Sermon

The Evil I Do Not Want Is What I Do

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: July 9th, 2017

Pentecost 5, Year A

Audio:

No recording

Scripture Text:

Romans 7:15-25a

Sermon:

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About 15 years ago, I was at a huge daylong meeting at a hotel near O’Hare Airport. There were several thousand people there. Lots of excitement, lots of noise. That was ironic because the meeting was all about contemplative prayer.

Two of the giants of the contemplative prayer movement were speaking: Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, both respected Roman Catholic priests. When Keating spoke, he said something I didn’t expect. He started talking about what he called “the most significant spiritual movement of the 20th century.” We all thought he was speaking about contemplative prayer, but he wasn’t. He contended that the most significant spiritual movement of the last century was Alcoholics Anonymous, the program which generated other 12 Step groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Gamblers Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Overeaters Anonymous, and many more. Groups that give addicts — and the people who love them — the strength to be in recovery from their addictions.

All these groups are based on the original AA program outlined in the book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, which is commonly called The Big Book. Published over 75 years ago, sometimes the language of The Big Book seems a bit dated and downright corny, but so often many of the words still soar, still heal, still give so much solace.

Although the steps were written in such a way as to allow even atheists to feel welcomed into the program, the steps are decidedly Christian and incredibly consistent with what Jesus has to say in the Gospels. To work the 12 Steps is to know full well what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

As I was looking at today’s readings earlier this week, deciding what to preach on, I read that juicy passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. So many people, including me, on reading it for the first time, say, “What is he talking about?”

So let’s take a look at it: Paul says,

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.

When I looked at this passage, I thought, “I am not a betting woman, but I’d put my money where my mouth is on this one. I’d bet just about anything that I could set this passage in front of people who have diligently worked all the twelve steps, recovering addicts who have never heard this reading before, and all those men and women would be nodding their heads in agreement all the way through. Getting every word of it.

And Paul is not talking specifically about being an addict here. He is talking about the human condition. Sin here is not so much the individual little sins we each commit, the peccadillos. It is capital “S” sin, the evil we all do that lives in us and after us, the evil we let loose on the world.

To deal with that kind of evil, we need something radical, something life-changing. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul says. He is not so much saying he is uncomprehending of his own acts as he is speaking of his propensity to commit sins out of ignorance; that is, being so out of touch with himself, so ignorant of who he really is, his True Self, that he says, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

People in 12 Step programs recognize that relying on will power to do the right thing just does not work.

Have you ever anticipated a situation — a confrontation, for example — that you knew would be tense, and you knew in your heart that you might not handle it well. You were worried you might get angry. You were afraid you might say things you really didn’t want to say.

So, you decided you were going to be calm. You were not going to lose it – no matter what the other person said. You were going to be the very model of a modern levelheaded person.

And then there you were, you paragon of dignity and self-control. You found yourself getting angrier and angrier, starting to scream. You lost it. Suddenly, you were saying hurtful things to someone you loved.

You had willed yourself to be calm, but something else — Paul would say “the sin in you” — took over.

He goes on: “If I do what I want – and sin – I agree that the law is good. But, in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

Does he mean that because capital “S” Sin is within us, we are not responsible for our little “s” sins? This indwelling of Sin with a capital “S” was a new idea in the first century, but Paul certainly did not mean that we are not responsible for our actions.

Addiction is actually a type of capital “S” sin. It resides in a person and takes him or her over. It resides there because it has become the person’s god. You don’t have to be a traditional addict to invite a new god to reside within you and take control of you, however. It’s so easy to break the great commandment — not to love God with your whole heart and your whole soul and your whole mind; instead to put strange gods before you.

For example, we may put all our trust, our identity, and our energy into our job or into having a bigger house or boat or car, or just accumulating money or having the perfect body or shopping for stuff we simply must have. We may use any of those things to numb whatever pain we’re feeling. We look to this new god to save us, to bring us happiness.

As I’ve mentioned before, this god can even be people — We can make a person we love more important than God. We can even make our children into little gods, mistakenly believing that they alone can fill the holes in our hearts.

“For I know,” Paul says, “that nothing good dwells within me, that is, my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” There is a wedge between our good intentions and our actions. Paul calls it “flesh,” and it is where capital “S” sin dwells. When Paul talks of the “flesh,” however, he is not equating it with the body, which is a different word in Greek, sarx.

Paul is actually very positive about the body throughout his writings. The “flesh” for him, however, is capital “S” Sin, but flesh is not just sexual sin, it is that big “S” sin that takes us over, that separates us from God and makes us strangers to ourselves.

You can hear the frustration in Paul’s voice when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Have you ever been in a situation, maybe talking with a friend who’s having a problem, and you really want to say something a bit harsh, a bit critical, but you’re not sure if you should because your gut is telling you,

DON’T DO IT. THOSE WORDS ARE HURTFUL AND NASTY AND JUDGMENTAL. DON’T DO IT!

And then, without another thought, you just go ahead and blurt it out anyway. And you do hurt your friend and, maybe, your relationship.

When you really think about what Paul is saying in this reading, it’s a pretty dismal situation – but it’s certainly not hopeless — especially for him. At the end of today’s reading, Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

He answers, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that Paul and we are rescued.

As Bill W., the author of The Big Book of AA recognized, the key to putting God at the center of our lives and to dealing effectively with the big “S” Sin within us, is in our wills, those same wills that we’ve used so ineffectively in dealing with big “S” Sin in the past.

In AA’s Step 3 of the 12, Bill W. wrote for all of us:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

He recognized, as Paul recognized, that we have to discern what it is we can control and what it is we can’t. And we’re not very adept at controlling big “S” Sin. So, Bill W. said,

Surrender your trust to God. Turn your will over. Resign from the debating society. Let go and let God.

An addict cannot control his or her addiction alone. We cannot control our sinning alone. But we can ask God to help us. We can subsume our wills in God’s will, make God the center of our lives, trust that we will be taken care of and trust that all those people we love so much will also be taken care of.

Turning our will over is not a onetime thing. We need to do it often, continually. Every day I have to remind myself many times to let go of my need to control because capital “S” Sin is always there, ready to be invited back into my life.

The Big Book of AA has a marvelous passage on page 83. It’s commonly called “The Promises.” It tells us what we can expect from turning our wills over to God. I think Paul in heaven must nod his head in agreement every time these words are uttered in a 12 Step meeting:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises?

We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
AMEN.

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