Rev. Joseph Connolly
“There is, therefore, now no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ, Jesus. For, you see, the law of the Spirit— the Spirit of life in Christ, Jesus— has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” — Romans 8:1-2.
This is a fact: most pastors use sermon illustrations. Some, perhaps even most illustrations, are stories. Some pastors use canned stories, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Some pastors use personal stories. I often fall into that camp. I am about to use a very personal story. But I also need to say I’ve used this story before.
However, there are two factors which might excuse the repetition. First, what I am about to say is a much more detailed telling of this story than the last time I used it.
Second, I looked it up. (These days we save all our writings on computers and we can do a word search.) I used this story nine years ago. And that is quite some time.
I therefore apologize if you are bored by hearing a story about my late Grandmother Margaret Schwartz a second time. But it has been nine years since anyone heard it. So, on with the story. (Slight pause.)
My grandmother Margaret, my mother’s mother, was born in 1886. 1886— that’s 3 years after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. 1886— Grover Cleveland was the President— the first term for Cleveland, the only president who was defeated on running for a second term but decided to run a third time and then did win a second term. By the way, if you think politics today are wacky, you know nothing about politics between 1866 and 1912. Take my word for that.
Back to my grandmother: she was born on a farm in Brooklyn, New York. Think about that for a moment: a farm… in Brooklyn. The area of the City of Brooklyn— it was a city then— the area of the City of Brooklyn in which she was born was known as Pigtown. It derived its name from the fact that major, large pig farms were located there. In fact, before World War II if Americans consumed meat the odds are it was pork, not beef.
And, yes, Brooklyn was both quite rural— it had farms— but Brooklyn was a city. In fact, Manhattan and Brooklyn were often referred to as twin cities. They would not merge into the unified entity we know today called New York City until 1898.
When my grandmother was still a young child both her parents died. She was an orphan. Relatives placed on a ship headed for San Francisco. She lived there with an aunt and an uncle.
Therefore and by definition, she sailed around the horn of South America to get to the west coast by ship. There was no Panama Canal yet.
An independent soul— perhaps because she was an orphan— by 1905 when she was 19, she had saved enough money to return to the east coast on her own. There was still no Panama Canal. It would not open until 1914.
So she took a trans-continental train back to New York City. As a consequence, she missed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake by a year.
In New York, she went into business for herself— and mind you this was a young woman who went into business for herself in the first decade of the 20th Century. Did I say she was independent? And what kind of business did she start? She bought a horse and a wagon and established a short haul moving business. This was a strong woman on many levels.
Now, family legend has it that she could beat up any man in Brooklyn. I will not stand by the veracity of that statement. On the other hand, my own mother told me she was there when she saw her mother, my grandmother— all five foot two of her— overcome and disarm a man who was threatening a room full of people with a gun. (Slight pause.)
She did not have an easy life. She married late, again not a usual situation for a woman in the early 20th Century. Her husband died before the birth of her second daughter who was my mother. So, she was a single mother with two daughters when the Great Depression hit in 1929. She was 43.
I am sure that by 1929 her moving business had graduated to having a horseless carriage to move items. But I am equally sure no one was interested in moving anywhere once the depression hit. So her little business went belly up.
There were still enclaves of wealthy professionals living in Brooklyn, despite the hard times. As the depression progressed she made her living largely by cleaning the houses of wealthy people— doctors and lawyers to name to groups of which I’m aware that she helped. She was, in today’s terminology, a domestic worker. Thereby, she lived at the lower end of the economic scale.
Besides teaching me perseverance by the very example of her life, one of the great gifts my Grandmother gave me was this saying: “It’s an easy life… if you don’t weaken.” And, indeed, given the brief background of her life I’ve just offered— the difficulty of it, the hardness of her life, the straight out bad luck— this saying could be pointed to as words to live by for all of us— “It’s an easy life… if you don’t weaken.” (Pause.)
We find these words in the work commonly called Romans: “There is, therefore, now no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ, Jesus. For, you see, the law of the Spirit— the Spirit of life in Christ, Jesus— has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Slight pause.)
Romans 7— and we heard a chunk of it— depicts a battle. This battle is a battle of and for human life, the soul, in some ways the battle of our inner selves, what we today might call a psychological battle.
There is the strong desire to do good, a strong desire to serve God and one another. That is counterbalanced by what might be called an enemy within us.
Some might call that enemy sin. Paul, in fact, calls it sin. (Quote:) “But with my flesh I serve and I am a slave to the law of sin which dwells within me.”
And yes, sin is the label often used to name a broken relationship with God. Buy I also need to state the word sin, itself, is simply shorthand for a multitude of human problems.
Therefore, we need to realize the word sin simply names a broken relationship with God. Hence, it is also about our own struggle with our own self, our own brokenness, our own frailty, our own weakness.
To be clear, this inner battle can be labeled an enemy and we can and perhaps should call it sin, since the word sin is shorthand for this brokenness. And when we refer to this struggle in the aforementioned bellicose terms, call it an enemy, we need to realize, as Paul seems to be insisting, that some part of our own inner self is capable of perverting the best human motives and actions.
Now, I think the premise Paul presents is clear: on its own, humanity has not the strength to resist the overwhelming issues of self struggle, our own brokenness, our own frailty. It would also seem to me this concept, a concept with a long theological history, is a basic premise of organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous: simply admit we are powerless.
Further Paul states that, insidiously, even the law of God can be used by this internal struggle to destroy. Given that reality, Paul comes to a realization: only God— only God who Paul knows more fully through the resurrected Christ than Paul has ever known God before— only God can intervene in this struggle.
Of course, such intervention, these “victories” are not always visible to the unassisted human eye. But Paul is clear: because of knowing God through and in the resurrected Christ, those who do enter into discipleship more fully find, in their relationship to God through Christ, a new understanding of empowerment and a new understanding of service to each other. (Slight pause.)
We Americans like what we call independence. Hence, we like to think we can do everything on our own. We like to think we are the only one who can fix things, make something work.
I believe what is pivotal here, however, is to come back to what my Grandmother said. “It’s an easy life… if you don’t weaken.” That having been said, the question becomes how can we not weaken? How do we avoid succumbing to human weakness, human frailty, human brokenness? (Slight pause.)
Like Paul, I want to suggest relying on God is key. God can be and is our help when we feel frail. God is and can be our help when we are overwhelmed.
When we trust in God we are set free to do the work of God. Trusting God and not trusting in just ourselves— trusting God and not trusting in just ourselves— now there’s a hard concept for some, especially for we Westerners in the Early Twentieth-first Century.
However, I think what Paul says is clear: when we rely on God we can see things in ways we never have before. When we rely on God we can see possibilities we never have seen before. The result of that reliance— and hear this clearly— the result of that reliance is no one is condemned, no one is shortchanged. Again, a hard concept for we Westerners in the early Twenty-first Century— no one is condemned, no one is shortchanged.
Indeed, this is the way Paul puts it (quote:) “There is, therefore, now no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ, Jesus. For, you see, the law of the Spirit— the Spirit of life in Christ, Jesus— has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier, in the Children’s Time, we said the red panda puppet is a super-hero and the super-heros of this year’s Vacation Bible School will seek to teach our children to ‘Do Good, Seek Peace and Go After It!’ Here is another little super-hero I keep in my office. It is a frog. The frog is there to remind me to F-R-O-G— ‘forever rely on God.’ How can we all be super-heros? When we rely on God.”
BENEDICTION: May God bless our minds and help us as we think; may God bless our lips and help us as we speak; and may God bless our hearts and help us as we love. And may we receive this blessing in the name of the Triune God— Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.