15 March 2011

Little Rock...Rocks

So, I was in Little Rock this past weekend preaching at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. What a thoroughly lovely parish and a fun experience. If you ever get to Little Rock, definitely check out Whole Hog; it had been far too long since I had real barbecue. Anyway, here's the sermon I preached on Romans 5:12-19.


Good morning, my name is Kyle Oliver, and I bring you greetings from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where I'm a second-year divinity student. I'm here thanks to the kind generosity of this parish and especially of Mary and Dean Kumpuris, who sponsor a scholarship for seminarians in memory of their daughter Anne. I am very grateful to be here, and I'm grateful to be your guest preacher this morning, even if it is the First Sunday of Lent.

I've gotta tell you, though, that's the last thing I thought I'd be saying when I first starting preparing this sermon. You see, my mind kept leaping back to an Ash Wednesday sermon I heard several years ago. It was given by a priest who may very well be the sweetest, gentlest man that I know. But you wouldn't have guessed it sitting in the pews that day. He very starkly laid out the situation for us, starting with words like “We are all here guilty of the sin of idolatry!” And it turned out that he was just getting warmed up. It was a shocking experience, and it has stayed with me as a real landmark sermon for the beginning of Lent. “Uh oh,” I said, “I don't think a sermon like that would be an advisable way to begin a relationship with people who had just given me money for school.”

Imagine my relief, then, when I got a look at our passage from the fifth chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans. It speaks quite well to our Lenten situation, and it views the problem of our sinfulness in proper proportion. The message here is profoundly upbeat, very much in the spirit of our psalm's opening line: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven * and whose sin is put away” (Psalm 32:1). Of course, that joy comes after several stages of reflection, examination, and confession. The first step is acknowledging that we are among this potentially happy lot. Paul makes no bones about this first point: “death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). And so we are right to face the reality our sins, our weakness, and even our wickedness. Good Protestants that we are, we ground this reflection in scripture. On Ash Wednesday, we take a deep breath and march through a very difficult liturgy, listening as the readings and prayers form for us a list of our transgressions against God's holy law. We need this list of the charges, because, as Paul writes next, “sin is not reckoned when there is no law” (13). So in the season of Lent, we are first called to wake up to the reality of our situation. We take note of the full extent of the law and our failure to keep it, and this renewed awareness “reckons” to us—points out to us in no uncertain terms—our enslavement to sin in all its weight and inevitability. So that's step one on our penitential journey: taking stock of our sinful situation.

Now it's in the next step—perhaps even more so than in all the sinning we've been up to previously—that we can go seriously astray. In this next step, we decide, usually without even realizing it, that we're going to make it all up to God. We're going to change our ways, put things right, take responsibility for our actions, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in splendidly self-sufficient fashion. We're good Americans, after all, and we believe in accountability. And so all our well-meaning Lenten disciplines take on a note not just of penance, a means of saying we're sorry, but of punishment, a means of suffering for and therefore, we hope, atoning for our wrongdoing.

This, Paul says, is precisely the wrong response to our predicament. Death is indeed “exercis[ing] dominion” over us (14), but we cannot flea to freedom through our own efforts. And this is where we get to the good news, which is plentiful. First and foremost, it is the news that we do not need to earn our freedom. It has been earned for us, and it is—Paul says no less than five times in this passage—a free gift. As in really and truly free. No shipping and handling. No mandatory mail-in rebate. Our redemption is a free gift that we need not and indeed cannot earn or pay for.

What's more, Paul says, the power of this gift is like no other force in the universe. Listen again to what he writes next: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass [that would be Adam], much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (15-16). In other words, the effects of sin spread like a cancer. Adam and Eve eat the apple and—boom—we're off and running, multiplying transgression upon transgression. But on the other hand, the free gift of God's grace can and does wipe clean the face of the earth and usher in an era of abundant health and wholeness, of true and abiding rightness with God in Christ. As a very literal translation would render what comes next, “where sin abounded, grace overabounded” (17).

I implied earlier, I hope somewhat provocatively, that this whole “free gift” gospel that Paul preaches in all its power does not sit very well with our American sensibilities. We want so desperately to earn what we have. We want, like Mrs. DuBose in To Kill A Mockingbird, to live in and then depart this world “beholden to no one.” It's encoded in our national ethos that there is something lazy or shameful about asking for help, about even needing help. By confronting us with our own sinfulness and mortality, Lent seeks to relieve us of this toxic but pernicious thought. This is the second stage of our Lenten reflection, and it will take many of us an awful lot of Lents to get the message—myself, I fear, quite definitely included.

I heard an interview recently with Eugene Peterson, author of the popular paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message. It sounds like Peterson can relate to our plight. When the interviewer asked him if his faith had ever been tested, he talked about a particular time in his life: “Yeah, those early years that I call the Badlands, when my competitive instincts weren't working anymore. There were six years when nothing seemed to be working.” The interviewer asked, “How did you get over it? Did it just pass, or did you have to really work at it?” Peterson answered, “Well, you see that was the problem. I was used to working at things, and now working at things didn't make any difference. So I found some people to talk to. I started running … so that became a way of being competitive without being competitive … We started keeping Sabbaths, my wife and I … We just kind of lived into that Sabbath world of rest … So there were a number of things like that. It wasn't a program. It goes each step an arrival; each thing we did led to something else. After six years, I can't tell you what happened, but here I was, I was whole. All that stuff had gotten integrated into something which was more like a joyful, obedient life rather than a striving, mastering life.” Listen to that. “Working at it” was part of the problem, he says. Learning to receive was part of the solution. And in the end, he “cant' really tell [us] what happened … [he] was [just] whole.”

I think we would do well to treat our Lenten journeys, and especially our Lenten disciplines, with the same soft hands Peterson used to receive the wholeness God had in store for him. During this season, and throughout our lives, we can and should say that we're sorry. We can and should renew our commitment to doing the best we can, and expect that God's gift of grace in our lives will gradually raise that bar higher and higher. But if our Lenten discipline becomes another venue for trying to earn a free gift that has already been bestowed, then heaven make us free of it. Not to be overdramatic, but such practices are not just pointless, but dangerous. In the words of spiritual writer Martin Smith, if we can't learn in Lent to accept our creatureliness and imperfection, then we will become a “menace” and not a “grace” to the people we encounter, and to ourselves. It will turn us into self-hating perfectionists and turn our life of faith into a piety contest. And a piety contest, it was recently pointed out to me, is no more likely than a pie-eating contest to win us the peace of God that we seek. Lent, I believe, seeks to teach us to receive that peace as pure gift, not earned by our merits but freely given through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ.

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