If you have wondered if there are still places like this, there are. At least one. This week, I can testify that Stonington, Maine is like this. Two motels, three restaurants (the "nice" one is only open a few nights a week) and a lobster roll/ice cream stand in town. Two other restaurants on the "outskirts." Three churches, a couple of grocery stores, an auto supply, one t-shirt shop, one dry goods store, one hardware store, three or four local art galleries, and, of all things, an opera house (they are showing the latest "Star Wars" installment on the weekends).
If you drive an hour and fifteen minutes or so, then the comparatively-busy town of Bar Harbor, gateway to the fabulous Acadia National Park, awaits. There are tourists there, lots of them (compared to the half dozen or so - other that us - here in Stonington) to see the true beauty that is worth its own trip.
I, for one, need this. I go pretty hard, and I enjoy going pretty hard. I have lots going on, and that is on purpose. I am not complaining. But I need the break. I need to see creation - oceans or mountains or both - sometimes. I like "sightseeing" travel as well, and there is much to be gained from history and art and viewing places in the world about which I have heard but have never seen.
But, for this week, this has been just what I need. Peace and quiet.
Places like this really exist, and that is comforting to me. Maybe I'll come back.
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Sunday, June 17, 2018
You can hear the audio of this sermon here.
The late actor Jack Palance was known for playing villains in movies of the fifties, most notably “Panic in the Streets,” “Sudden Fear,” and especially “Shane.” He worked steadily and was well-known, but he did not win his first and only Academy Award until more than a generation later, when he played the inscrutable Curly in the Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers” in 1991. Palance is remembered for doing one-armed pushups on stage during the Oscar ceremony at the age of 73, and his character Curly is remembered primarily for a particular exchange he has with Crystal’s character, whom I shall always remember because his name is Mitch Robbins. Curly says to Mitch: “Do you know what the secret of life is?” and then he holds up one finger and says: “This.” Mitch responds: “Your finger?” Curly says: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that…” Robbins asks: “But, what is the ‘one thing’?” Curly smiles and says: “That's what you have to find out.”
Gary Keller, the co-founder of Keller Williams Realtors, has written a best seller about the real estate business called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. That book has some helpful thoughts and some catchy chapter headings like “Unlocking the Possibilities within You,” but I find this criticism of the book by Kirkus Review insightful:
Keller … leads readers up to the edge, then abjures specifics…. “If today your company doesn’t know what its ONE Thing is, then the company’s ONE Thing is to find out.” Yet the nub is elusive; “here’s how you get to the answer” is in short supply. So much is circular, tautological, or disconnected. [The book has some] encouraging bones of advice worth gnawing on, but absent substantial meat to sink your teeth into. [https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gary-keller/the-one-thing/]
That’s the problem, isn’t it? It is easy for us to grab onto pop psychology that tells us that the secret of life is to find the “one thing.” But then you start asking what the “one thing” is, and you get lots of answers, and most of them are not very satisfying. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, said that “the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” [Brown, James, The Godfather of Soul: An Autobiography, ] Dave Barry, one of the funniest and often cleverest guys around, remarks that “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we all believe we are above-average drivers.” [Barry, Dave, Dave Barry Turns Fifty, ]
What is the “One Thing?” What is that priority, that focus, that singular emphasis that gives us the golden key to the secret of life?
Well, this is a church service, and I am a preacher, and it is Sunday, so you know I am going to say the answer is some version of “Jesus” or “God” or “Christianity” or “church and Bible study and discipleship and prayer and service and ministry and fellowship and evangelism and worship...” You see the problem, right? The “one thing” spirals into many things, all good, all worthy, all churchy-sounding, all tinged with bits and pieces of the gospel. Before long, our answer begins to include worship style, church growth, koinonia, hospitality to strangers, meeting the needs of church members, providing cultural relevance, intense study of theology, raising money, day care, aerobics, divorce recovery, caregiver assistance, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, Christmas crafts, racquetball, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and men’s prayer breakfast.
Our scripture passage from Luke is about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus (who by the way makes no appearance in this story). Martha is the queen of hospitality. The way Luke tells this story, Martha opens her home and then gets about the business of making preparations. It is not hard for any of us to imagine her cooking and cleaning and setting the table and dusting and fluffing the throw pillows. All the while, Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet. We can let our imaginations run as to why – Is Mary lazy? Does she have a crush on Jesus? Is she mad at Martha? But if we read carefully, Luke tells us exactly what Mary is doing: she is listening to Jesus.
Martha, who is doing all the work and is, Luke tells us, distracted by that work, rolls her eyes and complains that Jesus is not telling Mary to help, and Jesus demurs. His answer is piercing: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – indeed only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]
We all know Martha. She is mentioned only three times in the New Testament, but those three stories make her personality quite clear to us. We all know a Martha or two in our own lives. You may well be a Martha. She is concerned about the details, sometimes to the point of distraction. This is not a bad thing – I just think she is a worrier, someone who wants everything to be perfect.
In the story of the death and raising of Lazarus in John 11, Martha cannot wait for Jesus but runs out to meet Him on the road, grief-stricken and wondering why Jesus did not show up in time to save her brother. Be sure not to disparage Martha: she is a true believer who understands – maybe better than Mary does – what Jesus is all about. Martha tells Jesus that she knows that her brother will rise on the last day, and it is to Martha that Jesus chooses to say these great words: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Martha responds that she believes that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is come into this world.” [John 11:24-27] Martha gets it. She is no villain in this story.
When Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, Martha is the one thinking about the logistics, the practical implications. Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away, and it is Martha who runs for the Febreze, reminding Jesus that it is going to stink. [John 11:39]
The other time we see Martha is in the next chapter, John 12, where Jesus is reclining at a banquet and Mary anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. What is Martha up to while Mary is doing her anointing? Why, she is serving the meal of course. She is the consummate hostess. [John 12:1-3]
Back to today’s scripture… It is important that Jesus does not condemn Martha or tell her that what she is doing is bad. Preparations must be made – after all, Jesus needs to eat and have clean sheets. Hospitality is a gift of the Spirit, [Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9] and by exercising it, some have entertained angels unawares. [Hebrews 13:2] Nothing Martha is doing is wrong.
All the same, Mary’s choice is better. Just as He tells Judas to leave Mary alone when she is anointing His feet, [John 12:4-8] Jesus now gently tells the distracted Martha that Mary has opted wisely. Many things are on Martha’s mind, and she is multitasking with the best of them. I believe that Jesus appreciates her work. Still, few things are needed, and, really, only One Thing is necessary, and Mary has made that superior choice.
In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, the once-blind man is cross-examined by the Pharisees. Who was this healer? How did He do it? Why did He defile the Sabbath? What do your parents have to say about it? He’s a sinner, right? Like many of us, this healed man has gotten in over his head into matters that are both religious and political in nature, and he cannot swim. He reaches desperately for stability, for a handhold, for something that he knows is right. And suddenly, he has it. He needs only One Thing. The gospel makes it easy for us to picture the chaotic spectacle around this now-seeing man, summoned to the religious high court to defend both himself and Jesus. It is pandemonium. Lawyers and pharisees and onlookers are talking at the same time, trying to be heard over each other, almost forgetting the witness, the star of the show, the man who was blind just yesterday. In that moment, the man remembers the One Thing. He stands up a little straighter, takes a deep breath, and notices the sudden silence that has fallen over the crowd, now hushed as if by tacit agreement to hear what he has to offer. He looks them in the eye and says: “I don’t know the answers to all your questions. I cannot tell you if He is a sinner. But One Thing I know. I was blind but now I see.” [John 9:25]
The rich young ruler kept all the commandments, followed all the rules, did everything a good religious God-fearing man did. [Mark 10:19-20] But he nonetheless knew a couple of things: he knew that he had not arrived, that he had not figured out how to gain eternal life; and he knew that he recognized in this Jesus someone who had the answer. [Mark 10:17] So, he went to the source and asked the question, and Jesus told him straight out: “One Thing you lack.” [Mark 10:21]
The rich man – Mark just calls him “a man;” it is Matthew who tells us that he is young and Luke who tells us he is a ruler; all three of them tell us that he was rich – needs the One Thing, and he does not know what it is. Jesus says to him, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Luke 18:22, Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21] All three synoptic gospels record it exactly the same way. Jesus says the man lacks One Thing, and then He gives him two instructions – (1) sell it all and (2) follow me.
Many people misinterpret Jesus here. The One Thing is not selling all you have. The One Thing is following Jesus. There is nobody else whom Jesus tells to sell everything, so impoverished altruism cannot be the universal command; but Jesus invites everyone to follow Him. To this man, Jesus says “sell what you have” because for this man, possessions are the stumbling block to following. We know this on account of all three gospel writers’ record that the man went away sad because he had great wealth. [Mark 10:22] For you and me, Jesus’s message might be “One thing you lack. Give up your computer and follow me,” or “Change jobs and follow me,” or “Give up trying to solve all your spouse’s problems and follow me,” or “Move to Mozambique and follow me,” or “Join this church and follow me.” To somebody here, Jesus may well say “Sell all you have and follow me.” The common denominator, the One Thing, is to follow Jesus. The rich young ruler finally understands the One Thing, but he tragically refuses it because of what stands in the way for him, what the One Thing requires.
Paul tells the Philippians that he has not yet arrived at his goal, but One Thing he does – he presses on to the high calling of Jesus, to win the prize. He wants to know Christ. [Philippians 3:10-14]
David writes in Psalm 27 that the Lord is his light and his salvation, that there is nothing to fear, but the Psalm is not yet complete: he still has One Thing to ask. He wants to dwell with the Lord, to look upon God, to seek Him in the temple. [Psalm 27:1,4]
Don Guthrie, pastor of First Baptist San Antonio, tells a story with which most – if not all - of us can relate, a story of sitting in the bleachers at a Little League game. For me, the story resonates not just as a fan but as a parent and as a coach and even, way back, as a player. Don talks about one of those phrases you hear at Little League games from coaches encouraging youngsters who are just learning the game and who are, by and large, scared to death. The pitch comes in, and they don’t swing, and the umpire helpfully calls the pitch a ball. Shew. You did not let a strike go by. The coach yells out “Good eye. Good eye.”
The next pitch, the batter swings and misses, and the always encouraging coach advises the batter to “keep your eye on the ball.”
Even if you never played an inning or attended one Little League game, you know what the coach means. We need to have a good eye. We need to focus, to watch the ball. If it is too far inside or outside the strike zone, or too high or too low, a batter with a good eye will let it go, will take the pitch, will be happy to accept a base on balls and walk to first base if the pitcher lets him. If the pitch is a strike, you are supposed to swing and hit it, and to do that, you have to keep your eye on the ball. You cannot hit a speeding spheroid with a cylindrical stick without complete concentration. You have to watch the ball, unfailingly, unceasingly, without blinking or distraction.
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” [Matthew 6:22-23] That word that the NIV renders as “good” is also translated, depending on your version, “sound,” “clear,” or “healthy.” Jesus is coaching us to have a good eye. What we see – where we focus, how we look at the world, what catches our vision – brings either light or darkness to our life. We need a good eye.
Jesus’s word here is really communicating something more nuanced than simply “good.” The Greek word is haplous (ἁπλοῦς), which literally means “unfolded” or “unwoven” or “unbraided.” Perhaps the best depiction of haplous is “single.” Our eye is not to be on countless things, multitasking frantically as we weave many different ideas together, focusing on and distracted by fourteen things at once. You know what it is to braid hair, to take several different strands and intertwine them into a single plaited pigtail. Jesus says that we need to be unbraided, unwoven, single-minded. We need to have a good eye. We need to keep our eye on the ball.
This is the same advice the Bible has been giving us since ancient times. It is the third chapter of Proverbs that tells us to trust in the Lord with all our heart. To acknowledge Him in all our ways. [Proverbs 3:4-5]
Why? What is the point? Rick Warren is quoted as saying: “Living in light of eternity changes your priorities. This is the warmup act. This is the get-ready stage. This is the dress rehearsal before the real act begins”. [ ] We focus on the one who created the world and holds eternity in His hand, the only one who can beat the system because He designed the system, the only one who loves us with an everlasting love.
That is the message Jesus gives Martha. What you are doing is important and helpful, but Mary has made a better choice by devoting herself to the presence and words of her Lord.
So … if we want to keep our eye on the ball … taking all the scripture together … what is the “One Thing?” For Mary, it is sitting at the feet of the Master. For the healed man, it is being touched by Jesus so that he once was blind but now sees. For the rich young ruler, it is the single-minded choice to get rid of all hindrance and follow Jesus. For David, it is seeking God, viewing Him, and dwelling with Him. For Paul, it is knowing Christ, pressing on to the high calling.
The One Thing is our relationship with Jesus Christ. Listening, following, seeing, being healed, dwelling, knowing.
Here is what it is not:
Jesus does not tell Martha that the better choice is service and busyness. The blind man does not proclaim that the One Thing is arguing with the Pharisees, answering all their questions with carefully worded dogma. For the rich ruler, the One Thing is not robotic obedience to the commandments or financing an orphanage and a soup kitchen – things he clearly could have done with no problem. For David, it is not writing Psalms and commanding the armies of Israel. And for Paul, it is not preaching and writing the epistles. It is not even founding new churches, whether in Thessalonica or on Sunday afternoons in a borrowed sanctuary in Fort Worth.
Now, stay with me. All of those things are critical Christian duties and actions. Jesus absolutely calls us to serve, to be hospitable, to go about our tasks with efficiency and goodwill. His kingdom is increased by our knowledge of theology and our willingness to engage in debate when the time is right. He commands our obedience and absolutely needs our dollars – and if you are not giving what you should to this church, consider yourself prodded – to further the gospel and help the needy. The people of God need leadership and strength. And of course, we need preachers and scripture and guidance. You know that I think that starting a new church is a high call. I am not saying, because Jesus does not say, that any of those things is unimportant.
But they are not the One Thing. They are not the driving force, the raison d’etre, that which sustains. They are not “I once was blind but now I see.” They are byproducts. They are the marks of our relationship with Jesus Christ and God the Father. When you focus on the effect rather than the cause, on the byproduct rather than the source, on the activity rather than the relationship you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, of running in circles, of missing what the Holy Spirit has for us all. It is too easy to let the good get in the way of the best. As Curly says, the secret of life is finding the One Thing.
There is a whole lot to playing Little League baseball. You have to learn to field, to catch the ball and throw the ball, to run the bases. There is strategy. You must know the signs. You learn the right way to put on the uniform. But no matter how good a fielder and a baserunner you may be, you have to be able to hit. If you don’t have a good eye, you won’t be around very long. If you do not keep your eye on the ball, you won’t be in the lineup.
If any of you is a golfer, you know you can have the newest golf bag, the most expensive titanium Big Bertha available, the prettiest swing, and the most fashionable plus-fours and Polo shirts; none of that matters if you don’t keep your eye on the ball. The ball is not even moving, but you will never hit it if you don’t focus on it.
Everything else – the service, the giving, the leadership, all of it - is possible when you have a good eye. First things first. But when you try to fold it all in at once, to braid it together, you lose focus. You are worried and upset about many things, and you do not make the better choice.
Have you listened to yourself sing this morning? The One Thing means that our faith has found its resting place in the life and death of Jesus Christ. That is enough for all of us. The One Thing means that what we live for is to stand in the presence of Jesus, and when we are there, when we experience that relationship most clearly, it is amazing. The One Thing is Christ alone, our cornerstone where our hope is found. The One Thing means that Jesus is our all in all.
I remember a Sunday School lesson from the summer after the 7th Grade. Believe it or not, that is true. I don’t know what kind of church nerd that makes me, but I remember a Sunday School lesson from 1978. At least I remember the teacher and the title and the main illustration. Mr. Jim Askew taught this lesson just before we were to promote to the 8th grade, which means it was right after my best friend Chris joined our church. Perhaps that is why I remember this lesson. Anyway, the title of the lesson was “Tuning in to God’s Frequency.” The illustration was of a radio. Today, we all have digital dials on our radios – if I want to find 103.3 ESPN radio, I can tune to that exact channel with precision. Not so when I was in the 7th grade, and let’s be honest, not so when most of you were in the 7th grade. We had analog radio dials, those annoying horizontal lists of numbers and dashes and occasional vertical lines, with the red pointer moving behind them. On a radio with an analog dial, the tuning knob made the pointer move relative to the dial to indicate frequency. Meanwhile, inside the radio, something called a variable capacitor was turning on its shaft.
As you turned the knob, signals from certain stations would get clearer and then fainter. Static was your companion and your enemy. On the AM dial, as you drove your car searching for the voice of Jack Buck from KMOX in St. Louis, you would try to land right on 1120, but if you were me in Nashville, you had to be very precise, or the signal would not come in. Even a 50,000-watt clear channel required exact tuning. On the FM dial, your music would fade in and out depending on how precisely that pointer was tuned.
Some of you know that orchestras always tune to the oboe. Of all the instruments, the oboe holds its tone the best. Professionals will tell you the oboe has rigid pitch so long as it has a good reed and a musician playing it with a great ear. I have heard and read oboists who disagree about this, but most say that the oboe is not particularly susceptible to heat and cold and dampness. Whatever its level of sensitivity, it has the least mechanical variation in pitch of all the orchestra. Its pitch is controlled by the oboist’s embouchure and technique, but the instrument itself, for all practical purposes, does not have to be tuned in the same way a violin or a piano or a French horn or a snare drum does. When you go to the symphony, what you hear just before the concert begins is the principal first oboe playing an A, and then all the other instruments adjusting to match. Everyone tunes to the oboe.
Our life is like that. The One Thing does not move. Just as KMOX is always at 1120, Jesus is constant. We always know where and how to find Him. We have scripture. We have this church. We have our experience of having found Him before. Jesus is the oboe – He sets the pitch, and we tune to Him. If we play out of key, it is not the oboe’s fault. The hackneyed phrase is true – If you are not feeling close to God, guess who moved?
Our problem is not Mitch Robbins’s problem. We know what the One Thing is. Our problem is that we have tuned to the wrong instruments – maybe to the louder, showier ones like the trumpets or the timpani. We have adjusted our radio knob too far away, perhaps even to the wrong station. Our pointer is heading somewhere else, and that means that the message of Christ is fading out, overcome by distance and static and the messages coming from other places on the dial. The One Thing has not changed, but we are not tuned to it. We have not kept our eye on the ball.
When we tune in to God’s frequency – when we move our life closer and closer to Jesus, reading scripture and praying and serving and worshiping and pressing on to an intimate relationship with Him – we find that His word comes to us so much more clearly. We see His face and understand His will with so much more certainty, and the competing noises and the static and the other messages become fainter and fainter. In other words, when we keep our eye on the ball and align ourselves more and more closely with Christ, then the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
One Thing: our relationship with Jesus Christ. One Thing that gives life to many things. We should of course follow the call of Christ and of the church and serve and give and proclaim, but the One Thing comes first.
· Hospitality and service and preparation and making sure that somebody brings the air freshener are important, and they need to happen, but they are not the One Thing; they are not listening to the words of the Master.
· Being able to answer questions about the theological underpinnings of who Jesus is and how He can do what He does and how His work interplays with the religious system is interesting and important, but it is not the One Thing; it is not the touch of Jesus that takes away our blindness.
· Giving to the poor is crucial and necessary, but it is not the One Thing; following Jesus comes first.
· Boldly stating “Whom shall I fear?” and leading God’s people to victory are inspiring, but they are not the One Thing; they are not dwelling with the Lord.
· Missionary journeys and inspired writing help the cause of Christ in multiple ways, and we should all emulate the passion of Paul, but even those are not the One Thing; they come only after and because we know Christ.
Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things, but indeed, only One Thing is necessary.
One Thing I know: I once was blind, but now I see.
One Thing you lack: follow me.
One Thing I desire: to dwell in the house of the lord.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. I do not count myself to have apprehended; but One Thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:10-14]
Good eye. Good eye.
Monday, June 11, 2018
You can listen to the audio here. (Warning: the audio is a little incomplete, because the scripture below in italics, which was read by readers in the congregation during the sermon, is not well picked up on the audio recording.)
It starts with the word to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” We have been freed from the slavery of sin. We love that. This week I read an article by a Houston pastor who says, “The dominant image of salvation in the Bible is liberation here and now.” [Rev. Laura Mayo, Houston Chronicle, 5/24/18, ]
So, our scripture today from Romans 6 brings us up short. We don’t like this language. Paul tells us that we must allow ourselves to become slaves of righteousness. Will you choose to be a slave again?
The life of a Christian is a story of newness. We are not on the same road we were on before. The Apostle John talks about our new heading when he says, “… one who is born of God … cannot go on sinning...” [1 John 3:8] John does not mean that any sin is a sign that we are not Christians; instead, John is talking about our bearing. Even though we falter, we who know God do not continue in a lifestyle of sin. We who are born again are no longer slaves to sin. We walk a different path.
But we do not arrive immediately, and we see through a glass darkly, and too often, we choose poorly. We use our freedom as an excuse to do what we want, what our human nature directs us to do. In language with which we can all identify, Paul says in Romans 7:
[I]n my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, … making me a prisoner of the law of sin …. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…? [Romans 7:15-24]
I am preaching this sermon backwards. I want to start at the punchline: Sin separates us from God. Before we know Christ, that separation has everlasting consequences, for our holy God is eternally divided from those stained by sin; that is what it means when Paul says the wages of sin is death. But, thanks be to God, His free gift through Jesus, when we accept it, bridges the divide between us and God. We are saved.
All of you lifelong Christians, please resist the temptation at this point in the sermon to say “Well, that punchline is all there is to know. I am saved. I am going to heaven. If I sin now, why does that matter? My proverbial fire insurance is paid up.” I believe that you are assured of your salvation, but I am nonetheless convinced that the sin of the Christian does matter. Eternal damnation is not the only way sin separates us from God. We build barriers in our relationship with Holy God when we sin. Our daily choices take from us what David called the joy of our salvation.
When we fail to do and be what God calls us to do and be, then sin sucks our joy. It overwhelms our witness. It destroys our relationships. It makes us miserable.
We are saved, and we are being saved. We have been converted, and we are being sanctified, and that is a process. We do not become perfect when we become Christians, but we are no longer slaves to sin. The cords that bound us are broken, and we are now free. We have free will. We can choose. In today’s epistle reading, Paul encourages us to make the right choice, to offer ourselves to God, to pledge allegiance to His teachings and to become slaves again, slaves to righteousness.
The famous preacher Billy Sunday became a famous preacher with sermons like this:
Listen, I'm against sin. I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist, I'll butt it as long as I've got a head, and I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth. And when I'm old, fistless, footless, and toothless, I'll gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition. [Billy Sunday, ]
While that kind of sermon may still get preached somewhere, and we can still hear sermons that discuss the unbeliever’s sin in the context of the call to salvation, it is not fashionable in our upper middle-class churches to preach about our sin. The conservative doesn’t want to preach on the sins of the Christian for fear it will draw attention away from the overarching gospel message of the sin of the unbeliever and concern that discussion of sin leads to a discussion of good works and away from saving grace. The liberal doesn’t want to preach on the sin of the Christian lest it divert awareness from the love of God and reduce the Christian life to a focus on guilt and punishment and away from daily grace.
There are, of course, other reasons you don’t hear sermons on Christian sin much anymore. The sensibilities of the world are changing. We are bombarded with the message that human nature is not to be fought against but is instead to be glorified. Last week, I went to get my haircut. I really like the young woman who cuts my hair, and over the last couple of years I have built a relationship with her. Her name is Lisa. I noticed that she was wearing an engagement ring. I congratulated her on her engagement, and she told me that she would be spending part of her upcoming vacation moving in with her fiancé. She said he had been asking for months, but she refused to move in with him until she had a ring on her finger. She did not mean a wedding ring. Such a statement was unheard of not that long ago and would have been astonishing to many people even two decades back. While it may still shock some of you today, it is nonetheless virtually de rigueur in our society. You have may have seen the Gallup Poll results released this week that found that 69% of Americans say they approve of premarital sex and only 28% find it to be morally wrong. [http://news.gallup.com/poll/235415/four-say-teen-sex-morally-acceptable.aspx] We are taught to follow our hearts and be who we are naturally, to follow our uniqueness, no matter where it leads us.
No doubt there has been something of a loss of guts in the pulpit. The willingness to address what is doubtless a part of the lives of our congregants has changed. There is a perception that the audience – who, let’s not forget, pay the salary (at least in churches where the preacher actually gets paid) – would rather hear about social justice and joy and peace. And that is not a wrong perception – we would all rather hear about social justice and joy and peace than to be called out. In Shakespeare’s play, Pericles says, “Great king, few love to hear the sins they love to act.” [Shakespeare, Pericles, Act I, scene i]
And there is no question that much theology today does not call for preaching on sin. We exist in a live-and-let-live world, and churches desperate to add members too often peddle something less than the whole gospel.
We occasionally hear a sermon about a certain specific sin, a tirade against a person or activity that has made its way into the news. Usually, there is a sexual aspect, or occasionally some other moral taint that attaches that is guaranteed to get a Baptist crowd riled up – I am thinking of things like gambling; and almost always, there is a political slant as well. You know what I mean – the pulpit used as a megaphone for why all those great unwashed should stop committing Sin X. I appreciate – I really do – the Billy Sunday sermon. When Sunday preached that sermon, he was talking to a tent full of church-goers, and sometimes we all need that kind of encouragement.
But I have never understood the thought process that compels the preacher to yell at those not in the church to quit sinning, that expects non-believers to act as though they were believers, that forgets that the reason that we do not act like that is because we have been saved from our sins, that the Holy Spirit lives in us. It has always seemed to me that our time with non-believers is much better spent introducing them to the One who convicts of sin rather than trying to do the convicting ourselves. But I digress.
There is a deeper, more nuanced, and frankly scarier reason that we don’t hear sermons about our sin. I propose that the church does not hear much about our own sin because we do not want to hear much about our sin. It is easier to point proudly to the sins we do not commit: We are appalled by ______ … and here we fill in the blank with something that is not an issue for us personally but that we can get really fired up about … perhaps it is adultery, or homosexuality, or sexual abuse, or what some high-profile Hollywood or political or seminary personality has said or done. We are all careful to avoid the sins we learned about in Vacation Bible School: we don’t overtly steal, we don’t hit people, we try hard not to say mean things about our friends, at least not to their faces. We would never cheat on our taxes. We don’t kick the dog. We can dabble in what would be sin for others but for us is somehow OK, because we have this sin stuff figured out.
But we don’t have it all figured out. We who are not guilty of those particular transgressions don’t want to be reminded that we are nonetheless drawn to the web of sin. Paul encourages seven different churches not to sin, something he would not need to do if sin were not part of the life of the Christian. The stories of pious Christians who commit egregious and regular sin are manifold.
Paul says our sin makes us wretched, and we don’t want to hear about that. Even as we trumpet our freedom, we at the same time shrug our shoulders and say, “I am only human; I couldn’t help it.” We continue to behave as though we have no choice, as though Christ had not died to save us from our sins, as though the Holy Spirit were not active in our lives, bearing the fruit of the Spirit and giving us a way out every single time temptation comes calling. We do not want to face the fact that we have voluntarily returned control of some part of our lives to the very power that Jesus died to overcome. Rebecca Manley Pippert says, “Whatever controls us is our lord…. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.” [Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World.] And so, we would rather not hear about sin, because hearing about it reminds us that we still act as though we were slaves to sin, that we have relinquished at least a part of the Lordship that should be reserved for Christ alone.
As Jesus says, no one can serve two masters. We have to choose. In our scripture for today, Paul calls on us to voluntarily give up some of our liberty, to recognize our slavery to righteousness.
And there is the rub. We value our freedom way too much. We do not want to become a slave to anything. We are less tempted by the allure of a particular sin than we are by the freedom to be in control, to make our own choices, to just do what we want to do. In that world, as Pastor Tyler Edwards says, “the devil’s job is easy.” [Edwards, Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back into the Body of Christ]
The ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, made lists of virtues and their opposites, and as time passed, lists of critical sins began to emerge. The common list of the Seven Deadly Sins received the stamp of approval of Pope Gregory I in 590, and after St. Augustine polished and defended that list in his Summa Theologica in the 13th century, some version of it became a part of formal catechism and informal doctrine for much of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike.
There are lots of inherent problem with a list of sins. You may reduce the Christian life to a score card, missing the truth that if you are striving to know God and follow Christ, then the fruit of the spirit will bloom within you, crowding out more and more the capacity and the desire to cultivate sin. Another problem is the temptation to look around you and try to judge who is guilty of what. And a third danger is seeing this list as simply a description of behaviors rather than as a searing look at our character, our heart.
But I nonetheless want to look at that famous list today. What is striking is that much of it has little to do, apparently, with the sins that get screamed about on tv and the internet these days. It is not important because only certain sins are Deadly – what some call “mortal sins.” All sins are deadly. This list of sins is crucial because it is much more personal. It is not an exhaustive list – there are many sins that are not included. This list says nothing about hitting people or committing adultery … although those sins likely find their roots in this list. We don’t like to talk about the Seven Deadly Sins, because if we are honest, this list hits home to us non-dog-kickers. This is the description of our everyday lives, the list of sins that lie around every corner. These are the sins we should be talking about and praying about and preaching about.
1. Pride. Pride preys on earnest Christians, the ones who are good at the religious stuff. The more we are at church, the bigger the target we are, especially the ones of us who would never say, but nevertheless are defined by the idea, that “As you grow in your walk with Jesus, you can be just like me.” Pride tells us that we are doing it all ourselves. We do not need any help. Pride keeps us comparing ourselves to those around us who are weaker, who are struggling. So long as we avoid humility and gentleness, Pride has us.
Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
And the fruit of the spirit is peace and gentleness.
2. Gluttony. You probably do not take gluttony very seriously. If you think of it at all, you think about pizza buffets and late-night binges with a carton of Ben and Jerry’s. And that is just what Gluttony want you to think – that it is limited to harmless little adventures with food.
Gluttony is in fact the attempt to fill an eternal need with something that wastes away. Gluttony’s job is to make you feel wanting, to make you never satisfied. Gluttony wins when your name in bold letters on the front of some magazine becomes your goal. Gluttony tells you to grab what you can get. And Gluttony will never allow you to have enough.
We walk by faith, not by sight.
Gluttony is believing that we need whatever we see and that we are the ones who know how to get it.
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
And the fruit of the spirit is faithfulness.
3. Greed. Greed is in the short-term expectations business. Unlike Gluttony, with its never-ending dissatisfaction, Greed is about “what can I do for me today?” As long as you don’t say things out loud like “I want a million dollars,” you can convince yourself that you are not greedy. Greed just keeps on looking for our “fair share.” Greed keeps our eyes on ourselves.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Greed means that you are the most important person to you. You cannot be responsible for anyone else. All you can do is watch out for #1.
And the fruit of the Spirit is goodness.
4. Sloth. You may know this one by other names, like Complacency or Laziness. Sloth doesn’t care what you call it; just do not spend too much time thinking about it. In fact, Sloth would prefer that you not spend too much time thinking at all.
Charles Pope writes:
On account of sloth, the idea of right living … inspires not joy but aversion or even disgust, because it is seen as laborious… Sloth tends to dismiss the power of grace, since it focuses on the “trouble” or effort attached to walking in the Christian way…. [S]loth is not merely laziness, it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference…. [S]loth can also be manifested by a frantic busyness about worldly things, so as to avoid spiritual questions…. [http://blog.adw.org/2012/03/what-is-sloth-its-a-bit-more-subtle-than-laziness/]
If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.
Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
The last thing that Sloth wants you to recognize is that being a Christian does not solve all your problems. Sloth is what makes the complacent Christian hear a sermon about sin and say, “So what? I already have my get-out-of-hell-free card.” Sloth wants you to sit back, be fat and happy, and think that your religion makes everything hunky-dory.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.
As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within.
Sloth virtually shouts in our ear: “Do NOT think so hard! Do not meditate on scripture! What did that old Paul know, anyway? Just sit back.” And to be honest, sometimes it is easier just to do what comes naturally. After all, we are already forgiven. We are going to heaven.
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ, never tire of doing what is right.
And the fruit of the Spirit is patience.
5. Envy. If you think his friends Greed and Pride were impressive, just wait until you get a load of Envy! Five minutes with him, and you will resent anything good that happens to anybody. Focus on what the other person has, what she can do, how others feel about her. Then think about how little you have in comparison.
Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
Love does not envy.
Envy is a dressed-up version of resentment. We have so much, and more importantly, God has made us so special. And when we cannot see it, Envy is winning.
A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots to the bones.
And the fruit of the Spirit is love.
Now it is time for #6. Lust. She waits until you are feeling needy, when it is so easy to justify – and then coddle - feelings and desires you would never consider under so-called normal circumstances.
Lust’s specialty is making sure we don’t DO anything. Lust tells us that it doesn’t matter how much we want to do it, so long as we follow the rules. Lust is about craving what is not ours, about objectification, reducing people from their humanity to just their parts. Lust will let the church have our actions if Lust can have our heart.
Lust tells us to let down the defenses, just to focus on how the luxury and the sex and the pleasure-seeking and the rebellion and the language would make us feel. Lust doesn’t care if you actually do any of it – just think about how cool it would be.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
Lust deceives, telling us that how the other half lives is so much fun, that they do what they want without consequence. The fact that it is all a lie matters not one whit. Longing, even for a moment, for the life you left behind when you accepted Christ means that Lust has scored. Actions come and go, and everyone makes mistakes. This is a battle for the heart, and Lust wants yours in the palm of her hand.
You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
And the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.
Finally, it is #7’s turn. #7 is Anger. Augustine called it “Wrath.” You likely don’t even usually think of Anger as a sin, much less as a Deadly Sin. It is easy to confuse the Sin of Anger with the emotion of anger, the unavoidable human response to stimuli. The enemy likes you to think of all Anger as nothing but an emotion. If you don’t think of Anger as a sin, you will not try to avoid it.
Righteous anger at the bad things of the world is not from the enemy. That is not sin. Anger’s master has put disease and disaster and drunk drivers and betrayal and dishonesty and evil into the world, and all of those things make us mad, and they should. But that has nothing to do with this deadly sin, which is in the business of turning your heart against your brother and your sister. When your anger is aimed at a person who is made in the image of God, that is sin working. And Wrath works hard to confuse you about which is which – are you really angry at misogyny and misuse of power in religious position, or are you just disgusted with the person?
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
But the fruit of the Spirit is kindness.
We can all avoid these Seven Deadlies when it is easy. But it is not always easy.
How do you deal with Pride when everyone around you tells you how meaningful your service has been to them?
Do you face up to Gluttony when you are the one whose name is in lights, at least for a few minutes?
How does Greed get avoided when the need is so great?
It’s not really Sloth when you just need to rest, right?
You are sure that it is not Envy when all you want is to emulate, to be like your hero, to taste what his life is like.
Lust is wrong. You know that. But this is not lust. Jesus would understand. After all, my spouse has not looked at me that way in months. After all, I have fasted forty days and am really hungry. After all, I am made this way – my desire is natural. I am not out looking for something weird, or wrong … I am just following my nature.
Anger, that’s just an emotion. When someone abuses me, or abuses power, or makes my school or my denomination look bad, or gives in to politics instead of holding the line, then my anger toward them is justified. Haven’t you ever heard of righteous indignation?
The question of how we Christians should approach the Seven Deadlies really gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it?
We find ourselves at a loss. We are saved, and yet, we still sin. Those seven rear their ugly heads. As Paul says, we do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we know we should do. And sin drains us of joy and destroys our witness and makes the world that much worse a place for our neighbors, all the while telling us that it does not matter because we are going to heaven someday.
That is why the work of Jesus is so incredibly important. Not only did He save us on the cross from the eternal consequence of sin, He saves us from our sins right now. This is an essential part of grace. He gives us an option. We do not have to sin. No temptation comes without a way out.
Now, there is one more important caveat here. We are all – I mean all of us – failures at this. None of us makes the right choice 100% of the time. John tells us that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [1 John 1:8] We all know that struggle that Paul describes, of doing what we know not to do. You see, missing the mark takes a hold on us. We fall into some sins, it seems, almost by accident; others we plan, telling ourselves they are not big sins, or we are Christian enough to handle it, or nobody will get hurt.
Fortunately, John also tells us that if we confess our sins, the Father is faithful to forgive us and to cleanse us from our unrighteousness. [1 John 1:9] Grace is so much more than helping us make right choices. Grace is redemption from what destroys us, salvation from the upshot of our failures, and forgiveness that is available to each of us now, every time we fall.
But grace is not a license to sin. That is where we started the passage today in Romans 6. Shall we just go on sinning because God forgives us? Paul says, “By no means!” Some translations say, “God forbid.” Some scholars say that Paul’s language is really much stronger than that. The point is that we abuse the grace of God when we do not choose to fight against the sin in our lives because we know that God will let us into heaven anyway.
All our righteousness is as filthy rags. But then we let Christ into our lives; now, we are on a new road, heading with His grace toward His righteousness. Paul exhorts us to give ourselves as slaves to the God who loves us, who offers us rest when we are weary. This slavery is not burden or the whip or a shackle. This slavery is to the one who is love. Jesus saves us from our sins – He intervenes and empowers us to make the right choice. Every time, we can make the right choice. We are slaves to righteousness, because, as Paul says, we are slaves to the one we obey. The Holy Spirit lives in us and helps us with our decisions, our choices, our behavior. But we have to let Him.
When I was in college, a popular worship song recalled the verse from Exodus we read earlier in these lyrics:
Pierce my ear, oh Lord, my God
Take me to Your door this day
I will serve no other god
Lord, I’m here to stay.
For you have paid the price for me
With your blood you ransomed me
I will serve you eternally
A free man I’ll never be. [Steve Croft, “Pierce My Ear”]
In Ancient Israel, a freed slave could choose to return to his master, to be bound to him for life. If he did so, the master would take an awl and pierce the slave’s ear as a permanent sign of the bond between them, that the freed man had chosen slavery with the good master.
We have a choice to make. Remember, we have been freed. Will we choose to be a slave of righteousness? Will we say, “Pierce my ear, oh Lord my God?”
We don’t have to “gum sin all the way to Perdition” on our own. Paul finishes that great passage in Romans 7 this way: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [Romans 7:24-25]
Will we voluntarily choose to be a slave again?