Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Jul. 9, 2017
[I began the service with a brief reflection, telling the story of David Boulton’s, my first rector and mentor, exchange with a woman who accosted him after the Sunday service, telling him that all churches were filled with hypocrites who piously came to church on Sunday in their fine clothes and prayed fervently and then in the following week committed all sorts of cruel, insensitive and immoral acts. She went on at some length until David finally interrupted her diatribe and said to her: “Madam, it’s a hospital. The church is a hospital for sinners and the broken-hearted.”]
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
Long, long ago, in the days when this great nation was still a variegated amalgam of British colonies, legend has it that a young boy received an auspicious present. The young lad was given a hatchet, a small boy’s dream, a wonderful instrument of power and destruction, a symbol and badge of responsibility and maturity. It was a wonderful gift and I’m sure that young George was excited and filled with pride as he set out on a fine Virginia morning armed with his bright, new hatchet and I am equally sure that he harbored no evil or malicious intentions as he ambled across the fields, heading unwittingly for his father’s orchard. He was simply enjoying himself, swinging the blade through the air, watching the sun glint off the well-honed blade. Who wouldn’t be eager to see how that glinting blade could cut, to hear the dull thud of steel and wood and test one’s skill at slicing a clean and even notch? Now young George was probably aware that his father’s cherry trees were not the best laboratory for such an experiment and he probably knew that his father would not be pleased, but they were so close at hand and he was so very eager to try out his new present. And so, before he could properly weigh the ethical ramifications of his action, young George sunk that gleaming blade into the trunk of a cherry sapling. A few solid blows--well administered with youthful enthusiasm--and the tree fell, leaving a gaping hole in a neat row of cherry trees. The tree sunk to the ground with a swish and a crash and it was only then, as he stared at that accusing stump, that the future president realized the full impact of his action: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
At the end of this week of national celebration, it seems like a particularly appropriate time to recall this patriotic legend and to place it within the context of Paul’s message to the Christian community at Rome. Although I have never been comfortable with Paul’s arbitrary division of the human personality into sinful flesh and redemptive spirit, I certainly can empathize with the internal struggle that he so aptly describes, those moments when our minds and hearts seem to be in direct conflict. I’m sure that we have all experienced such confusing dilemmas, moments when our reason and conscience seem impotent, completely incapable of preventing us from doing that which we know is inherently destructive and wrong.
For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but 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.
Lost in a fit of anger, we find that phrase that we know will severely wound the one that we supposedly love, but despite that knowledge, we hurl it, fully aware that it will escalate an already volatile argument. While running errands, we come across something that we’ve been longing for and even though we know that the money could be better spent and that buying it will create far more problems that it will cure, we make the purchase and soon we have concocted a dozen reasons why this obvious luxury is actually a necessity. As we walk out of the store, we are busy perfecting our rationalizations, preparing to appease and dismiss any objection raised by spouse or parent.
We are incredibly skillful at creating motives and explanations that justify our actions and our errors. We can take the most blatantly self-serving deed and with disarming and beguiling ease, enshroud it with a pall of laudable and justifiable intentions. I am constantly amazed at my own attempts to disguise the most ridiculous faux-pas with a deceptive mask of plausible excuses. And then, of course, there are those wonderful moments when we actually fall prey to our own self-defenses – when we buy our own advertising campaign. These are times when we have developed such a convincing and articulate rationale for our misguided deeds that we can no longer sense or feel the real motives that lay behind them. It is often only after things have gone terribly wrong that we begin to see and accept our own culpability, finally recognizing the underlying intention that soured the whole business from the very start. Yes, I too like young George and blessed Paul the Apostle find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
But as I am sure that you are all aware, I digress, for I really haven’t done justice to that wonderful legend about our founding father. I neglected the part that holds the moral, the ethical fulcrum of the whole tale. The real point of the story, as you all know well, is not that George struggled with a conflict of mind and emotion but that later he demonstrated his own impeccable honesty and integrity by confessing his fault. You see, when George’s father noticed the gap in his line of cherry trees, he asked his son who had cut that one tree down. Confronted with this question, young George did not try to evade his responsibility but boldly and bravely admitted his guilt. He did not try to camouflage his mistake with a veil of good intentions but spoke the unadorned truth. He was undoubtedly a bright lad and I’m sure he could have come up with some captivating excuses, but instead he courageously accepted the blame and that, my friends, is the stuff that legends are made from.
You know, some people think that the purpose of Christianity is to make people behave, to make them into morally upright and ethically decent human beings. They believe that the Christian faith is principally a matter of good behavior and they expect Christians to behave with unsullied virtue and pious decorum. Like my mentor at Christ Church, that have been many times when I have heard the young and old complain bitterly about the apparent hypocrisy of their fellow churchgoers. “I left the church,” they whine, “because I could no longer stand that horrible double standard. There they are on Sunday, all dressed up and praying to Almighty God and the very next morning they are knee-deep in cruel acts of gossip, greed, prejudice and dishonesty.” When I am confronted with such laments, I have to struggle not to lose my patience since that would undoubtedly confirm their opinion of the deep-seated duplicity of all Christians. So after checking my emotions, I usually share with them the story I told in the reflection and then I tell them that I want to have signs made for every Episcopal church in the land, large signs – tastefully designed of course - to be placed over the main entrance of every church building. The signs would read Remember – this is a place for sinners!
Christianity is not about good behavior and moral fortitude. It is about our continuing struggle against sin and it is about God’s persistent, indefatigable and pervasive love, forgiveness and mercy. The Christian faith is anchored in our realization that we are frail and weak creatures who despite our best intentions, all too frequently end up making a complete mess of things. Like young George, we have been given marvelous gifts which we use repeatedly for destructive and self-denigrating purposes. Our faith is about accepting the fact that behind our most admirable intentions there often lurks a selfish and self-serving motive. It is about realizing that we are imperfect and broken, incapable of doing any real good without the prevalent and relentless grace of God in Christ. Christianity is ultimately about acknowledging and accepting our complete and total dependence on the love, grace and mercy of God: for forgiveness when we manipulate and destroy and for strength and perseverance when we act with kindness, compassion and courage. To acknowledge honestly such dependence is to become a redeemed sinner. It is not to become a perfect moral creature, unscathed by the battles of our inmost selves, those wars of mind, flesh and spirit. No, Christianity does not relieve us of such internal conflicts but it does call us to look at them honestly and openly, holding them before the loving and merciful gaze of God in Christ. That forgiveness and mercy enables us to grow, to continue to struggle with our hearts and our consciences, moving gradually, almost imperceptibly, along the road of our salvation.
To offer ourselves to God honestly and openly – to offer our sins and successes, our beauty and blemishes, our strengths and weaknesses, our victories, fiascoes and failures – that is to walk in the Spirit, to move ahead hesitantly but confidently, trusting in God’s love and seeking to grow into the full stature of the One who died for our salvation. Such an offering is actually a very simple act of faith – one that is revealed to infants, babes – to simple folk like you and me. It is an offering to be made by those who are laden with guilt and remorse and to those who are tired of endlessly seeking to justify themselves and their existence. It is for all who labor and are heavy laden, who are bent low by the weight of anxiety and the demands of countless expectations. To offer ourselves completely and honestly is to accept the yoke of Christ and to put it on is to find rest for our souls. Who will deliver us from the body of death, this web of self-deceit and good intentions? Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord. Strengthened and supported by the grace of God in Christ, we may not become legends, but like our brother George, we will become redeemed sinners and that, my friends, is the stuff that eternal salvation is made from.