3 Pentecost Proper 8”Jer 28:5-9; Ps 89:1-4, 15-18; Rom 6:12-23; Mt 10:40-42
A sermon preached at St. John’s, Montgomery, AL on June 29, 2014
We Americans live under a delusion”we think life is about rights, not responsibilities. We believe that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Good intentions when they were first framed, but we have twisted them into an imbalance and improper use of the way we spend our time and our purpose. We have buth into the I’m Happy mentality in which we believe that happiness is the truth and have forgotten that there is more to this world than our own immediate gratification.
Paul knows how much we like our secular ways”be we Romans in the first century or Americans in the 21st. He knows how popular sports are, how much we love good food and drink, how we would rather play games than meditate, spend time in gossip and concern ourselves with who’s doing what rather than spend time in study and prayer. Paul knows he is facing a hard sell when it comes to being Christian.
But what Paul gets (and what we are prone to forget) is that the things you spend time on are the things that wind up controlling you. In the Epistle reading this morning, Paul refers to this phenomenon as dominion, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, and he likens it to slavery. Our 21st century ears immediately hear, Yes, when we chose sin, we become slaves to sin and we gloss right over the truth that Paul is attempting to relate.
In our modern day, American way of thinking, the idea of slavery typically stirs up a negative reaction. For us and for many, the concept of slavery involves power and control. We think in terms of slave holder and the person enslaved”one person has power and authority over another. Paul understood slavery in this way too, but where we would attach moral turpitude and injustice, Paul understands neither a moral or justice issue. For Paul, slavery is a given, it is not simply a way of life or cultural norm, it is connected into the fabric of life, the method of economic survival and inevitability for all men.
Where we would claim we have a choice in the existence of slavery, Paul would deny that choice, contending that slavery exists in the form of dominion, that it has always existed, and that it will always exist. Paul does not see slavery merely in terms of economic transactions, but as a necessary quality found in all human existence.
That is a difficult contention for us. As Americans, we identify the core of our existence as freedom. We fight for it, we are offended by its limitations, and we idolize it as motivation and reward. We are reminded of how deeply freedom is entrenched into our social existence ever year on the Fourth of July when we celebrate our independence. Our national conscious is easily swayed by any threats or perceived threats to that independence, to our freedom.
Paul defines freedom somewhat differently. He defines freedom not in terms of pursuit, but in terms of what we are not pursuing. Paul would condemn our understanding of the pursuit of happiness as chains of enslavement to hedonism, not as freedoms earnestly desired”peace, fulfillment, and honesty. Freedom in the American context becomes a form of slavery in the Pauline context.
Paul warns us that our pursuits have dominion over us”be those pursuits good or bad. We are slaves to the way in which we live our lives. Period. There is no choice in the matter. The only choice we have is that which we will be enslaved too. Paul’s warning in today’s letter to the Romans warns them, and by extension, us, that we can be enslaved to sin or we can be enslaved to righteousness. One way leads to death and the other to eternal life.
We are all dominated by something–in the traditional sense we know slavery as being dominated by another person–but one might also be dominated by an ideology–political, philosophical, or theological; or by one’s passions”football rivalries, strong drink, or self-indulgent pleasures. Something has enslaved us. And if it is sin, if it is passion for something other than godly pursuits, then, according to Paul, it is not enough just to control those passions they must be eliminated.
To transform your life from that of sinner to disciple is not just an attitude adjustment, it involves death and resurrection. We must put to death our old pursuits and be born again into a new way of being. That is what righteousness is all about. That is what sanctification is.
There are plenty of false prophets out there telling you that everything is going to be ok, just ignore it and it will go away, like Hananiah in the reading from Jeremiah. Hananiah attempts to refute Jeremiah’s message of doom by telling the Israelites that everything is going to be just fine”the Babylonians will be gone in two years and the vessels will be returned to the Temple and the king will sit again on the throne. Don’t worry; be happy.
We like that message”when times are tough we yearn to return to the status quo, to the good times of yore.
That is often what the pursuit of happiness is all about, lamenting our present sorrows and living in a state of denial about our future concerns. Even Jeremiah was caught up in this desire for happiness, and responds to Hananiah favorably, Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied¦ But (and there is always a but if a prophet ever agrees with you), Jeremiah warns the people that actions will speak louder than words and within two months of his prophetic prediction, Hananiah is dead and Israel is still held captive under Babylon.
Jeremiah pleads with the people to quit yearning for the status quo and instead to deal with the life they have been dealt. There is more to this world than what we have and what we have known.
When we are enslaved to righteousness, when we are enslaved to God we begin to participate in the vastness of mystery and reward wrapped up in eternal salvation. To participate in mystery is to be aware of and accept our own humility”the dominion of our Lord and Savior in our life.
Paul knows this, he knows that we are, have always been, and will always be enslaved to our passions”so he tells us to choose those passions wisely. Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? Paul turns our understanding of freedom and slavery on its head. For Paul, we are to be freed from sin and enslaved to God. How different might our world look if we were more concerned with the pursuit of righteousness, rather than the pursuit of happiness?
Instead of allowing our passions to control us, we need to release them, eliminate them and allow God to exercise dominion over our lives. Paul believes that there are two masters in this world”God or sin. Our choice is about which master we will serve.