Powers and Principalities
Sun, Jul 09, 2017

Tragedy or Hope?


Duration:20 mins 6 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7 verses 13-25. We join Paul as he is talking about sin, grace, death, and the law. It can get a bit confusing, so a helpful way to follow Paul’s argument is to look for the questions he asks and then try to find his answers. For example, in chapter 7, verse 7 Paul asks: “What then should we say? That the law is sin?” The answer to this question comes five verses later when Paul says, “So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good.” Paul continues trying to work this out with the question that gives direction for our verses today, asked in verse 13: “Did what is good (i.e. the law), then, bring death to me?” Sometimes speaking for himself and sometimes speaking as a representative of all humanity, Paul seeks to answer that question in our verses for today. Let us hear this Word of God.

13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This morning, I want to begin with a true story. In 1962, fifty-five years ago, there was a fire at the city landfill in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It may have been local firefighters who started the blaze and didn’t properly extinguish it as they cleaned the landfill. It may have been hot coals and ash dumped into the landfill without a proper clay barrier. But the fire started and through bad luck, it spread underground where it was even harder to extinguish. Eventually it reached the veins of coal.

Throughout the 1960’s and the 1970’s the fire raged mostly out of sight underground. The town figured it would eventually burn itself out, and even after the fire forced the local coal mines to close, they pretended not to worry about it. But by the late 1970’s the air was filled with sulfur and smoke, roads were hot and buckled, trees and grass had been baked white, and volunteers had to put out flames that erupted on the surface from time to time.

The rest of Pennsylvania began paying attention to the fire under Centralia in 1981 when 12 year old Todd Dombrowski noticed smoke coming from his grandmother’s yard. He went to see if someone had thrown a cigarette in the leaves. All of the sudden the ground gave way, opening a sinkhole four feet wide and 150 feet deep. If not for the quick assistance of Todd’s cousin Eric, Todd would have lost his life as the temperatures in the hole were nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit and the hot billowing steam brought a lethal level of carbon monoxide to the surface.

Two years later, large sections of Centralia’s main highway, Route 61, caved in.

The Pennsylvania Office of Surface Mining, which had been monitoring the fire for years, estimated that the only way to stop it was to dig a 500 ft. deep trench around the entire town. The estimated price tag was $663 million (roughly $1.6 billion today) and there was no guarantee it would actually work. So instead, in 1984, more than twenty years after the fire began, the US Congress offered $42 million to buy out all the homes and businesses and relocate the town’s residents. At the time the population was approximately 1,100 people.

By 1991 most folks had chosen to go – but not everyone. A few holdouts suspected that all this, especially the trench, was a government plot to get their coal and mineral rights. They fought in every court available to them and despite losing every time and the fact that their homes have been condemned by the state and that the US Postal Service revoked their ZIP code, they continue to live in Centralia. At last count the community still had seven residents. In 2013 state and local officials reached an agreement with these remaining residents allowing them to live out their lives in Centralia, after which their properties will be taken through eminent domain.

The fire is still burning and some estimates say that it will for another 250 years. In the hottest part of town, where the fire is closest to the surface, pipes vent noxious gases. Every street smells and tastes of sulfur. The town is literally a smoking hell.

The story of Centralia, Pennsylvania is almost unbelievable. And yet, it is also a story that we recognize. It is the story of half-measures, complacency, conspiracy theories, and denial. And little by little, the ground is literally collapsing beneath their feet.

I think that Paul would have understood the story of Centralia, especially as we think this morning about his words we read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of Romans. Beginning with the theologian Augustine in the 5th century, throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and even in many interpreters today, these verses are thought to be Paul’s anguished internal wrestling with his inability to keep God’s law – a law that imposes impossible burdens, a law that incites sin by putting ideas into his head, a law that produces nothing but guilt due to an inability to keep it. This fits well with our own experience – we struggle to do what is right and we feel guilty when we don’t. We have been taught that Judaism is a religion of law and Christianity a religion of grace and that the two do not meet. Hearing Paul’s words we even rejoice a little that Paul really is a lot like us – failed and flawed.

If we remove these verses from their context, then there is no problem at all with an interpretation just like that – an introspective, individualistic, anguished, failure to keep God’s law. The problem is the law and the solution is grace.

But remembering how I introduced our scripture reading this morning should give us all at least a moment of pause. Remember Paul writes, “What then should we say? That the law is sin?” His answer: “By no means!” He continues, “Did the law, which is good, then, bring death to me?” Same answer, “By no means!” These are the questions and answers that drive Paul’s argument. So declaring that the point of this text is Paul’s inability to follow the law, is kind of like saying that the real problem in Centralia, Pennsylvania is that too many people speed on Route 61. It ignores the deeper problem which Paul calls “sin” and which Centralia knows is an underground fire which creates sinkholes in Route 61 that swallow cars whether they are speeding or not.

Those of you who were with us last Sunday might remember that in this section of his letter Paul is not primarily interested in “sin” as individual failings or trespasses. No, Paul is talking about sin as a power, an aggressive power that takes hold of God’s good gifts and bends them toward death and destruction. Sin is the fire burning beneath the ground which taints everything, even our best attempts to do good, with ash and the smell of sulfur.

My friends, just like Paul we know what is right, we know what is good, and we even want to do it. How many of us woke up this morning and said, “I’m going to make as many bad decisions as possible today?” That’s just now how we go through our life. No, we make decisions and we act with the best of intentions. And yet somehow everything continues to go wrong. This dilemma is what Paul is talking about and he knows it from personal experience. Remember, he persecuted Christians. Why? Not because he failed to keep the law, no because he kept a law that sin had hijacked for its own purposes.

Let’s make the jump to our own context for a minute. We all know that there is a problem with ensuring that everyone in this country has access to quality and affordable health care. And yet, no matter what solution is developed, no matter what political party is in power, the problem seems to be getting worse and our ability to agree on anything diminishes. We all know there is a problem of economic inequality in this country and in this world. And yet, no matter what solutions we develop to fix the problem, it seems to be getting worse. We know there is a crisis of education in our nation’s schools, we know there is a problem with violence in our homes, in our community, in our nation and between nations; we know there are deep divisions in this country over race, nationality, and creed. And yet, despite all our attempts at good and faithful correction, it seems to be getting worse. The fire still burns.

So what we find in Paul’s argument about sin is the same thing we find in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It is the same thing we find in all of those situations I just named – tragedy. No matter what we do, even our very best attempts to do what is right and what is good cannot put out that fire, cannot escape the power of sin. That’s why Paul at the end of this chapter declares himself to be not “guilty,” but “wretched” or “tragic.” Professor Paul Achtemeier puts it this way:

What Paul describes in these verses is the dilemma of all human beings who seek to follow God’s will apart from Christ. Knowing they ought to do good, human beings nevertheless stumble under the power of sin into the very evil they seek to avoid. Trying to do the good, they in fact oppose the good until that point at which they recognize [the good] is in Christ.

That’s what Paul is talking about in these verses. Apart from Christ, and his power to break the hold of sin on humanity, humanity will only continue to bring about evil precisely through its intention to do good.

Let me read that sentence again because if you do not remember anything else this morning, please remember this: “Apart from Christ and his power to break the hold of sin on humanity, humanity will only continue to bring about evil precisely through its intention to do good.” That’s Paul’s answer to the question of verse 13: “Did what is good (i.e. the law), then, bring death to me?” No, but only Christ can rescue us from our own best intentions.

So what then do we do? As the fire continues to burn beneath our feet, we might be tempted to throw up our hands and declare it is better to do nothing. To embrace the wretchedness of life with resignation. To just live out our days in the midst of sulfur and smoke, with half-measures, complacency, conspiracy theories, and denials. Perhaps we might continue to just come to worship each Sunday to receive a temporary balm for our sin sick souls.

Or, both as individuals and as the church we might put our hope in Christ. For the cross is the only way to put out the fire that burns. With his life, death, and resurrection Christ has broken the hold of sin. He has loosed the chains. Or to use another biblical metaphor, when we put on Christ, we put on a fire suit.

Yes, Christ is already at work in this world putting out fires, transforming lives, and empowering new life and hope. Instead of sitting around watching the fires burn, instead of seeking to save the world with our best intentions, we can find the places where Christ is already at work. We can join our lives with his. We can work toward a better day and a better world knowing that Christ is already at work making all things new. You and I can be a part of that if we put our hope and our trust in him.

And who knows, if we are open and willing, if we join our lives and our work with Christ, even in the places where the fire burns deepest, we might find ourselves declaring one day “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Let us pray: