“Stuck in the Mud”

March 23, 2014

 

Isaiah 59:1-4, 9-15

Romans 7:15‑25

 

Due to circumstances that I’d rather not go into here, I was once with a group of friends in high school who found our car was stuck in the mud. It was a spring day. We shouldn’t have been where we were. We shouldn’t have been doing what we were doing. But that’s not the point.

The point is that every time the driver pushed on the gas pedal the rear wheels would spin furiously and spew mud on anyone trying to push the car. And the car went nowhere.

Finally, with what was literally some sophomoric ingenuity, we put some rags that we found by the back tires and hit the gas. The tires gripped the rags and we got enough traction to get out of the mud.

This of course illustrates the problem with springtime. As the snow melts and the ground thaws and the rain falls, things get messy. What we portray as a time of the flowers blooming and the birds singing and the sun shining is often enough a time of mud, streets filled with sand and other wintry detritus, and too much rain

This, too, is a picture of our lives during Lent.

You might think by now, as our frozen lives begin to thaw, as our hearts, warmed by the tender mercy of God, start to unlock, we would find ourselves the loving, forgiving, even merciful people that we certainly are.

Instead we are stuck in the mud.

We are faced with the persistence of sin.

We are fallen people and it is our nature to be stuck in unhelpful, unhealthy situations. Sometimes it is addiction that keeps us there. Sometimes there are social forces at work. Sometimes, let’s be honest, it’s just the choice that we make.

“I find it to be a law,” Paul writes, “That when I want to do good, evil is close at hand.”

Sound familiar?

You want to love your neighbor—but often it is much easier not to.

We know that it is right not to lie—but who will notice a little creative accounting to show a profit?

We want to keep our nation safe—certainly a little spying on our citizens won’t hurt.

As he writes to those early Christians in Rome, Paul arrives at a kind of "Murphy's Law" of the spirit. You all know Murphy's Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” If a piece of toast falls on the floor, it will land on the side with the jelly.

"When I want to do good, evil is close at hand."

"I don't understand my own actions," Paul writes.

Actually he seems to understand them all too well. Measured against almost any standard—our own ethics, social mores, the Law of God—at some point we all end up doing the very things we hate. 

Some have likened it to a “civil war of the soul.”  We come close to the good—the desire is there. But there seems to be a split inside each one of us. Knowing what is right and acting in the right manner are not the same. Willing to do the good does not guarantee that we will do the good.

That split, that “civil war” is what Paul is getting at when he writes about “sin.”

The twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, helped me and has helped many others in thinking about this when he wrote of sin as “estrangement.” Sin, he said, is not primarily about the many and varied “wrong things” that we do. Sin is first of all about the estrangement, the separation that we experience.

Separation from God.

Separation from other human beings.

Separation even from ourselves—willing and doing, knowing and acting.

At the same time, Tillich said that “the word ‘sin’ cannot be overlooked” because  “The word has a sharpness which accusingly points to the element of personal responsibility.”[i] We choose the very separation that we bemoan.

“Sin lives within me,” Paul writes. Within each of us is a chasm between the good we want to do and what we actually do. Within each of our lives is a chasm between God and ourselves.

Funny thing, though:  in most of his letters, in his speeches in Acts, Paul presents himself as someone who lives with a clear conscience, someone who tries to do good—and often succeeds. We listen as he berates the people that he has worked with—calling the Galatian Christians “foolish” and chastising the Christians in Corinth for falling into the same kinds of sin and immorality that the rest of the city does.  But Paul always seems to have a clear conscience.

So he's not talking about himself alone, or about his pangs of guilt in the face of the law. Paul is stating what is quite obvious to just about anybody: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

I look at my own life and think: “That’s about right.” I imagine that you think the same about yourself, at least at times.

But none of this is said to induce guilt feelings, or even to lift up the need for “repentance.” Paul uses this obvious fact as part of his argument that the Law is good.

You see, within the early church there were those who regarded the Law of God—the Torah of the Old Testament—as irrelevant or even dangerous. Paul shows that it is not the Law but our own sin that is the problem.

But defending the Law just isn't an issue for us.

The main point for us is that last phrase: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This passage has something to do with what one writer calls “the joy and humility of Gentile Christianity.”

We find ourselves in a new situation, one in which we find ourselves called the Children of God. Shouldn’t that evoke at least a “Thank you” from our very being—even if nothing else does? We live joyful lives because by God's grace we are the children of God; we live humble lives because we are the children of God by God's grace, not our own efforts.

We have become the children of God, not because we follow the Law, which is good. We have become the children of God, not because we are heirs of the eternal covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah.

We have become God's children by another route—through faith in the One who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

Our situation is not desperate. We need not cry out “O wretched person that I am.” We don’t need to berate ourselves and spend a lot of time wallowing in guilt.

All that is asked is that we accept the grace of God freely given, that we choose the new life that Christ generously offers.  And if we do that, we'll probably find ourselves saying "Thanks be to God" as we live in the world.

In the spring, in Lent, we realize that life gets messy. Demands, obligations, and desires pile up around us.

The Hebrew people, preparing for the Passover, were told: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord . . . Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses . . .”

Over the thousands of years since the early celebration of Passover, leavened bread became a symbol of what is allowed to stand around. Leavened bread signified staleness and deadening routine; getting rid of it became the symbol of freshness and growth.

Since Passover occurs in the spring, the total cleaning of the house to eliminate leaven was easily expanded to a comprehensive spring-cleaning: throwing out the accumulated staleness and the deadness of winter. It’s said that in the Middle East these spring housecleaning activities are so intense that some women there have called Passover az frihli—“the festival of falling apart.”[ii]

Our Lenten activity can be seen as a “spring cleaning of the heart”—clearing away the clutter that has accumulated over the past winter, the past year, maybe over a lifetime.

There are a lot of different types of clutter. Think about your own homes and you’ll probably see what I mean.

There are those things that seemed important to hold onto at one time, but that now are just in the way:

            Bank statements from ten, twenty years ago.

            Those records that you know you’ll never play again.

            Some old tires that you are saving for. . .why is it you're saving them?

In the same way our hearts get cluttered with

Grudges that we nurse along, keeping them healthy and strong.

Anger that maybe once was necessary and appropriate but that now serves no purpose.

            Bitterness over taking the wrong path.

            Resentment because you didn't take the right path.

            Hatred.

Some things that seemed vital at the time have grown stale and are now simply taking up space in your heart—space that perhaps could otherwise be filled with things like peace, joy, love.

There is the kind of clutter that comes from holding onto things because they might be useful in the future:

            Boxes and packing materials for moving.

            Wood for some project.

            Pieces of fabric for a quilt.

Maybe you will use these things, but right now they’re starting to get in the way.

And so our hearts get cluttered with

            Self-righteousness.

            Schemes for getting even.

            Angry words that we’re looking for just the chance to use.

There is even the clutter that comes from things simply being out of place:

            Barbie dolls or Power Rangers that didn't get put away.

            Tools and equipment that didn't get put back after being used.

            Books piled high on tables.

Those things that are good, useful, and necessary, can become clutter. It’s a matter of placement and proportion and perspective:

            Work, when it is all consuming.

            Over involvement at church.

            Family, when they start to become objects instead of people.

            Even order itself, when you start to obsess about it, can clutter your life.

Life does get messy. No wonder, then, that the Psalmist cried out: “Create in me a clean heart, O God . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation!”

Spring is a time for housecleaning. Lent is a time for heart clearing. This is a time to remember again what really matters, to separate the important in life from merely what is urgent, to get rid of what has been allowed simply to stand around, all that has become stale and dead.

It won’t happen all at once. Clearing the cluttered heart takes time—which may be why we are given forty days in this season of preparation for Easter. Forty is the number the Bible uses over and over to mean “a long time.”

Clearing the clutter isn’t simply a matter of doing away with, of throwing things out. Sure, your life is full of demands and commitments and obligations and desires. But it’s not a matter of cutting out your family commitments, or of calling into work tomorrow and saying “I won't be in for the next forty days, I’m clearing the clutter from my life.”

Start instead by asking, “What is important in my life—and why?” It might be your family, your work, your relationship with God, your commitments to other people. It’s probably some combination of all of the above. Seek to be clear about what it is you value.

You might want to put all that is important to you into new relationships with each other—a new fit, a new balance. Knowing what is important for you—and  moving toward it—will go a long way toward clearing up the clutter.

And maybe you need to get rid of some things—old, worn-out obligations, the regret or anger that is just taking up space. Toward that end, perhaps the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, of giving and giving up, of prayer and study might be of use.

            Can you fast from hatred or resentment?

            Can you give up greed, envy, or jealousy?

            Can your prayer be one that prepares “an inward holy space,” an opening to be filled by God and God's grace?

The days lengthen. The light shines brighter. In that light, let us look around and see what needs cleaning. Let us clear the clutter that our hearts may be filled with the grace of God.



[i] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, pg. 45-46.

[ii]. A Lent Sourcebook, Book Two, Chicago, Liturgy Training Publications, 1990, pg. 190.