a sermon on reorienting to upside down

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 25:19-34 | Romans 8:1-11 | Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series on the book of Romans.

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Chicago Botanic Garden

Yesterday, Josh and I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden for the first time. I wouldn’t describe myself as much of a plant person, which I think is part of why I appreciate gardens like that so much. I love to cook with fresh herbs, so a few weeks ago I bought a little pot of dill at the grocery store; I couldn’t keep it alive for more than a few days. Then, our neighbor at our new apartment, with whom I had been hoping to build a relationship, asked me in one of our very first conversations if I would water her flowering plant that hangs on our shared porch while she was on vacation.  After a few days, the delicate pink and purple blooms seemed to be drying up one by one, and I didn’t know whether it was my fault, or just nature – I didn’t know whether to pick off the crispy flowers or leave them alone – Whether to give more water, or to stop giving so much water… It was a source of constant anxiety.

So when I see beautifully lush rose gardens, delicate moss beds, or tediously pruned bonsai trees like we saw at the Botanic Garden yesterday, I am in awe and humble admiration of the skill, dedication, and artistry involved.

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Think about the horticulture staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the people responsible for making things grow. Think about their daily work: planning and planting, watering and tending, monitoring and testing. They’re thinking about soil type and acidity, amount of precipitation, elevation, exposure to sunlight. They’re taking into consideration invasive weeds, hungry pests, eager pollinators. They’re making sure each of the twenty-seven gardens is in pristine condition, throughout all four seasons, for the thousands of visitors that pass through each year.

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Now, imagine it’s time to plant. I imagine the moment of planting almost with the precision of surgery. The motion is something like this: a careful hole is dug; a seed, or maybe two, is gently placed in; the earth is replaced and precisely watered. And in the case of the Chicago Botanic Garden, a tiny little sign is placed next to the site, detailing the common and scientific name of the plant that is expected to grow there.

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Contrast that image to the image we’ve heard today in Jesus’s parable of the sower.  A sower went out to sow. And as she sowed, some seeds fell on the path, other seeds fell on rocky ground, other seeds fell among thorns, and some seeds fell on good soil. The motion is more like this: a hand reaches deep into a bag and grabs a fistful; the hand freely, almost carelessly, tosses the seed all around. It looks like casting out tons of candy from atop a parade float, or like Oprah giving away free cars.

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There is a stark contrast between these two scenes of planting. In the one scene, life is fragile. Good seed and adequate soil are scarce. And the future is unknown, anxious. In the other scene, abundance overflows. There is more than enough seed and soil and sun to go around. And there is a confidence that despite all odds, new life will find a way to sprout up. Feeling this difference, the difference between an ecosystem of abundance and an economy of scarcity, can help us understand what Paul means in the letter to the Romans today when he talks about life “in Christ Jesus.”

For Paul, saying that we have life “in Christ Jesus” or “in the Spirit” is kind of like saying that the honeybee has life in the hive, or the coral has life in the reef. The cross and the Spirit constitute our ecosystem. Our life exists in the habitat of God’s unconditional love, and our life is interconnected and interdependent with the other creatures in this habitat – other human beings and all of creation. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We exist a new reality that extends beyond this locale or this lifetime.

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If you were here last week, you’ll remember that in the part of Romans that comes just before this week’s excerpt, we were steeped in a much different reality. Last week we got real about the “indwelling” reality of sin. Sin is not a list of things we do wrong, or even the sum total of all human error. Sin is like an invasive species that corrupts even our best intentions, making us ignorant to the harm we’re causing, and leading us to do the very thing we hate. Sin is like the villain in the story, bending and twisting God’s good gifts (even precious gifts, intended for life, like the Torah) towards suffering and death. This is what Paul, this week, calls “in the flesh.” Paul uses the phrase “in the flesh” as a contrast for what it means to be “in the Spirit.”

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… (8:6)

This phrase “in the flesh” shouldn’t be understood to mean that there is something inherently wrong with the stuff we’re made of, our skin and muscle and bone. Paul doesn’t use the Greek word for “body” (σῶμα) here, so it is unfaithful to Paul to infer some sort of duality between the body (bad) and the Spirit (good) here. Christians have read Paul this way for ages, and it’s just not right – and it’s actually harmful. Paul is not saying that to be bodies is bad. On the contrary, the inherent goodness of humans and all creation is foundational to Paul’s understanding of the world. At the center of the Creation story in Genesis is the promise that humankind is created in the image of God.

Paul’s point was that even that original goodness seems to be corrupted by a power outside ourselves.  We seem to be powerless on our own to make our deepest longings for a restored world come true. We are utterly incapable of un-enfleshing our own sin from our lives. We cannot heal ourselves.

That might sound like terrible news to you. In a world where you’re supposed to have power over your own actions and desires, it is terrible news.

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I remember when I was having a lot of trouble in seminary a few semesters back. I was behind on every reading assignment, I had incomplete assignments, and I was failing courses. People kept trying to throw me life savers, offering strategies for time management, tips for getting myself back on track, advice on how to feel. Nothing worked.

I remember, deep in the muck of this snowballing failure, someone I trusted finally said to me, “It sounds like you actually can’t do this.”

There was nothing more freeing in that moment than hearing her say, “It seems like it’s not going to be possible for you to fix this whole mess. Knowing that, let’s think about what’s next. What adjustments should you make to your plans or expectations, knowing that it’s just impossible to make everything better?”

To admit that we are drowning, in a world that depends on us rescuing ourselves, is hopeless, or even self-hateful. But we don’t live in that world.

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We don’t live in a world that depends on us saving ourselves, Paul says. See, you are in a new ecosystem. “You are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” Things are upside down here. The sin that had meant condemnation for you – that sin itself has been condemned. (Paul is playing with words here.) The law that brought death has been “lawed against” by a new law of life in the Spirit. The flesh that had been indwelt by sin is now indwelt by the very presence of God. Death itself is put to death.

The way we understood ourselves in relation to God and to one another is different. “It is impossible for you to succeed on your own” starts to sound like good news. And our activity is flipped around too. Before, the whole activity of our life was trying and trying to make ourselves right with God, and nevertheless dying every step of the way. Now, God makes us right with God, not when we’ve done well enough, but exactly when we are at our most dead in sin. And our activity is just to live, right with God.

My friend Katy works at a scuba shop and loves diving. I’ve never been diving. But when I think about a new upside down reality “in the Spirit,” I think it must be something like what its like to be underwater.

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Katy and sharks, on a dive in 2016.

Katy talks about how amazing it is to dive. It’s like being on another planet. Everything about the way you’re used to existing is different, even down to the most basic feeling of being planted on the floor, acted upon by gravity.  Above water, you’re awkward in fins and a wet suit, carrying heavy equipment and weights. But underwater, what was heavy actually makes you free from buoyancy and you’re weightless, moving freely in any direction.

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It can be hard to remember which direction is up, unless you watch which way your air bubbles float away. The beauty of sea creatures, which is hidden to those above water, is suddenly accessible, as close as the touch. The feeling of being surrounded by water in every direction – which, for humans, should mean certain drowning and death – represents joy and new discovery.  It is indescribable. Even though it’s the same world, everything looks and sounds different. Its like nothing else.

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Katy encounters a nautilus.

Life “in the Spirit” means everything about life is different. It makes a lot of sense that some Christians use the language of “rebirth” to talk about this. It is a whole new reality, a new life. And it’s so important to note here that Paul doesn’t say anything about how Christians should try to be in the Spirit nor does he give instructions about how to make sure you’re in the Spirit. Paul says, “You are in the Spirit.” You already are.

Our work here together is not to make sure we’re in the Spirit – we are. Our work is to act like it! Here we practice what it’s like to live this new life together. In that way, this community is kind of like scuba class: learning how to operate in a new reality. If you’re underwater exploring a coral reef, but behaving as if you’re still on the boat, you’re missing out on a lot! It’s the same when God opens up a new reality – one free from condemnation and infused with the Spirit.

Together, our work is to open ourselves to see, touch, experience the alternate reality of abundance all around us. To reorient ourselves to the upside down expectations of a life in the Spirit. And to notice and feel the God who raised Christ from the dead breathing the Spirit of new life in this place, in us, even now.

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