Sunday, August 21, 2016

Who is to Blame?


Who is to Blame?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 21, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

 Romans 8: 1-8



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.



There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For 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.To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.



This summer I have found that the villains in Shakespeare have been the most interesting to work with. It was great to work with Richard III all those weeks ago, and then Macbeth of course, and Shylock last week, but I think this mornings’, Edmund from King Lear has been my favorite to wrestle with. He is the bastard son of Gloucester in King Lear, and his villainous plotting and scheming live in the sub plot of the play. While the title character Lear divides his kingdom between his two daughters who say they love him but don’t, Edmund is working to supplant his half brother Edgar, and cause a little chaos along the way. Shakespeare creates him as a character who is just created to be a villain. Everything about him screams villain, and he lives into the stereotype of the illegitimate son. . . but in this speech he is saying that is has nothing to do with being illegitimate, it has nothing to do with him being a bastard, he says that he wants to make it clear that he is evil by his own devising, by his own choice, and that the stars and his birth have nothing to do with it. In other words, he is claiming that he is very much in control of himself and his fate. Let’s take a look.



This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make
guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if
we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc'd obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine
thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay
his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father
compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my
nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and
lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the
maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.
Edgar- and pat! he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My
cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o' Bedlam.
O, these eclipses do portend these divisions! Fa, sol, la, mi.



Do you hear him, this man who is out to get revenge for his low station, out to undo what he feels is the unfair treatment he has received from life? He is exactly what everyone thinks he should be, what the society would suggest that he would be, lower in character, evil, different, but at the same time he is saying that it, his birth, has nothing to do with who he is. He is in control. He is free to choose. He is his own man, and it is his choice to do exactly what he is doing. Himself and not his birth has placed the chip on his shoulder. He has emancipated himself from the restrictions of the universe, and is free to be whatever he chooses, and he chooses to be evil. . . ironic huh. Is this the picture of the control that sin has over us, blinding us to our inability to do anything else, be anything else, but at the same time claiming the opposite, claiming that we are actually in control, blinded to our slavery to sin. Is this what Paul means when he writes about the weakened flesh that cannot live to the law, or the idea of setting your mind on the flesh and being unable to live into the gifts of the spirit.

It is something I hear all the time from my students, especially on their Final Exam, when I ask them all kinds of thinking type questions, like are you a good person. . .or what is evil, or what is the purpose of education?. . .  the one question that is always last on that test is “who are you?” And they almost all say. I am me, and no one can determine who I am except me. I am in control. I make the rules. I determine it. . . .or my favorite. . . I am going about the business of “just doing me.” I decided to find one that was a good example, and it just happened to be on top. . . it said “I am (The student’s name) and I am the one who determines who I am. Nobody will tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I control my own destiny.” This is the typical line, sometime in our conversations I always ask them about the specifics. . . okay you are you, then how come you can’t get your homework done. . . because you tell me you want to. . . you tell me you can do it. . . but at the same time it isn’t done. Why is that? Why is it that where there is a will. . . or at least a supposed will. . . there isn’t a way. . . Why is that when you want to do something, or at least you say you do, you can’t get it done? And it isn’t just kids right. . . we all fall into that place. We all find ourselves with great intentions but then the follow through isn’t always there. We want to lose weight, we know that we should pass on the ice cream, or cut down on the salt, or on the French fries completely. . . but we simply can’t. Why? And it is often more important things, too, like relationships and where we are in life. There is something broken in us that does not allow us to always choose the path that we know is the best for us, and that we in our heart seem to desire. How strange that truly is. It is the picture of fragmentation and brokenness. This is our broken selves coming through, and this I believe is where Edmund is, ironically saying he is his own man, vowing to the fact, but all the while falling into the trap of his broken nature.

So what is the step forward? How do we fix this malady? How do we repair the brokenness? How do we make whole what has been fragmented? Paul speaks to this dilemma directly in his letter to the Romans, and chapter 8 is probably one of the most succinct parts.

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



No condemnation. . . stop worrying about the results of your actions, it is not a step forward. . . guilt is not a step forward, why because worry over condemnation is a concern of the flesh and a concern of the self. . . Christ is setting us free from such things. You see Paul goes on:



For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.



Christ did what we could not do. He went into the desert with the intention of following God, and when the devil tempted, when that voice of brokenness reared its head, he sent it away. Three times. It did not matter how tired he was, how hungry he was, how consumed by this incarnate flesh he was, Christ stood up to temptation and stayed connected to God. He fulfilled the law, and the desert was not enough, he kept this faithful journey through the desert of hatred and oppression and smallness, all the way to the Cross, and proclaimed it accomplished, then rose from the dead and returned to us.



For 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.



Setting our minds on the things of the flesh. . . what are those things? What does it mean to set our mind instead on the things of the spirit? Where does that occur with Edmund? He sets his mind on envy of his brother, he sets his mind on revenge, to take what his brother has, and it doesn’t even seem like he wants the things, he just wants to have them so his brother does not. . . again the brokenness of the flesh. . . is setting our minds on the flesh setting them on the brokenness. . . and then the opposite is to set it on the wholeness. You see Edmund seeks to deny an aspect of his life. . . he says it has nothing to do with him, but it all does. . . everything from his conception to himself to now has something to do with him, that is the thing about saying, I’m going to do me, I’m the one who determines my life. . . how much of life, your life, are you then denying because there is so much more to you than just you. . . there are all the people that have been put into your life, there are all the experiences that you have had. . . they all shape you, they all make a difference in who you are, and there is not many of them that you are in control of. . . The American Theologian Jonathan Edwards, when writing a treatise on Free Will and God’s Sovereignty talked about this idea, which he called means, that God shapes our lives many different ways, there are so many aspects to our lives that we don’t have control over. . . and to say that we have a free and independent will is ridiculous because we do not shape all these aspects.  . . Is living to wholeness, being awake and aware of all of the self, not just the some. . . while at the same time living to the spirit is understanding the interconnectedness of it all because it is God shaping that interconnectedness. . . and then living into the spirit is about loving because loving looks outside of the self to the relationships of life. It’s opening ourselves up to the actual connectedness of ourselves that includes everything, not just me doing me, but me doing us, and you and I, and it all, by the way that our lives are intertwined. Understanding this connectivity makes us more than anything we think we have determining ourselves in our brains.



To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.



Our flesh ends, but all of our relationships, the outward, connected, that is what lives on, and it mirrors the Trinitarian interconnectedness of father son and holy spirit. And we are made whole in our connection.



For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.



Edmund is hostile to God in declaring his emancipated place in the world, his freedom in the world to do and be whatever he wants. . . he is being hostile to God, and is being hostile to those parts of himself that he would like to ignore and be free from. . . and our culture, shown by those teenagers and what they have been taught is hostile to God, because they are saying I control who I am, I am in control, I make of myself whatever I want, I declare independence from all the structures at place in the world that have ever been. We take the Declaration of Independence out of context so often, not free and independent to be whoever we want, but instead to be whatever we are, what we were created to be. I am not sure exactly where God is leading us, but I have faith that it is good, and that he is leading us to life and peace.

I end every Sunday School class with this prayer, and I’d like to end this sermon in the same place. . . Almighty God thank  you that we have been brought together today to grow closer to one another and closer to you. Bless us on our interconnected journey together towards you. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.