Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An update in which there is really nothing to update

Still here.
I really could end this post with that little two-word combination.
Still here.  Still in Richmond (or more precisely, northern Chesterfield County).  Still searching.  Still playing the dating game.
It's hard to know how much movement there has been on any given front.  I have a few contacts still in what I shall call the "not dead yet" category, after Lancelot's trusty squire Concord in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie.  At the minimum I know I'm still under consideration, or in some cases have been asked for more information.  That's something.
In some cases I've been asked for more information or even had an interview via phone or Skype.  I can only speculate that in some cases, due to the time that has passed, that I've been passed over.  In some cases, perhaps not.
What is a little different from before is that I am doing a good bit of preaching.  If you actually read this blog regularly, you (1) are very rare, and (2) have probably noticed those sermons popping up each week.  I have actually had the pleasure of preaching pretty consistently out of Romans this summer.  Clearly I'm messed up in the head, but it has been a pleasure to follow out a train of thought in my preaching over several weeks, even though in some cases I've had to adapt to the fact that I've preached these sermons in different churches.  But I did take that course on Romans back in 2013 (right after surgery...painful thought, that), and I've wanted to follow up on that challenge ever since.  One preacher supposedly has said that no preacher should preach on Romans until after age fifty; well, I'm forty-nine, so close enough.
At this point most of the rest of 2014 is booked with supply-preaching engagements.  (These engagements do come with the caveat that if I need to go away for an interview/preaching engagement for a potential call they may have to be cancelled.)  This is a good thing, for the experience and for the fact that it cuts down on the time I have to brood about the ongoing call search.  After all, I am fulfilling a call, or at least part of one.  I am preaching the Word, and hopefully getting better at doing so.
What does happen in this in-between space is that I start to think.  Think about what this call might yet look like.  Nothing that I would call doubt has really crept in at this point.  But I have had to engage in a lot of wondering about my capacity for discernment.  Do I have it in me to back away from an opportunity that is not really congruent with my call?  Do I have the capacity to know when to say "no" if that's what I need to do?  Or to say "yes" if my initial reaction isn't necessarily to do so, but the call becomes clear?
How much do I give credence to opportunities that do not come in church-pastor form?  I find that I actually miss my work at the Virginia Interfaith Center last year as an intern.  Does this mean I should open up a front for searching in faith-based advocacy?  Or is my deeply-experienced call in preaching and liturgy still the more compelling and needed call to seek?  Sometimes I think too much.
In the meantime there are still other bits of writing to do, for others or for my own interest.  There are baseball parks to visit!  I managed to make trips to see minor-league games in Durham, NC (Bulls); Salem, VA (Red Sox); Norfolk, VA (Tides); and an indeterminate place in northern Virginia that hosts the Potomac Nationals.  I am still willing to seek out my moments of peace even in time of stress.
And of course there is the regular reviewing of the opportunity list, in case any new churches are seeking a minister of some sort.  I have expanded my search a bit, as there are now some associate pastor positions that seem truly general in nature, as opposed to thinly-disguised searches for a youth pastor or children's minister.  (I am happy to support those ministries to the fullest, but I am not the person you want in charge of them.)
And of course there is the very real possibility that PNCs (pastor nominating committees) actually read this blog.  I've known it to have happened at least once.  Does that make me more circumspect?  Actually, I hope not.  At this point in my life I am far too old and experienced to go trying to make myself into something I'm not in order to "get a date" with a church.  If that means my search ends up going longer than it would otherwise, well, that's probably for the best, as much as it might add stress to my life right now.
One thing I have definitely realized is that I have not kept music in my life nearly enough.  Three weeks ago I went to an evening "musicale" at a church in Richmond.  Now it might be just because Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 in E minor was on the program, but I realized that for much of the last year I had been like a starving man who had been refusing to eat.  I did have a couple of singing opportunities over this spring that I had not expected, including at Union's baccalaureate service.  But still, I just haven't been spending time listening to music, hearing music, especially feeling music on that spine-tingling mind-exploding level that I need.  Hence, during this interim time, I'm spending time to try to make up for that somehow.  Maybe I'll finally take up that exploration of Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard I've been wanting to do for three or four years.  Or something else, I don't know.  But for now, I'm dropping this blog entry and going to another concert.

It isn't completely unrelated.  Barber was Presbyterian, you know.  Sort of.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Living In the Body

August 24, 2014, Ordinary 21A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church

Living in the Body

Two years ago today I underwent a colonoscopy that led to a diagnosis of rectal cancer.  (Lest this become a point of distraction throughout the rest of the sermon, I should point out that after a year of radiation treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy, I have been “clean” for a little over a year now.)
Cancer is a bit of a headline-grabber, but I’ve also had some other maladies and physical difficulties in my lifetime.  I’m somewhat prone to kidney stones.  My right knee has not been right since my childhood.  Perhaps oddest of all is that I have, in the traditional sense of the word, no balance.  About twenty-two years ago, either due to a severe inner ear infection or a slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, I suffered damage to some key nerves in my inner ear system.  It’s complicated enough that I have trouble describing it, but the easiest way to describe the effect is to say that the signals coming from the right side say I’m moving in a straight line, but the signals from my left side tell me I’m veering left, and my brain can’t reconcile the mixed signals.  After some weeks of rehab I can get around and stay upright using mostly my eyes and my feet to keep my balance, but sometimes I have to wait a little longer when a movie is over, for the lights to come back on.
All of this is to say that I have some experience with my body not working so well.  One of the things I’ve experienced on those occasions is that when one part of the body isn’t right, it isn’t just that part of the body that is affected.  No matter how well-targeted modern chemotherapy might be, my whole body felt lousy while I was being treated with it.  And if you’ve had kidney stones before, I don’t need to tell you that your body doesn’t want anything to do with anything until that thing is gone.  For all of those strange maladies I’ve had, though, there are times when the one thing that can make my whole body want to shut down and quit more than anything else I can think of is an ingrown toenail.  That tiny, almost forgotten appendage can make me feel miserable all over when it gets uncomfortable.
It’s hard to believe that Paul didn’t know something about this when he introduced the metaphor of the church as body into his letters, including here in the twelfth chapter of Romans.  It’s a metaphor he used in more than one letter, emphasizing different aspects of its meaning in different letters to different churches.  In writing to the Corinthians, a much more fractious and troublesome congregation, Paul emphasizes the insufficiency of any one part of the body on its own, in such rhetorical questions as “If the whole body were an eye, where is the hearing?”  and facetious exaggerations such as the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:14-26]
Paul’s Roman audience, while experiencing some mistrust in its membership, isn’t nearly so difficult as the Corinth church, so Paul takes a slightly different and less drawn-out tack with his metaphor of the body.  One example is his use of “body” as a point of discussion on multiple levels.  Initially Paul addresses the individual believers in Rome with the injunction to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.  Here the focus is on individual bodies.  Each believer is charged with living – not merely thinking or believing or meditating, but physically, bodily living – in a way that the very being of each individual is worthy of the holiness of God. 
I don’t know about you, but that is a daunting ideal.  For one thing, it is far more than checking off a list of do’s and don’ts could possibly hope to accomplish.  It is living not merely good, not even merely pure.  It is living holy.  And to me that’s seriously daunting.
But Paul is not through with body metaphors.  In verses four and five Paul makes the jump from individual bodies to the collective body, sometimes known as the church – or, as it is also known, the Body of Christ.
In a short form of his longer discourse in 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces the idea that the church, as “body of Christ,” is assembled and organized in a way similar to the human body, in that each member of the body has a specific function to perform.  Just as the eye is good for seeing, and the hand for grabbing, and the lungs for breathing, so each member of the body of Christ is gifted with a particular ability or gift needed to enable the body of Christ to live.  Verses six through eight are a far from comprehensive list of the gifts individual members of the body of Christ bring to the body; ministers minster, preachers preach, givers give, compassionate people bring cheer, and so on.  Paul could have gone on much farther, and did so in letters both to Corinth and Galatia. 
But Paul also slips in another dimension of body membership, in verse 5: “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another”.  Here is that interdependence of each of us on one another writ large.  The eye may be good at seeing, the hand at grabbing, and so on, but the hand will have no luck in grabbing that coffee mug first thing in the morning if the eye doesn’t do its job in spotting it, or the legs and feet can’t get the body across the room to where that mug of coffee is waiting to be picked up and consumed.  Each part of the body has a job to do, but it can’t do that job without the help of other members of the body. 
And so it is in the body of Christ, the church.  The preacher can’t preach without a congregation.  (Or I suppose a preacher could preach without a congregation, but then people look at you funny on the street corner.)  The gifts each member brings to the body only work in cooperation with each other.  Otherwise we’re just a bunch of individual bodies, something decidedly less than a church.
But wait.  Even here Paul is pushing the metaphor just a little bit further.  We can talk about members and gifts here in our own individual church, but Paul also challenges us to think even more broadly.  The body of Christ is not limited to the members of Meherrin Presbyterian Church, or of First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where I come from, or any one individual church.  The body of Christ is all of us churches, all together. 
Now to me, this is where things get really complicated.  There are churches out there that, frankly, do things I find appalling.  There are Christians out there, fellow members of the body of Christ, that make me frankly want to go and hide when they start flapping their gums in dishonest or hateful ways.  And yet, and yet, and yet “we, who are many, are one body in Christ”, and Paul doesn’t seem to have any “out” for us here.  The body of Christ has members in Israel and in Gaza.  The body of Christ has members in Ukraine and in Russia.  The body of Christ has members in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the St. Louis County Police Department (as much as my mind cannot comprehend this).
How does this happen, if we are all one body?  How do we end up so far apart, so willing to oppress, so at each other’s throats?
Part of the answer is in verse three, I think.  Paul, in what is an easy part of the passage to miss, instructs his readers “not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” in accordance with what faith God has assigned to us.  Here is where things get rather self-indicting.  My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others.  Each one of you might come with a similar or different set of “gifts” that could, if not careful, become an excuse to “think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think”.  Rather than to exalt ourselves and our attributes too much, our task is to “think with sober judgment” in seeing what gifts we bring to the Body, and what gifts we rely upon others to bring, and what gifts we need others and their gifts to help us bring to the Body. 
To be clear, “sober judgment” is not an excuse to think too little of ourselves either.  It is not our place to belittle the gifts we are given or to claim that they are somehow not important to the Body.  Sometimes “sober judgment” means stepping forward when nobody is expecting us to do so, and bringing our gifts to the Body that perhaps no one else has seen in us.  It might sometimes mean that we step back and let another take up a task that matches to their gifts more readily than ours. 
Whatever it means, it is a daunting task.  Perhaps even an impossible task, unless we have taken the command in verse two to heart.
Our first call is nothing less than to “be transformed”.  And not just any old kind of transformation.  Be very clear here; our call is to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. 
Our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Meherrin or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation.  Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8. 
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind cannot do.  A renewed mind cannot live in fear.  It certainly cannot wallow in the fear and suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us.  A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts.  A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods.  A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed, the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them. 
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do.  Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “  It doesn’t happen of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves.  Only in turning away from our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God.  We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 
And then, only then, do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ.  Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church’s One Foundation (PH442)
Take My Life and Let It Be (PH341)
Blest Be the Tie That Binds (PH438)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Messengers

August 10, 2014
Ordinary 19A
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church


How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn.  It’s from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul.  Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version serves as a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately.  Even so, the original German text here has nothing about “feet” in it, which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literalist about such things.
The verse that Mendelssohn appropriates here, and which appears in today’s reading, is dropped into the oratorio after the dramatic moment in which Barnabas and Paul are set apart – by the Holy Ghost, no less – for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  It is of course a key moment in Paul’s career, as the book of Acts describes it, and even if this verse is pulled in from Romans, it does serve well its dramatic purpose. 
Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7.  In that context the statement is elaborated a bit:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation. 
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace.
Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time.  Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.”  From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent?  It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion.  It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.
Of course it isn’t all peaches and cream.  Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent.  He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1] 
It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state).  The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]

Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.”  Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as citizens from many other parts of the Roman Empire.  Still, he grieved over the rejection by Israel of the Messiah, one of their own.
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace
As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here.  Many of those churches who use this passage expect that, once this new pastor is ordained and installed, he or she will then take care of all the proclamation duties, allowing them to sit back and, well, be off the hook from that scary and maybe embarrassing business of (shudder) talking about religion.  It’s scary because people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us.  We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore.  It’s embarrassing because we live in a world, and in an American society in particular, which has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”  Just this week the rather infamous neo-Calvinist preacher Mark Driscoll was asked to step aside from the leadership of Acts 29 Ministries, an organization that he founded, because his association was bringing disrepute upon the organization due to his own errors in behavior and preaching.  To be honest, it’s perfectly fair to be reluctant to be seen in such a light.
And yet the messengers are still needed.  And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.
We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines this week as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa.  Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with no known cure.[1]  Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly has become an object of derision for certain American commentators, who apparently believe it’s his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and not put himself in danger.  But even a physician can bring a message of peace.
We might look at the people of Grace Presbyterian Church, in El Paso, Texas.  As thousands of refugees fleeing violence and murder in Central America – some children with parents, many children alone – the members of Grace Presbyterian were challenged by their pastor to step up and help provide for the needs of those detainees being redirected from south Texas to other locations due to the overwhelming numbers and lack of facilities.  The Grace Church members, working with a local shelter and a Catholic charitable group, began to take on the task of feeding, gathering donations, assisting at shelters, and perhaps most remarkably, listening to the stories of horror and deprivation the refugees had experienced.  After not only their travails in fleeing from the violence in their home countries but the spartan and difficult conditions of makeshift processing centers set up by US Customs and Immigration, the refugees were at first confused by the hospitality shown them by the El Paso churches and groups.  “Here you were good to us,” some of the refugees said, remembering the concrete floors in the detention centers in south Texas.  “Why did you care so much about making us feel safe?”   
It might be easy to imagine that Grace Presbyterian is some kind of large, well-staffed, and financially secure church to be able to take on a task such as this.  On the contrary, three years ago there was no Grace Presbyterian Church; it was instead three separate churches, each on the brink of collapse, who merged with each other despite their differences for the sake of survival.[2]  Even a shaky, querulous church can be full of messengers, bringing the gospel of peace to a group of refugees who had known nothing but violence and fear.
We can look to some of our own.  Many of you might have heard Ruth Brown describe her experiences working in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.  Our congregation also supports educators, like Jeff and Christi Boyd in the DRC, Grace Yeuell working with US military bases in Germany, or Richard Hamm at a university and seminary in Korea.  We might see those names on the back of the bulletin every Sunday.  Messengers, bringing a gospel of peace.
We might look at each other.  Whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of CARITAS, or helping maintain a community garden on the grounds of the church.  For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking.  Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”; “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10”; and then those feet, those beautiful feet in verse 15.  Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe.  Our witness is embodied.  We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do.  The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the cold or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus name.  Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it. 
The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ.  Our witness in staying together, being not merely in our neighborhood but being part of it, our welcome to those that others, even other churches, declare unwelcome – this is a gospel of peace.  To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us – not just the preachers, is not optional; it is inevitable. 
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace,
The gospel of peace.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" (311)
"Take My Life and Let It Be" (697)
"How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord" (432)

[1]Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” (Accessed August 8, 2014)
[2] “Grace for Refugees from Central America,” (Accessed August 8, 2014).

NOTE: In case you're not familiar with it, the Mendelssohn chorus can be heard here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A modest theological-grammar proposal

In light of certain directions public discourse has taken in the last, say, year or so, I am compelled to put forward, in the tiny sphere of influence this blog may have if any, a modest proposal for the church and those who are part of it, in order to be more accurate and precise in our witness to the world.

I propose that the use of the word "Christian" as an adjective be abolished.

I don't claim to be original here.  Lots of people, some of them famous, struggle with that word and the baggage it has acquired these days.  But what I am after is not exactly that kind of thing; rather, I hope that what I am suggesting serves not as a rejection or a complaint, but a self-check on anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.

Therefore my aim is not a wholesale abolition of the word "Christian."  I'm sure somebody could come up with a proper noun that would theoretically replace "Christian" for those who are put off by the cultural baggage.  That person, however, is not me.

No, my aim is to provide (hopefully) a moment of pause and reflection when any of us are tempted to describe or label anything with the adjective "Christian" for any reason.

My proposal is this: when tempted to use the word "Christian" in such a fashion, stop and substitute the world "Christlike."  (Or "Christ-like," if you're into hyphens.  I believe Calvin would call that "nonessential.")

Let's play this out with some examples:

"Christian Education," the staple of the church, most easily associated for many with the old staple "Sunday School."  Would it make sense to call it "Christlike Education"?  Well, what would we mean by "Christlike"?  What does Christ do in the gospels?  Healing, comforting, teaching, praying, enjoying fellowship, freaking out and flipping tables...well, they are all there at one point or another, but use your mental gospel Rolodex (or better yet, read some gospels) and get a grasp on, well, on what Christ was like.  If your church's education program can somehow be understood as acting or working in a way that Christ would act or work, then go with it.  If not, maybe it needs some work.

"Christian corporation, or Christian business."  Ah, the headline bugaboo so in vogue these days, that our courts seem incapable of addressing properly.  Now here, I believe, the trick is not to get sidetracked by interesting but essentially distracting points.  The degree to which a corporation can be said to be a person (courts notwithstanding) or to be "religious" are what seem to get most of the ink these days.  But if we ask if, say, that craft shop with the tchotchkes and baubles sometimes possibly made by Chinese slave labor can reasonably be construed as being Christlike, perhaps we'd be talked down off that ledge.  Make similar application as you choose to the folks with the cows and the chicken sandwiches, or the yogurt shops, or what have you.

Richmonders will recognize this one, if nobody else does.

Again, the point is to consider the business itself and whether it can somehow be understood as Christlike, not whether the young woman at the counter tells you to have a blessed day or that Jesus loves you unless you use birth control.  Ideally, this little self-check might be a way to help us discern whether people are wanting to use the adjective "Christian" as an accurate and genuine description of the business in question, or whether the term is simply being used to draw lines and let some people in and keep others out of the "in group."

"Christian music."  Hoo, boy.  Speaking of the "in group"... .  Here things get confusing because there are multiple terms that float around.  "Sacred music" and "church music" are terms that have been around for centuries, but these terms point not only to subject matter but frequently to function; specifically, use within Christian worship.  As such these can be large and unwieldy terms, encompassing both a Bach cantata and "There is a fountain filled with blood" (It's possible I have repressed trauma based on frequent singing of this hymn as a child.  I'm not entirely sure I'm joking.).

The use most commonly implied here is for a genre of music, originating around the 1960s or early 1970s, in which Christian themes were adapted to popular music of the day.  Mind you, "Christian music" (with its fellow-traveler terms "Christian rock," "contemporary Christian music," "Jesus music," and a few others) often lagged behind the popular idiom in style, but you get the point.  A later (to me; others may disagree with my timeline) development is the appearance of such idioms known by names like "praise and worship music" (or perhaps named after particular centers of production of such music; say, "Hillsong music"), in which the point was to wed the music to particular styles or patterns of worship designed around and to accommodate the music in question.  This is not to say that plenty of Christian rock didn't end up in worship services; it is to point out that in many cases that was not the intent for which it was created, much as gospel and revival hymn composers such as Homer Rodeheaver pointed out that their songs were meant for Sunday school or revival meetings instead of straightforward worship services.  (Mind you, Rodeheaver didn't ask for what use you were buying his songbooks before he sold them to you.)

The dangerous part here is that it is nigh impossible to escape questions of artistic quality in determining whether the term "Christlike" can possibly be included here; we are forced to participate in questions such as "can anything as derivative and uncreative as (insert song here) possibly be Christlike?"  And this is a question that can quickly run amuck across genres, but remembering that terms such as "sacred music" are about functionality as much as practice, the question is thus limited to genres that operate under the term "Christian."  The aforementioned question about "Christian" being used as a label for including and excluding ends up being a major part of the equation here, I think; "Christian music" too easily becomes a way of denoting "our music," as in "not your music."  Then the music becomes part of an identity that, in a quite worldly way, is exclusive rather than inclusive, or perhaps inclusive in the insidious way that lets you in as long as you become Just Like Us.  I'll let you work out your opinion from there.

"Christian movies." I've generally not seen them, at least not since The Cross and The Switchblade, so I'll let others discuss if they so choose.

Make of this what you will.  It's not as if I expect the media to add this to their style books, but I offer this as a means for Christians to grapple with the experience of having the name historically applied to the faith being increasingly used as a cudgel for the bashing (or worse, outright oppressing) of others or even of other Christians who are somehow judged to be insufficiently "Christian."  My only intent is to induce a bit of thinking about what the terms we use actually mean, and whether those words are actually of any use to us with those meanings attached.  If the adjective "Christian" is merely a way of describing things or entities affiliated with or used by a particular and exclusive subset of the church, perhaps the term is useless after all.

I'm just trying to light a match in a fog of words.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Too Deep For Words

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
July 27, 2014
Ordinary 17A

Too Deep For Words

What do you do when you hear music without words?
Maybe you’re the particularly blessed type, who can simply listen and let the music take its course through your soul.
Probably, though (if you’re like most people), you try, consciously or not, to “fill in the blank.”
Your mind starts to create a story to go with the music.  Or perhaps it begins to invent a poem, in which the words fit to the tune you hear.  Or possibly, if you’re a more visual type, your mind begins to imagine a picture or scene that plays out as the music moves along, with scene as illustration of music or maybe vice versa.
Either way, we modern-day humans have a sharply defined inability (or most of us do, anyway) to let the music simply be music.  We somehow develop the idea, perhaps unspoken but no less powerful, that the music has to mean something, something that we can somehow encapsulate in words or maybe in pictures.
Felix Mendelssohn begs to differ with you.

Some very specific ideas on music and words

Mendelssohn was of course one of the outstanding composers of the nineteenth century.  What you’re hearing is by him, an example of a “Song without words,” a piano work that was something of a specialty of his.  As you can hear, in many ways it sounds like a song you might expect to hear someone sing; it only lacks words, and a singer to sing them. 
Mendelssohn wrote at least four dozen such “songs without words” in his brief lifetime.  A few of them have descriptive labels attached to them; for example, some are labeled as “Venetian gondola songs” because they so strongly resemble the songs sung by the gondola drivers in the canals of Venice.  Most of them have no title, as Mendelssohn so presented them.  A few were given labels after their publication, in some cases even after Mendelssohn’s death, by editors or critics or others who felt that the music had to mean something, something that could be captured in words. (In fact, some editor decided that the piece you've just heard needed the title "Belief.")
In a letter to a former student Mendelssohn very specifically denied this.  As he put it, he believed that words were insufficient to the task of capturing what music meant: to him, words many or few were “so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music, which fills the soul with a thousand better things than words.”  He continued, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…this, however, is not your fault, but the fault of words, which cannot do better… .”
I can’t help but suspect that the Apostle Paul (who was, coincidentally, the subject of one of Mendelssohn’s oratorios) might have at least nodded knowingly at this idea that Mendelssohn expresses here.  At the very least he might have acknowledged that Mendelssohn’s idea that the music he loved was “too definite” for words sounded a lot like what Paul himself writes here in verse 26 of this eighth chapter of Romans:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (NRSV)

I admit that phrase – “sighs too deep for words” has haunted me most of my life, probably since some sermon I heard as a child.  Back then I wondered what that could possibly mean; being a wordy little kid I couldn’t really imagine how something could be “too deep for words.”  If you couldn’t say it, how could it be real?
I’ve grown up since then and I have at least some small idea of just how silly that childish thought was, even before I ever read Mendelssohn’s own description of his view of music.  Oftentimes this sense, this deep-rooted wordless sighing has been a part of my life in times of trouble; the death of my mother, later the death of one of my sisters, or my own diagnosis of cancer just a couple of years ago.  Occasionally it has been experienced in more joyful times; our wedding day, for example, or a particularly profound musical experience.  Sometimes it has come in moments of struggle or uncertainty; the period of time when I was considering giving up the teaching career I loved to jump off the cliff into seminary stands out there.
Only this week the experience was visited upon me again.  Word came that a former seminary classmate, a woman a few years older than I who had started at Union the year after I did, had been moved into hospice care.  After her first year of school she had gone for an exam for persistent headaches, an exam which revealed tumors on her brain.  She returned home for treatment, but nothing was able to turn back the destructiveness of the cancer. 
Indeed, sighs too deep for words.  Even when my soul tried to fit words into my feelings, their insufficiency and inferiority became painfully clear.  Why does this happen?  Why did I get cancer that I could survive, and she didn’t?  The words collapse on their own uselessness.  Sighs too deep for words.
I suspect you can search your own lives for times when you’ve known that experience of sorrow, or joy, or struggle, or uncertainty, or relief for which words could not be found or did not even exist.  It’s one thing to know the experience of that kind of experience, one “beyond words.”
But it’s a whole other thought to know that the Holy Spirit does that for us. 
For indeed that is what Paul tells us right here in verse 26: “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  When we cannot find the words to pray rightly, whether in our joy or sorrow or need, it isn’t that the Spirit gives us words to say.  No, it is that the Spirit steps in for us with its own wordless, unspeakable sighing. 
Just a few verses earlier, starting in verse 22, Paul writes of all of creation “groaning in labor pains” and not only creation, but we ourselves, “groan inwardly” while we wait for the adoption God has promised to each of us, of which Paul spoke in verse 15.  Paul has also already spoken of the Spirit bearing witness with us, in our times of crying out to God, even as simple a cry as “Abba! Father!  In our unfinished spiritual state, when we cry out for we know not what or even when we cannot cry out, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate Jesus promised us to send after he was gone, is at work in us and with us and for us, bringing our petitions before God even when we cannot rightly articulate them or even know what they are. 
And it is from this knowledge, this promise of a Spirit that intercedes for us beyond our capacity to know or understand, that Paul can exult throughout the rest of this chapter in the unspeakable love of God.  The God whose Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words is the God who pulls all that happens to us into working together for our good, not eliminating suffering or pain from our lives but blessing and sustaining us through the suffering and pain; this is the God who created us and made us to be part of the family of God, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, brothers and sisters in a great unbounded worldwide family; this is the God who, even though we could be charged with all of the corruption and weakness sin can muster, instead intercedes for us, not even withholding God’s own Son, that we would be reconciled and restored; this is the God who justifies, who saves, who redeems and restores; this is the God who loved us and loves us and will love us so profoundly and so unspeakably that Paul can practically sing out in joy that nothing – not death or life or angels or rulers or dark powers, nothing can separate us from that love.  God meets our sighs too deep for words with love too deep for words.
For that, dear brothers and sisters, even though the words themselves are painfully insufficient, let us never fail to say, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 Hymns (all PH ’90): #485 To God Be the Glory, #160 As Morning Dawns, #366 Jesus, Thy Boundless Love To Me

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sermon: Family Resemblance

July 20, 2014
Ordinary 16A
Romans 8:12-25

Family Resemblance

I’ve been married to my wife for a little more than twenty years now.  Occasionally during those years of marriage I’ve been present when she sees relatives, family friends, old teachers, or others whom she hasn’t seen in many years.  One thing that happens frequently in those reunion situations is that someone is very likely to make a remark about how much my wife looks like her mother. 
We’re accustomed to looking for family resemblance of some sort.  Whether it is in a child, newborn or adult, in whose face we see the features of mother or father; or the grandmother who sees in a grandchild’s tantrums or misbehaviors the very same tantrums or misbehaviors the child’s mother – her own daughter – threw when she was a child; or perhaps more unfortunately, the grown son who falls into the same destructive patters of behavior that brought his “old man” down.
In the case of my wife’s resemblance to her mother, though, it’s always a little bit difficult to stifle a chuckle when some aunt or uncle says to her that she looks just like her mother.  You see, my wife was adopted.  The arrangements were made well before she was born, and – after an extended stay in the hospital due to premature birth – she went home with her parents, parents who would adopt another daughter about three years later.
You would never know this, though, just by observing the family.  There is no sense in which the way my wife interacts with her parents gives away any lack of blood relationship.  They love her, and she loves them, in ways you would never be able to distinguish from those of a “natural” daughter and parents.  They are, simply put, a family, and blood relationship or lack thereof simply don’t matter.
To think about adoption, as we know it today, might be just the thing to help us get into Paul’s instruction here in the eighth chapter of Romans.  For one thing, adoption was not an uncommon practice in Paul’s time, particularly in the city of Rome, the location of the church Paul was addressing in this letter.  Now adoption didn’t work exactly the same way in Rome as it does here and now, but there is an important similarity; one who was adopted into a family gained the right of some part of the inheritance of that family.  To be adopted did not signify any kind of lesser status; all of the benefits of being a son in a Roman family were extended to adopted sons every bit as much as to natural sons. 
Thus, for Paul to write in verse fifteen that we have not received a “spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear,” but a “spirit of adoption,” is extremely important, and would have carried a world of meaning to Paul’s readers that we need to understand ourselves as well.  Paul of course is writing to a church in Rome that contains both male and female members.  Given this diversity in the church, it might seem odd that in verse fourteen, Paul uses rather different language that doesn’t really reflect the makeup of his addressees.  Unlike other verses, which use a Greek noun that refers to “children” both male and female, Paul here really writes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” What’s going on here?  Are the women being left out?  Did Paul revert to sexism?
As Paul might say, “by no means!” Here Paul is making use of his readers’ understanding of adoption and family ties.  Both natural and adopted sons received part of the inheritance of the family, but daughters typically were married off, and their lot was cast with the family into which they married.  So, by Paul referring to “sons” in verse fourteen, he is emphasizing the degree to which all of his readers, and all of us – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – participate in God’s inheritance.  We are all part of God’s family, which is deliverance from the sin that bound us before receiving “adoption” into God’s family.
Now all of this sounds just wonderful, happy, and blissful…until we get to verse seventeen.
Paul continues from where we left off back in verse fifteen, pointing out that our very crying out to God is the very same Spirit bearing witness to us that we are indeed children of God – and here Paul uses that noun for “children” that includes both sons and daughters – and goes on to say that if we are children of God, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ … “if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Huh?  What’s the deal with suffering?  Nobody told me anything about suffering?  Nobody said you had to suffer to be adopted, did they?  Maybe we feel like we don’t understand what Paul’s talking about here.
Except…when we think about it, we really do understand what Paul’s talking about here.  To be adopted into a family means that the child shares in everything that family has.  The inheritance, yes.  The joys that the family experiences, of course.  But also the sorrows, the struggles, the failures, the setbacks and discouragements and sufferings.  When my wife’s grandmothers died, several years apart, it was no comfort to her to think that she was adopted, not really “born into” this family.  The grief and pain was every bit as real, as painful, as if she were their “natural” granddaughter.  She was spared no suffering for having been an adopted child. 
And so it is to be adopted into God’s family.  The difference, though, is that the scope of “family” here is an awful lot broader than we might be accustomed to thinking.  The “family of God” does not stop at the walls of this church.  It does not stop on this side of town, or at the borders of our state or even our country.  And when any part of God’s grand worldwide adoptive family suffers, we suffer.
When rockets fall from the sky and destroy homes and villages, we suffer, even if it’s not our country.  When children flee from murderous drug gangs, we suffer, even if they’re not our children.  When fifty murders happen in one weekend in one city, we suffer, even if it’s not our city.  If we have truly received that “spirit of adoption,” if we are truly and fully among the children of God, we suffer when any part of God’s family suffers.  We don’t smell the stink of the bombs, we don’t feel the heat and thirst of the desert or hear the whizzing of bullets, but we suffer because God’s children are suffering.  When any part of our family suffers, we all feel pain.  That’s how families are.  We feel pain when any of God’s children suffer, if we really are part of God’s family. 
As if that weren’t enough, Paul goes even further starting in verse nineteen.  After talking about children and heirs and joint-heirs, suddenly Paul shifts gears and begins to speak of creation.  Now it is creation that has suffered bondage, creation that was “subjected to futility” as Paul puts it.  All of God’s good creation lives in anticipation, “groaning in labor pains.”  Indeed our family-of-God-ness is bound up not just in other people, but all of creation as well; when any part of creation suffers, we suffer, if we really are part of the family of God.  Creation suffers disasters both “natural” and man-made.  When hurricanes slam into populated places, we suffer.  When earthquakes shatter whole towns or cities, we suffer.  But also, when earth is abused, when air is polluted, when rivers are poisoned, mountaintops demolished, seas become dumping grounds, we suffer with God’s creation.  God’s “family” is really a lot more expansive than we expect. 
Well, this took a turn for the worse, didn’t it?  All of that might just make us a little more cautious about singing that old song, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.”  Finally, though, Paul comes to the climax of his mini-argument here.  All of this talk of adoption and inheritance and family and suffering, for Paul, boils down to the indispensible fact of our hope in God. 
All that has come before points us to the very thing that allows us to find ourselves in the “spirit of adoption,” and to bear the suffering that God’s family suffers.  Because the good news, the gospel that is Jesus Christ, has already been proclaimed, already delivered to the world, we are able to live into our adoption, to live like a child of God, an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ.  Because of that gospel, we can live in a world of suffering, and feel suffering because others suffer, bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s sorrows, without losing hope.  We can know the pain of the world without despairing. 
Hope is, of course, a very tricky thing to experience.  As Paul points out, hope is all about what we can’t see.  It would sound very silly if a child woke up on a Christmas morning and ran to the living room to see a shiny new bicycle parked beside the Christmas tree, only to continue moping around the house saying, “gee, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.”  Hope is about what we don’t see yet.  Hope is about the anticipation of what is to come, the joy not yet fulfilled but still to be fulfilled.  We with all creation “groan inwardly” while we wait for the redemption that is, right now, our hope. 
Paul lives throughout this letter in the tension between what is now and what is not yet, between what we know and what we wait for.  No one has to tell us that our physical lives are not yet redeemed.  We still get fat, still get old, still get cancer.  The world still spins out hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes.  Children still get killed, rockets and bombs still fall. 
And yet… .
We know the salvation of God.  We know ourselves to be adopted into God’s family.  It is not easy to wait with patience, as Paul prescribes.  And yet it is the very hope we have that allows us to wait with patience.  We don’t know when or for how long, nor can we really know what “redemption” looks like, if we’re at all honest with ourselves.  And yet, the hope is part of that inheritance, a share of which is ours by adoption into the family of God.

And the more we live into that hope, the more we live into that adoption, the more we know our family to be vast and unbounded, the more we know that we are all together bound up with one another and with all of creation, the more we pull ourselves away from the things that bring suffering to others…the more we start to look a little, just a very little, like our adoptive Brother in God.  The more we manage to be not merely “Christian” but more “Christ-like,” the more we live into our inheritance of hope,…then the more we finally, even as adoptive children of God, start to take on just a little of that family resemblance.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon: Living Right But Getting It Wrong

I went back and forth a bit about posting this sermon.  It is a bit "wonky" theologically in spots, and I feel like part of it goes out on a limb a bit as well.  But it seemed to connect with the congregation, and then today has felt as if I've seen or heard about fifteen news stories or anecdotes in which people or groups do the very thing identified in the latter half of the sermon as a rather poor tendency for Christians to fall into.  So, here it is, for what it's worth.

Meherren Presbyterian Church
July 6, 2014 Ordinary 14A
Charles S. Freeman

Living Right But Getting It Wrong

For many years scholars, pastors, and all manner of Christians have agreed that one of the most difficult books of the New Testament (aside from Revelation, perhaps) is Paul’s extensive, complicated, and downright thorny letter to the church at Rome.  The last letter Paul wrote, Romans is set apart from its fellow Pauline letters by its lateness and by the fact that unlike the other letters that can be attributed to Paul with certainty, Romans is not written to a church that Paul had founded; in fact, aside from a few individuals mostly mentioned in the book’s last chapter, Paul did not even know most of those who belonged to the community of Christ-followers in Rome.
As a result, while Paul’s other letters speak to a specific condition or event in the churches to which Paul wrote, Romans has no such focus; rather, it is a theological résumé in letter form.  Because of Paul’s ambitious plans to travel even further west, and because of his desire to stop in Rome on the way to Spain (a journey he was never able to make) and to be supported by the Romans on that journey, Paul needed to introduce himself to the community there.  Just because Paul had never been to Rome, however, did not mean that his reputation did not precede him; therefore, it was also necessary to provide a context and a summary for the ministry and teaching he had carried out thus far.  For once, Paul needed to put forth at least a somewhat coherent explanation of his theology, instead of responding to particular problems in Corinth or explaining points to the church in Philippi.  Romans is, in the end, the closest thing we have to a complete or even mostly complete summation of Paul’s theology, his understanding of such things as the nature of Christ or of sin or other things we would call “doctrine.”
The letter to the Romans is quite wide-ranging, walking his readers through no less than the nature of sin, the goodness and yet insufficiency of the law in the face of sin, the necessity of salvation from God through grace, and the role of the Hebrew or Jewish people in this everlasting and ongoing process.  It is as if John Calvin had written something like his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion as a means of introducing himself to a church in a city he had not visited yet.
A pastor does not ordinarily want to start a sermon with such a long background passage, but in this case it is vitally important to understand where this letter is coming from before delving into the passage before us today.  In dropping into the seventh chapter of Romans we are entering into the book at the very heart of Paul’s argument, the core of his theological understanding.  And it is extremely important to remember this as we begin to unfold this understanding, as Paul seeks to explain no less than the nature and relationship of sin, law, and grace.

The seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers.  Had Paul submitted it as a writing assignment in a composition class, I fear that it would have been returned with numerous red marks, questions, and corrections about carelessly changing the tense and person of his account.  Nonetheless, as twisty a piece of writing as the chapter offers, it marks a key moment in revealing how Paul understood the whole business of sin and redemption, while also both upholding the Torah, or Jewish law (we know it as the first five books of the Old Testament) and insisting on its inability to bring salvation to humanity.
Our beginning point today is the thirteenth verse, which serves both as the end of one part of Paul’s argument and the beginning of the next part.  In fact verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by a favorite exclamation of Paul’s, translated here “by no means!” which today might be expressed as “no way!” or possibly something stronger), but the law is the means by which sin is made known to us.  In verse 13 Paul strengthens the argument by observing that the power of sin actually made use of the law – and the law is a good thing, remember – in order to bind the individual to sin.
Now we need to talk about sin for a moment here, which is not a popular thing to do, I realize.  But what we modern Christians tend to think of when we speak of “sin” is often quite a different thing from what Paul is talking about.  We might speak of “sins,” or perhaps of “a sin” as being the problem.  Paul is not particularly speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit.  These may well be symptoms or even consequences of what Paul describes, but the apostle has in mind something much larger.  Paul wants his Roman readers to understand sin, in the words of Ted A. Smith of Vanderbilt Divinity School, as “an active, aggressive power that seizes hold of God’s good gifts – like the law – and bends them towards death.”  John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” – the utter inability of the human to transcend sin on his or her own – comes close to expressing this idea.  Sin certainly causes us to commit sins, but it is a far more powerful and oppressive thing than any individual act.  We are born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it.
With this understanding of sin in mind, the extended and convoluted passage from verses 14-20 unfolds differently, or perhaps more expansively, than we are perhaps accustomed to understanding.  Paul’s slip into first-person – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – tends to nudge us into reading the passage as a lament on Paul’s inability to live up to the law, always falling short and doing in the end what he hates. 
This is a strange reading, though when one remembers the other letters Paul has written before.  In both the letters to the Galatians and the Philippians, Paul is quite insistent on his success in keeping the law.  Galatians 1:14 finds him claiming that “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  Philippians 3:4-6 finds even more striking claims Paul makes on his own behalf: “If anyone else has reason to be confident … I have more …. As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  This doesn’t sound a lot like the stammering of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”  Remember how we are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament?  Back in the book of Acts we meet him, still called by his birth name Saul, at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of those doing the stoning and approving of the deed.  We catch up with him again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” and zealously persecuting those who had taken up with the new sect.  Saul didn’t do these things because he was a wild man bent on violence and destruction; he persecuted Christians because of his zeal to follow the Law.  Paul, writing to the Romans, no doubt remembered Saul the zealous and blameless follower of the law and what came of his rigorous adherence to the law.  Paul knew that even the one who followed the law ended up in the power of sin. 
That is our condition, absent the action of God. 
Even as much as Paul describes his “delight” in the law, he knows sin is close at hand ready to twist and distort that love of the law into something evil.  If even the law can be twisted and misused so powerfully, we indeed can understand Paul’s lament in verse 24 – who can rescue us, indeed?  And yet the very next words from Paul’s pen point to the answer – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 
We cannot deliver ourselves from sin.  This is done for us.  We are delivered from that bondage to sin in the dramatic cosmic intervention that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  As Ted Smith of Vanderbilt puts it, “God does not just give us individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not.  In Jesus Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life, and life abundant.” 
And yet, we humans – particularly we Christians – are prone, and even eager, to bind ourselves and others to some kind of  law again.  Perhaps it is biblical law.  Maybe we are prone to pull out the Torah – or particular, individual verses from the Torah – to use as weapons against those we want to keep out, while conveniently ignoring those individual verses from the Torah that might indict or inconvenience us more directly.  Or perhaps it is more a law of our own making that appeals to us.  Maybe we want to judge our own righteousness by how often we’re at church, or how much scripture we have memorized.  As we come to the end of a full weekend’s worth of Independence Day celebration, maybe we might recognize that we sometimes let the law of the land, or the rules of “patriotism,” or some other kind of secular guidelines infiltrate our thought and become a law that we use to promote our own righteousness and diminish others who are not like us.
All of those “laws,” wherever they may originate or however they may infiltrate our minds, are as powerless against sin, and every bit as twistable by sin, as the good Torah that Paul describes.  Anything less than whole-hearted, abject surrender to the grace of God is so powerless and twistable.
We are powerless to resist sin on our own.  We don’t like to hear this; we who have been raised in a culture of independence and “rugged individualism” aren’t keen to hear that we can’t do … well, anything.  We are confident in our own power to “get out of” whatever condition might bind us.  We are not unlike the mathematician John Nash, as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, who claims he can use his own analytical skills to set himself free from his mental illness, even though his doctor warns him that the mind on which he relies for analysis is the very source of his illness.  We are so often incapable of accepting what some preacher (or worse yet, some guy who’s still trying to become a preacher) says when we know we can “do better” on our own.
And yet Paul is laying before us here the utter futility of any such claim.  Our own efforts to live up to any standard – be it the Torah or anything of our own devising – will not deliver us from the sinful state in which we are all mired except for God’s divine rescue. 
We have trouble understanding this because, well, when we look around the world doesn’t really look redeemed.  Maybe we don’t really feel redeemed.  And certainly we are not yet at that point where we will fully know what it is to be redeemed by the action of Jesus Christ.  But that is our place; that is the door that has been opened to us.  Even so, even though we don’t really feel it, the promise that follows directly after this passage – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is our hope, not just for the future but even for the present.  The way to life is open. 
It is a radical thing to trust, especially in that which we cannot see.  It’s a lot easier to rely on “law” or “rules” than to live relying only on the redemptive love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And yet this is our only “escape”; only in this redemption done for us by God through Jesus Christ does our life here on earth have any chance to be anything other than the same old quagmire of sin and despair that we were born into. 
Wretched people that we are, who will rescue us from this mire of sin?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.  No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God.

Hymns (all from PH ’90): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (356), Jesus, Lover of My Soul (303), Just As I Am, Without One Plea (370)