feelings of generosity and thankfulness – what was called in a recent film I watched “collateral beauty.” For such is the burden that is light and the yoke that is easy that comes with the way of Jesus.  

So sisters and brothers, whether it’s Lady Wisdom of the ancient Hebrews beckoning all to listen, or whether it’s John the Baptizer thundering repentance out in the desert, or Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and throwing dinner parties for sinners, the way of wisdom invites us to receive grace and be part of something much larger than ourselves. The invitation may even come from some crazy preacher on a Sunday morning in July, 2017. If we would just open our hearts to the wisdom of God in humility and generosity, in trust and compassion, then we would know at a deeper level, below the surface of the waves that beat upon our lives every day, the peace and gratitude and joy of Jesus, then we would find true “rest” for our souls.


O God, as we now come to this table in thanksgiving for grace given and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Christ, open our hearts in humility that we might receive your wisdom and experience our connection to you, each other and all creation. Amen. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rethinking Sin (a sermon from Romans 6:1-11)

Renowned New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, a number of years ago wrote a book intended not for the scholar, but for the lay person interested in the New Testament.  In his section on Paul he has a chapter entitled “The Ancient Enemy.” He begins with a story about President Coolidge, who had just returned from a service of worship one Sunday morning. When he was asked what the minister preached on he replied with one word: “Sin.” The minister preached on sin. When he was further pressed, “What did he say about it?” He responded, “He was against it.”

Over a half century ago, theologian Paul Tillich said that the great words of our Christian tradition cannot be replaced. He argued that there are no adequate substitutes for them – for words like “sin.” Though I’m sure he would have argued that we have to explore multiple meanings of these words.

One of the beautiful things about religious language is that it is symbolical language. It is metaphorical language and can touch us on many levels. The beauty and power of religious language is that words can take on new meanings in new contexts. I am not suggesting that we throw out the old meanings, but we need fresh and more nuanced understandings. This is particularly true when we talk about the language of sin.

Pastor and author John Ortburg tells the story about the time he and his wife sold their Volkswagen Beetle to purchase a really nice piece of furniture.  It was a pink sofa, but for the money spent to buy it, it was called a mauve sofa. The man at the sofa store gave them careful instructions on how to care for it. Ortburg said they had very small children in those days and the Number One rule in the house from that day forward was: “Don’t sit on the mauve sofa! Don’t play near the mauve sofa!  Don’t eat around the mauve sofa! Don’t touch the mauve sofa! Don’t breathe on the mauve sofa! Don’t even think about the mauve sofa! On every other chair in the house, you may freely sit, but on the mauve sofa you may not sit, for on the day you sit thereon, you shall surely die!”

Then one day - the “Fall.” There appeared on the mauve sofa a red stain, a red jelly stain. His wife called the sofa factory, and unfortunately it would be a permanent blot on the mauve sofa. So she assembled their three children in front of the mauve sofa to look at the stain:  Laura 4, Mallory 2 and a half, and Johnny, who was less than a year. She said, “Children, do you see that? That’s a stain.  That’s a red stain. That’s a red jelly stain. And the man at the sofa store say’s it’s not coming out, not for all eternity. Do you know how long eternity is, children? Eternity is how long we’re all going to sit here until one of you tells me which one of you put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa.”

For a long time they all just sat there until finally Mallory cracked. She said, “Laura did it.” Laura said, “No, I didn’t.” Then it was dead silence. Ortburg says, “I knew none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because they had never seen their mom so mad and because they knew if they did they would spend all eternity in the ‘Time Out Chair.’” And then he says, “And I knew that none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because in fact, I was the one who put the stain on the sofa, and I wasn’t sayin’ nuthin! Not a word!” 

The truth about us, of course, is that we have all stained the sofa. As Paul says earlier in this letter, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” One time when Barry Larkin, who played for the Reds, hit a game winning home run off of Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson, Patterson described the pitch he gave Larkin as a cross between a screwball and a change-up. He called it a screw-up. Maybe a more contemporary way of saying what Paul meant when he said, “we have all sinned” is that we have all screwed up and struck out. We have all stained the sofa.

All of us get this. We all know about individual sin. We do enough of it don’t we? We have screwed up and struck out many times. We have failed to be loving persons we know we should be. We have hurt others with our words and actions. We have failed to live up to God’s expectations, our own ideals and expectations, and the expectations of others. In any number of ways our attitudes and actions come way short of living out God’s loving will for our lives. We know this. It’s a given.

What we may not know or realize with equal honesty and awareness is our participation in corporate or collective or systemic sin. We all participate in systems of injustice and sin, often without being aware.

For all Paul’s talk about sin, Paul doesn’t give a whole lot of attention to specific attitudes or behaviors that we would identify as “sins.” Rather, when Paul refers to sin, which he most often speaks about in the singular rather than plural (sin not sins) he often has in mind a kind of enslaving power; a force that entraps human beings and which almost always diminishes our lives in some way. It’s a kind of anti-love force that works in our lives individually and in society collectively to tear us apart – to divide us from one another and to divide our own hearts. This is what Paul is talking about when he uses phrases like “the old self” and “the body of sin”- he is speaking theologically, psychologically, and socially. Individually we can think of sin as destructive addictions, as false attachments to power or pleasure or pride, and as negative patterns and habits of thinking and living. Corporately or communally, we are also complicit in systems of sin – systems of injustice and evil. And these systems which we are all part of have enormous shaping and forming power in our lives. They are like force fields that limit our movement.

Think of how we have all bought into a system that keeps us wanting more, wanting what is bigger and better even though we don’t need it. We don’t even give it much thought because it’s what runs our economy. We are all affected by our consumeristic culture. How many big priced glide baits do I need to catch that big bass? How many expensive drivers do you need to hit that little white ball down the fair way? And no matter how much you pay for the drive you still can’t hit it straight, in the same way that I can’t catch that big bass. How much square footage does a family need? You see my point. We hardly even think about these things because they are such a common part of society. When the bass at Cedar Creek started hitting on plastic brush hogs I went out and bought 10 packages of brush hogs in all colors. Did I need 10 packages of brush hogs? Of course not. Now, I will agree though, some of you do need lots and lots of golf balls, but I won’t go there. Such is the power of the system as it appeals to our lesser desires. Think of how the system shapes our wants and desires when it comes to the clothes we wear, our houses and furnishings, our yards, our automobiles, and on and on it goes doesn’t it? So both individually and systemically we get caught in the power of sin.

In this section in Paul’s letter to the Romans, sin is personified as an oppressive regime. It can rule or lord it over a person. It is likened to a master or a tyrannical ruler. You know there is a lot of powerful spiritual symbolism in the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins is the Hobbit who finds the Ring of Power. Everything turns on the Ring of Power. Bilbo is unaware of the power the ring exerts upon him, much the way we are unaware of how deeply we are entrapped to our ego and the patterns of our culture. And through the years, the captivating power the ring has on him grows.

So as he makes plans to leave the shire for good, he intends on giving the ring to his nephew, Frodo, as part of the inheritance he leaves to him. But as the time approaches for him to depart the shire he has second thoughts. He cannot seem to let go of the ring. The ring has this strange hold on him.

Gandolf, the wizard, has observed for some time the strange power of the ring and he encourages Bilbo to give it up. In one scene, as Gandolf prods Bilbo to leave the ring behind, Bilbo’s demeanor changes. Greedy and grasping he snarls, “It’s mine! My own! My precious.” Gandolf does not back down and Bilbo is compelled by Gandolf to relinquish it, to let it go.   

When they learn the secret of the ring and Frodo and his companions begin the journey to Mordor, to destroy the ring in the fire at the Mountain of Doom, the ring begins to exercise its overriding power on Frodo.  And at the end of the journey, Frodo arrives at the mountain with the sole purpose of dropping the ring into the pit of fire, but then he cannot do it. He can’t let it go. It’s why he undertook this perilous journey. In the end it takes providence; it takes an intervention from Gollum, the pitiful creature who possessed the ring for many years. The power of the ring had destroyed his former self. Ever since he lost the wrong he has been consumed with getting it back. So Gollum tries to take the ring from Frodo. Gollum is able to wrest the ring from Frodo, but then loses his footing and falls into the fire with the ring, thus completing the mission that Frodo had consented to do.

The ring of power is a poignant symbol of both individual and systemic sin. It exposes the power that our addictions and false attachments have over us, as well as the power of the system to control us. So how do we break free? Where do we find freedom? How are we liberated?

Paradoxically, it is by dying that we enter into life. And by the way, this is not unique to the Christian faith. All the great religious traditions teach some form of dying to self, dying to the ego, and letting go. Paul connects this to Christian baptism which he interprets symbolically as our dying with Christ to sin’s power in order to live in the newness of life symbolized by God raising Christ from the dead. The point that I want to make here, which I think is really important, is that dying to sin, letting go of the old self or the false self, breaking free from what Paul calls this “body of sin” is never a once-for-all experience. It is a process and a journey.

There are some experiences that are decisive and may turn us around or change our direction and set us on a different journey or mission, such as Paul’ encounter with Christ when he was a persecutor of Christ followers. But, dying to our negative attitudes and behaviors, letting go of old habits and learning new ones that are more loving and life-giving is a process. When Paul says in verse 11 of our text, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he is talking about a process that must be repeated daily, just as Jesus says, in Luke’s version of the saying, “Take up your cross daily.” It’s a day by day process. To say this theologically, salvation and sanctification are just different ways of talking about the same reality. Salvation is continual. It is on-going. It is a process of becoming. It is a daily journey of dying and being reborn.

Some spiritual teachers speak of this process as a process of shedding the false baggage  we have acquired and discovering our true selves created in God’s image. In a Hasidic tale, a rabbi named Zusya dies and stands before the judgment seat of God. As he waits for God to appear, he grows anxious imagining what God may ask him. What if God asks him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you David or why weren’t you Elijah?” But when God appears God asks the rabbi, “Why weren’t you Zusya? Why did you not discover your true self? Why did you not become who you are?

Maybe redemption and transformation is about allowing the Spirit who indwells us the freedom to shape us into the likeness of the image already stamped upon us. I like the story about the country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

For Christians the art of soulmaking, the process of becoming who we really are and were created to be means whittling away the parts that don’t resemble Jesus. It means whittling away the parts not in sync with the loving, compassionate healer and liberator of the Gospels known as Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as Lord.

It’s not easy though. Negative patterns of thinking, what Richard Rohr calls “stinking thinking” and self-serving patterns of behavior are hard to overcome. Especially when the system we live in and the culture we are part of encourages bad thinking and behavior. This is why we have to be patient with one another, and patient with ourselves. It’s a journey. Growth is sometimes very slow. We don’t let go of egocentric attitudes and actions overnight. But as Paul says, “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.” Sometimes the process is painful. There are setbacks. There are times it’s really tough, but God will see us through. As Paul says in another letter, “The one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.”


Our good God, sometimes our growth, our liberation from sin, from the old self, from systems of injustice, is like a snail’s pace. We confess our own entanglement in unjust systems, and we acknowledge how often we are ego driven rather than love driven. Help us to be aware of our sin. Help us to be aware of our ensnarement by the system. And give us the grace to ask your help and the patience to be persistent, to keep getting up every time we fall, so that we might whittle away at all the negativity and selfishness in our lives, and become more of the humble, loving, serving, compassionate persons you have called us to be.