Thursday, July 06, 2017

Sin and Saint Paul: Content Without Connection


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. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:15-25a


I read this passage in preparation for our weekly Bible Study, and the same refrain rose in my reflections as it does every time I come to the 7th chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, "AH, one of my FAVORITE passages! What prose! What phrasing! What.....the heck!?!" 

It's true. You cannot read the above quickly and expect to absorb much of the content. There is a repetition of words that creates a natural rhythm. There is a flow that draws the eye along. It also, though, distract and leaves us more with a feeling of the frustration that I believe Paul is attempting to convey, rather than any conveyance of an idea. At least, that I think was Paul's intent. 

The problem with ascribing intent is that we are making conclusions about someone else's motivations, what drives them forward. What does Paul intend to convey to us? He is talking about sin, and the struggles he acknowledges arise when one is aware that one's will does not automatically resonate to the will of God as it is expressed in Torah, or in the teachings of the Christ. We see it, hear it, learn it and do our best to absorb it; but when we resolve to live our lives in concert with the will of our God, we stumble and fall.

There is a breakdown between our resolve, and our ability to follow through with that resolve, consistently and constantly. Why? Because we are neither consistent, nor constant. That, I can connect with.

But Paul's content does something else as well. Even as he seeks to offer up the challenge of the struggle to live in accord with God's will when our own wills fail with follow through, he is also getting us to-I believe-FEEL the struggle. As we struggle to follow and connect to his patter of logic, and our minds wander and stumble, we get a taste of the passions he is struggling with as he struggles to describe. 

Sin is a thing we wrestle with, but it is also a state of being in which we find ourselves. Sin is our willfulness, and it is also the fruits of the same. Sin is turning away from the will of God, and its fruits are the bitter harvest of that brokenness.

OK. I can accept that....but Paul wants us to go deeper. Sin is also an avoidance of a deeper honesty about who we are, how we make choices and what we choose to align ourselves with as we live each day of our finite tenure in this life. Paul is trying to convey not only the idea, but also the feeling of what sin is to us. 

What patterns of life put you in that place that Paul is describing? What choices accumulate around you in order to create the momentum, the propelling force that keeps the cycles of sin rolling on and on in and around you? It's there, as we all know...in us, around us and rolling from us.

That is the content of Paul's efforts. 

But in our attempt a more faithful walk with Christ and each other, how do we find connection in the midst of the content? 

First, slow it down. Read the passage above again...very slowly. Let each phrase be the only one in your field of vision and attention at any one time. Wait on the import of the sentence to open up, much the same as you would hold a morsel of good food or a mouthful of good wine on your palate. Let it do its thing. Be patient. Rest in the content, and you will find that connection to it will follow. 

You will find resonances with what Paul is conveying as you connect his content to your life.

Interesting, yes? As it turns out, when I let the pace slow and allowed my own stuff to settle down a bit I found Paul's content not only more accessible, but a deeper connection with his heart began to resolve itself. It makes more palatable that first step toward santification we all must take...to admit our sinfulness (instead of our sin) and embrace the upward path of reconciliation with a God who knows who and what we are and loves us anyway.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Yoked: To What? To Whom?

Reflections on the Readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 8

The images conjured by the conflict described in the reading from Jeremiah this week are chilling. We get just a brief glimpse of the physical and verbal exchange between the prophet himself and a court prophet by the name of Hananiah. Jeremiah has been commanded by God, in the wake of the invasion of the land by Nebuchadnezzar, to fashion a wooden yoke for himself, and to wear it as he goes about the people.

yoked oxen hauling a sledge
The yoke is intended to symbolize Judah's hope of retaining the last semblances of itself in the wake of the Babylonian incursions, the first sacking of the city of Jerusalem and the first waves of deportations to exile of the court, the priesthood and the merchant/craftsfolks classes of the kingdom. God's command to the prophet to wear a yoke of wood, with straps and bars, on his shoulders was meant to be an emulation of how one would yoke oxen to a cart or plow. The message is simple, submit to being a vassal state. Submit to the king in whom God has entrusted authority over an apostate Judah and perhaps you will be able to keep what little is left you, even as God's judgment is being exercised for the people's transgressions.

Hananiah braces against that condemnation. He prophesies instead that God's judgment has been fulfilled. The king of Babylon will relent, and the King of Judah and his court will be returned. the sacred vessels pillaged from the Temple will be reinstalled. Everything is going to be all right again. The feud culminates for Hananiah with him taking the wooden yoke from Jeremiah's shoulders, breaking it while declaring that the God is breaking the yoke placed on the people.

Jeremiah, in Sunday's lesson, has been willing to let God and time be the final arbiter of the conflict. He knows what God has told him to do and say. He know what it means to try to deny that message, that terrible burden. If the news is good, offered Jeremiah, then well and good! He is happy to let the chips fall where they may....until Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke.

Then, the expulsive and eruptive temper of an old-school prophet comes surging out of Jeremiah's mouth. The yoke will now be one of iron, fastened about the neck of Judah. Now, the last remnants of the temple's fixtures will be lost. Now the subjugation, and shame, of the people under the thumb of Nebuchadnezzar and his heirs will be made complete. Moreover, Hananiah's own life will be forfeit before the turn of the year. Hananiah's own death will be the proof and signal of what it coming.
a 19th cent. slave's yoke, with bells

I have been wrestling with that image of the iron yoke. I can't shake it. Doing research, I found that while in those days the wooden yoke was a tool for work to be done, the iron yoke was a tool of punishment, even torture. It was a device used to humiliate and degrade. So effective was the iron yoke that its use persisted in human history. Even to the 19th century, slaves we placed in those iron yokes in order to prevent them from escaping, even from being able to sit or lie down and rest. The iron yoke was and is a symbol of the depravity of humankind's ability to use our prowess to hitch people to the depravity of enslavement. It's not a tool, this yoke. It's a sign of just how bad our sins can be, and how they can find physical, tangible form.

Struggling with that image of a yoking that entails enslavement, I started to chew on St. Paul's work in Sunday's reading from the letter to the Romans. He opens with adjuring the reader to resist allowing sin to yoke the body, to enslave the passions. Our submission is to be instead to God in Christ. Our members, our motivations and ultimately our choices and actions are to be given to God's own yoke...a yoke of grace, if you will.  If we are willing and thus able to embrace Christ's yoke, and a servanthood exercised under the discipline and guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we are actually liberated from the base enslavement to sin and to allegiance to things that are not of God.

One would hope for a liberation in this ideal of a holy yoking, but the distinction of that is a subtle one. For people who are accustomed to the privilege of freedom from persecution or degradation, the concept of any yoking is a scandal that strikes the pride of place. For those whose people, whose selves, have been touched by subjugation and persecution, the offering of a yoke is beyond insult. A wooden yoke intended to make the labor possible, even easier is contrasted to an iron bar across the shoulders or around the neck. The work we are called to undertake is to know that we cast off the iron yoke of sin and death for one that tunes us to a labor that takes our unruly passions. That tuning takes us deeply into a more faithful practice as we strive to follow Jesus. It also forces us to face just how many iron yokes we have worn...or worse yet have placed on the necks of others. Conversion to God's yoke means repenting of the evil of the yoke of sin we have tooled and retooled throughout human history.

"Catching the Bull"
att. to Tensho Shubun, ca. 15th cent.
Practitioners of Buddhism, particularly those adhering to Zen traditions, use a series of poems about "Herding the Ox." Sometimes called the "Ten Bulls" or the "Ten Oxen," the series of images and poems are allegorical representations of the human ego seeking to find, harness and finally lead the passions of the self into a place (and practice) of enlightenment. One image in that series caught me as I pondered where the Gospel is, I think, ultimately leading us this week. It is the image of "Catching the Bull" shown here. The poem accompanying it goes like this:

I seize him with a terrific struggle.His great will and powerare inexhaustible.He charges to the high plateaufar above the cloud-mists,Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
So much of our lives as people of faith is consumed with the struggle to discern how we can harness the crazy that is us, and ours, and get into some form of order that can-as we see it-actually be useful to God. We forget that we are not the ones whose mission it is to heal the world and to create salvation. That work is God's, and we are called to be part of it. Jesus tells his followers that what matters most as they seek to BE the kingdom of God is to both embrace the art and practice of welcoming and of being welcomed. The yoking he offers is, by his own admission, an easy one...and the burden, by his promise, is light. We are to be a community yoked to peace and grace in the person of Jesus Christ. We are to let go of the heavy, iron yokes of oppression and of sin...and to be agents of reconciliation as the kingdom of God breaks into this world...and breaks the chains of all who are bound to sin, all who are burdened with persecution, all who are subject to oppression and degradation.

That is the Ox that is harnessed to plow the fields in which the seeds of the Gospel will soon germinate and bloom. That is the yoke on our shoulders, that we should be servants of the Most High. It is only when we embrace that liberation that we find the iron bar of sin that is across our backs to be broken and cast into the dust.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Hard, Sharp Edge of the Gospel

Reflections on the Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7-Year A

At this week's Bible Study, we all arrived feeling rather worn and stretched by life and the challenges that God has raised in our lives. The readings for this coming Sunday, and the Collect we will pray in worship, struck us all...hard. The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah started the provocation. The passage offers his reflection the on struggles he endured under the influence of his charge by God to proclaim judgment on the people of Israel, and his attempts to deny it. On the one hand, he faces persecution for his exclamations. On the other, the word and will of God dwells in him with such intensity that when he refuses to let it out, it burns in his bones like fire. In the text following just after Sunday's reading, we found that he goes so far as to curse the day of his birth, preferring that he would have been born still, rather than endure the weight of this prophetic, eruptive charge placed on him by God. We read that dour passage with both frustration and affirmation rising up in us. You see, in a life that is touched by God, it is not that unusual that we should at times be faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, ones set before us by God that are enough to cause us to doubt God's enduring and steadfast love for us. Why get upset at that occasional, awe-full bump in the road? Because if we treated each other like that, people would wonder at the abuse...at least that is the way it can feel. It would be more pleasant, we humor ourselves, if God would not have quite so much confidence in us.

That is the hard, sharp edge of the Gospel. It is the Everest of faith, a summit of service to God in which we are given challenges that exceed what we know we can do while equipped only with what we assume to be the most basic of skills and tools. God told Abraham and Sarah that they would become first time parents as nonagenarians. God wrestled Jacob at the riverside, putting his hip out of joint. God led the people of Israel through the desert wilderness, only to bring them to a Promised Land filled with other people. God put it on Jeremiah to proclaim the horrid to the wicked, and to suffer privation and rejection as the sole voice of judgment. God directed Daniel to speak truth to a power that could not only snuff him out, but his entire people, culture...even the memory of them.

The precedent of God hitting us with more than we can either ask or imagine is not new. What is novel is our experience of that summons in the here and now. What is God asking of you that feels like an impossibility today? What do you dread that God will ask of you tomorrow? 

Quick answer, in case you hadn't guessed already: the seeming impossible.

Then what's the point? 

The point is that God sees more in us, and is able to accomplish more with us, that we can ask for or imagine. Simple affirmation to offer up, but when we start to live it out we begin to realize that it is only in the most challenging calls that we can even begin to plumb the depths of the work that God is able to accomplish in us, in our lives and with our unprepared and reluctant wills and witness.

Paul work hard, very hard, to help us through this conundrum. Paul points to the material hope we have in Christ. I appreciate the effort. The downside is his honesty. These challenges feel like we are being challenged to death. The depth and intensity of these types of labors might not BE death to us, but they feel like it. The challenges threaten our egos, our previous certainties, our desire for peace (or at the least, quiet). They disrupt us and knock us off center. They remind us that change sometimes really does feel like death, or dying. Paul doesn't deny that feeling. He affirms and confirms it. Christ Jesus sustained all of these trials, and the outcome was and is resurrection. Take heart, it really is that tough sometimes, says Paul.

Jesus is only slightly more pastoral: He affirms the level of difficulty that a life in service to the Gospel and to God presents. He also affirms that God is not an absentee commissioner. God is attentive, present and involved in our involvements. God has an eye on the sparrow, and at the same time is giving us full and undivided attention. In other words, God is totally engaged with us. That's grand, but it also means that we are by extension utterly and totally (and visibly) accountable to God for the work at hand.

The life of a faithful disciple is a beautiful one. I try to live it with occasional effectiveness. I see it blooming in the people around me all the time. The downside of this reality is that God's not offering the conditional assent we would prefer. I would much prefer to be of use, than to be "use-full" to God's purpose. Why? Because being "of use" means I am in control. Being full of use means that I am out of control of the situation.

That is the beauty, and weight, of God's abundant grace and glory. We have a God who is extravagantly and passionately engaged in our lives, who invites us to become a part of the Divine work of the healing and redemption of creation. When we willingly answer that invitation, then we get the full measure of grace needed to begin to accomplish God's work and purpose...and that is overwhelming. The good news is that at the other end of that transformational work, we are made whole in a new life in Christ. We also are able to bring others along on that journey.

It is BEING transformed that hurts, because it knocks us out of stasis and into a more dynamic place of existing. We are no longer a cold, static lump of ore, hidden in the ground. We are a heated, raw, mutable metal being forged, fashioned and tempered for use aa a tool for the construction of God's heavenly domain.