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Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost 2023

First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-13

 7O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. 8For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.” 11But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. 12O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause. 13Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.


Psalm 91:1-16

 1He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty. 2He shall say to the Lord, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” 3He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter and from the deadly pestilence. 4He shall cover you with his pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler. 5You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; 6Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid day. 7A thousand shall fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you. 8Your eyes have only to behold to see the reward of the wicked. 9Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, 10There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. 11For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. 12They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone. 13You shall tread upon the lion and adder; you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet. 14Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor. 16With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.


Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23

 12Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do 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? 17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Gospel: Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

 5aThese twelve {disciples} Jesus sent out, instructing them,

21“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. 26So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”


 Yes, But How?

For the next several weeks our epistle readings are from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.  And for the next two weeks, at least, these readings address two subjects that remain relevant, no matter the century we find ourselves in, nor the political situation.  Throughout history, these two subjects have afflicted humankind consistently from the fall in the Garden of Eden to modern times; addiction or slavery and freedom.   This week I want to focus on the first subject, addiction or slavery.  In Romans, chapter 6 verse 16, St. Paul asks, “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?”  Jesus was clear when He said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24a).

Yes, Jesus followed this statement up by condemning greed, but we must acknowledge that anytime we place anything before God, it becomes an idol, and thus we violate the First Commandment.  The principle is sound, we have two choices, serve and honor God, following His commands and statutes, or follow the passions of this world.  We cannot do both.  As Paul so eloquently puts it, we’re either a slave to righteousness which leads to life, or we’re a slave to sin, which leads to death.  I realize that it’s easy for me to stand up here and preach that we must put aside the things and pleasures of this world, instead devoting our lives to God and the work of His kingdom.  But we all know that the alure and power of sin make the choice of whom we serve way more difficult than preachers oftentimes make it sound.

We know that temptation is all around us, and the battle between sin and righteous living rages and will rage on until the return of Jesus.  That said, I believe that every one of us can identify with St. Paul in the next chapter when he cries out in anguish, “that the good that he would do, he does not; and the evil that he would not do, he does” (7:19).  Anytime we read these passages we might be tempted to say, that sounds a lot like me!  We all have good intentions.  But we also know where the road that’s paved with good intentions leads to!

One pastor tells about a man who borrowed a book from an acquaintance.  When he read it, he was intrigued to find parts of the book underlined, with the letters YBH in the margin.  So, when he returned the book, he asked the owner what they meant.  The owner replied that the underlined paragraphs were sections that he basically agreed with, and the YBH stood for “Yes, But How?”  And that’s the question: “How?”

We know we need to take better care of our body, but how?  We know we ought to get more done each day, but how?  We know we ought to be more sensitive to our children, and be more patient with our spouse, but how?  We know we ought to be kinder to our neighbors, refuse to participate in gossip, be more generous, pray more, study scripture more, and the list goes on.  Yes, these are all good things, but how can we do them?  If St. Paul, one of the most disciplined and dynamic men who ever lived, struggle with righteous living, then what hope is there for us?  The answer is simple, without God’s help, we cannot.

And because God is there to assist us in our time of need, there is hope.  It’s the same hope St. Paul expressed when he acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  It’s in the acknowledgment of our humanness and our inadequacy.  It’s in acknowledging the Good News that we can be free through faith in Him.  And this process begins with us acknowledging our humanness and our inadequacy.  Again, in the next chapter of Romans, St. Paul writes: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”  Then he adds, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:23-25).

This Apostle of Jesus knew the agony of being human, but he also knew the grace and goodness of God.  When you stop and think about it, it’s liberating to acknowledge that none of us are God, but fallible human beings.  In Baptism God claimed us as His own.  But because of the power of sin, we are both sinner and saint.  The path of righteousness is the journey of a lifetime, and without God’s help, the end of that journey is destruction.  St. Augustine once wrote, “Whatever we are, we are not what we ought to be.”  Erich Fromm put it this way: “It is part of the tragedy of the human situation that the development of the self is never completed; even under the best conditions, only part of man’s potentialities is realized.  Man always dies before he is fully born.”  Without the Holy Spirit, in whom we must rely on daily, only death and eternal damnation await us.

Yes, we are simultaneously sinner and saints.  It’s a fact, we’re all fallible and will fall short, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”  The question is, do we use this as an excuse?  St. Paul again is clear, “Are we to sin because we are no longer under the law but under grace?  By no means!” (vs. 15).  One of the other pastors on Tuesday pointed out that Paul never lays the blame on satan for our sin.

Paul is consistent, throughout his letters, that our shortcomings are always attributed to the power of sin.  There is a subtle distinction here; we must take responsibility for our actions, good or bad.  We cannot act like Adam and Eve in the Garden and try to pass the buck; each of us are responsibility for our words and deeds.  Yet, we must be careful to not to be so afraid to fail, that we refuse to live and interact with others.

Have you ever known someone who is painfully shy?  We generally assume that people like this have inferiority complexes.  But that may not be true at all.  It may be that they’re afraid to take a risk, they allow the fear of failure to rule their lives.  At the risk of oversimplification, people that are shy are afraid of saying the wrong thing—fear either of being ridiculed or laughed at.  But who among us has never said the wrong thing?  We all fall short at times.  We cannot shut ourselves off from others over the fear of failure.  We must be willing to trust in God’s grace and the kindness of others.  Psychologists say that people who procrastinate share the same tendencies as shy people.

Psychologists say that people who procrastinate are actually perfectionists at heart.   The perfectionist has this feeling that whatever he or she does must be perfect, and since perfection is rare, and takes significant commitment, the procrastinator simply puts off getting started until the very last minute.  As someone once said, “If it wasn’t for the last minute, a lot of things would never get done!  Yes, Jesus told us to be perfect as the Father is perfect.  But Jesus knows this is the ultimate goal.

Perfection isn’t something we achieve overnight.  Between today and perfection in eternity, is a lifetime of falling short.  The question we must ask is, do we use our fallibility as an excuse to sin more?  Paul’s answer is clear, “By no means!”  Or do we acknowledge our short comings and the power of sin, seek forgiveness, and ask God to strengthen us as we travel the journey righteousness to perfection?

The reason I keep asking if our fallibility as humans is a fact or an excuse, is that the idea of our being simultaneously sinners and saints is that this has served as an excuse for a lot of sloppy living throughout history.  We must be willing to recognize our sin and shortcomings, admit our inadequacy and our limitations, so that we might discover the answer to the question that we are asking today: “Yes, but how?”  How is God helping us in our daily struggle to become righteous?

One cynic said that before marriage a man is incomplete; and after marriage he is finished.  No one wants to be finished, but we do want to be complete.  The question for us is, “Yes, but how?”  Once we recognize our shortcomings, admit our inadequacies, accept responsibility for our actions and refuse to pass the buck, what do we do next?  Paul’s answer would be for us to become a slave to righteousness by the power of God’s Spirit.  There comes a time when we must let go and let God.  There comes a time when we have done all we can, and now we must trust Him to do the rest.

Some people in a heavily loaded Cessna 206 tried to take off from a wet jungle airstrip.  The pilot had done this many times and was certain they would clear the huge trees at the end of the short runway.  He had the throttle full forward as they taxied down the strip.  However, the passenger sitting next to the pilot panicked.  He saw the looming trees rushing toward them and, terrified that they were going to crash, tried to help.  So he grabbed the flight controls and pulled back.  His intentions were good, but it doesn’t work that way.  You must build up airspeed before you point the nose skyward.  Otherwise, the engines will stall.

The plane pitched up, lost critical airspeed, and began to roll toward the jungle.  The pilot wrenched the controls back and desperately tried to get the nose back down, but it was too late.  The plane stalled, the engine pulled the nose over sharply and it spun back to earth.  By the grace of God, no one was killed, but everyone was injured, the pilot most seriously.  Another pilot on the ground rescued the injured, taking them to a small jungle hospital and everyone eventually recovered.  You and I can learn a lot from this story.

There seems to be a lot of crashes these days because people can’t keep their hands off the controls.  Most of us sympathize with the passenger, because we have a way of doing exactly the same thing in our spiritual journey.  Thinking we know best, we try to take over and run things our way, but it never works.  Even Jesus submitted to God’s plan. “Not My will, but Thine be done ” (Luke 22:42).

We must recognize our fallibility, not make excuses, accept responsibility for our actions, and then open ourselves to the One who is all-sufficient, all-encompassing, and all-powerful.  We must seek God’s forgiveness and help and allow God’s Spirit to work in our lives and to fill us to overflowing.  This brings us to the third step in answering the question, `Yes, but how?’  With God’s help we get on with our lives and the business of God’s kingdom.

Even though we do fall short, God, throughout history, has chosen to work through people.  Look at the patriarchs of the Bible.  God chose to give His promise to bless all nations through Abraham.  Abram tried to fulfil God’s plan by listening to Sarai and took Hagar as a wife.  Abram lied about Sarai being his sister because he was afraid of the Pharoah.  Jacob deceived his brother and tricked him out of his birthright.  Moses didn’t follow God’s instructions and was not allowed into the promised land.  King David was an adulterer and murderer, yet the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart.  We cannot use our inadequacies as an excuse for not trying, nor can we use our faith as an excuse for irresponsibility.

A college class was graduating in an outdoor ceremony on a very hot and humid day.  As the graduates walked across the platform and received their diplomas from the college president, he very graciously shook hands and said in a loud voice, “Congratulations.”  Then, in a voice that was softer, more firm, and less patient, he would say to each graduate, “Keep moving!”  That’s often God’s word to us.  Each time we fall short and ask God to forgive and strengthen us, God will tell us, you are forgiven, now “keep moving.”

There’s a story about a woman who had been out shopping all day and bought a very expensive dress.  When her husband saw the price tag on it, he asked her why she had bought it, since she knew they couldn’t afford it.  “Well, honey,” she responded, “the devil made me do it.  I was trying it on in the store, and he told me that he’d never seen me look more gorgeous than I did in that dress.”  “Well, why didn’t you say, `Get thee behind me, Satan?’ asked the husband.  But “I did,” was the answer, “and he told me that it looked great from back there, too.”

Satan gets blamed for a lot of things, but you and I must take responsibility for our decisions and actions.  Even though we struggle with our fallibility, we’re still accountable for the decisions and actions we take.  God chooses to accomplish His will and His work through us.  We have no need to fear the repercussions of the world for doing God’s work, because as the psalmist reminds us, “[God] is our refuge and stronghold, we can place our trust in Him” (91:2b).

The renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler said, “I have not the slightest consciousness of what my fingers are doing when I play.  I concentrate on the ideal of the music that I hear in my head, and I try to come as near to that as I can.  I don’t think of the mechanics at all.”  I believe that’s something like what Paul is trying to say to us.  The violinist’s fingers will make mistakes, just as we will make mistakes as we live our lives.  But as long as we’re willing to acknowledge our shortcomings, take responsibility for our actions and come to God for forgiveness with a contrite heart, God will forgive us and strengthen us for continued service in His kingdom.

Yes, we’re fallible, this is a fact.  But we cannot use that as an excuse for continuing to live in sin.  In Baptism the old Adam was drown and we were raised anew in Christ.  But this was just the beginning of the journey we must take in our lifelong quest for righteousness and perfection.  We must daily remember our Baptism and surrender our lives to God so that we can strive to walk blamelessly before God.  If we do this, we can answer the question, “Yes, but How?” by reminding ourselves of the promise made in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”


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