The Mess of Us
Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – July 9, 2017 – Proper 9, Year A: Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Well, my goodness, Paul, (Apostle Paul that is) who in that letter to the Romans, the second lesson today, was working so very hard, which was not atypical for Paul. It’s just that it’s so easy, reading his letter over two thousand years later to get lost in his circles. So the first thing I want to say is, Great job with that, Logan Schmidt, who on your first Sunday as a Lay Eucharistic Minister got this very complicated passage to read with us. And you did it, like a pro. In fact, nobody out there would have known this was your first Sunday if I hadn’t just announced it, but now they know. When I train LEMs I often joke about how one of the benefits of ordination is that I don’t usually have to read the Old Testament Lesson or the Epistle out loud during the service, meaning that I avoid almost all of the hard to pronounce names and places (Cherie) and all of the letters of Paul, Logan. So as an important aside today thank you, all of you who read here at Grace and among many other things, make my job that much easier.
That being said let’s see what we can do here with Paul, because as tempting as it is to let it roll by us this morning, I do want to dive into Romans and unpack it a bit. Let’s see what these Pauline circles might be saying to us today. In case you missed any of it, here it is again in part, because I’m not as brave as Logan:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…. if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me…For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Now first I resonate with Paul on a very deep level, and my guess is that as resistant as we can be to Paul (I know that resistance is out there) most of us resonate with his struggles to some extent, anyway. Paul is among other things very upfront with his personal struggles: “I do not understand my own actions,” he tells the people of Rome. Well, I do not understand my own actions sometimes, either, people of Grace. And so there it is: me and Paul. Maybe you and me and Paul. I don’t always do what I want myself to do or what I think I should do. Like Paul, as hard as a try, and like Paul, I try very hard, I can not claim that my actions are in alignment with my beliefs, my vision for myself and this world, or even my own intentions, 100% of the time. I occasionally hit 90%-ish perhaps or that rare, fleeting glimpse of 95%. But then it slips, something slips.
And so just like Paul, I find myself out of sinc with myself on an all too regular basis.
Now what I think Paul is trying to do in this passage is explain how and why that very thing happens. “How can I be out of alignment with me,” is the question he’s working out in this passage. It’s hard enough to wrestle with how I can be out of sinc with someone else, and usually that’s what we talk about here – the distance and tensions between and among people and neighbors. But this is different. Paul is taking just Paul. I am taking just me. And you are looking at just you. How can we be divided even with ourselves?
So at this point, Paul and I take different tacks. We have the same struggle. But (not a big surprise to you) I’m sure, we have different explanations for why and how the struggle happens. Paul’s approach is to say that his mind is good, and his body is bad. (That’s a slight oversimplification, but I’ve only got a total of about 12 minutes here so I encourage you to read more about this from some good Biblical scholars.) For the sake of this sermon, however, I want us to see that Paul, given the frameworks that existed in the time and place in which he lived, maintained strict boundaries and distinctions between the mind and spirit, and the body. And Paul used those frameworks for explaining himself and to help him communicate his new faith to the people of Rome and other cities and regions. And we do that too and we should – we use the tools that exist in our own day to seek understanding of the world, ourselves and our faith, to communicate, to explain, to explore.
And so Paul as circular as he sounded, and as very painfully hard as he worked at it, actually used a rather simple explanation for his out of sinc-ness. His mind was good and the physical reality that was his body was bad, actually in his words, his body was “wretched.”
And unfortunately, that particular explanation made it into Scripture, or maybe not unfortunate that it made it into Scripture but that it became the dominant explanation rather than one among many.
Unfortunate because I think that while the struggle for personal alignment is itself so very human, the explanation of mind is good and body is bad at times anyway hurt rather than helped us align as well as we might. We’ve set minds and souls against bodies, seeing the physical dimensions of our very God-created selves as “the enemy” and I just don’t see how that approach can possibly get us to the wholeness we seek and that I and Paul believe God wishes for us.
That being said, I don’t have an explanation that offers any more clarity than Paul’s does. In fact my approach is much messier than what he offered. The sin that Paul talks about residing in one dimension of himself is everywhere, in my theological opinion. It’s in me, all of me and my mind has as much to do with it as my body, probably more given what we now know now about the connections between mind and body, brain and body, given the frameworks we have at our disposal now.
The bad that I do or the lack of good that I do isn’t because my mind is saying all sorts of righteous things 100% of the time and my body disobeys it. Sometimes it’s my mind that says, “you don’t have to recycle that,” or “someone else will stand up for that person,” or “eat all of that now” or “you don’t need that much sleep” or “that bit of forgiveness can wait, you’ve got other things on your to-do list that need to get done today.”
Dang that mind. Sometimes as much as my body would like to be doing good, my mind lets it off the hook!
Which is why I lean toward the explanation of personal, holistic mess, or the “all of me is responsible for both the good and bad that I do,” rather than the body-mind divide. Bodies do good, bodies do bad. Minds do good, minds do bad. And most of the time, they’re in it together.
Perhaps I shouldn’t knock Paul for his circles, given that in the end he has some clean lines and my approach leaves us with one heap of messy person. (But I do promise Logan, not to ask you to read any of this out loud.)
So where I lean is into the acknowledgement that given that mess, the many challenges that are “me,” 100% is not achievable by me, Jen Adams, or any of us for that matter, in this life. It will take more than me to iron me out eternally.
Now I play a crucial role in helping that happen on a daily basis, but I need help. I need room to confess when and how I am out of sinc. This means that I need time to still my body and my mind so that I can listen to myself and reflect on my actions and re-align as best I can on a very regular basis. I also need people who will be honest with me, when they see my words and my actions, my intentions and my behaviors, my calling and my doing out of sinc with other. I need all of you and relationships of mutuality, honesty, and trust.
And I, like Paul, simply need to keep working at this alignment, internal reconciliation we could call it, which I believe comes through a combination of my participation in that process and pure grace. It will take more than me to iron me out, I’m sure of it. Alignment, individually, communally, globally ultimately is in part, perhaps in large part gift.
And so people of Grace, be both gentle to yourself and challenge yourself and help us be a community that practices both of those things with each other. Know that we aren’t seeking perfection, but we have been offered goodness and we have been granted abundant and unconditional divine love. The flute is playing” the gospel says, and the dance of faith, the holy life is open to all. We can all do better than we do, with our bodies and our minds, with ourselves And through grace, that growth, that healing, that forgiveness, those glimpses of wholeness are being offered to us every day.
May we make room to receive such gifts.