The book of Romans says, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How have our genetics and life experiences shaped us to respond to life’s joys and challenges? Rev. John Weems will consider how we navigate the battle within.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Like many of you, I frequently walk by the SPCA pet adoption center on Fillmore. I like to look at the posters of adorable cats and dogs, and occasionally wander in to get a fix of cuteness. After one of those wanderings, our family adopted an adorable chubby orange cat named Julius–Orange Julius. After that Colleen kindly requested that I not visit the pound for quite some time. Then on one particularly dreary day last November, I had just conducted a small memorial service for someone who died under especially sad circumstances. Our family was still reeling from the death of Colleen’s mom, my uncle, and the soon to come passing of our dear friend Harold.
I was walking down to Peet’s to get a coffee, but might have stopped by the SPCA. A few minutes later I was texting Colleen a picture of yours truly with an adorable dog named Moe. For those of you on Instagram, feel free to find me at “johnweems” and take a look. He was about a year and a half old, with the appearance of a cross between a German Shepherd Puppy and “The Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Moe always seemed to be smiling, and knew how to flash his charm. I reminded Colleen that in the 9th inning of the World Series, she said we could get a dog if the Chicago Cubs won. Nevermind that we weren’t really fans of the Cubs—it was history in the making.
So now we have a dog who always seems to be smiling.
But there’s Moe to the story. (My apologies, I couldn’t resist)
In today’s Scripture lesson from Romans, we encounter Paul. For those who are newer to the Bible or church, the Apostle Paul was a faith leader responsible for much of what we read in the New Testament. He an early church planter also known as Saul, but he didn’t start out that way. As the story goes, Paul had been devoting his life to persecuting early followers of Jesus. He viewed this Jesus as a false prophet and his followers as frauds. In the midst of doing what Paul thought was his mission in life, he had an experience of transformation we can read about in Acts 9:3-9:
3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
This powerful man who lived by the sword was reduced to humble heap, dependent upon an encounter with Christ’s grace and the prayers of a man named Ananias. Ananias prayed for three days that Paul would be filled with the Holy Spirit, “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:18-19).
If we had encountered Paul before his Damascus road encounter with Jesus, we would have considered him to be strong. Had we crossed paths with him after the scales feel from his eyes and he emerged as a relentless agent of Jesus, we wouldn’t have been likely to sense any weakness.
Paul knew the truth. Maybe at one time it was a secret, but he could no longer hide it and live his faith with integrity. Paul had a “thorn” in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) “to keep [him] from being too elated.” No one knows what exactly what this thorn was, though many scholars speculate it was some kind of physical ailment. In today’s passage from Romans, Paul admits that “I do not understand my own actions” and that “I do the very thing I hate.”
The specifics of Paul’s confession aren’t the key here.
The key was his acknowledgment that he couldn’t go it alone in life.
His education of the law, status in his community, even his physical power to harm people was insufficient.
Paul needed a higher power, and for him the name of that power was Jesus.
Scholar Eugene Boring and preacher extraordinaire Fred Craddock explain that, “The solution to the human dilemma is not resolutely to follow our ‘higher nature,’ but to rely on God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to all Christians. Thus what is described here is not the internal struggle of the Christian, but universal human experience prior to and apart from Christ . . .”
In other words, we can try again and again to overcome our struggles on our own. As the cover of today’s bulletin says, “Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Many of us are trying to fight that battle alone. Numerous some ones here today are silently suffering with physical pain, addictions, searching for purpose, loneliness, and emotional wounds inflicted by others.
Please know that you are not alone. Though we are in Pacific Heights, an area in which even the porta-potties outside of multi-million dollar homes being renovated have enclosures nicer than many people’s actual dwellings, we need not pretend that everything is perfect.
Like the one who is grumpy and seems to intentionally push people away, the one who is smiling and saying everything is fine probably has a deeper story we may never fully understand.
Moe the smiling dog has such a story. We do know that he was abandoned when he was a puppy and found somewhere in the Central Valley. He ended up in one SPCA branch before being transferred to Pacific Heights. Some young man adopted Moe in September of last year, then returned him to the pound again until some pastor wandered in off the street to see his sweet little face and send Moe’s picture home.
Lest you think I claim to be some kind of a doggy saint, you should know that things were so difficult I seriously considered giving Moe away again. He chewed through four of his beds and anything else he could get his teeth on. In the rare moments he would sit calmly, some kind of madness seemed to come over him. It was as though he looked up, realized he was calm, and couldn’t stay content. He suffered from some inner turmoil. Peace did not seem to be an option for him.
Even the veterinarian said she couldn’t do routine check ups on him and said we should take him to some canine behavioral health center at UC Davis. When I explained that we needed to save funds to send a child to a UC and wouldn’t be sending our dog, she prescribed an inexpensive anti anxiety medication that has been part of a transformation. If Moe gets lots of hugs, some time at the dog park, and his special medicine, he can manage.
Though he appears to be smiling, all is not well all of the time.
Something is eating at him and he cannot go it alone.
The battle within can only be addressed in community.
For some of you, it comes through repeating 12 steps with a trusted sponsor.
For others, it is a grief or cancer or parenting support group.
Some battle with the help of a good therapist and/or a friend who gets you.
But I know that someone here today hasn’t yet said anything. You’re embarrassed or simply don’t want to burden anyone with the thorn in your flesh.
Jesus opens his arms to you, just as he did for Paul.
You don’t have to go it alone. Please say something when you’re ready. Or take a chance today, even if you’re not sure. Write “Confidential” on one of the pew envelopes with the best way to reach you.
The late psychiatrist and author Gerald G. May wrote, “Peace is not something you can force on anything or anyone… much less upon one’s own mind. It is like trying to quiet the ocean by pressing upon the waves. Sanity lies in somehow opening to the chaos, allowing anxiety, moving deeply into the tumult, diving into the waves, where underneath, within, peace simply is.”
May we stop trying to quiet the ocean by pressing upon the waves. May we open ourselves to the reality of the chaos and follow Christ’s path to freedom. Amen.
 From Catholic.com: “The Hebrew name given him by his parents was Saul, but, because his father was a Roman citizen (and therefore Saul inherited Roman citizenship), Saul also had the Latin name Paul (Acts 16:37, 22:25-28), the custom of dual names being common in those days.”
 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 485-86.
 Gerald May, Simply Sane: the Spirituality of Mental Health (New York, USA.: Crossroad New York, 1993).