Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Debt We Cannot Repay

July 19, 2020 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 23:55.)

How much do you owe? How much debt do you have? A mortgage? A car payment? Student loans? Medical debt? A home equity line? Do you keep a balance on your credit cards? Does the amount you owe bother you? Does it keep you up at night? Is it manageable? Has it been around so long that you hardly notice the payments you make each month?

What would happen if you stopped paying your car payments or your mortgage payments? Eventually someone could come and take your car or take your house. That’s what happens when we owe a debt that we will not or cannot pay. Then, our credit score takes a big hit. It’s harder to buy that next car or that next house, which is to say that, if we can convince a bank to lend us the money, it will cost us more because of the higher interest rates.

But what about those people or institutions that you owe more than money? The parents, teachers, and mentors who raised you. The friends who have helped you along the way. The people on whose shoulders you stand. The backs on which your freedom and your prosperity are built. What happens if those debts are called in? What happens if someone insists that you pay back what you could never pay back?

Do you remember the film Saving Private Ryan? Do you remember how it ends? The title character, years after eight soldiers had collaborated to save his life, stands in the American cemetery at Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach, where part of the D-Day invasion took place. Surrounded by row after row of white-cross headstones, the now-old Private Ryan looks at his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…Tell me I’m a good man.” He seems to be responding to something that Tom Hanks’ character had said to him years earlier, right before he died. On the bridge in Ramelle that they had fought to hold, as Captain Miller took his dying breaths, he pulled Private Ryan in close and said, “Earn this.” What haunting words! What damning words! Can you imagine living out the rest of your days, wondering whether you had lived a life that was worth the lives of the eight people who had died trying to save yours?

We may not face a debt as dramatic or as easily countable as that, but we all carry unpayable debts. Every aspect of our lives is built upon the sacrifice of others. Sometimes, those sacrifices are given to us as a gift that we are never expected to repay. A parent who loves us without asking anything in return. A teacher who gives us the special attention we need to flourish without expecting to get anything back. But other times those sacrifices are handed to us with strings attached. A parent who always makes us feel like more of a burden than a gift. A friend who always reminds us of the kindness that we will never be able to repay. All of us owe more than we can afford to pay. But some of us owe those debts to spiritual and emotional loan sharks in whose accounting we are nothing more than a figure in red.

Paul writes, “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors.” But Paul wants us to know that we are debtors, not to the flesh, but to something else. Unfortunately, at this point in his letter to the Romans, Paul is on quite a roll, and he starts his point without ever making the second half of it: “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for, if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The implication, however, is clear. In this part of his letter, Paul wants us to see what it means to belong to the Spirit instead of the flesh. Last week, he encouraged us to set our minds—to set our diaphragms—on the things of the Spirit instead of the things of the flesh because being a Christian means giving our whole selves—our rational minds and our emotional passions—to the Spirit that dwells within us. And, this week, he’s once again building out that framework for the Christian life, but this time he’s using the image of debt to get his point across. We are debtors, yes, but we owe that debt not to the flesh but to the Spirit. And that changes everything.

We all owe more than we could ever pay, but, because we are children of a gracious and loving God, we have been set free from the otherwise insatiable fear of wondering whether we’ve earned it—of worrying whether we’ve led a good life or whether we are good people. As Christians, who believe in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus, our debt is owed to the Spirit by which we are adopted. That spirit, Paul writes, has made us God’s children, God’s heirs. As heirs, what God has in store for us is not a reward for good behavior or a payment for a job well done. It is an inheritance that comes to us because of who we are—because God has adopted us as God’s own children. The debt we owe is still far more than we could ever pay, but, because we owe it to God—because we are debtors to the Spirit—we experience that debt not as a burden but as a gift. Like a parent’s generous and forgiving love that fills a child with gratitude, we respond not as if to repay that debt but in thankfulness that such a gift would ever be given.

So why, then, do we keep trying to earn what has already been given to us? Why do we insist on trying to prove to God that we are worthy of that which we could never repay? Why do we, as Paul writes, keep falling back into fear as if we had received a spirit of slavery instead of a spirit of adoption? Because, even though we belong to the Spirit, we still live in the realm of the flesh. And, even though Christ has set us free, we still struggle to understand what it means to belong to God while living in a world that doesn’t.

Are we children of the Spirit or children of the flesh? The Spirit says that we are loved no matter what. The flesh says that we’ve got to earn it. The Spirit reminds us that we have already been adopted by God. The flesh whispers that we still have something to prove. The Spirit proclaims that God’s love is something that none of us deserves. The flesh protests because surely we deserve it more than some people do.

Some of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because we have hard time believing that we could be given such a wonderful gift with no strings attached. We’re used to asking, “What’s the catch?” We’ve built our lives around the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A gift like that—a debt with no need for repayment—is too good to be true. Others of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because it means accepting that we are no better and no worse than everyone else. We’ve gotten far in this world because we have been willing to use our gifts and talents with a lot of hard work and some prudent risk taking in order to distinguish ourselves from the pack. To believe in a God who says that none of that counts for anything is to believe that we don’t count for anything. But either way, whether we’re excluding ourselves or excluding others from God’s generosity, what we’re really saying is that we don’t know how to believe in a God who loves the world while expecting nothing in return. What we’re saying is that we’re so used to being debtors to the flesh that we don’t know what it means to be indebted to the Spirit.

It isn’t easy to belong fully to God while living in a world that doesn’t. Paul knew it. The Romans knew it. And we all know it, too. That’s why hope is such an important thing. We hope not for things that we already see—for realities that are already clear to us—but for those truths on which we hang our very lives even when those truths are not visible to us. Hope that is seen is not hope at all, but hope in what is not yet seen is a powerful force. It is a force that draws us into a reality—a way of being and belonging—that is not fully manifest yet already governs our whole lives. To be indebted to the Spirit is to owe our everything to the one who loves us freely and fully without asking anything in return. That love is something that cannot be understood in this world—that can never make sense according to the flesh—yet it is as real and as strong as any force or any truth we know.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Christian Life: Where Heart and Guts Meet

July 12, 2020 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 21:30.)

Take a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Just sit there and breathe for a moment or two. In and out. In and out. Now take a deep, slow breath and then relax and let it go. Take another one. If you’re able, go ahead and stand up. Take a deep, deep breath and feel how it fills up your whole body—not just your chest but your abdomen, your belly. Take those deep breaths and pay attention to where they go. See if you can take a long, slow, deep breath that fills you all the way to your hips. Feel it as if you breathe all the way into your legs, right down to your toes. Feel how your breath fills your whole body. And, when you’re ready, sit back down.

Isn’t the diaphragm a wonderful thing? That dome-shaped muscle and tendon that sits up under your ribs, pulling down, creating extra space in your chest and, in effect, pulling air into your lungs in order to fill that space—in order to equalize the decrease in pressure that is caused by the increase in volume in your upper body. But have you ever thought about where that space comes from? Unless you’re a medical professional, have you ever considered what happens to your insides when you take a deep breath?

It comes from all that other stuff inside of you being pushed down and out in order to make room. That’s why it feels like you’re breathing into your belly—why your belly sticks out when you take that deep breath. It’s because your belly gets filled with all the other stuff that is being moved out of the way by your diaphragm. There’s no empty space inside your body. When the diaphragm pulls down so that you can take a really deep breath, it pushes your liver and stomach and spleen and all your other guts down so that your lungs can fill up with air.

The diaphragm is a sort of flexible wall that separates your thorax from your abdomen—your chest from your belly. And, in the ancient world, the diaphragm wasn’t just the principle muscle involved in respiration. It was also the barrier that separated your guts from your heart, your visceral emotions from your cognitive control. Why do you think we still say things like, “Trust your gut,” and “Follow your heart?” Back in the apostle Paul’s day, we understood that raw feelings came from your belly and what you did with them came from your heart and the thing that separated the two was that dome-shaped muscle and tendon upon which the heart rests and under which the guts dwell.

Paul writes, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” That seems reasonable enough. If you are a Christian—if you belong to the Spirit—then you should act like it and think like it. But what our English translation fails to convey is that the verb for “set your mind upon” (φρονέω) is a word that has as its root the Greek word for diaphragm (φρήν), not mind (νοῦς). So, when Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they should set their minds on the things of the Spirit, he’s not just telling them to think about godly things. He’s telling them to put their diaphragms in the right place. He’s telling them that, as children of God who believe in Jesus and who are possessed by the Spirit, they must align that thing that separates their guts and their hearts—their emotion and their thinking—with their true identity. He’s telling us that the Christian life flows from that place where our feeling and thinking come together—that we succeed in following Jesus when the Holy Spirit lives in that place where our visceral and cognitive selves meet.

In other words, we cannot be head Christians or heart Christians. We must be both. We cannot follow Jesus with our minds or our intentions or our choices until our passions and our motivations and our hungers belong to him, too. But that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to believe in our minds what we feel in our core when there is so much struggle in our lives and in the world around us. We might know in our guts that God is in control, but how are we supposed to know that in our minds when the world seems to be falling apart at the seams? And we might be able to rationalize a belief that one day the One who made all things and made them good will bring all things to their perfection, but how are we supposed to feel that same confidence in our bellies when we can’t even make it through one day without experiencing all of the anger, resentment, selfishness, greed, anxiety, and fear that make God feel infinitely distant from us?

The way of Jesus offers a radical answer. Instead of suggesting that we must think harder or feel stronger in order to make ourselves true Christians, the gospel tells us that because of Jesus Christ we already belong fully to God. We just need to orient our diaphragms—our true selves—to reflect that fact. We can’t think or feel or act our way into a closer relationship with our Creator. Instead, we must embrace the closeness that has already been given to us. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves into the fully integrated people we want to be—people who think and feel and say and do what is good and right and beautiful. There is no exercise routine, no spiritual regimen, no mindfulness app that we can use to make ourselves whole. Instead, Christianity embraces the opposite approach to human nature. Our daily struggle to align what we think and what we feel reflects our complete and total incapacity to make ourselves the people we want to be. And, into that desperate need for wholeness, Jesus enters.

In Jesus Christ, God took upon Godself our sinful, broken nature—our flesh—in order that we might be set free from that brokenness and made whole, unified, integrated people—people who belong fully to God. The forces that once worked within us to pull us apart have been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though a part of us still reflects the limitations of our human nature, our true identity has already been changed. We are no longer subject to the powers of this world because we belong completely to God. In Christ, we are made whole, and, in this life, that wholeness is enabled by the Spirit that dwells within us. When that Spirit takes over—when we get out of the way and let God do God’s thing within us—we become wholly available to God and God’s work in our lives and in the world around us. We become the people whom we were created to be—the people whom God has restored to union with Godself in Christ Jesus.

You job isn’t to try to do what God has already done. You can’t make yourself whole any more than you can make the world a perfect place. And you can’t make yourself a child of God any more than you can make yourself a child of whomever your earthly parents may be. But you can recognize what God has already done in your life. In Jesus Christ, you can see that you already belong fully to God. Even in a broken world and even while inhabiting an imperfect body, you can recognize your true identity as one who belongs to God and one in whom God’s Spirit dwells. Set your mind on that. Set your mind and your heart, your thoughts and your passions, your dreams and your hungers on the Spirit that dwells within you. Breathe that truth in deeply. Feel it fill not only your chest but your belly as well. And let your whole self—that being within you where your guts and your heart meet—be taken over by the Holy Spirit.