Sunday, October 18, 2009

Imperfect and Embraced

(Read Romans 7:14-25 and John 8:2-11)

There are parts of the Bible I have a hard time understanding and I cannot relate to, like the book of Numbers and parts of Revelation, for example. But one passage I understand and relate to very well, and I expect you might also, is Paul’s words from Romans 7. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

You know what he’s talking about, right? Each day or maybe every other day, we find ourselves in conflict, wanting to behave in one way, but instead behaving in another. We want to get up early, perhaps to workout or have devotional time, but we end up hitting the snooze until the last possible second. We want to take care of important matters, like calling friends, putting together the photos from last year’s vacation or cleaning the house or doing the yard work, but instead, we end up watching some pointless TV show or surfing the net, or whatever it is.

Sometimes, when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” our actions are even more detrimental. We want to serve God, but we feed our own selfish desires instead. We want to give love, but we end up hurting the people we love instead. We want to follow a straight and narrow path that leads to life, but we end up going down the dark road that takes us deeper into the heart of our own misery.

As Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18).

Being unable to do what we want to do is a part of being human. In a way, it sounds ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we be able to do what we want to do? Paul says that it is the sin that dwells within us that keeps us from doing the good we want. Without speaking any condemnation this morning, I simply want us to acknowledge that sin, inner conflict and making harmful, unhealthy, unskillful choices is a part of our human reality.

We love God, and we want to do what we believe is the healthy and right thing for us and others, but there is a war that rages within us. Sometimes, we choose the noble path. Othertimes, we are overcome, destructive, even possessed. We succumb to the very behaviors, addictions, actions, and interactions that cause harm.

Sometimes, we can see it coming a mile away, and we watch ourselves as we do the very thing we hate. Othertimes, we surprise even ourselves because we don’t have much awareness when it comes to our shadow side. We sort of close our eyes and act automatically because we don’t want to admit the darkness and pain that is within us. I don’t think we “do what we don’t want to do” because we are evil. I think we do it because we are hurting, and in our pain, we confusedly and mistakenly reach for things that cause us and others more pain.

Think about the woman who has been caught in adultery. She’s probably a good woman, but she is lonely and in need of love. I’m sure she would rather have a relationship with a man she could fall in love with and marry, but for some reason, that option doesn’t seem available to her. So she takes what she can get. And in settling for less than she deserves, she increases her own suffering and the suffering of others.

The woman caught in adultery was wrong to do what she did, and yet, she doesn’t deserve to be condemned or stoned.

You know what Jesus said to those who brought her before him. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And everyone disappeared.

Why? Because the scribes and Pharisees and everyone listening to Jesus suffer from the inner conflict and the harmful actions it leads to just like she did, just like we do.

Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

Her reply, “No one, sir.”

And then these words, some of the greatest words in the whole Bible. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our sin. He embraces us. He accepts us. He loves us even when we are broken. We are imperfect and embraced by God all at the same time. And we need to follow God’s lead on this. If God loves us no matter what, than we must love ourselves no matter what. We should be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we do, and even if we wish we were making better choices, the best way to treat ourselves in all circumstances is with acceptance and love.

The main reason is because all people, no matter who they are or what they do, deserve to be loved unconditionally. End of story.

The other reason is that if we have any hope at all of changing, of transformation, we must begin from a loving place. If when we “do what we don’t want to do,” we condemn ourselves or beat ourselves up, all that does is push us into a shame spiral. We feel bad about how we act, and then we go and do something unhealthy to kill the pain of feeling bad. This is a trap.

Through compassion, acceptance and affirmation of the self, we receive the love and freedom we need to make change possible. When in our weakness, we continue to build ourselves up, we are strengthened within. We develop character and integrity.

And the truth of the matter is, we can do what we want to do, we can stop making poor, unhealthy, destructive choices in our lives, but we need that character and integrity to do it. It takes courage to face our demons. It takes strength to turn away from our vices and our anger and our sadness. It takes strength and understanding to get our needs met in ways that are healthy and righteous. Courage, strength and understanding develop in the soul that knows unconditional love and acceptance.

Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! [Which isn’t a very loving thing to say by the way…] Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then immediately he says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because God has rescued us through the love of Jesus Christ. Not even the fear of death could make Jesus compromise his love for us and all living beings. And after Jesus died and God raised him from the dead, God declared that the law of sin and death was forever broken. That means we can say “no” to sin. We can say “no” to the path that leads to death. In Jesus Christ, we are set free, and we are given the power to choose what is good, what is healthy, what is wise and loving.

The Lord has been gracious and merciful to us our whole lives. God has forgiven the transgressions of our past and with steadfast love continues to urge us to reach our full potential as blessed children of God. So when you find yourself conflicted and acting in ways that diminish your existence as a unique, loving, Spirit-filled person, don’t waste time condemning yourself. When you see others going astray, don’t waste time condemning them either. Jesus isn’t. God isn’t.

But love yourself. Love that other person. And know that God is loving you as well. You are imperfect and embraced all at the same time. When you know this in your heart, healing and transformation will happen. And you will be free to live life as you choose.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Freedom to Follow

(Read Mark 10:17-31)

The nature of all people, animals, plants and minerals, the nature of all objects is impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. The grass withers; the flower fades. Cars rust; houses rot. Life for me and for you comes, and it goes.

Not only are living beings and objects impermanent, but so are feelings and thoughts. How you feel right now will not be how you feel at the end of this service. What you are thinking right now will not be what you are thinking tomorrow morning. Everything moves; everything changes in this life. Jobs change; goals change; relationships change. Impermanence is a fact of life. And if we know this, if we embrace this truth, we will relieve our own suffering and the suffering of others.

The rich man in today’s Scripture reading does not understand the law of impermanence, and thus he has allowed himself to become attached to his possessions. And in being attached to them, he cannot leave them.

The rich man goes to Jesus very excited, saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, and the man proudly exclaims, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And then, Jesus clues in on the man. Jesus takes a look at him and sees that this rich man really wants eternal life; he wants to have the life of the Eternal One as a part of his earthly life; he’s already walking the spiritual path and he wants to exist on a higher plane. Jesus feels love for him because this man is a kindred spirit, one who wants to walk with God.

Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But as we know, in hearing Jesus’ instruction, the man is shocked and greatly grieved for he has many possessions, and he walks away.

The rich man isn’t just grieved because he has many possessions, he’s grieved because he has put great value in his possessions. He has built his life around them. He thinks he needs them to be happy. If he sells them, he thinks he will lose his happiness.

There is nothing wrong with being rich or wealthy in and of itself. The problems arise when we become attached to our wealth, when we give our riches value that they do not deserve, when we let wealth control, guide and rule our lives, instead of God, which is what the rich man has done. He can’t follow Jesus; he can’t walk in the kingdom of God because his heart and time and energy are being put into acquiring, enjoying and preserving his wealth.

The kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality. It was established in the past. It exists in the present, and it comes to completion/fulfillment in the future, what we might call heaven.

To be in the kingdom of God on this earth is to live a life where God is the ruler. So in a way, we can step in and out of the kingdom of God depending on what we are letting rule our lives. If we live for God, then we are in it. If wealth and riches or anything else control us, then we are not walking in the kingdom.

This is a trap that we must be careful not to fall into. We all know that we must earn money and acquire some possessions in order to survive in this world, in order to create a safe and comfortable place for our families to live and grow. So we start out innocently enough, working diligently to get to that place we have conceived of in our minds, that level that we have marked as enough. But I think we all know that it’s easy to get caught up and not to be able to stop. To want a little bit more, a little bit nicer. To feel pressure to work a little bit harder, a little bit longer. But at what expense? Our souls become enslaved when they live for something other than their own expression.

If the reason we wake up in the morning and do what we do throughout the day is to acquire and maintain our wealth, we have a real problem, spiritually speaking. This is not the purpose of life. And the term "wealth" can have broad meaning – living for cash, stockmarket, houses, cars is one aspect. But also, living for power, for status, for presige is another form of how we feel wealthy. Even our family can be considered our assets. Jesus tells us to leave father and mother, children, sisters, brothers if we have to in order to follow him and walk in the kiingdom

What Jesus is trying to tell the rich man, whom he loves, is not to make the purpose of his life about acquiring, enjoying and maintaining things he values. Life is about more than that. Jesus tells him, use your life to follow me, which is to say: Use your life to seek the face of God. Use your life to grow in understanding and insight. Then, use what you learn to love others, to relieve their suffering. (Help families see through their quarrels. Help those who are afraid grow courage, etc). And teach others how to live in this way also. Teach others how to follow Christ, how to walk in the kingdom where God rules. So that what all of us are doing here is building up the kingdom of God. We can use our lives to decrease illusion, blindness, confusion, suffering, anger, fear. As these things decrease, the kingdom of God expands. It grows. We can use our lives to increase understanding, insight, compassion, happiness, peace, wellbeing. As these things increase, the kingdom of God expands. It grows.

What the rich man is lacking in putting his wealth above following the spiritual path is freedom. He is not free to live as the child of God he was put here to be. He is not free to live into God’s great vision for what his life is meant to be. His spirit is not free to learn and create and love.

But Jesus calls us all to such freedom. Leave what you have behind and follow me, he says. So I ask you: what are you living for? What gets you out of bed each day? Do not waste your energy on the acquisition and preservation of things which by their very nature will not last. Let go of whatever you have to so that you can follow the Spirit as it moves through your life, shaping your destiny. The kingdom is here and now. Enter in. Live in it. Help it to grow.