I was thinking yesterday - and now everyone is a little nervous - about humor - and now even more nervous. The definition of humor may still be what it has been for a long while; according to Merriam Webster, “that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous : a funny or amusing quality”. I think that for a long while, I thought that humor meant jokes. Then humor meant stories. Perhaps it is now more about irony. And who has ever thought about a personal evolution of humor?
There is certainly a difference between good and bad humor - and the difference between the two is becoming more and more relevant and poignant. With more and more studies being completed every year, as a human species, we are becoming cognizant of the effect of humor and it’s healing potential along with the release of stress and its ability to make a point. Having lived with a second language - sort of - for a while - it is also apparent that when you can appreciate humor in another language, you get that sense of “really arriving” in that culture.
In “really arriving” at this morning’s scripture passage from Romans 6, it’s helpful to know that the apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Roman Christians not for any correction or encouragement, but more for explaining his understanding of the impact of Christ’s life on God’s people. There was one website that suggested that Paul wrote the letter as an introduction of himself to the Roman Christian Church, ahead of a visit that would serve the purpose of them supporting a mission trip.
Our passage from Romans 6 begins, “What shall we say then?” It is the sort of question that implies that there was discussion before that point that is the basis for the “answer in Romans 6.” Retired Methodist minister, William H. Willimon’s thought is that Paul is responding to a perceived question, “Since we are saved by grace, then why don’t we sin even more so that God can be more gracious?” In terms closer to home, why should I care about what doing right and good now, because isn’t God going to make it all good in the end?
Rev. Willimon tells this story - and actually, I’ve seen versions of the story as well. “I know a person who was raised by a set of loving, if perhaps a bit overindulgent, Christian parents. As he moved into his adolescent years, he got into much trouble at school; then, by high school, graduated into petty criminal activity, shoplifting, alcohol, you name it. One of my friends attempted to intervene and pled with him to stop his misbehavior, reminding him that he was causing his parents great grief.
“Do you think my parents are going to stop loving me just because I get into trouble with the cops?” the miscreant replied. “No matter what they say, they’ll keep taking us to the beach in the summer, keep paying for my school, keep giving me everything I want. It’s their job.”
Rev. Willimon ends that story, "Now will you agree with me when I say that there’s a person who has badly misunderstood, and therefore badly abused, the love of parents for their children?” Most folks would resound - yes! The apostle Paul, rather than respond with derogatory comments or demeaning rhetoric, takes a different tact in painting the reason for living fully.
Scripture Romans 6:1-11, Phil Gates, reading
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
2 By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
3 Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin -- What shall we say, then? Shall we go 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.
10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, Phil. I’m a little sad to say that even our current New International Version pew Bibles - probably some 15 years old now - are outdated in their copyright. But I’m glad for this version - for verse 9 - where it says “death no longer has mastery over him.”
What has mastery over you these days? If we were able to be honest, I’m guessing that that question is offensive to some people. “Me? I’m not afraid of anything! I’m not weak.” Even so, if someone made me pick, I’d guess that a lot of folks would reply that fear or anger or both has some degree of mastery over them - regardless of how strong or independent one might feel. When we are mastered by fear or anger or both or other emotional monsters, we can live a little less - a little more huddled so as to protect our heart.
I would also venture to guess that there a significant number of people who might not be so bound up in fear or anger, but in burdens - burdens of worry, mistrust or inadequacies. Whatever it is that has crossed the paths of some folks, it has caused them to take the terrors as burdens, and after a while, the burdens become burdensome - to the point that we forget that we can set the burdens down - we need to set the burdens down - because Christ took care of the business that hinders any fear or burden or misunderstandings we have - so that we can - through grace - live as people who are alive and free. Yes, fear can be good, but it can also be deadly.
It is an interesting time to be speaking to a bunch of people who look a lot alike, of living a life as if you are alive and free. Regardless of skin color, background, location or circumstances, there are people who live watching over their shoulders, every single minute of every single day, not really having the great opportunity to walk freely, without worry. There is also the great sadness that we can fall into - the trap of “there but for God’s grace go I” - which can, if you think about it, be a little condescending.
Paul reminds us that the death Christ died, he died to sin once for all. We are held accountable to take up our responsibility in asking for God’s forgiveness. But when we ask, it is acknowledging what God already knows, and reminds us set down that which is not ours and not to take God’s grace for granted. At the same time, it gives us the ability to live fully.
Rev. Willimon wonderfully painted this idea of living fully. He said, “Daily the Holy Spirit must pry our hands off those things to which we so tightly cling. Daily we must let go of the side of the pool and venture forth into deeper waters. Daily we learn to let go and let God.”
There was a visitor to a rather staid congregation. He became excited during the sermon and exclaimed, "Praise the Lord!" An usher rushed to him and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't do that here." "But I've got religion," the man explained. "Well," huffed the usher, "you didn't get it here." It's like the fellow who said, "I would have become a preacher if they didn't look like undertakers.”
We will all continue to make mistakes. And we all have work to do in deep listening - even when we are in beautiful places intended to move the soul and mind. We all have the charge to live as those in whom Christ’s Spirit lives to make us more and more like Jesus Christ.
We all have the charge from God, through the hand of Micah. “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Paul reminds us all today that we are to “count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” - not just a little bit, not just in thought, not just on Tuesdays - but in the same way that Christ is alive so are we to live - fully, completely, even with the stuff we may have to carry for the moment. But for the next moments, however, I ask you to close your eyes, and imagine.
You are standing at a train station, ready to board for your destination. You have a bag or suitcase in your hand, or a pack on your back. The train isn’t here yet, so look around for the bench that sits empty, waiting for you. Set the bag or pack down and take a seat. Notice Christ walking your way, and without any exchange of words, sitting down next to you. You close your eyes, because you know that Christ is keeping watch for you, and you take a deep breath, holding it for just a moment, and then you let the air out.
As you exhale, the thoughts that have been haunting you this past week are released from your body. As you exhale, the anxiety causing tension leaves long enough for you to relax and drop your shoulders and realign your head so that it is high on the top of your spine, rather than caved into it. As you continue this conscious breathing, you realize Christ’s still sitting with you, still peaceful, still alive, very much like a friend sitting next to you who doesn’t need to utter a word in expressing their care and love for you.
In this little moment, you are alive - and free - in a way you are not usually. It is a safe moment, that no one can take from you. As you sit, you realize that there is an energy that you hadn’t realized was there before. As you sit, you realize that the energy you feel was used - before - to hold your bag or pack. And you may need to take up that bag or pack again in a few moments. But for this moment, you are free. There is nothing that will harm you, nothing that will threaten you, and you are at peace with your Christ.
You may return to this moment in the week ahead, but in this week, you have this moment. There might be a time when it may feel as if this little moment was but a blink. Hopefully not. Before you go to pick up that pack or bag, you turn to Christ.
Jesus, I’m so grateful for your love for me. For those moments when I have messed up or diminished you, I ask for your forgiveness. When you’ve asked that I set that pack or bag down, and I’ve held is so much more tightly, I know you understand. But still, I’m sad for the missed opportunity. As I go into the week, Lord, help me to set down my worries or guilt or loneliness or anger or fear when you nudge me to do so, so that I can live as if I am truly alive and free in you. Nudge me, too, when I have the opportunity to help others put their bags or packs down for however long they can or need. Thank you, too, Lord, for the bar you set in loving those who need to be loved, and enable me to reach that bar - as often as possible this week - that we all may live as alive and free in you. And all your people say, Amen.