PROPERS: PROPER 9, YEAR A
TEXT: ROMANS 7:15-25a
PREACHED AT ST. PAUL’S, MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, ON SUNDAY, JULY 9, 2017.
ONE SENTENCE: As Paul notes, the human condition is part of our makeup; our lives require deep reflection and self-awareness.
It is likely a challenging thought to consider the possibility that the Apostle Paul might reflexively – even automatically – do that which is wrong. He owns-up to that inherent self-tendency in the second lesson today.
You have heard me say it: Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the greatest bit of Christian theology we encounter in scripture. This passage does its part to add to that truth. Hear his words again:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
With that thought it mind, let me take you back to an important experience in my understanding of that passage.
At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2003, the deputies were being called to vote on the election of Canon Gene Robinson to be the new bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. As you may recall, he was the first openly gay person elected bishop in the Episcopal Church.
There was much soul-searching going on on the floor of General Convention. I took counsel with my good friend, boss, and bishop, Duncan Gray, III.
I shared with him a thought that I had: “Each deputy should vote his or her conscience. There is no wrong time to do the right thing.” His response challenged me: “Remember, your conscience may be fallen, too.” In other words, one’s own conscience might well be afflicted by the human condition – known as sin – too.
That insight makes Paul’s statement even more important and piercing.
Paul is telling us that the human condition – our nature as broken, flawed human beings – is part of who we are. It is woven, like a cyst, around our spirit, its tendrils tied inextricably to our way of living.
Paul goes on to share the inner turmoil he feels around this state of being:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Paul knows that there is nothing he can do about this condition. He is hard-wired as a human being to function in such a way – that despite his best intentions, he cannot always do what is right.
Each of us has been hard-wired differently. We were brought-up in a certain environment. Our ways of seeing the world and perceiving others are different. We have differing levels of trust. Our ways of relating to one another and the world are unique. The lenses through which we see the world around us are as varied as there are many of us.
So, we make differing decisions. We act in ways that may be unique to us. Even if we make, measured, thoughtful, reflected decisions.
I am a believer in an approach called systems theory. It is a concept that was first described by Dr. Murray Bowen, a Tennessee family practitioner who ultimately became a psychiatrist.
One of his tenets was that emotional maturity gives us more options for responding to situations and decisions. His thoughts could be described in this way: If we are fragile, insecure and anxious, we are much more likely to react to a situation. If we are secure, feel safe, and self-aware, we are much more likely to respond to the same situation.” React vs. Respond.
I would suggest there is a spiritual analogue to this teaching, and it fits hand-in-glove to Dr. Bowen’s theory. It is this: The more spiritually mature we are, the more likely we are to perceive and act on the right course of action.
So, spiritual self-awareness as well as personal self-awareness are important components in our taking the steps that are right in the eyes of faith and of our God.
Paul almost certainly knew that, in some form or in some way. But he knew that the human condition – our tendency to act in a self-centered way, or a destructive manner – was always present. And despite our best intentions and motivations, we will fall short of perfection.
Here is what he said:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Yes, it is ultimately the grace of God which steps in. It is the grace of God which can fill-in the holes which we leave in the wake of our human imperfections.
It is the grace of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, that can take our broken, flawed, imperfect human lives and make us something that we could never be on our own.