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add_up.jpg (4686 bytes)It Just Don't Add Up
a homily based on Romans 7:15-25
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Moms are the world’s greatest theologians! Moms have shaped more theological notions about sin than this world dreams of. Remember those top ten phrases, like "Why, __________, you know better than that!" Or "Why, __________, (first name followed by middle and last name, means that she’s really peeved), "I’m ashamed of you!" Or how about this one? "You didn’t learn to burp out loud at the table in this family!" My mom’s personal theological favorite used to go like this, "Why, Tom, whatever possessed you to do that?" To which I always wanted to add, "oh, a couple of demons." Theological moms very quickly reveal the utter depravity of our lives.

But moms don’t have a corner on theology. Theology can also come from the ‘toons on Saturday morning—at least in the old days. I remember one cartoon in particular about a cat, two mice, and bull dog. Two mice have discovered an entire room of cheese and so they feast. Eat so much of the stuff that they bloat like balloons. They’re so sick, they want to end their misery. So they run toward the cat crying, "eat us, eat us, Mr. Cat." And they jump into his mouth.

Well, this strange mouse behavior throws the cat off, so he suspects the mice are poisoned and are trying to kill him. So when the bull dog happens upon this strange scene, he demands that the cat eat the mice. But the cat shrieks and says to the dog, "beat me up, beat me up, Mr. Dog." Now the dog is all confused by this behavior so he sits down behind a calculator to try and figure this behavioral problem out. "Lesseee," the dog mutters. "Mice don’t wanna eat cheese," kachingk he pulls the lever. "And cat don’t wanna eat mice," kachingk. "But cat wants dog to beat cat up," kachingk, kachingk. The dog totals the data and pulls the lever and then shouts in frustration, "it just don’t add up!"

Moms and ‘toons come to the same theological impasse: when it comes living our best, keeping the rules, it just don’t add up. That’s where we find Paul this morning. Sitting behind his calculator, scratching his head and saying, "It just doesn’t add up." Let me put his actual words into a modern context for you. Paul says,

I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things . . . no matter which way I turn, I can’t make myself do right. I want to, but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway . . . Oh, what a miserable person I am!

Seems like Paul is carrying on a conversation within himself; perhaps Paul the Theologian and Paul the Christian Moralist is in conversation. The latter Paul, who is sensitive to doing the right thing and avoiding the wrong things, discovers a problem. No matter how many "I can do it" seminars he attends, no matter how many new leaves he’s turned over, no matter how many good intentions he sets out to accomplish, he always seems to come up short. That alarms Paul the Moralist—the persona within each of us who truly wants to do the right thing—what we believe pleases God.

But knowing this frustration is not enough, so Paul the Theologian knocks on the door of Paul the Christian Moralist and tells him that his problem has a name: sin. Thanks a lot, Mr. Theologian. Duhhh. So now we have a name for the problem, the gap between wanting to do the right thing and actually doing it. And he’s right. Sin is what lurks around at every corner—and especially at the intersection of good intentions and good deeds. But the two Pauls are in agreement when he writes that within all of us, there is a civil war going on—the law altruism which desires God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, and this other law which makes fulfilling the first law virtually impossible.

And the conflict just doesn’t end with Paul. We’ve all experienced that kind of battle, a battle that rages in our mind and breast. A man tries to explain why he took a gun to school. A good kid can’t figure out why he committed arson. A woman needs help locating the source of a compulsive eating disorder; she knows its killing her and quashing her self-esteem, but she just can’t help herself.

A middle-schooler feels terrible after cheating on the final math exam. A smoker faces surgery for what’s left of his lungs, yet he can’t resist the temptation to have one last smoke before surgery. A teen from a good family sits in a circle with her parents in a closed session among other kids trying to figure out what went wrong.

A store clerk still shakes from reacting with hurtful, hateful words to her supervisor. We’ve all experienced the gap between good intention s and powerlessness to carry those intentions out.

For the Christian who really truly wants to do the right thing, who wants to live out their faith, this passage is a tough one. It names our failure to accomplish the good that we intend.

This passage also irks the professionals. Must be Paul writing as a pre-Christian, some conclude, otherwise what hope is there for us if someone like Paul can’t get it together? But maybe this is the experience of one who is entangled in an addiction. Sure sounds like it. Or maybe this is the admission of failure from a frustrated Pharisee, others guess. So the debate rages on about Romans 7. Some choose to cut it out of Christian teaching altogether—though it keeps creeping back into our Christian experience.

The fact is, most of us see ourselves written in this man’s frustrations. Who among us hasn’t experienced the gap between good intentions and obedient action? We break covenant in the same breath that we promise to be faithful. We’ve grabbed when we should’ve shared, clutched when we should have given. We know, don’t we deep down in our souls, that Paul’s confession is our confession: faith and obedience don’t always add up.

I can’t one-upmanship the professionals. Who knows the state of mind or the context out of which this confession in Romans 7 comes? But I can add—came up with twenty-seven in my translation not to mention the reflexive pronouns that jump out at every turn. Twenty-seven times the word "I" appears in these few paragraphs. That’s autobiographical with a capital A!

Paul is describing a struggle between the I of good intentions and the I of powerlessness. And "sin" weights the scale virtually every time on the side failure. That’s the bad news. Egos and I’s won’t change Paul’s or our common experience. Takes something more.

Ever try to hold a weight at arm’s length? My son and I have this competition every once in awhile. We hold a dumbbell at arm’s length to see who is the manliest. So we’re facing each other, weights held shoulder high and straight out at arm’s length. Doesn’t take long before the quivering begins. Sometimes I win, but most times I just can’t hold the weights up any longer. And eventually they start the slippery slide down to my sides. I have every intention of holding those weights up for the duration. But eventually I discover another law at work—the law of gravity. I can only defy that law for so long. Wretched weakling that I am, who shall deliver me from the law of gravity? It takes a different kind of law to overrule the law of gravity.

A great description of discipleship is: "I fall down, I get up. I fall down, I get up; I fall down, I get up." We try to serve Christ, and we fail and fail. We go on, then fall again. Here comes Christ—to pick us up once more. Such is the way of discipleship. It is not something we do in our own power; it is something we do with the Spirit’s help.

I think that’s where Paul ended up, with a new discovery. "Thank God!" he concludes. For what? For powerlessness? For failure? For the impossibility of living the "full-intentioned life?" "No," Paul says, "thank God" for a Someone. Jesus Christ is the new law that provides new possibilities for living and doing and loving. In the power of the Spirit, God destroyed sin’s control over us through Jesus. The battle wages within us every single day and in a thousand different contexts, yet Paul names Jesus as the only way to close this gap between "doing the good and not doing the wrong."

The bad news? The ego and the I cannot hope to change what cannot be changed, what cannot be reformed, or transformed. Only God can save us. And God does . . . so that in that moment when "I can’t make myself do right," we can look beyond ourselves to the Higher Power who is Jesus Christ, our Savior. He can save us again and again and over and over.

"Whatever possessed you?" my mother used to ask me. Now I know the Possessor. When we are aware of God’s claim on our lives and his saving action, we can rise in the power of the Spirit to new life and pray as Ignatius once prayed,

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To You, O Lord, I return it.
All is Yours, dispose of it wholly
according to Your will.
Give me Your love and Your grace,
for this is sufficient for me.

Ignatius of Loyola