A HEAVY CONSCIENCE RESTED
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Based on Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:28-30
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
Of all the things you can find on your computer nowadays, there is a special website for Murphy’s Laws. “The origin and laws of Murphy in one place,” it says. The original Murphy’s Law was formulated in 1949 at an Air Force base where a Captain Edward Murphy, surveying his unit’s capabilities, uttered the basic Law: “If anything can go wrong here, it will.” Immediately, of course, variations of that original formulation arose: “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”
What he started was a tradition of Murphy’s Laws that now cover all walks of life. There are love laws, tech laws, computer laws, real estate laws, teaching laws, police officers’ laws, nurses laws, lotto laws, etc. Students, for instance, should remember that “the clock in the instructor’s room is always wrong.” Teachers, on the other hand, are to remember that “the problem child will always be a school board member’s son.” Potential lovers should remember that “if the person isn’t taken, there’s a reason.” The one that always works for me is that “the line you’re waiting in is always the slowest, and if you change to another line that one will suddenly become even slower.”
So we come to church on this Fifth Sunday after Pentecost only to hear of another law written long before Captain Murphy got to his Air Force base. It’s from St. Paul, who taught us a lot we should remember: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” This is not an attempt to be funny, like admitting that he’s some kind of klutz. It is something Paul feels deeply, after thinking about himself. But it is not the statement of someone with an eternal black cloud hanging over his head consigning him forever to one screw-up after another. This is the struggle of a man who is pursuing the nature of his inmost self with the strictest and most brutal honesty he can muster. But it’s quite an admission. Even in our quietest moments alone with ourselves it is not easy for any of us to say, as he did: “The good that I want is not what I do.”
By the time Paul wrote those words he certainly could look back on things in his life he’s not particularly proud of. He thought that he was doing God a great service by persecuting those heretical Christians, those Jews of his generation who had fallen away from the Torah to believe in this Jesus, this false Messiah, who got crucified. The good he was trying to accomplish was to save Israel from this new false belief. But now he knows that he could not save Israel at all.
But he’s a Christian now, and still his words are not past tense; he did not say “The good I wanted I did not do.” Not past tense but still present tense: “The good that I want is not what I do.” He’s a Christian now, and he’s made amends with those he persecuted. He’s shown them his own willingness to die for Jesus. He’s traveled night ..and day, suffered hunger and imprisonment, mockery and ignominy – all for the gospel – and his missionary work has had tremendous success. He gathered around him some of the brightest and most energetic co-workers and established Christian congregations in every major metropolis of the Greco-Roman world. He wrote letters that turned out to be classics of religious literature, letters that became the major content of the Christian Scriptures and the inspiration for every renewal movement in the history of the church after him, from Augustine to Luther, from Wesley to Kierkegaard to Bonhoeffer. He is a saint of the church, right? And yet it is this man, this gigantic shaper of the faith we all confess, this huge influence at both pastoral and theological levels, this dynamic leader, who sat down and wrote to people in Rome whom he had not yet met: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Is this conscience speaking? Maybe, and maybe not. Was Paul burdened with a heavy conscience for his misdeeds? If so, what does his conscience have to do with ours? Isn’t conscience a private matter? And doesn’t one’s conscience depend on every person’s own individual background, its influences and education? You know, I’ve never placed much value in the statement: “Let your conscience be your guide,” because with little ground in our society for common moral discourse, consciences can range from the very over-active to the active to the totally non-existent. For instance, this society is used to promises before elections without fulfillment afterward, and we wouldn’t ever accuse our politicians of having a conscience problem. Modern business practices are suddenly addressing human conscience only because the law is knocking at the door. We fudge a little on our taxes because everyone else is doing it, we say. We gossip about others whenever we feel like it, even though we might be able to recite the Ninth Commandment in our sleep, the one, you know about bearing false witness. Yet it was a wise person who once said: “When I chew on the sins of others, I suspect that the chewing gives me more pleasure than the sinning did the sinner.”
We can momentarily submerge our conscience to go along with the crowd. “I’m just going to take life as it comes. I’ll grab what I can, where I can, and how I can. And that’s life!” And yet, every once in a while you hear that little voice within you that says, “Shame on you. You’re not what you could be.” But that voice is quickly shoved back into the darkest recesses of our being, until the tide, after its ebb, returns again to seek its own level in the ground of our souls.
Sometimes, and St. Paul knew this, our consciences can paralyze us, and make us fear doing anything in order to avoid making a mistake. A chronically burdened conscience can take insignificant acts, and suddenly a very healthy, progressive, positive person turns into a negative, whimpering grouch. Children who learn early on in life that they will never quite live up to their parents’ expectations of them, that only a 4.0 grade point average will ever make them happy, that only medical school or Carnegie Hall or the Olympic Team would ever bring them worth in their parents’ eyes – talk to them sometime about the shape of their conscience and it’s not a pretty conversation. Conscience can take a person who has long been forgiven and make that person’s life a literal hell because that forgiveness has never really been accepted.
So St. Paul, the former legalist, the former persecutor, did a lot of thinking about the law of God, about human guilt, and human conscience. And he is able to say that forgiveness is no luxury at all, but rather a necessity. And he knows that it is not just in a fit of conscience or in a moment of deep depression that he says, “The good that I want is not what I do,” but it is in a moment when he is being brutally honest about the whole of the human condition. He knows that the little game of conscience is but a paradigm of the bigger game of human existence entirely.
Paul looks back on his life and sees that every time he has struck out on his own to do good for God he has simply struck out. On his own he persecuted the church, to do good for God, and struck out. On his own he sought to obey the law of God – to the point he thought he was blameless, he said – and just struck out. The good that he wanted, namely life with God, was not something that he did. Because life with God is not something that you do, it is something that you are given. And ever time you set out to do it on your own, you will fail. Every time you set out to achieve God’s love and acceptance on your own, the evil of boasting lies close at hand, the boast that you didn’t need God after all to feel free and liberated, accepted and loved. And that boast is the worst possible evil, for it rejects the very way God himself has chosen for you, namely to “give you the victory through Christ Jesus your Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
Therefore you receive another picture of things on this Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Today you hear about Paul’s attempt accurately to describe the human condition. But you also hear someone else speak to you. You hear the words of Christ himself, speaking to you, to all of us who fall short of God’s glory: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
You will always hear Christ say that to you, as he did to St. Paul. Especially when you are in a quandary about your life: there you will find your risen Lord yoked with you, that means walking with you, next to you, as a team, taking on every new field of life. That life with Christ is a good that you cannot do, because it is a good that is given to you, so that you can have rest for your souls. a gift that prepares you for life in every next new day.
Where do you find it? How do you get that gift of life with Christ that is preparation for every next new day? You don’t find it on your own. But here, in the company of Christ’s people, where you hear it spoken to you, where you receive it in bread and wine, and where you sing hymns with each other and speak the creeds of the faith to each other. Here you will find the place to set your burdens in a new light. Teamed with Christ your burdens become lighter and easier, and a heavy conscience is rested. In the company of Christ’s people you will receive again and again the gift of that peace of God that passes all human understanding and that will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
-- Richard L. Jeske