“The Power of Sin”
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on July 9, 2017
Texts: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
July 9, 2017—Proper 9A
Perhaps you have seen the t-shirt or coffee mug that admits: “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Because, yeah, for most of us, that would be a sizeable step up the ladder of lovability and general awesomeness. You’re not alone in this wish; St. Paul, apparently, feels your pain. I am not the person I wish I were, he laments. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t do it. In fact, I do the exact opposite! “I do the very thing I hate.”
I am quite definitely not the person my dog thinks I am.
To be honest, we’re not always as self-aware as Paul about this fact. Which means that sometimes we’re not even the person WE think we are. I heard a bit recently from a school for umpires, where there was a big group of trainees practicing their “Steeerike”s and their “Yer out!”s. Imagine that. And then make sure you have all your life’s experience watching umpires make calls, and keep it close at hand when you hear them asked how they would rate the accuracy of their judgments. So that when you hear that they believe they’re right 98-99% of the time, you can be crystal clear about their level of self-delusion.
They are, of course, deluded. But then again, we can all be a bit self-deluded. We are overly sure about the accuracy of our judgments, our memory, our assessment of any given situation. And on top of that, because we have such a complete picture of our own motivations, our actions are so much more understandable and forgiveable than others.’
Which means we aren’t always the person we think we are. Not really. Which sounds bad, but is in fact just a slightly more clueless version of the problem Paul was talking about: we aren’t the person we wish we were. Why not? Because we are human, and therefore fallible. But more than that, and this is Paul’s main point here, because sin is incredibly powerful.
Sin, it turns out, is more powerful than we are. This force that warps and destroys, that cuts us off from God and each other, it is more powerful than our best intentions. More powerful than our most sincere resolutions. Sometimes, yes, we will win a skirmish. But other times, not so much. Sin is powerful, and you will not manage to fend it off all by yourself!
If that seems insulting, it might help to hear Paul argue that Sin is even more powerful than the Law. That’s his point here: not that the Law is bad or evil or should be abandoned, but that even something as good and God-given and strong as the Law can be perverted and warped by Sin. Sin can not only conquer when an individual decides to ignore one of the Commandments, it can also warp the hearts and minds of those who eat, drink and breathe the law. Sin can wrack us with guilt about our failings. Sin can turn our hearts to stony judgment of those who break our favorite commandments. Sin can lead us to the idolatry of believing that our salvation lies in our own hands.
Even the Law, Paul insists, is not proof against Sin. Because Sin is powerful, and it will find a way to work itself in, so that even our best of intentions can be thwarted, or have unexpected consequences. Sin is powerful. If it weren’t, then the Law would be enough. As it is, our only hope is to fall at the feet of God; our only hope is to throw ourselves into the boundless depths of the Grace of God. We must relinquish this false belief that we’re supposed to rely on our own power and ability, because our power and abilities will fail. Because Sin is powerful. Which is why God offers this chance to surrender the burden, the burden of our Can-Do, Must-Do attitude, and trust instead in the power of Jesus.
So that he can bear us up. So that he can walk beside us. So that we are yoked together, and Jesus can help us carry the load, and keep the furrow straight, and remind us that the harvest we’re tending and nurturing and feeding is nothing less than all the children of God.
We would all take that choice, right? Except maybe we wouldn’t. We were given the Law, Jesus reminds us, and we complained that it was too difficult, too rigid, too zealous. So we were given Grace, and we complained that it was too easy, too lax, too offensive to our sense of justice and morality. It’s perhaps the Goldilocks syndrome, in which we are looking for a religious system that feels “just right” (preferably one that matches up to whatever we felt like doing in the first place).
Sometimes there’s no pleasing us. Sometimes we want it just right, we want it OUR way, or we don’t want it at all. Any of you ever get that way? In your personal life? With your political opinions and goals? In your relationship with God?
Me too. And hey, every once in a while, that system seems to work out for us: we find that perfect bowl of porridge, or chair, or bed and we get to eat it, sit in it, sleep on it. Yahtzee! Then again, Goldilocks stole the food, broke the chair, and was scared out of her wits by the justifiably angry bears when they came home, so let’s just say the tale is cautionary at best.
Anyway, I think many of us are actually less interested in finding the perfect system (which we would of course follow scrupulously and everything would be perfect forevermore!) than we are in finding excuses to reject what we’re offered. I think of my own child, who would be critiquing all those bowls of porridge not because he hoped for the perfect one, but because he was desperate to avoid eating the stuff at all!
We are reluctant to follow, because we know it will ask something of us. Jesus has spent chapter upon chapter impressing upon us how much of our old self we might have to leave behind. How much less protected our lives and our hearts will be. So he knows we are tempted to start making excuses. He knows we are scared. And he (like Paul) knows how powerful Sin’s lies can be.
And so he promises to walk beside us. He promises to help carry the weight. He promises that no matter how challenging it seems, it will still be easier and sweeter and brighter than our previous life of working only for our own livelihood and our own salvation.
Because he will be with us, lending us his power. And that’s good news for those of us who recognized ourselves in Paul’s lament about the power of sin (I am not the person I want to be! I swear I try, but every time I get to the Confession, it’s the same things again and again. Still haven’t beaten that one. Nope.) And according to Paul, I never will. The only thing to do is to accept my own weakness and live in the strength of Jesus instead.
That, or maybe I should get a dog! May it be so, Amen.