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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Puzzling Riddles and Conundrums

Romans 7:15-25a
            I enjoy puzzles, and I love the fact that they come in so many shapes and sizes. There are jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles, wordsearch puzzles and sequence puzzles. There are puzzles involving numbers or shapes or logic. A few years ago I was obsessed with Sudoku; since I was a teen I have loved to play another kind of puzzle, Scrabble, whether on a good old-fashioned playing board or more recently, with any of the many computer-generated or internet games that resemble that game – is anyone here up to a Words With Friends challenge? If so, meet me on Facebook!

            An ancient form of puzzle is the riddle. Riddles have been around for about as long as language has existed and probably, in some form or another even before. Riddles may include “everlasting nuggets of wisdom” or “silly twists on words”.  They may be intended to impart wisdom, speaking common truths and bits of logic, or they may simply be designed to challenge and entertain.

            Sumerian riddles are found on cuneiform tablets dating to the 18th century BC, for instance. Here is the paraphrase of one of them:
There is a house. 
One enters it blind and comes out seeing. 
What is it?’
Answer: A School.
            Philosophers and comedians alike have used riddles to test their listeners. Albert Einstein, wrote this one:
If you were standing on the South Pole facing north, and you take one step backward, which way would you be traveling?
Answer: North, since all directions from the South Pole are north.   

Kids love riddles too. My four year old grandson fancies himself king of the knock-knock joke these days – yet another kind of riddle.

While all riddles have answers, and if you are lucky the answers might even make sense if you think about them long and hard enough, there are some puzzles that seem to have no sensible answer. Those are called conundrums.  People like me like puzzles, because while challenging, through using logic and intelligence, and sometimes, I have to admit, more than a little luck, we can often come up with the answer – and then our ego is fed. But conundrums are different. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a conundrum as “a confusing or difficult problem.” Some people consider true conundrums to be truly unsolvable.

Many of the writings of the Apostle Paul frankly read and feel a bit like puzzles or riddles – or, more accurately, like conundrums. Today’s Epistle is one of these. In this Epistle, Paul describes the battle that takes place within each and every one of us. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul laments. “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There is a strong sense of universal puzzle present in this passage – a struggle we can all identify with pretty well, I think. It’s a conundrum – I continually do the things I know I shouldn’t do – and, no matter how hard I try, there are some things, I cannot seem to avoid doing. Paul’s not alone here, is he?

We all face temptation. Our world, our lives are filled with them, in fact. If we took the time to examine ourselves, most of us would pretty quickly come up with a laundry list of the “things we shouldn’t do” – but “do” anyway. Some of those things are relatively harmless – like, I know I shouldn’t really drive those extra 5 miles per hour over the speed limit – yet, you know I do. (I can see my husband rolling his eyes over there).

And I could identify those things I should do that I don’t do – like I really know that I should forgive and forget the slight, the thoughtless word directed my way, or the hurtful thing someone else did. After all Jesus himself tells us that forgiveness is crucial to our well-being and our relationships – and we should forgive as we have been forgiven. Yet I confess that sometimes, it’s the forgetting part that is a real challenge for me. Forgiving often comes easier than forgetting.

Paul is describing the overarching, very human, real and dangerous struggle with sin.
            So this is the riddle that Paul built:
I want to do what is right
I know that doing what is right is good
If in my heart I want to do what is right,
Why do I do what I know I shouldn’t do, rather than what I want to do and should do?
The answer: Sin

            Sin is the age-old condition of falling out of right relationship with God. Walter Taylor writes of sin:
            When most Americans hear the word sin they think of individual acts of sinning.  While Paul can use the word that way, his basic understanding of sin is that it is a power--sin with a capital "S."  Does that Sin absolve people of responsibility?  Not at all, if we remember that in 5:12 Paul said that the individual has bought into the matrix of Sin by participating in it. 
The situation is similar to addiction.” Taylor says.  “At the beginning of the addiction, the person freely chooses to ingest the addicting substance, [or, I would add, participate in the addicting behavior] but soon that substance [or behavior] controls the individual, whose life becomes dominated by seeking the next drink or the next fix.  Thus the person has both bought into the addiction at one level, while being overwhelmed by it at another.  And so "it is the sin that dwells within me" that is in charge.”
When we truly examine ourselves, I think that we can all acknowledge that we sin. I was raised in the Catholic church, where we were expected to make regular, (and when I was little that meant weekly), personal, one-on-one confession to the priest and then do some kind of penance in order to receive forgiveness and absolution for our sins. As Lutherans our scriptural understanding, is a little different here. Martin Luther, paraphrasing Paul, said succinctly, that we simply cannot not sin. Yet we know that there is nothing that we can do – no penance or works to be done or payment to be made that can ever bring us into right relationship with God, no reparation we can make that will ever wipe away the guilt of our sins or earn our salvation and forgiveness.
My friends, confession is necessary – the human soul needs to yield to the weight of its brokenness and so, using various words each week, we begin our worship by confessing that we are truly, both together and individually, in bondage to sin, and we are utterly unable to free ourselves. We confess that it’s not just what we do or say or think that that gets us into trouble. We name ways that we fail to live as we should. Either way, we confess that we are guilty of living lives that are not truly God-centered and faithful. On our own, we confess, our brokenness leads to spiritual death, and we are hopeless in the face of our failure. We confess that Sin (with a capital “S”) has taken us captive. We ask God to release us of this prison of our own making.
In the final verse of this passage, we hear the words of assurance that all is not hopeless. To the question, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul himself supplies the answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”        
            Friends, the truth is that the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that through Jesus, God makes us “right” with God. God does what we on our own cannot do. Through the cross of Christ, God has answered the conundrum that burdens us because of our very human tendency toward sin. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God forgives our sin. God strengthens us for relationship with one another and divine relationship with God. God makes us resurrection people, people of the Way, people who can live our lives free of the fear of sin and its place in our lives.

            In today’s gospel, Jesus invites those who believe in him into the new life that comes from being followers of the Way, “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.”

            It is in this promise, the promise of divine rest, that Paul finds hope for the deadly dilemma that faces us when we stumble and fall. The hope Jesus holds out for us is real. It is because of this hope that sin and death have lost their hold on us.

            Today we celebrate this truth as we receive little Gabriel into the light and life of hope in Jesus through baptism. Gabriel is too young to understand the liberating joy that is ours today as he is welcomed into this Body of Christ. He is too young to appreciate the burden that is lifted from him forever, and the new life that he is granted through this sacrament. As he grows though, and as his parents, his family, and we as community embrace and teach him, we live will share with him the sure and certain hope that is the answer to Paul’s riddle; that because Christ lives in eternity for us, we, Gabriel, his parents, and all who belong to Christ rejoice in and for his sake and ours.

            So in Haiku fashion, I leave you with this riddle:
Good action eludes me
Thankful for grace
Through Jesus Christ.


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