Rooting Out Sin
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon on June 7, 2015
at St. Francis of the Islands Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia.
Rooting Out Sin
Genesis 3:8-15 and Mark 3:20-35
I come to you today to preach today as I am in the midst of an epic struggle. I seek to overcome the forces of chaos in the world. I am speaking of my backyard. My wife and I bought a lovely house a year ago. Everything inside was perfect. The yard was another story. The family that lived there for the forty years before 2013 took less and less care of the yard as they aged.
By 2013, trees had grown close to the house and garage and vines grew everywhere. Things had gotten chaotic by the time the couple sold their home. The woman who own the home from 2013 to 2014 cut the trees and vines and kept them cut close to the ground. When her life situation changed and she needed to move to California, we bought the house and inherited a healthy root system. The roots had likely grown stronger over the years as the trees and vines put more energy into root systems as the plants got cut off above ground.
I usually have Mondays off and last Monday I once again battled the vines, digging up the root system of yet another vine before I cut the grass. I did not walk around the yard in the week since. This morning I went out to find any new growth as I knew I needed one to illustrate this sermon. I went out in the yard confident that some vine would have leaped out of the soil in the past six days. I did find a vine, which I cut and brought with me today. I don’t want you to think I am exaggerating. This is what grew up this past week [from underneath the pulpit, pull out nine foot vine cut that morning].
I think the common name for this plant is Satan. The scientific name is Beelzebub.
In my year long struggle, I have found that one can’t just cut the vine. That seems to make the plant happy, or at least no angrier than the grass when it gets cut. You have to dig up the roots. For a single vines, I usually have to dig six inches deep in an area two to four feet out. Often they are wrapped under around and through the roots of the trees cut off at the ground. They roots of tree and vine have gotten to know one another intimately over the decades. Some of the trees are only a couple of inches across, while others have stumps a foot wide or more. So as I wage this war on chaos, I sometimes remove stumps by hand, shoveling holes five and six feet across and several feet deep in order to remove a tree grown too close to buildings together with all the evil vines wrapped in its roots.
[Show the roots of the smilax vine which are nearly two-foot long interconnected sweet potato like tubers] I have also found that when I dig up the roots, if I don’t get all of it, the root will grow back. Like a sweet potato coming back from a smaller piece potato planted in the garden, so the vines can regenerate from a part of its root system left in the fertile soil. And so now on my Mondays off from work, I end up dirty, covered with sweat, and with what looks like a bushel of sweet potatoes out by the road for the City to pick up. So the fight continues as I work to get out of the roots in an epic struggle that may well take the rest of my mortal life.
I have been contemplating this chaos these past two weeks as I knew I would be preaching today with the text from the third chapter of Genesis. Genesis 3 is when Adam and Eve are in the garden in the breezy time of day. God is walking in the garden and God wants nothing in all creation more than to walk with them. He calls out, “Where are you?”
Adam and Eve, who must have known that they were naked, have discovered since they last saw their creator that they are, in fact, nekkid. There is a difference and for any not from the South, I will explain later. With this new found awareness, they explain that they are naked. God asks how they came by this knowledge and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. What follows is a three-fold curse. Only the first part occurs in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.
First the serpent is cursed to crawl along the ground, then Eve is cursed with pain in childbirth, and finally Adam is cursed with thorns and vines. No longer will they live in a garden. He will have to toil over the soil fighting an ongoing battle with weeds, including thorns infesting the ground. By the sweat of his brow he will work from that day forward. This is Adam’s lot and becomes our lot in life as well.
But then I recall God’s longing to walk with Adam and Eve in the Garden. I see that God never gave up on this longing for a relationship. God wanted us to regain our Original Innocence. Despite human sin, we read through the scripture of God’s ongoing quest across history. The prophets call the people to faithfulness. God continually holds out the possibility through repentance and forgiveness for a renewed relationship. Human sin breaks this connection again and again. God holds out hope again and again.
Then we come to the boldest plan of all in the Incarnation. The second person of the Trinity becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus lives along us and we see the love of God made manifest in his life and ministry. Through Jesus, we see the culmination of God’s bold plan to remove all of the thorns and thistles, not from the ground, but from the human heart. For the soil within me is fertile for sin. If I just cut off the vine, without working to remove the roots of that sin, it just remains, growing and biding its time.
In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is under attack for casting out demons. His opponents say that it is by Satan that he casts out Satan. Jesus says, “That just doesn’t make any sense. If he fights against himself, how could he win anything?” Jesus says if one wants to take the possessions of the strong man, you have to first bind the strong man. In Christian teaching, we discover that Jesus is the one who can bind the strong man. In so doing, Jesus can give space for you to deal with the roots of the problem.
We see something like this in 12 Step Programs that begin with someone admitting that he or she is powerless against their addiction and then turning over the problem to a Higher Power. We know the truth of this and that the Higher Power is Jesus, the one who can bind the strong man. This means we say we are powerless and we turn the burden over to the only one who can help us bear it. Even with the Holy Trinity on our side, the struggle is one that is fought day by day, even hour by hour. The roots of the addiction grow so deep and get so entangled in our very core, that this is no easy fight.
I see this also in a very different area of my life. If you were to ask me if I am a racist, I would swear that I don’t have a racist fiber in my being. But I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and then in suburban Atlanta, at times when racism was in the ground water. I took it into my being as I took in many other values. I think I have rooted this out of my being and then through my reaction to some event, often something I see in the news, I recognize my response as arising out of that racism planted deep inside. How is that still part of who I am?
Or some incident occurs and I find myself being judgmental. If anyone knew my inner thoughts, they would be amazed at the cruel judgment. The person I am judging is doing something no worse than my own actions. Why does this happen? We can all do this. I am not alone in this struggle. But the realization can be painful. Like that tall vine that practically leaped from the dirt in my yard this past week, some very unbaptized thoughts crop up.
My worst sin is there for all to see. I am a workaholic, far too addicted to the affirmation of others for my own good. If this doesn’t sound serious, remember that Moses’ Law called for workaholics to be put to death. Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death. Working on the Sabbath was a frequent accusation against Jesus and his opponents were not going easy on him in making the charge.
I want to see myself as God sees me. But then I get busy seeing myself through other peoples eyes and work to please them.
I don’t know what the struggle is for you. But I know each of us has roots within us that we have left below the surface. We have worked on the outer facade, yet inside the sin remains. In Christ we have a way forward, for Jesus can bind the strong man. This means that our connection to God can give us the safe space to do that inner work, to weed out the nasty within that we try to keep hidden. Don’t worry about what may be revealed as we look within for God already knows the content of your heart and loves you. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to work on some more weeding.
Jesus wants us back in the Garden with the Original Innocence that is intended for all people. Jesus holds out the possibility of repentance, as we turn away from wrong actions and seek to make amends where we can. Jesus holds out the hope of forgiveness. All we need to do is hold out that same love and compassion to others as we do the work within. We look to the beam in our own eye, rather than focusing on the speck in someone else’s eye.
What God still longs for that ideal relationship of walking with Adam and Eve in the early evening breeze. Standing in the way of that ideal are the thorns and the thistles I have permitted to endure within me. For sin is whatever separates you from the love of God. Sin is any time you miss the mark set by God in Jesus, the Christ. Letting that sin grow and thrive within, even if others never see it, is to permit myself to grow further from God.
And yet I find God a patient gardener. And so week by week, I return to worship to hear the Word of God, to repent, confess my sins and receive absolution, and then to return to the altar to receive Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, his body and blood in my body and blood. God speaks deeply in the Eucharist to each of our hearts, not telling us we are fine as we are, but that we are loved as we are and that God wants more for us. So renewed I continue my week with daily Bible reading and prayer and seek to live my life as God intends. Some how, despite the fact that I will probably never win this war, God still gives me the gift of his presence and the power to continue the fight. And I know that if I keep on this path, God will win the war in spite of me. And this is Good News.