“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! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:15–25, NRSV)
This is not the way that I envisioned my first sermon for Klamath Falls United Methodist Church. When I first started talking to the Church Council about our July 5th service, we envisioned a return to corporate worship within safe parameters and with limits but with us being together. I have not met most of you yet, though I’ve spoken to several of you and I am conscious that in uploading today’s service, you are meeting me but I have yet to meet most of you. Uploading my first sermon and service to YouTube sort of feels like I’m uploading a profile to an online dating site with the hope that you all swipe right.
My background in ministry comes from a more of a congregational setting, where my first sermon at a church was ‘preaching for the call.’ I am conscious of wanting to make a good first impression on you all. But even in this setting, I remember a friend who was a retired progressive Pentecostal pastor (yes, there is such a thing) tell me, “Never preach your best sermon as your first sermon, because you will set people’s expectations too high and it will all be downhill from there.” There is some wisdom in these words and I really want you all to like me, but to like me just enough.
I find a great affinity to the Apostle Paul in our passage today. A few weeks ago in her sermon link, Pastor Helen invited us to read the whole of Romans before her sermon on Romans 6. If you did that, you would have noticed something significant: Paul did not know the people with whom he was corresponding. Alright, he knew a few of the people he greets near the end of his letter (Romans 16:3-16), but the church in Rome was not a congregation that Paul had planted and he had yet to visit them there (Romans 1:11-13). So, the tone of this letter is much less personal. John Wesley noted:
Concerning the epistles of Paul, we may observe, he writes in a very different manner to those churches which he had planted himself, and to those who had not seen his face in the flesh. In his letters to the former, a loving or sharp familiarity appears, as their behavior was more or less suitable to the Gospel: to the latter, he proposes his pure, unmixed Gospel, in a more general and abstract manner.
And so, we get these long abstract arguments about the nature and universal problem of sin, what it means to be justified by faith, and the gift of grace and what freedom from our slavery to sin looks like. But Paul does not share much about himself or his life until we get here:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . 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.
This is Paul’s letter of introduction to the church. This is Paul’s opportunity to put his best foot forward and commend himself to the church. It is his chance to speak to his strengths and be winsome. And he could have done what each of us have been told to do on our job interviews and reframed his past failures as teachable moments and episodes of growth. Instead, he speaks of his failure to follow through on the things he sees as good, and his persistence in doing things that are harmful and unhelpful. Paul had already said that all people have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), but here he describes himself in the sinner column.
Now, I know some of you who have studied this passage may know that scholars have different opinions about what Paul means by this “I” language in our passage. Some set this passage within the larger framework of the things that Paul is saying about sin and grace, justification and election understand “I” as a stand-in for Israel, or Adam (Humanity). Others think that when Paul says “I” he means himself, but he is talking about his pre-conversion self before meeting Jesus on the Damascus road.
In my reading of the passage in context, I really believe Paul was talking about himself, though not just himself, but he described something common enough to us all. And I think he was talking about his present reality, not just his past. The verb tenses in the passage are not past but present. Furthermore, I don’t think he is talking about his pre-conversion days because I relate to Paul’s word in my own lives experience as I walk the Christian journey.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. You haven’t met my family, but I am married with four children. In a week’s time my wife Sarah and I will celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary. I love my wife and would not trade these 18 years for anything, but I don’t always love her well. I say and do things that hurt her, and then when we argue about it, I get defensive even when I know I’m the one who is wrong! I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (On a side note, I told Sarah I was going to preach about how I am not that great, and she told me that this was a terrible idea).
I love my kids. I have a 13-year-old, an 11-year old, a 9-year old and a 5-year old. They are each their own people and it is my joy as their father to nurture them into what they will become. But I tell you, as a dad, I don’t always live up to my idea of what it means to be a good father. I sometimes lose my patience, and yell and say things that shame my kids instead of nurturing and caring for them the way I really want to do. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
What is true in my family is true in my vocational life as well. I got into ministry because I love God and I love people and I want to walk alongside others and nourish them in the faith. And yet I could tell you stories of where I have failed to love people well, and where I didn’t show up for others in the way that they needed me. I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
I am not confessing any deep dark secrets here. I don’t think anyone lives up to our ideals all the time. Our relationships are each marked by brokenness, where we broke faith with others, or they, us—the wounds we carry and the wounds we inflicted. Perhaps, you are further on the road to perfection than I am, but you know well the reality of not living up to our ideals. We are not living our best lives now.
Because it is Independence weekend, I am mindful of our two Americas—our idealized vision of the land of the free, home of the brave, and the real-life, real-time version of America that falls short of many of our best principles. Our Declaration of Independence says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet this rallying call of equality falls short in practice. Our Constitution regarded African American slaves as 3/5th a person (Article 1, Section II). Our Bill of Rights was written to ensure a just and equitable society and yet injustice has marked our entire national history. We declared human rights but originally it was only white land-owning males who had any rights or representation. Our national history is marked by a disconnect between ideals and practice. We do not do what we want, but we do the very thing we hate.
And what is true of our country is true of the church. I don’t know you yet, but I have been in enough churches to know that we in the church do not always love one another well. There are those here who have been hurt by this church, and there are those who have left. I have never been part of a church that is not full of wounded people. Here too, we do not do what we want, but we do the very thing we hate.
Wow, this got dark! What a Debbie-Downer of a first sermon! We are all bad (even the Apostle Paul), your new minister isn’t that great and none of us, personally or corporately are living our best lives now! Is there any hope? Should we just feel ashamed that we don’t measure up? Should we feel powerless in the face of our inability to live up to our ideals?
I hope not. I don’t live up to my ideals, but by God’s grace I’m growing. I don’t think Paul wants us to wallow in shame or in some sort of nihilistic defeatism. He says two things that are instructive for us.
First Paul tells us, he is not the bad things he does, “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” He describes how his inner-self really delights in the law of God, but he describes his failure to live up to it as sin dwelling in him. There is a dueling consciousness at work in Paul, but what I find notable here, is that Paul does not reduce himself to the wrong stuff he does.
At his core, Paul is someone who loves the ways of God. He is also someone who doesn’t always measure up. It is so easy for us to wallow in shame when we screw up and believe the lie that we are not worthy. We see where we mess up and we chide ourselves for not being good enough, smart enough, loving enough, or enough. Paul’s word to us is you are not the worst things you’ve ever done. Failure may be our common experience, but it is not the deepest and most interesting thing about ourselves. That thing deep inside us that longs for justice, for shalom, for life, for right relationship with God, creation and community is more indicative of who we are in Christ than the manifold ways we mess up.
Secondly, Paul looks outside himself to save himself from himself. Our passage declares, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We often cast ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. When we mess up, we see our failure as an innate part of our identity. Paul has us look deeper at our true selves and the type of things we want in the deepest parts of our hearts and minds, but then he has us look to Jesus. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul didn’t wallow in his failure but saw it as an occasion to trust God more fully.
I am excited to start this next chapter of life and ministry with all of you at First United Methodist Church here in Klamath Falls. I know that as we journey together, we will bump up against ways that each of do not live out of our true identity as people who love the ways of God and his vision for justice, mercy and peace. We will bump up against the ways each of us do not measure up.
It is my hope that when this happens, we will remember that in each us, something deeper and more wonderful is at work. None of us are the worst things we’ve done, or we do. All of us are sinners in need of grace. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ Our Lord there is grace enough for each of us. Let’s be gracious with one another as we grow in love for God, for one another and our world.