The Struggle

 The Rev. Roger Bowen. This sermon is based on Romans 7:15-25a.

Let us pray:

Lord, help us to be the masters of ourselves so that we might be the servants of others.

Take our eyes and help us to see more clearly.

Take our ears and help us to listen carefully.

Take our mouths and you speak through them.

Take our hearts and set them on fire with the love of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Today’s 2nd reading, a section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, really socks it to me…  it drills right into my inner life and personal behavior, describes them perfectly.

This is the letter where Paul says that we are supposed to avoid sin, but that sin is no longer defined by the laws of Moses. Instead, it’s defined by the character of Christ. We are to meant to conform to Him; and since He is not bound by the law of Moses, neither are we. We belong to The Christ. We are meant to “bear fruit for God.” We are to serve Him. And in this, I believe, there is joy.

But then, he complains, and I do too. He groans; he tells his truth … “You know, I have the desire to do what is good, but I can’t carry it off. Because I don’t do the good I want to do…. instead, I do the evil I don’t  want to do — and I just keep on doing this.

We call Paul a saint, but he’s not sinless.  The sin within him is hijacking him, it’s making him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s so frustrating. The result is the opposite of joy.  I do not understand my own actions. It’s crazy. I don’t do what I want.  And instead, I do the very thing I hate.

So, here’s MY parallel drama in relation to Paul.  I want to be joyful; and I do have moments of joy when I’m with family, and grandchildren, or in Haiti these past two weeks, or at a Heifetz concert sometimes.  But, generally, I have found myself being very angry …. and staying that way … and sometimes even relating to innocent others out of that anger.  It’s the opposite of joy. It’s 180 degrees  from remembering Christ and bearing fruit. And it’s been like this for me ever since last Fall’s national campaigns and election… or maybe even before that.  I am having a really hard time shaking the anger, or maybe even wanting to shake it.  It’s kind of like St. Augustine praying to God to give him chastity, but please not yet.

Because, you know, of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick our wounds, to smack our lips over grievances, to get fired up talking with friends about it, to roll over our tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last morsel both the pain we are given and the pain we might lash out with — In many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down  – is yourself. “The skeleton at the feast is you.” 1. Self righteous anger.

And then there’s this too –  I am allowing myself  – every day – to be pulled into the national news vortex …  it’s gravity is nearly irresistible.  It’s a magnet for me. Very bad.  And, so … this delicious anger wells up… anger over the state of our nation and its leadership… quite the opposite of joy.

Has this happened to any of you? I don’t think it matters which theological or philosophical or political silo we’re in, left or right or center.

Well, I confessed all of this – my problem –  to some priest friends at a diocesan/deanery retreat at The Bellfry, a lovely, quiet spot outside Lexington… confessed it a few weeks ago… and one of them gave me this counsel, recognizing that most of us are in our own “silos” on all of this, and he is too.

First, he said, he tries to keep in mind the distinction between the person and the policies. It bothers him that, in his case anyhow, he finds himself so eager to see the failure and rejection of the “one whose name will not be mentioned.” But then he tries to remember that that person is pursuing policies that he truly believes are bad for the country, and may be morally wrong to boot. And it is not wrong to hope, pray, watch, and even work for the failure of those policies, and for better, more humane policies. He still prays to God, he said, to soften the heart and save the soul of that person, whatever his personal feelings may be about him.  So, he prays.  Stay with your prayer life.  As long as he can ask God’s loving-kindness for “him who shall not be named,” for him as a person, he finds that he can live with that.

My priest pal also mentioned my being sucked into the news every day, which certainly takes Christ, takes joy, out of the center.  And his thought was this:  “Don’t watch the news. Sure, when we were young, we were taught that being informed is a citizen’s duty, and the press is the best way to stay informed. But the news has changed so much since then. It’s become too sensationalized, too geared toward hot items to generate advertising revenue, and, above all, it’s  too fast — every little detail is treated as if it were the most important thing ever, that has to be disseminated, polarized, and commented on as quickly as possible. This blows everything out of proportion, and makes it pretty much impossible to consider any given item with the time and context required for prayerful wisdom. The news no longer seems to offer genuine information, that informs, but only noise and anxiety.” So he doesn’t watch much television news any more, and he tries to be selective in the sources he does read.

And he continued, if the news on the TVs at the YMCA gym are too polarizing, don’t watch it either. Bring your ear plugs and listen to music while spinning or working out, or whatever.  If the news makes it seem like everything is spinning out of control and anger wells up, try to remember that the news deliberately spins things up, to keep you coming back.

And he finished by saying that he feels the same frustration, the same anger that I confessed; and he reminded me that at least part of that frustration,  that anger, is ginned up by cultural forces, over and against which our traditions of prayer and reason/wisdom can actually serve as some corrective!  2. He came back to prayer.  And I would add: silence. … silent, contemplative prayer and meditation. Maybe the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

So, that advice helped.

But, then,  I still needed more … seeking a way to maybe replace some of that anger with joy. So, I went back to one of my favorite saints.

Despite many legitimate reasons for discouragement or anger, Francis of Assisi  was known as a man of deep and abiding joy. Did you know that? He knew that after all was done or undone,  he was still “the herald of the Great King …  of Jesus.” In fact, Francis told his friars that it was their vocation as God’s minstrels “to move people’s hearts and lift them up to spiritual joy.”  They needed no other justification for their life or ministry than that. What a concept!

And, to illustrate what he meant by joy, Francis shared a story about an  encounter with his friend, Brother Leo. Here it is:

One frigid, winter day when he and Brother Leo were walking along the road to Assisi from Perugia, Francis called out to Leo in the bitter cold five times, each time telling him what perfect joy was not: “Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing back to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what’s more brings back to life a man who has been dead four days …  now write this down – that perfect joy is not in ANY of that!” And he continued with different examples.

After he’d been talking this way for a couple of miles, an amazed Brother Leo asked him: “Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is  to be found, then?”

And Francis answered. He said – “When we come to the monastery entrance, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of our friary and the brother porter comes and says angrily: ‘Who are you?’ and we say: ‘We are two of your brothers.’ And he contradicts us, saying, ‘You are not telling the truth. No,  you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!’ and he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry until night falls—then,  if we endure all of those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and lovingly that the porter really does know us. Oh, Brother Leo, write this down – that perfect joy is to be found there!”

“And also” – [St. Francis is merciless in some ways] – he went on: “… if we continue to knock and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows saying ‘Get away from here! Who do you think you are?’ and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts. Oh, Brother Leo, write down that this is perfect joy! . . . And now, Leo, hear the conclusion: Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends – is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships … and all for the love of Christ.”

Well, that is an alternative universe! Here is a truly nonviolent and liberated man.  But, you know, rediscovering this joyous and free  “True Self” is the goal of all transformation and all journeys toward holiness, including ours. 3.

So, what do I have to do to get to even a little closer to THAT place???

Well,  there’s no magic bullet –

To live the Gospel according to the spirit of Francis means this – I checked it out – it means participating; it means action, doing something.

  • It means participating in communion with Christ – Christ poor and Christ crucified. That is, finding Christ in the faces of the poor and the marginalized. Serving them.
  • It means participating as best we can in the love of God, and with great humility: one of Francis’ hallmarks
  • Participating in brotherhood and sisterhood with all people, and all of creation, no lines of separation.
  • It means participating fully in the life and mission of the Church,
  • It means participating in continual conversion.
  • It means developing a life of prayer—liturgical, personal, and communal prayer.
  • And, of course, it means being an ‘instrument of peace.‘ 4.

So, those “suggestions” are Francis’s roadmap for traveling from anger into joy.

That’s it.  Pretty simple.

We just have to get out of this anger and put love, put Christ, at the center.  And maybe use the TV remote to zap the ginned up news shows.

And all the people said “Amen.”

Amen.

 

Citations:

  1. Fred Buechner, Wishful Thinking
  2. Anonymous priest friend
  3. Based on one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations
  4. Theology of Saint Francis – various sites