Saturday, July 16, 2011

No Condemnation (Pentecost 4, July 10 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 15, July 10 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Gen 25.19-34; Ps 119.105-112; Rom 8:1-11; Mat 13:1-9, 18-23

Out in Carp, I think it was on the sixth line, there’s a farm which straddles both sides of the road.  And earlier this year, in late May, a bit later than usual because of all the rain, I was watching as the farmer was doing his seeding.  He was riding a big tractor with a seeder on the back, going up and down his field on the left hand side of the road.  When that side was done, he drove up onto a dirt path which led onto the sixth line, crossed the paved road and began seeding on the other side.  And I noticed that as he drove up onto the road, he must have flipped some sort of control switch, because the seeder stopped sowing the seed as the tractor crossed the road.

Nothing surprising about that.  Why would any farmer want to waste valuable seed on a paved road?  In fact, if you did see a farmer driving his tractor along a paved road and seeding it, you just might think that was the craziest farmer you’d ever seen!  What a waste we’d think to ourselves.  There’d probably be a few whispers around Carp about how poor old Farmer Jones is playing a few cards short of a full deck.

Rebekah, in our first reading this morning, would have known exactly what it was like to have people whispering all around her.  There’s an important detail in the story of Isaac and Rebekah and the birth of their children, Esau and Jacob, that’s easy to miss, a tiny detail that alerts us to years and years of failure, shame and frustration. 

Did anyone catch it?  How old was Isaac when he and Rebekah married?  Right, 40 years old.  And how old was he when Esau and Jacob were born?  He was 60 years old.  And in-between, during those twenty long years, Rebekah was barren.  Infertile, unable to bear children. 

Now, a little cultural context here.  Barrenness in the time of Rebekah and Isaac was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman.  It was a source of great shame.  It was a sentence of death, for only through the birth of the next generation could life continue.  It was the principle reason why women were cast aside in favour of new wives or concubines.  The one who was barren was believed to have been cursed by God.  Every month for twenty years when her period came, more than two hundred times, Rebekah would feel in a physical, visceral way that she had failed, that she stood condemned, and that she had disappointed her husband Isaac.  For twenty years.

We have a different cultural context.  We no longer see infertility as something visited upon us by God.  And for all we know it may have been Isaac who had a low sperm count.

But we can still relate to Rebekah’s sense of shame and embarrassment and failure.  None of us wants to be condemned, whether justly for something we have done or failed to do, or injustly for something we may have had no control over.  And yet this is something we all have to deal with.  Think of all the talk in our own society about self-worth and self-improvement  In the year 2006, in the United States alone, the market for self-improvement, that is books, cd’s, twelve-step programs and the like, was worth over $9 billion.  Much of this speaks, I think to some sort of underlying anxiety.  We too are dealing with stuff.

Back in Paul’s day, the self-help business had a particular name.  It was called the Law.  The psalm that we read together this morning celebrates the law.  God’s law, the psalmist says, is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path.  It provides us with a structure and a sense of direction to guide us through the daily activities and moral pitfalls of our lives.

And yet Paul, the pharisee, the scholar and practitioner of the Law par excellence, Paul has realized that the law is not enough to save him from condemnation.  Paul, who wanted nothing more than to follow God’s law, found that his zeal for the law actually resulted in him persecuting Jesus, the one sent by God to fulfill the law.  Paul knew what it was to experience shame.  In our reading from Romans last Sunday Paul tells us  that even when he knows what is right, even when he knows what he should do, what he wants to do, he isn’t able to do it.  And so the law actually becomes for him a source of shame and failure and frustration.

Many of us, perhaps all of us, have to deal with these things in our lives.  Many of us feel condemned, perhaps by God, perhaps by others, perhaps by ourselves.  Sure we put on a brave face most of the time.  Of course we manage to push it aside.  Sure we’ve heard it said over and over again at church that we’re forgiven.  But perhaps the 19th century American poet Henry David Thoreau was right when he observed that most people lead lives of quiet desperation.  Perhaps it’s regret over some missed opportunity, or a disappointment that we can’t seem to let go of.  Maybe it’s a sadness that comes from brokenness in our relationships.  Maybe it’s guilt from a past wrong done to another, or a difficulty getting over a wrong done to us.  Maybe it’s frustration with something that’s happened to us that was outside of our control.

Who knows?  After all, we don’t talk much about those things that are hurtful to us, often we don’t even admit them to ourselves.  But these things do manifest themselves, in behaviours, in relationships, in our self-justifications, in our masks and in a vague sense of dis-ease about our own self worth.

This is what we deal with.  This is what Rebekah had to deal with.  This what the Romans who received Paul’s letter were dealing with.  And this is what Paul had to deal with, and he wrestled with it more than most, and he experienced his own sense of shame acutely, and he has spent seven chapters writing about this the human condition and his own frustration with it, all in an attempt to bring us to today’s reading, to the climax of Paul’s thinking and faith, to the most important sentence he ever wrote:

Romans Chapter 8 Verse 1.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  All of that stuff that we deal with, or push down inside and don’t deal with, none of that matters to God.  There is no condemnation, all is overcome.  Why?  Because God loves us, because God holds nothing against us, because God loves us enough to forgive us, to celebrate us as we are, to restore us and welcome us into God’s embrace the way a parent embraces a child.

How do we know?  Because God sent his Son.  Jesus came to show us this.  To show us through the cross just how much God already loves us, and to show us through his resurrection how powerful that love is, more powerful than heights or depths or anything else in all of creation, more powerful than the human condemnation which put Jesus on the cross, more powerful even than our own sense of shame, or failure, or self-condemnation.  The limitations, the shame, the contradictions, the despair of our human condition is overcome by the love of God, and God sent his Son so that we would know it, now, today.
This is easy to say, but it’s hard to really take in.  Sometimes I'm told that when I start talking about God’s love in my sermons, people have all heard it so many times before that they all they hear is blah blah blah blah.

Perhaps it’s like the seed that falls on the asphalt road, a seed that just bounces a few times before the birds come to eat it.

So I want to try something this morning.  I have something that I’d like you to do. I’d like each of you to take a piece of paper and a pencil.  Our greeters will bring some around for you if you don’t have pencil and paper already.

On that piece of paper, I want you to write down the one thing that you feel worst about.  The one regret, or misdeed or misfortune that causes you feelings of embarrassment or pain.  The one part of your life that threatens condemnation.  I want you to write it down, in private.  No one else will read it.  And then I want each of you to come up to the front, put your piece of paper into this paper shredder, and as you do so, say to yourself,

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

[People write something on their piece of paper, then come forward and put it in the shredder]

Now you are free.  Whatever was written on that piece of paper is gone, gone in the eyes of God.  Any power over you that that thing had is also gone, shredded by God’s love. 

For me the parable of the sower tells us that God sows his love in the most unlikely places, not just on the good soil, but on the rocks, amongst the thorns, on the path. On the good stuff in our lives and on the stuff that’s not so good.  And God’s love is what sets us free, free from the fear of failure, free from fear of regret, free from fear of condemnation, free to be the people that God created us to be.

The complete quotation from Thoreau which I referred to previously, goes like this:

“Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Our desperation is no more.  May we go out from this place today, singing our song.


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