Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sermon: What's Your Mindset?

 Romans 8:1-11, Lent V, April 10,  2011

When our focus turns to (Paul’s letter to) Romans, it feels like we have left the world of gospel stories FAR behind.
No more Nic At Nite, (from John 3) or a Husbandless Woman by at Light of Day by the well. (from John 4)
No more interesting dialogue between the formerly blind man and his accusers who SEE less than he did.
Even today’s story of Lazarus, rising from the dead (which is full of questions) - seems preferable to Paul’s lengthy treatise and the involved logic of Romans.

But we are wrong if we think the stories are gone, because we’ve SEEN the story of Romans – on the big screen, within the past decade.

Did you see the Harry Potter movies? Or even read the books?
They hold the story of Romans!
Are you a Star Wars fan? Have you seen all the movies, each one called an ‘episode’? The Star Wars sage IS the story of Romans.

The movies and books portray an EPIC BATTLE between good and evil = and THAT IS the story of ROMANS!

‘Evil’ is cleverly depicted as the DARK WIZARD Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. His diabolical features come to life with
snake-like eyes that are narrow yellow slits,
a voice that hisses as he ‘spits’ out curses and spells
and a ‘pet’ that is an actual snake (a huge one) that slithers in and out of scenes.
Death is dealt out casually enough for us to know that EVIL is fully embodied in this creature called the “Dark Lord”.

In Star Wars, evil is represented FIRST, as the chief villain; a black-clad military leader called “Darth Vader”. Yet his personal darkness pales compared to the immenseness of the entire ‘evil empire’ which is revealed as more and more characters are discovered to be part of the “dark side”. In no time we realize that EVIL has infiltrated the whole galaxy. The 1st movie (which is Episode IV) begins with a summary of the galactic war:  Rebel spaceships have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies discovered and stole secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, called the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet, at one time. As the story proceeds with spies and laser sword fights, we are horrified to discover that evil has penetrated EVEN the hero’s own family. The Dark Commander, Darth Vader, is Luke Skywalker’s father.
This, now classic, movie actually portrays an older story; Good and Evil – locked in combat for dominion of the earth, or even (in this case) the galaxy.

Are you surprised that the apostle Paul and George Lucas have so much in common?

I’ll admit that Paul is not always easy to comprehend, - but then neither is the depth of Evil portrayed in a galaxy-wide evil empire. For Paul, evil is equally DANGEROUS in his day. And in the face of EVIL, he bravely writes a defense of God.

Yes, the letter to Romans is a defense. You may not think God needs defending, but look back a couple weeks to the comments we heard following the earthquake and tsunami. .
 Who is blamed whenever there is a senseless shooting of innocent children at a school? . . .
We have heard the questions and may have asked them ourselves, “WHY does God allow such things to happen?”

Paul takes a stab at explaining. And he also takes on the question critical to the interfaith dialogue of his day;“Now that Christ has come, what will God do with the Jews who refuse to recognize Jesus?”     It’s a question still asked today and you can read Paul’s explanation in Romans.

Paul first has to show us the vastness of evil. It has penetrated every part of life.  He doesn’t have a high def - wide screen on which to do his explaining, but he gives it all the words he’s got.
1st The Devil is not a person, he says, Evil is a POWER and it is VERY active in the world. (even though at times, Evil is personified by the name Satan, we must understand Paul’s point; that EVIL is a POWER that enslaves humanity.)

2nd Evil is pervasive. So much so that it can even turn the ‘good and true’ against us. For instance, God’s law (known to Jews as Torah) which is given for humanity’s good, can seem to be working on the side of the ‘evil empire’ when people focus only on observance.
             If we stay occupied with the min-ute details of the law, we can miss the point of working for God’s good. If this happens, then the Law has been compromised.- - - -Not that the LAW is Evil, but that its implementation can be perverted to do harm, rather than good. It then is an instrument that tears down, rather than builds up. And that’s not God’s intent.

One commentator explains it like this: “..[it is] the exceeding wickedness of SIN itself that can  make its nest in Torah so that [Torah] becomes a dark and sinister replica of itself, condemning rather than giving life.”[i]

Paul’s culminating point is that humans are helpless. Paul’s description of our sinfulness is NOT ABOUT a list of things we DO wrong. It’s NOT about asking forgiveness for a litany of faults. Our conviction as sinners is the same for everyone else, because all human life has been infiltrated by the EVIL of SIN.

Scholar N. T Wright again explains, “There is such a thing as Sin, (capital S) which is more than the sum total of human wrong-doing. It is powerful and this power infects even those with the best intentions. If it could make even the holy Torah its base of operations, how much more the muddled intentions of well-meaning do-gooders.”[ii]

As Paul puts it, in Chapter 7,

            “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. . . . For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Romans 7:19-20 (NRSV) Romans 7:22-25 (NRSV)

His answer is one that we can echo, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The REAL HERO comes to our rescue to defeat EVIL.
“There is no need for anyone to collapse into guilty self-hatred or self-absorption” over a list of sins that we try hard to avoid. “God’s love has proved itself stronger than all the powers of darkness. (The evil empire will never win.) Nor is there any need to fear for the future; the whole point of Romans”, Wright reminds us, “is to substantiate the great opening shout,
‘There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.’”[iii]
Can I get an amen, sisters and brothers?

This is our reason for walking out of the church doors with smiles on our face and a dance in our step. This is how we can LIVE in alignment with God’s good work.

As I said to the children, it is important to ask questions. So we naturally ask, ‘How is this wonderful freedom accomplished?’ Many, many answers have been written to that question, more than we will deal with today. As much as I enjoy conversation about theories of atonement, those Q&A sessions work best seated around a full pot of coffee.

 It is enough for us to know that Paul writes in the language of his day, using concepts familiar to both Jews and gentiles who are used to making sacrifices to God (or gods.) The ultimate answer and our ultimate LIFE inspiration is – “that IN Christ, God defeats Evil.”

It’s true we aren’t left with all our questions answered at this point in Romans. Even after we accept that God has overcome EVIL, we might ask, “what does that mean for us?” If Evil is overcome, yet we still see it active in the world, “how then shall we live?”

I propose that what we need is the proper “mind-set”.

Paul spends the next part of his letter, relating that since we act according to what we think about in life, THEN when our mind is set on God, we will live like Jesus.
AND Just when we begin to ask the “how” question again, he writes about God’s Spirit.

He uses a bunch of terms; ‘God’s Spirit’, ‘Christ’s Spirit’, ‘THE Spirit’, all these names are used interchangeably for the presence that empowers us to defeat Evil when it creeps into our day.
            Again, we say, THANKS BE TO GOD.

Christ’s Spirit is the “Force” that is always with us, to use Star Wars language again. The SPIRIT FREES us from the captivating influence of evil.A ‘Spirit- mindset’ is what gets us thru each day, every day of our lives - EVEN when we find the Dark Lord’s influence all around.
. . .
There is one more movie illustration that may help us understand Paul. It is called ‘Big Fish’ and the movie is several years old. It wasn’t a block buster, like Star Wars and it wasn’t set in a galactic venue. Instead, it appears to be a simple story a boy who grows up listening to stories.

 Early in the movie 3 boys have heard the story of a witch who has one good eye and one blind eye. Supposedly if you look in the witch’s ‘blind eye’ (usually hidden under a patch) you will see your dying day and know your end.
The boys dare each other to go knock on her door.
They ask to see under her eye-patch.
Each in turn lifts their face and looks into her eye.
The 1st boy, runs away screaming, he is terrified.
The 2nd boy, looks & goes white with fear.
The 3rd   boy bravely looks up as she lifts the patch and “his face lights up with delighted surprise.
‘So’, he exclaims, ‘that’s how it ends!”[iv]

For the rest of the movie the boy is fearless and can face anything. No matter what crisis befalls him, he remembers his look into the future and says, “this isn’t how it ends” and he is unshaken.

We are like the boy, living in a normal world, seldom thinking about the whole galaxy or the any cosmic battle between Good and Evil, yet we face some kind of dark crisis almost every day.
We know what it is like to live in a world where Evil SEEMS to have the upper hand. Yet we don’t have to live with Evil’s ‘mindset.’

No Voldemort’s Dark Lord,
No Storm troopers and No Darth Vader can shake us.
When our ‘mind-set’ recalls God’s loving action in Christ, we can face the most desperate situation and think, “this isn’t how it ends.”     Evil doesn’t control us.

We choose to live under a different LORD. . .one who has defeated Evil.
We rejoice with Paul saying, Thanks Be To God!, because our mind – is - set - on Christ.


[i] N. T. Wright NIB Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) p. 586
[ii] N. T. Wright NIB Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) p. 588
[iii] ibid p. 589 and Romans 8:1
[iv] The Big Fish, quoted by Tom Long Interpretation Preaching Romans Vol. 58, no. 3, July 2004, p. 274

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