Sermon – July 5, 2020 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When my son was under a year old, I had one of those “this is what it is to be a parent” experiences. He was playing on the floor, then he crawled over to the television, pulled himself up to standing and pushed the power button. I told him no, picked him up and set him back down with his toys. Soon enough, he went crawling back over to the tv and again reached for the buttons. Again I said no, and moved him away. Again, he crawled toward the tv. Only this time he paused midway and glanced at me. He kept on to the tv, looked back at me once more, and pushed a button. I thought “This kid knows exactly what he is doing. What am I in for?”

Now, I know this is what children do, this is how they grow; they are curious; they test the waters, this is how they learn. And part of the learning is what is appropriate and inappropriate, what is right and wrong. We need them to know the power of “no,” lest they stick a fork in a socket, or use violence to solve a disagreement, right? From a young age, we humans learn quickly what we should or should not do, and we cannot help but turn right back to that tv, or the sugary snacks, or whatever it is we know is not good for us, or that might potentially harm our neighbor.

We Christians have a word for that. We call it sin. This isn’t a popular truth about ourselves; there are those who are so uncomfortable about acknowledging this truth that they make it an excuse for not gathering with other Christians, saying we harp on sin way too much. But if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are not all we are cracked up to be. We might put up a nice façade, but we know we screw up. We intentionally hurt others, we speak barbed words to wound and we know we shouldn’t. We make choices that we know aren’t good for us, but we do it anyway. We ignore the plight of the poor, the starving, those who face injustice, even when we know we could act.

Acknowledging sin might be uncomfortable. But it is also true. It is being honest with ourselves. It is the reason that our Lutheran worship often includes a time of confession. It isn’t to make ourselves feel worse, but actually, to allow ourselves to be made right.

In our reading from Romans today, this is what Paul speaks of, this trap of our human nature. He says, “15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” 

But it gets more complicated than just knowing right from wrong. Because in our common humanity we have created webs that seem to bind us all in sin. Perhaps you’ve watched the television show The Good Place. Let me just make the disclaimer that it is not coming from a Christian perspective with the whole proposed point system, but what the show adeptly does is lay out how complicated our lives are. Any decision we make has consequences, none of which are perfect. The character Chidi embodies this struggle; he is paralyzed by decisions in part because he has to weigh which unethical or immoral practices he might be supporting, just in choosing a muffin, for example.

Or, let’s think about the clothes we wear. That shirt you’re wearing right now, where was it made? Chances are good it was made by people who are not being fairly paid, let alone endure terrible working conditions and living arrangements. And our alternatives? How many of us have access to the fibers needed, weavers who could make cloth and the people to sew our clothes? We rely on an entire economic system and labor force for the things we wear each day, and we know there are problems with it. WE don’t like to think about it.

This is the thing – we corporately, cannot escape the brokenness and unjust ways of our world. We feel trapped. Whether we are talking about fair trade and labor practices or we are talking about the systemic racism that is built into the fabric of our communities right here in Illinois, we know things are not right, and if we are honest, we know that individually and corporately we do not do all that we could to improve our neighbor’s situation and to love our neighbor.

I recently read the story of Chen Alon, an Israeli who realized how caught up he was in a dehumanizing way of life. In an essay for the Forgiveness Project, he describes his experience serving in the Israeli army in the First Intifada and then being called up for the Second Intifada. “On one occasion,” he says, “I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people in the taxi. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? I began to realise that in the de-humanising of the other, you begin to de-humanise yourself.” Over time Chen began to raise objections to the occupation. He writes, “When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik [a conscientious objector], I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.”

All of us, all of us, are caught up in sin, from our own personal, individual pride, jealousy, temper, or what have you that leads us to wound others or ourselves, to the corporate sin of our human culture, our biases, the ways of thinking and acting that we become part of, just by growing up and living wherever it is we live. 

We know things aren’t right. God knows things aren’t right.

And thanks be to God, for this is not the end of the story. God claims this whole world for life, for redemption. God took on human flesh, took on the violence and injustice of the world in Jesus Christ, took on our own sin, and put it to death on the cross. 

Through Christ, we are reconciled with God. 

Through Christ, we can face the truth of our sin, knowing that it is not the final judgment upon us. 

Through Christ, we have forgiveness, we have new life, life that declares “sin does not have the final say.”

The last few weeks we have been hearing from Paul’s letter to the Romans. You may recall these words:

“How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead so we too might walk in newness of life…The death Christ died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Thanks be to God! We have been claimed by God for righteousness. We have been claimed by God to be Christ’s witnesses to life, and forgiveness, and hope in this world. In our Lutheran tradition we hear this phrase that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. That is, while in these bodies, on this earth, there is something in us that rebels against God. But we are also saints, people who have been claimed and called as God’s people to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are not left on our own, but empowered by the Holy Spirit to know what is good and right and true, and to work toward that end of loving our neighbor, of being aware when and how to work against injustices and all that devalues and dehumanizes others.

This is why we come together for worship as Christian communities. We come to meet Christ, to acknowledge our brokenness, to experience forgiveness, to hear a word of hope, and to be encouraged by one another in this walk of discipleship that proclaims love, life, and freedom for us and for our neighbor. May you be renewed this day in faith. May you be filled with the promise of God’s Spirit that propels us to love, even when we would rather think only of ourselves. May you be strengthened by the power of the Spirit to walk in newness of life, confident in God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ for you and the whole world. Amen.