"Chaos to Community"

Rev. Laura Young
July 9, 2017
Pentecost 5A
Summit on 16th UMC
Romans 7:15-25a

Let us pray: Loving and gracious God, let the words of my mouth rest in the ears of all listening so everyone hears -- through my words, or in spite of them -- that you, O God, love them.

Romans 7:13-25

13Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but 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. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This ends our scripture reading.

The first time I read this passage aloud, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was reading it to my life-long best friend…someone I loved very much, years ago. This person was an addict. Dual diagnosis – bi-polar and an alcoholic. He called himself a garbage-head: basically, he ended up in such a dire place in his life that he would take any pill he could get his hand on. Even used his creativity illegally to make prescription pads so he could get what he wanted at the pharmacy when doctors would no longer prescribe him opioids.

David was a brilliant inventor and patent lawyer with a physics degree. He tried to explain string theory to me. He played the bass guitar and I accompanied the show choir on the piano in high school. He blasted Metallica into his earbuds while he read and wrote and worked and thought. He just could not quiet his mind. He drank for many years, sometimes a case or more of Pabst Blue Ribbon a day, trying to do just that.

He did the things he knew he should not do. He was at war with his members. At the age of 47, he started taking heroin, and four months later overdosed on it. It will be two years this September. Two years ago this month, he told me he was dabbling in it and I begged him to stop. But I knew he was going to do what he was going to do. The thing he knew he should not do.

And Paul knew he was going to do what he was going to do even though he didn’t want to do it.

Anyone in an AA meeting [trying to stay away from alcohol], or trying to stop eating sugar, could be saying the words Paul is writing here: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” David was living a life of chaos and it was heartbreaking to watch. And his chaotic life kept getting him pushed out of the community.

David was struggling with what you could call sin. The sin of addiction. Defining sin as something keeping you distanced from God. Paul was struggling with sin here. Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki thinks Paul was struggling with his own homosexuality, and he might have been; we’ll never know. He was wrestling with the concept of sin, and does throughout this beautiful letter to the Romans.

We don’t like to talk about sin.

It can be particularly hard on those of us in the LGBTQ+ community because some of us have been pummeled with a lot of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” language. Hideous.

That language is spiritual abuse, and if it’s ever been in your mind, just please flush it away right now! But, we can think of sin as the situation of human need in alienation from God. Paul is talking about a “turning away,” which leads to a corrupt moral life. Sins are symptoms of orientation with God. If we’re away from God, we are disoriented.

There are a lot of things in this world that might be making us feel disoriented. We come in here and we’ve been beaten up by news all week and maybe our family or our kids or parents or job, and we want comfort. I understand that.

We’re all in this together. Together in community.

And for Paul, we’re also ALL together under sin. Sin is not the condition of some, but it unites us all in the shared need. We are all one. Not a one of us can do this alone. Last week, Dr. Valerie Bridgeman reminded us that Jesus sent disciples out two by two and that no one went by themselves, there were no loners. We’re in this discipleship thing together. Dr. Bridgeman she called us to be a prophetic community, together.

And in our passage today, even though we know the good we should do, we are weak and we do not do it! We struggle. The struggle is real. We saw this in our community conversation last week, and sometimes we see it in a church committee meeting. It’s real for us all and we’re all under the condition of sin struggling together. Fun times! (sarcasm)

Chapter 7 of Romans is a wrenching description of human weakness. In Galatians, Paul describes humans as “biting and devouring” each other. I love that. He pulls out another list of our “works of the flesh” that humans do: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. That makes up a community full of chaos, doesn’t it?!

Paul is describing what biblical scholar and Yale professor emeritus Leander Keck calls the “deepest, and most disturbing, level of the human condition.” The passage we’re focusing on homes in on the concern about the conflicted self. The conflicts within ourselves and following from that, within our communities.

Our area United Methodist Bishop, Gregory Vaughn Palmer, throughout his episcopal address and preaching, reminded us at Annual Conference last month that problems in our communities are not going to go away by not talking about them. Steven, am I right? Steven was our delegate to annual conference.

Bishop Palmer encouraged us to act with urgency, facing the issues of the day, such as gun violence and opiate addiction, healthcare, and even the debate about homosexuality in the church – and to have conversations inside the church and with community leaders, to educate ourselves and one another.

That sounds like a way to be a prophetic community, as Dr. Valerie Bridgeman called us to be last week.

BUT HOW CAN WE BE A PROPHETIC COMMUNITY WHEN WE’RE IN CHAOS?

All of our families in the Bible had chaos; remember the Genesis text I read earlier? Our community here at Summit is going through a period of chaos. We’ve started coming out of a major budget crisis; we’ve lost four staff members – a beloved pastor, a custodian, outreach director and associate pastor; we had to make a very tough decision to create some distance between Summit and the University Area Enrichment Association’s Freedom School.

Some people are feeling like I preach about social justice too much and not enough about Jesus’s love for us – and I need to really listen to that feedback. I assure you, I am. Things are not as they always have been. We have some new people in our church family. There is a new pastor who doesn’t do things the way the old one did. And it feels a little chaotic and hectic and conflicted at times.

There are fabulous things happening at this church – and have been since the late ‘70s! Even if all the changes were good and perfect and everyone agreed, it would still be hard, because humans struggle with change, and with conflict.

And our communities show the wear and tear from all of that struggle.

Dr. Bridgeman mentioned in her sermon last weekend a podcast called “On Being” with Krista Tippett. The subject was “The spiritual work of Black Lives Matter.” Tippett was interviewing a Black Lives Matter founder, Patrisse Cullors.

An audience member who was a local minister wanted to help bring hope and healing to his community and asked Cullors what she thought he should do? Cullors said to host a community meeting about what’s going on and what needs aren’t being met, and to just sit with people and listen to what they care about most, and what they need, and take it from there. I posted it on our Facebook page yesterday.

So, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to learn about each other and we’re going to listen to each other. We need to do it within these walls and outside of them.

We’re going to start a small group study within the church, a little microcosm of Summit, with no more than 12 people including me. Some who like the direction of the church, and some who might not. It was recommended to me Friday by Bishop Joseph Sprague, who helped found this church, as you know. (And was later brought up on heresy charges, but that’s another story!)

It is a hybrid curriculum I’m creating based on something Bishop Sprague once facilitated called “Disciples of Christ in Community.” This curriculum claims it is for people who would rather “be” the church in the world rather than “do” church – to help people discover and renew their faith, and see ways to best be the church in this community here on our corner in the university area.

The idea is to use our chaos creatively and move forward, working toward that beloved, prophetic community. And to err on the side of love, even when we want to do the thing we know we should not do, as Paul articulates so strongly here.

I’m also going to start a sort of “Sermon Shapers” Bible study or “Pastor’s Bible study” open to anyone who wants to wrestle with the texts and seek God in community through scripture – not just the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but also other resources we might be inspired by.

We’re going to pray without ceasing. And we’re going to do all of this, and everything with love. Because love is the only way.

And it is with God’s love, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can overcome our very human, fleshly ways, so we can find new ways to live together – for God’s good purposes, using Jesus of Nazareth as our guide, as our example – the foot-washing, forgiving 7 x 77 times, cheek-turning Jesus – for how to live in community.

Let’s do it!

Amen.