Playing God



Jonah 3:1-4:11
© Stacey Steck

Maybe it’s been a while since you read the book of Jonah, or at least the entirety of the book of Jonah. Yes, there is more to the book of Jonah than the one famous verse in which he is swallowed by the great fish, but the rest is far less well-known. So let’s hear the second half of the story, and see what comes up interesting.

A couple of weeks ago when talking about the parable of the sower, I suggested that the purpose of a parable is less about allegorically equating the characters with real life events, and more about helping us to see something about God or ourselves in an otherwise ambiguous story. This week, let me suggest that another way to think about Biblical parables is that some of them are very much like those great Latin American works in that genre called magical realism, like the books “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, or “Like Water for Chocolate” in which the reader must let go of preexisting ties to conventional storytelling and plot advancement, of linear time structure and scientific reason, and all the other elements that help Western readers make sense of a story, to strive for a state of heightened awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings. In these kinds of stories, there are elements of the phantasmagorical, the fantastic, and the mystical, not to mention simply great imagination filled with great exaggeration.

Many people claim that Latin America owns the intellectual property rights to the idea of magical realism, but I’m here to tell you that it is, in fact, the Bible that should get the credit for this genre, and a special prize in the category for the book of Jonah, a parable even if we don’t usually label it one. If we tend to think only of the big fish when we think of Jonah, it is for two reasons, the first being the power of hyperbole, of great exaggeration, and the second because we are not accustomed to reading Jonah as a parable, but rather as history, and so we kind of get stuck on the biological aspects of how a human being could survive three days in the belly of a whale, and never get around to the bigger issue of how human beings wrestle with what seems to be a conflict between God’s justice and God’s mercy, which is really what Jonah is struggling with here as he makes his way into Nineveh, makes his eight word prophecy, and waits outside for something terrible to happen.

Jonah, you see, has no love for the Ninevites. He wants them to reject his message so they can get what he thinks they deserve. In the ancient world, Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire had a reputation as being as brutal, immoral, and violent a place as you could imagine. And historically, Assyria, and by association, Nineveh, did some very awful things, including overthrowing Israel, the Northern Kingdom of God’s people, in the year 722 BC. This city, Nineveh, then, is code for big, bad, and ugly, and on top of that is the history of its direct involvement in the destruction of the very people who wrote Jonah. No wonder Jonah wants nothing to do with them. No wonder he wants God’s message of grace and forgiveness nowhere near them. But as if the real reputation and history of Nineveh aren’t enough, the parable exaggerates the size of its city, the rapidity of its repentance, the depth of its piety, and so we must ask ourselves why. Well, for one, if the story were just history, we would have a hard time seeing past our own prejudices to see God’s purposes, even if they are a little hard for us to understand. Jonah can’t. He’s too stuck on the real Nineveh. But when we allow ourselves to enter into a world which is depicted as absurd, we can see more clearly some of the ways in which we act pretty absurdly when we try to play God.

If you’ve ever walked through Manhattan, Toronto, Paris, or any other major city, you know that Nineveh couldn't possibly have taken three days to cross. A hundred and twenty thousand people may have been a lot in one city in those days, but they didn’t make for a city so big you couldn't pass through in a just a few hours. If you’ve ever read the books of Isaiah or Jeremiah, or even one of the shorter books like Micah, you know that prophets rarely bring about the repentance they preach, and never in less than a few pages of our Bibles. And yet here is Jonah, winning over the hearts of the evil Ninevites with a single, brief, and uninspiring, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He doesn’t even use the famous formula, “Thus says the Lord,” to introduce his word of condemnation. And when is the last time you saw farm animals fasting in sackcloth and ashes, the traditional forms of demonstrating repentance? No, it’s all very absurb and surreal, reality distorted, roles reversed, all of it is very strange, even by Biblical standards, all but Jonah’s reaction, maybe the most typical reaction we human beings have, to be resentful when things don’t go our way, to begrudge others the blessings they have received because we don’t think they have earned them, to judge both God and others according to our absurdly narrow notions of merit, or fair play, or national pride, instead of the wide open grace of the God who created the universe and can do what ever the creator of the universe pleases!

You see, all of God’s grace and power revealed in this story brings into sharp focus our age-old desire to play God, and our failure to be able to do so. As much as we or Jonah might want one, there is no simple answer to why bad things don’t happen to bad people who deserve bad things to happen to them. As much as it sometimes seems intolerable to live in a world where God’s justice doesn’t seem to be fairly distributed, the answer isn’t just to check out of reality like Jonah wants to do. And for as often as we talk about celebrating changed hearts and transformed lives, we usually don’t celebrate them. Think of the older son’s reaction when the prodigal son returns home. He’s upset that he never got a party! Think about what happened when the man filled with so many demons he called himself Legion was freed from all those demons which fled into the pigs which then ran into the lake and killed themselves. Did the townspeople rejoice that this man had been freed from his demon possession? No, they were afraid for the rest of their livestock and wanted to run him out of town! How many institutions with plans to build facilities to help people who desperately need help meet resistance from their neighbors who organize to keep them out, but then continue to complain about the social problems those institutions are trying to address? No, we are not always aligned with God’s perspective on a whole host of matters, but the good news of the Gospel is that God doesn’t give up on us either.

The book of Jonah ends with Jonah still sitting out in the hot sun with no real answer to God’s question about what he thinks God’s reaction to the Ninevites should be in light of his experience with the bush. Maybe that lack of an answer is because Jonah didn’t have one, but more likely the parable simply ends this way to challenge us with the same question, to confront us with the same issues. Most of the time, our desire to have God join us in all our prejudices and ignorance doesn’t cause much harm to anyone but ourselves. Usually, it will just mean that we end up disappointed or depressed like Jonah, held back from experiencing the joy of celebrating God’s grace revealed, and lives truly transformed, preaching love and joy but not really experiencing them. However, if that weren’t tragic enough, sometimes our delusions that we are, in fact, God have very real human consequences. How many parents play God with their children, acting like tyrants, expecting the kids to be their servants, subjecting them to verbal humiliation, physical violence, or sexual abuse, all in the name of parental authority, but in reality because they are little terrorists themselves, wounded by others trying to play God in their own childhoods? How many employers and businesses play God to their employees, subjecting them to inhumane working conditions and terms of employment, trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of them, all in the name of efficiency and free enterprise, but in reality because they know they can be easily replaced by others desperate for work and willing to be exploited? How many governments play God to their citizens and impose themselves into areas of their own citizens’ lives where they have no business being, while overlooking true threats to societal welfare, all in the name of public safety or national security, but in reality because there is a lot of money to be made in a perpetual climate of fear?

While all of those experiments in playing God come with a terrible cost, there are some who pay for those experiments with the ultimate price. Some of those deaths we can put down to individual delusions of grandeur, but many more of them we must attribute to a Jonah-like cultural blindness about God’s priorities, even in what are claimed to be Christian societies. I said a couple of weeks ago that the value of a parable is where it allows our imagination to take us. As we come to a close this morning of the parable of the pouting prophet, allow me to share where it took me. Perhaps you heard about this month’s executions of death row inmates, newsworthy because they were the first federal executions done in quite a number of years. Executions at the state level, however, continue at a much more regular rate, and are rarely news, even if the consequences are just as final.

On the morning of December 29, 1991, the body of a thirty-six year old woman was found in the men's restroom of the Phoenix, Arizona bar where she worked. She had been fatally stabbed, and the perpetrator left behind little physical evidence. Blood at the crime scene matched the victim’s type, and saliva on her body came from someone with the most common blood type. There was no semen and no DNA tests were performed.

Investigators relied on bite marks on the victim’s breast and neck. Upon hearing that the victim had told a friend that a regular customer named Ray Krone was to help her close up the bar the previous night, police asked Krone to make a Styrofoam impression of his teeth for comparison. On December 31, 1991, Krone was arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

At his 1992 trial, Krone maintained his innocence, claiming to be asleep in his bed at the time of the crime. Experts for the prosecution, however, testified that the bite-marks found on the victim’s body matched the impression that Krone had made on the Styrofoam and a jury convicted him on the counts of murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death and a consecutive twenty-one year term of imprisonment, respectively. Krone was found not guilty of the sexual assault.

Krone won a new trial on appeal in 1996, but was convicted again, mainly on the state’s supposed expert bite-mark testimony. This time, however, the judge sentenced him to life in prison, citing doubts about whether or not Krone was the true killer.

It was not until 2002, after Krone had served more than ten years in prison, that DNA testing would prove his innocence. DNA testing conducted on the saliva and blood found on the victim excluded Krone as the source and instead matched a man named Kenneth Phillips. Phillips was incarcerated on an unrelated crime and, although he had lived a short distance from the bar where the victim worked, he had never been considered a suspect in her murder.

On April 8, 2002, Krone was released from prison and on April 24th, the District Attorney’s office filed to formally dismiss all charges against him. Murder and sexual assault charges have since been brought against Phillips.

Ray Krone spent more than a decade in prison, some of it on death row, before DNA testing cleared his name. He is the 100th former death row inmate freed because of innocence since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the United States in 1976. He was the twelfth death row inmate whose innocence has been proven through post-conviction DNA testing. Prior to his arrest, Krone had no previous criminal record, had been honorably discharged from the military, and had worked in the postal service for seven years. Today he works advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, arguing that it is unjust to impose a consequence that cannot be undone in light of new evidence.

And if that weren’t challenging enough, more recently and more famously, the story told in the film, Just Mercy, adds the complication of systemic racism to Ray’s experience. Ray Krone, a white man, was convicted largely on the basis physical evidence, of bite marks, even if they weren’t his. Walter McMillan, the man portrayed in the true story of the film, was convicted largely because he was black, an age-old easy scapegoat offered up in the testimony of a convicted felon who provided highly self-contradictory testimony in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own pending trial. Playing God takes a variety of forms.

I strongly sympathize with the often heard lament that in these matters it seems that more attention is given to the perpetrators of crime than to their victims, that the law seems to bend over backwards to ensure that the defendant gets a fair trial at what seems like the expense of grieving families who have lost a loved one, or suffered in some way. A lot more should be done to make sure victims and their families are not revictimized by the judicial process. Nevertheless, I am more sympathetic to that old saying, that even though it does not appear in the Bible, probably should be found right here in Jonah, that two wrongs don’t make a right. It may not seem fair to spare the life of a convicted murderer who did not spare the life of his victim, but in this case, and in so many more of the situations that plague our consciences, there does exist an alternative that lets God be God, and lets us off the hook for that awesome responsibility.

“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks Jonah, and the question hangs in the air after all these years. At the risk once again of making it seem like it is really all about us, kind of like Jonah thought, God’s question to Jonah reveals to us once again that the way we define fairness and justice may come back to bite us, if we do not look at them with the eyes of grace with which God looked upon Nineveh. None of us are really any more deserving of being spared than any of Nineveh’s 120,000 inhabitants, and all their cattle, or Jonah. But in God’s wonderfully absurd way, we are saved, or we can be even if others would condemn us, because God is God and we are not. And praise God for that. Amen.

You can watch Ray’s story here.

The Last of the Least of These



Romans 8:18-27 and Matthew 25:31-40
© Stacey Steck

It’s funny how things stick with you. I remember vividly what I am about to tell you. One evening a number of years ago now, I was sitting in my living room reading a book called, “The Meaning of Prayer,” by the great 20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick begins his book by claiming, probably correctly, that prayer is, and I quote, “a natural function of human life.” The inclination to pray, regardless of the quality of the prayer, or the direction of it, is hard-wired, according to Fosdick. It is the Christian’s task, he claims, to cultivate that inclination, so as not to squander the opportunity presented by the possibility of communicating directly with God. I shall return to the significance of Fosdick’s observation, but for the moment, I want to tell you what happened to me next. After reading a particularly provocative part of the chapter, I paused to reflect on it when my eye happened on the lamp next to me which I noticed for the first time was painted with flowers, flowers which exactly resembled the flowers in the curtains on the window next to it, a happy convergence of design elements even if they were not chosen to match one another. And with that observation, I realized just how pervasive is the human tendency to bring nature indoors, even as we build walls to keep it out. We keep our little houseplants and family pets, we hang watercolors of landscapes, we put flowers on the table, and we listen to hummingbird-shaped wind chimes. All but the plants and pets are artificial, but no matter, for all the rest reminds us of things growing, beautiful, and alive, even if they are placed just so, that we may have control over them, instead of them over us, as takes place outside our windows. If prayer is a natural function of human life, so too, I believe, is the desire to have nature in our midst. Following Fosdick then, it is the Christian’s task to cultivate that instinct, so as not to squander the opportunity presented by the possibility of recognizing God not only in the things we can make and control, but also in those we cannot. There may be a human habitation somewhere that has no inkling of nature artificially placed within it, but you’ll have to look mighty far to find it.

And yet, even with so much native desire, we are conflicted about the very nature we crave. At this very moment, there is a trap set in my house to catch a mouse who ought not be where I don’t want him to be. He is messing with my arrangement of how I want my nature to be. And so, whether through cultural conditioning, corporate greed, or just a desire for comfort, we have arrived at a time and place where the very thing we crave is as close to being extinct as it has ever been. The planet’s peril, in soil, air, water, and wildlife has been exhaustively well-documented, and despite the skeptics who argue that remnants of the ice ages prove that climate change is purely cyclical, they are but a shrinking minority who believe this unprecedented change has not come primarily from the hearts and hands of human beings. The desire for nature, like prayer, may be natural, but unlike prayer, nature is not without limits. Prayer comes from the heart, mind, and lips, but nature lives where there is still exposed soil into which roots may sink, clean air for animal lungs to breathe and running water in which salmon may spawn. It takes but a unexpected crisis or the coming of the hour of the believer’s schedule practice to produce a prayer, but it takes decades to grow a tree that can be cut down in just a few minutes. In fifty years, will the nature we can reproduce, in silk or art or video, be enough to satisfy our need to connect with God through our Lord’s wonderful creation?

It will not surprise you to learn that I think the answer to that rhetorical question is a clear no. Not even taking into account the consequences on actual human beings that could be offering glorious prayers to God, the condition of nature is inextricably linked to the very prayer that Fosdick calls natural, and which leads us into the shalom God has in mind for us. There will come a time when human impact on the environment will begin to claim enough human lives that we will officially and politically call it a crisis, not unlike in the various natural disaster doomsday movies that appear from time to time. But the time is already here when our prayers are both the poorer and the more necessary for the damage we have done, and it is already safe to say we are in a theological crisis that cannot wait to be addressed. It is here that I would like to turn to our passages from Romans and Matthew to explore this crisis and this opportunity.

All Christian thinking about the environment must ultimately be traced back to the book of Genesis in which we learn of the human responsibility for God’s creation, a responsibility often practiced as abuse, and not the stewardship and caretaking God intended. The Apostle Paul was not uninformed about this very specific arrangement between human and planet, and understood very well the role redemption played in the totality of the cosmos, and not just among human beings. Hence, we have the beautiful statements we just heard, that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” and “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Even in the midst of his passion for God’s redemption of the very human Gentiles whom Christ has invited into relationship, Paul does not forget all of God’s creation. Indeed, it is part of his argument for the inclusion of the Gentiles, that God did not only create the Jews, but all the world too, those living outside the promised land as well as those within. What Paul brings to light here as he waxes poetic about creation is this: that creation’s redemption is linked with our own; that the end of creation’s suffering begins with the end of our own. Here is how it works.

Paul reminds us of the subjection of creation, nature, to futility, a futility brought about by the unfortunate act of Adam and Eve. This futility, this suffering, persists as long as human beings, in the course of their sin, do not take seriously the responsibility of stewardship and caretaking originally given to them. And it is a futility destined to last until the end of time, for in our sin, we human beings will not be able to rejoice fully with God until God’s glory is revealed to us in the second coming of Christ. And neither will creation, since the end of creation’s suffering comes when we are truly glorified. When our glory truly comes, we will then be fully able to properly assume to responsibility that is ours, and allow all of God’s creation to rejoice with us in God’s presence. This is why Paul says that creation eagerly awaits “the revealing of the children of God,” or as other translations put it, “for God to show who his children are.” It is our redemption that brings creation’s redemption, our freedom which brings creation’s freedom. If I were creation, I’d be eager for that too!

Now, one way of reading this passage is to do with all of creation what we have often done with the bodily needs of suffering people, to remind them that their glory awaits them in heaven, and the body is but a temporary container for their invaluable soul, and to make sure that their soul is right with God above all else, as if someone’s soul could actually do that meaningfully in a tortured or starving body. And since there were always still many souls to save, the church could not spend too much time on non-soul work. Similarly then, since God will redeem creation at the end of time, there is really no need to get too worked up about our treatment of it. This was the strategy of a large portion of the Christian church for a long time, as it lived out its reluctance to get its hands dirty in issues of social justice or charity work or care of the earth. It is also a strategy that has largely been shown to be a discredited shadow of the Gospel Jesus preached, and thanks be to God we have come to better understand a more holistic approach to sharing the Good News Jesus shared with us.

And how did we arrive at such a conclusion, such a change in approach? Well, although we can’t say it wasn’t there all along, we found that answer in the Bible, in passages like Matthew 25, wherein we rediscovered the divine link between mind, body, and spirit, and realized we had a responsibility to care for people in this life, as well as prepare them for the next. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food, thirsty and gave you something to drink, a stranger and welcomed you, naked and clothed you, in prison and visited you?” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” We found it in the wise words of the book of James: “If a brother or a sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Most, maybe all, of us have been well schooled in this understanding of the Gospel, and we, and our churches, have responded generously to photos of emaciated children in famine-stricken areas, and survivors of hurricanes and tornados, the homeless sleeping under bridges and children panhandling at the street corner, and may God bless us always with more of that gift of generosity which helps us become more human in Christ’s image, and closer to God. Let us be counted as sheep, not goats.

Now, I may not be telling you anything you don’t already know or do, but perhaps I can plant this one, small seed within you: that even though it is not listed as one of the measures by which we will be judged, God creation, and especially God’s wilderness, is every bit as much one of the “least of these” as the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick, or prisoner. You see, when we look at what all these groups have in common, we see that their common condition is one of suffering, one which runs contrary to God’s intention for the world, a common condition for which there is a remedy, for which there is a solution, if only God’s people would put their hearts, hands, and voices to work on it. There is no consideration here of the reasons by which each came to be in the condition of needing love and care, only that they do need it. There is no caveat that the poor will always be with us, and so to concentrate on matters more spiritual. There is not even an acknowledgement of the enormity of the task, and it is big. There is only the reminder of the need, and the commonality we share, the commonality Christ shared with us, as human being, and as creation. And so, even though Christ’s list in Matthew is not meant to be exhaustive of the ways in which we are called to be good stewards of creation, human beings included, we are still able to see that creation suffers, that we can do something about it, that even though creation will not stop groaning until God’s glory is revealed in us, that is not an excuse not to tend to it now, as we tend to the other more immediate needs that confront us in the faces of human beings. “When did we see your wilderness facing destruction, and turn off our chainsaws?” Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Herein lies both our theological crisis and our opportunity.

I began with a memory of our need for nature, and I shall conclude with another, this one from a New York Times essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg about a trip he took once to the very north of Finland, just below the Arctic circle. On his first night there, he observed a strange phenomenon: there was nothing to hear, no cars, no birds, not even the rushing river he could see with his own eyes. The landscape swallowed up every sound. He put it this way: “The silence felt more like an unnatural muffling of my senses than the porous stillness of the natural world, of which I was a part.” But on his last night in Finland, at the same spot as a week before, this is what he observed: “As I stood there, I heard the faint, but quite audible roar of the rapids a half-mile downstream and around a great bend. Why had I not heard it that first night? The answer, I suppose, is that I was too busy not hearing the things I’m used to hearing, including the great roar that underlies the city’s quietest moments. It had taken a week to empty my ears, to expect to hear nothing and to find in that nothing something to hear after all.” Most of us come to terms with our humanity, or our knowledge of the grace of God through the gift of other humans who show us what life is all about. Sometimes those human beings are those we know and love, and sometimes they are the nameless and faceless people Christ called us to serve. Imagine the loss in your own life that would result from the lack of even one of those gifts of God’s grace in your life. And then place yourself in Klinkenborg’s north Finland wilderness and imagine what you would never hear if that wilderness weren’t there to help you hear it. Maybe you’d miss the very voice of God, for the constant ringing in your ears of “the great roar which underlies the city’s quietest moments.” Remember that it was a moment of sheer silence on a mountaintop which captured the Old Testament prophet Elijah’s attention long enough, even in the midst of his despair, so that he might hear the word of hope God was speaking to him. May we preserve God’s wilderness not only for its own sake, reason enough, but also so that we may not squander the opportunity to recognize God not only in the things we can make and control, but also in those we cannot, like a cave on a mountaintop or a river in the north of Finland. Amen.

Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My!



In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them.
He Reigns
Everything That Has Breath

Romans 7:15-25a
© Stacey Steck

I’ll bet you never knew that the road to the new Jerusalem, that place with the streets of gold, is really the yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City. That’s the journey we’re on, isn’t it? To get to the end of the road and meet the man behind the curtain? But it’s an uncertain journey, isn’t it? Filled with all manner of obstacles, great peril of all kinds, danger lurking just off the path. Maybe you remember the song that Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man sang. “Lions and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!” Those three characters were on the way through the dark woods when the noises they heard coming from the trees began to spook them. And their imaginations overwhelm them and they begin to conjure up visions of fearsome beasts, and they sing that famous line, “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” and what should pop out in front of them but a lion! Yes, it was the Cowardly Lion who was no threat at all, and who joined them on their merry way so that they could get their rewards, and Dorothy could click her heels together three times and arrive back at home, sweet home.

Well, the Apostle Paul had his own way of describing the dangers of the Christian journey toward eternal life. Although the shorthand for those dangers is sin, the way he talks about the risks of the journey in this seventh chapter of Romans sound more like something that should come from The Book of Romans: The Musical! Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My! Habits and Patterns and Bents, Oh My! Habits, and Patterns, and Bents, Oh My! No, the risks to our journey of faith are not wild animals but bad habits, ingrained patterns, and unconscious bents, those ways we go through life which make it so difficult for us to change, to be the people we want to be. Paul puts it so plainly: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We know what we are supposed to do, but we just can’t stop doing the opposite! And most of the time, it’s those pesky habits, and patterns and bents which keep us frustrated.

Paul is writing to people he’s never met in Rome, but people whom he knows are familiar with Jewish traditions about the Law of Moses. They are most likely not Jews, but that category we call God-fearers, Gentiles who were attracted to the high ethical standards of Judaism, and the love, grace, mercy, and justice of the God behind it. We see these characters mentioned several times in the New testament, most notably the Centurion Cornelius who first heard about Peter’s vision of the inclusion of all people in God’s vision for the world. These God-fearers were not born Jewish but adopted the lifestyle, and kept the commandments, but who were not circumcised. These were a group of people whom Paul always sought out as he would go to a new city, since it was the Gentiles to whom he was sent. So here he is now writing to those who had likely decided to follow Christ but who were maybe not quite so sure that Christ was the next logical step, especially when there may have been others telling them that they needed to fully become Jews in order to become Christians, as Paul addresses more directly in the book of Galatians. In any case, this part of the book of Romans is a key part of Paul’s case that God used Jesus Christ to keep the promise made to Abraham that God would ultimately bless the whole world, and not only Israel the chosen nation.

In what is an argument that is a little too complex to address fully on a Sunday morning, Paul is trying to show that the Law of Moses was part of the process to get that promise to Abraham delivered, but that Christ’s death and resurrection complete the job. The Law is great, Paul is saying, but it is not quite enough. The Law shows us what sin looks like, kind of like shining a flashlight under a bed. We have a pretty good idea that it’s kind of dusty down under there but until we put a flashlight to it, we never knew how dusty it really was. But of course, it’s not the flashlight’s fault that it is dusty under the bed. Dust is the real problem. And no matter how hard we try to clean up that dust, it always comes back! Dust never sleeps! Yes, sin is as pervasive as dust, or a virus. NT Wright, no slouch of a Biblical scholar, describes sin as “a power let loose in the world, a deceptive and corrosive parasite that has entwined the whole human race in its tentacles and is slowly choking it to death.” The law then, is like an electron microscope used to identify that virus, a discovery that leads to ways to avoid the symptoms of the disease we all live with. It is Christ, Paul is arguing, who kills the virus and makes us healthy, but we continue to act like we have the virus, including living out the symptoms.

It’s like our minds are not fully aware that our bodies are free from the contagion, so the mind tells the body to do all of the same things it always did with the disease. Hence, Paul’s famous words that “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.” Habits and patterns and bents, oh my! We are living and wrestling, Paul says, with the legacy of sin, even though in Christ we have been freed from it.

And it’s a struggle, isn’t it? Ignorance is bliss, the old saying goes. When we don’t know it’s wrong to do something, we don’t have a problem doing it, except maybe for the consequences. But when we know something is wrong, and we still do it, that’s what creates the inner turmoil that Paul is describing. And it’s not just a matter of being troubled by a conscience that has let us know when we are doing wrong. Paul has the additional agony of knowing that Christ has accepted us unconditionally even if we continue to sin. “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 here is our dilemma. We know that Christ has died to free us from sin, and we believe it, but we still sin on a pretty regular basis. In the chapters between now and August 23, when the Lectionary brings us to the lovely words of Chapter 12, Paul will go into more depth on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” But before we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds, we need to understand what is wrong with our minds in the first place. And that brings us back to the “habits and patterns and bents, oh my.” Why do we continue to do what know is wrong?

Well, Paul was a great theologian who probably would be fascinated by what we are learning about the human brain these days. The simple truth is that we learn sin, and it’s really hard to unlearn it. If there is any truth to the idea of original sin, it’s that we are bound by our brain’s inability to learn any other way than the way it learns. In a nutshell, here is how we learn. In the first place we observe. As babies, we observe that when we cry, someone comes to tend to us. It’s like magic. We can summon creatures to do our bidding. All we do is open our mouths and we get our needs met. And we observe that if we cry in a certain way, we get fed, and if we cry in a certain different way, we get our diaper changed. And of course, the learning process works both ways doesn’t it? The parents learn which cry is for food and which cry is for diaper. We aren’t born knowing that stuff. We learn it. And so every day for months and years, until we learn how to speak, we cry, and other people respond. We don’t think about what we do. Babies don’t say to themselves. I’m feeling hungry. I’d better use that hunger cry to get my needs met. Here we go! No, they have the inclination, the bent of hunger, and the habit of crying, which leads to the pattern of parental response. Habits and patterns and bents, oh my.

What is happening inside the brain is fascinating. All this learning is creating what are called neural pathways, information superhighways of electrical and chemical connections that make our brains more efficient so they can get on to learning more new stuff. These neural pathways are like shortcuts across the brain. Ever see a path worn across a field or a lawn? It’s usually not where the sidewalk or the road is. It’s where the people who walk there go on a regular basis because it’s the fastest, most direct route. And the grass never grows there because it’s been walked on so many times. Those pathways become familiar ruts over time. And it becomes very hard to take any other route from point A to point B. This is why it can be very hard for human beings to change things even when we want to. Because the brain isn’t really wired that way. The brain wants to make things as automatic as possible so it can be on the lookout for new threats. And so our ways of being become automatic, from the tilt of our head which attracts our mother’s attention, to the accents we use in our speech, to the bad habits we take to the golf course from practicing our swing the wrong way too many times. Yes, muscle memory has everything to do with why we can’t stop sinning.

And it is not enough to be aware of our inability to change. Just knowing we are doing something wrong doesn’t make it easy to do it right. In 1928, the experimental psychologist, Knight Dunlap, got tired of making the same handwriting mistake over and over again. He had this annoying habit of writing “the” for “the” which he had tried for years to correct, unsuccessfully. Dunlap’s breakthrough came when he decided to pursue the issue counterintuitively. He began to intentionally practice spelling the word the wrong way, again and again, and ultimately he successfully cured himself of the wrong spelling of the word instead of the right one. He went on to elaborate what he called his beta hypothesis that others put to the test with at least some degree of success. I’ve used this technique to help Lucia practice the piano and it frequently works. Sometimes you just have to trick the brain to get it out of those ruts, to disrupt those neural pathways. It’s a sermon for another day, but this is precisely the genius of Jesus, who so often counterintuitively challenged his followers to go and do otherwise.

The things we learn, the sins we learn, we usually don’t learn intentionally. Our sin is the result of a bent, an inclination toward getting our needs met, that becomes a habit or a pattern of behavior that just goes on and on. And so we say with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That rescuing takes a couple of forms. The first is that life in the Spirit can help us create new neural pathways that get us out of our ruts of sin. We can learn new ways. We can have different internal dialogues. We can become less automatic and more thoughtful. We can make better choices. We can overcome biases we didn’t even know we had. God can do this. God does this. Ideally, that is why we gather together, and have Sunday School, to create the right kind of ruts. The Spirit gives us guidance and the Spirit gives us strength for that project.

But the other kind of rescue is the more existential kind, and that is remembering that Christ has already overcome our sin, and that even if we can’t get overcome all of our habits, and patterns and bents, oh my!, God still loves us. And maybe, just maybe, knowing that God loves us helps us learn that we are not bad people, but simply people who do bad things. And that’s a big difference. You see, if you think that you are a bad, unlovable person, you’ll act one way. But when you know you are loved, and that you are simply a good person who has a hard time overcoming doing bad things, you’ll act another way. Embracing God’s love helps us keep trying to be the people we want to be, and the people God wants us to be. This is the love that leads Paul to his grateful praise, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and the love that can lead us to new life. Amen.