A sermon text, based on Romans 7.15-25a, with a reference to Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020.
“When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But no! Paul reflects on a universal element of our human experience. So pervasive in occurrence and influence that he calls it “a law.”
Now, to avoid the potential confusion Paul himself creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We don’t keep the law!
The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living. Whether the Mosaic law, which is Paul’s particular point of reference.
Or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope.
Or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are.
Or some philosophical, ethical civil code.
Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For when we try to obey it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, following, in the words of one of our prayers of confession, “the devices and desires of our own hearts”, won’t keep the law!
And here’s the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some time-honored virtue. Thus, enabling us to imagine it and, seeking to do what is good, to strive to reach for it. And, as we never always do what is good, the law reveals, exposes our inherent sinful inability to do what is good.
And here’s the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and our worst nightmare. A blessing and a burden.
I don’t know anyone – individual, family, community, nation – who, that doesn’t experience the reality, the sorrow of this struggle.
As I age, I become clearer about the person I want to be (this is to say that, although I have arrived at an age some would consider senior citizenship, I have yet to achieve my goal!)…
Wise. Knowledgeable about the world…
Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in my daily living…
Passionate for justice…
Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree.
However, in seeing clearly who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
I think of historically war-torn lands. Places where and peoples among whom the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational rage and revenge. And I need not discriminate by naming any particular locale. For I can toss a dart at a map of the world and almost any place, at some time in its history, has been or is a war-torn land. When humans want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
I think of America. Once again, we celebrate our nation’s birth. We recall our founding principles of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet, in recounting our national “law,” we are reminded how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. A nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution. Thus, making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”, stubbornly true. A nation where bigotry continues to resist a spirit of universal tolerance. When we want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or global, the same disease and dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right. We are “wretched”!
Now, here’s some good news.
I digress. The only way good news can be good news is that we first and always must hear the bad news. Unless and until we do that, then the news is just news.
The bad news is that we are wretched. We don’t, we won’t keep the law.
And when we come anew to this realization, then we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer: “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
And when we ask that question, then we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We, with Paul, praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection, redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!
This, among many things, I believe, indeed, I have come to know in my life’s experience, is what Jesus means when he says: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened.” Referring to the myriad commands of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law. His law. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” And what is Jesus’ yoke? What is Jesus’ law? Love. Self-sacrificial love.
Let me put this another way as Paul has said in another place: Love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…love is the fulfilling of the law.
So, my beloved sisters and brothers, whenever and wherever and in whom ever there is prejudice, bigotry, and racism, it is because we refuse to love.
And those of us who follow Jesus, we can’t say that we don’t know what love looks like and we can’t say that we have no power to do. So, let’s just do it and fulfill the law.
© 2020 PRA
 Romans 13.8b, 10b