By The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Amen.
Quick! What’s your favorite verse in the Bible? [I know, this is an Episcopal Church and people think we’re not supposed to talk about the Bible here. But, we all know the secret … we talk about it a lot.]
So, what’s your favorite verse? Is it John 3:16? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
How about John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another”
Or maybe it’s from the Psalms … 46:10 maybe, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Let me give you a new verse to consider – perhaps it won’t be a new verse to you all, but here it is: Romans 7:15, “I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do.” I don’t know about you, but I could well have that tattooed across my forehead – or at the very least, have it inscribed on my tombstone, just under my name. It seems to me that of all of the verses in the Bible, this one may be the most universally autobiographical – at least if we’re honest that’s probably so.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a treatise on theological thought. And there’s not a single one of Jesus’ parables that gets right at the heart of where I live, better than the 7th chapter of Romans. In this chapter, Paul is talking – as he so often does – on two parallel tracks at the same time. He is talking about all of the Nation of Israel, all of Judaism. He is talking to the newly emerging Church – those who follow Jesus – and he’s addressing what it means to be Jewish and to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. So he talks about slavery to the law, the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Levitical codes that followed. He talks about the inability to follow the Law because of the sin in the world that entices all of Judaism to go against Moses’ teachings. But the other track, … I think is Paul also talking about day to day, ordinary stuff that you and I encounter in our modern lives.
Biblical scholars have debated for centuries whether or not Paul was talking in personal terms here. I’m convinced that he was. While there is no doubt that he was concerned about the entirety of Israel, St.Paul also understood the struggles that individuals have in their attempts to follow God. He who built a life around following the law of Moses understood the importance of dedicated discipleship. Then when Paul had his dramatic “Road to Damascus” conversion, he became the ultimate reformed Pharisee. He was like those folks who quit smoking and then become the great anti-smoking activists. He was a true believer in Christ. But he never forgot that it was a hard journey for most people to try to walk in the footsteps of our Lord.
We don’t really know what Paul’s personal “weakness” was. There is nothing in Biblical literature that indicates what it was that he did, which he did not want to do. But I’ll take a guess and say that it was somehow based on Paul’s pride. He was a smart man, a learned man and a man who had the power to persuade and convert people to his way of thinking. Those gifts can lead one to believe that he is above other people. The sin of pride – raising self above where it should be – is a very real danger for such folks. Paul struggled with his unnamed sin, but just about the time he thought he had it under control, he would suddenly react to it in ways that he did not want to. It would rise up and take control of him – almost like a physical possession – leaving him helpless to stop it, and wondering about how his weakness and helplessness fit into a world in which he knew God was in charge. So ….
What’s your sin? What is it in your life that pops up, over and over again? What is it about you that makes you ashamed because once again you did the very thing you did not want to do? When you lie in bed, unable to sleep, what things about your personality – just by remembering them – can bring the color of embarrassment to your cheeks, even when you’re alone?
Most of us have more than one of these “thorns in our flesh,” these things that we continually do, even though we know that we shouldn’t, and in fact try not to do. Do you eat when you shouldn’t – or in amounts that you know you shouldn’t – or just items that you know you shouldn’t? How about money? Do you spend when you know you don’t have the money? Do you buy unnecessarily, or impulsively? Are you a gambler? Do you go off to the casino, or just buy lottery tickets, when you know that doing so will make your spouse unhappy? Are you a workaholic? Do you continually find that you have to go to work, or lock yourself in your home office, and do work even though you really don’t want to and you know it will keep you from family time? Do you worry? Does your anxiety about the future creep in, even when you don’t want it to, and control your entire day, or night? Or do you gossip? When people are talking about someone, do you have to jump in with an unkind remark, saying something that would be hurtful if the person heard, even though your conscious mind tells you to keep your mouth closed?
If you don’t recognize yourself somewhere in that list, I’d be surprised. And if you truly don’t see yourself anywhere in that list, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have one of these difficulties that Paul implicitly talks about. It just means that my list wasn’t long enough. We all have these things in our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves. Paul says, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice…. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?” Fortunately, St. Paul doesn’t leave us hanging with that question, he gives us the answer we’ve already had in our hearts from the very beginning of our Christian understanding. The answer is Jesus – no matter what the question is – the answer is Jesus.
St. Paul tells us that the sacrificing Jesus, the Incarnate God who willingly hung on a cross to save us from bondage to sin, is the answer to the question of what we do with this sinful nature over which we seemingly have no control. The one who was powerful enough to create and sustain the entirety of the universe, is so interested in us – God’s most cherished creation – that God would become human, suffer and die on our behalf; that’s where we go with this, and every problem that we face.
In this morning’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable to challenge those religious leaders who believe they have all the answers within themselves and the law that they have used as a weapon for centuries. Jesus tells them, again, that they’re all wrong. And he gives them another of my personal favorite verses of Scripture. This one I’ll give to you in traditional King James language, because that’s the way I learned it as a child – when I heard the “comfortable words” of Jesus every Sunday: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Come to me all you people who carry burdens that are simply too heavy for you to manage. Come to me and lay your burdens down at my feet. I’ll pick up what you can’t carry and I’ll take the weight for you. You can rest in the grace of my love. That’s Jesus’ message to us. Rest in me. Don’t struggle with trying to overcome your sins. Confess them, repent, give them to Jesus and then pray every time they try to overtake you.
This is not a panacea. It is not simple. We want desperately to maintain our illusion of control over our situations, so subconsciously we will not willingly give these sins over to Jesus. But it is the ONLY choice we as Christians have. With Jesus we overcome sin and begin to live in the Kingdom of God. Without Him, we don’t. That part is simple.
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Let me leave you with a story that Fred Craddock, one of the 20th Century’s great preachers, tells:
On one of my trips some time ago, I don’t know where, I arrived at the place where I was supposed to hold services on Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday morning. When I pulled into the parking lot of the church, a funeral was concluding. People were moving to their automobiles; the hearse was still there. The minister saw me, recognized me, and motioned for me to come over. I didn’t want to intrude; I was just waiting until it was over. He was standing next to the widow. He introduced her, he introduced me, and I felt awkward. I said to her, ‘This is no time for you to be meeting strangers. I’m sorry, and I’m really sorry about your loss.’ Her husband had been killed in a car wreck and left her with four children. I said, ‘I know this is a very difficult time for you.’
She said, ‘It is. So I won’t be at the services tonight, but I’ll be there tomorrow night, and I’ll be there Sunday morning.’
I said, ‘Oh, you don’t need to.”
‘Yes. I do.’
I said, ‘Well, what I meant was, I know it’s a very hard time.’
And she said, ‘I know it’s hard. It’s already hard, but you see, this is my church, and they’re going to see that my children and I are okay.’
Come to us, all you who are heavy laden with doing those things that you do not want to do. Come into St. John’s and lay aside your burdens. As Jesus’ representatives on earth, we’ll take your burdens and give you rest.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.