What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Around 2007, Dave and I were a young couple, and I was doing something I am known for doing: belting out a song. It happened to be one of the most belt-able songs in human history, Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. At the top of my lungs I sang, “Just a city boy, born and raised in self-control!” Dave’s face flashed with a mix of confusion and amusement. “Wait, what did you sing?” “Born and raised in self-control,” I said. I am happy to help. “I think it’s born and raised in South Detroit.” I still remember the inner-argument of that moment, the stubborn belief that Dave and perhaps Journey were incorrect. But, I was definitely wrong and now I am reminded my gaff with a laugh every time that song plays.
I led with an easy one, but I assure you I have made many other mistakes that were far less funny.
Maybe you can think of something you got wrong in the past… that time you hurt your mother’s feelings, that time you got caught sharing a story that was supposed to be private, that time you fell into old habits of drinking too much or guzzling down a few gallons of self-righteousness or something you shudder to name. Maybe someone called you out or you felt a stab of guilt and that’s how you knew you were outside of your values.
You are human and all human beings make mistakes. Long before Descartes said I think therefore I am, St. Augustine said I err, therefore I am. It is our ability to reflect on what we did wrong that makes us human. And it is our trust in God’s future more than our messy past that makes us Christian.
Why then are we so sure – most of the time – that we are right? And what does God have to say to us when we are wrong?
Here’s a question for you: How does it feel to be wrong? Go ahead. Call it out. Emotionally, how does it feel to be wrong? Bad, embarrassing, yucky. Yes, those are great answers. But those are answers to a different question, which is, how does it feel when you realize you’re wrong. Realizing you’re wrong can be devastating, awkward, even funny – like my wrong song lyrics. But according to Kathryn Shultz in her famous TED Talk, being wrong doesn’t feel like anything. In fact, it feels … like being right.
We’ll call this the Wiley Coyote problem. You remember that cartoon. Roadrunner says “Meep meep” and runs straight off a cliff, which is fine for him because he is a bird. But, Wiley Coyote runs off the cliff too, and for a second, he is running in midair. Then, he realizes what has happened. That’s when his eyes bug out, and he plummets to the ground with that whistle sound. One of the main reasons we can’t easily think of something we’re doing wrong now is because being wrong often feels like being right, that is, until someone expresses how we have hurt them, or we see something differently and we realize we have no ground to stand on.
Another reason we think that we are right is because we spend so much energy avoiding mistakes of all kinds. I suspect some of us grew up in families or churches that focused on wrongness all the time. Many of us were literally born and raised in self-control. Whether you grew up around thoroughgoing perfectionists or hearing sermons full of naughty lists, somewhere along the way, many of us began to associate doing something wrong … which is a normal human thing and one of the best teachers there is … with being wrong, bad, shameful, or unworthy. Life began to feel like one of those cartoons above the caption, “What’s wrong with this picture?” There was the a-ha moment of discovering that the table had only three legs or the house had no door. But over time, finding the flaw all the time became less delightful. You began locating that flaw inside yourself and the ones you love. Let’s call this the two-point problem.
The brilliant author Rachel Naomi Remen remembers bringing home a quiz on which she got a 98. Instead of saying, “Congrats sweetie,” her dad said, and I bet you know what I’m going to say, “What about those other 2 points?” Over time, she said, he didn’t even have to push her because his voice became her inner voice. She grieved how many hours she spent and how much joy she forfeited just to earn those last 2 points in whatever she was doing and the fatherly approval they symbolized to her.
Sin, mistakes, brokenness, guilt, shame, the experience of being apart from God, being human, whatever you call it, is part of us. We can’t get around that. Let’s call it the church with a flat roof problem. When the sun is shining, we don’t think about the cracks very much, but when the downpours come, the leaks are exposed and the mess can be damaging.
So what does God say about the brokenness that we either don’t see or obsess over too much or deny until we have to get out the buckets?
Well, for one thing, the Bible insists on telling the whole story, not just the pretty parts. Take today’s story from Genesis. There’s little Isaac, the cherished heir, the bearer of blessing, who stays home. And there’s little Ishmael, son of Hagar, Abraham’s slave woman, who is quietly sent away, along with his poor mom. They are kicked out of the family so that no one in Abraham’s house needs to be troubled by the inconvenient shortcuts in this holy genealogy or those pesky truths about who really was Abraham’s first born. Ishmael takes up residence in Egypt and his family grows there. Isaac remains in Israel, and we know his lineage. But down the road, the Egyptian Empire, and eventually all of Islam, trace their origin back to Ishmael, and the nation of Israel and Judaism trace their origin back to Isaac. It is nearly impossible to overstate what that that breach has meant across history, and yet, they were are half-brothers in our holy origin stories.
Maybe you recognize this pattern in families and countries… Some are insiders who claim God’s blessing while others are treated not just as outsiders, but as sinful mistakes who do not deserve blessing. I am glad the Bible doesn’t brush this story aside as too embarrassing. No, when we focus on this family, we see how messy humanity has been since the beginning, how often we repeat this pattern, the good news is that we get to overhear in today’s text God conferring a blessing not just on Isaac but on Ishmael too. We hear the tears of a rejected woman and her child, and we hear God say, I am with you. In the desert of their abandonment by those who should have loved them, when their water bottle has gone dry, God hears their tears and gives them a well. A well. What a beautiful image of cleansing and renewal. I will never forget that image. In fact, I hope I will forever associate well-ness not with the ability to transcend all my problems, as promised by all the marketers in the wellness industry, but instead with the gift of a well, an unexpected blessing from God, for me or for people who might have been hurt by me, a promise that God is at work far beyond whatever brokenness or binaries or betrayals I might see.
And then, in his letter to the Romans, Paul sounds like he is addressing a group of people who wanted to be apostles with a capital A, the lawyer-class, people who wondered if maybe this grace of Christ thing was going to get out of hand if it was truly available to everyone. They are like the people in the line at the amusement park who see a new line start, after they have been waiting decently and in order just 2 points away from the front and suddenly feel like they have lost something. I certainly recognize the questions they must have asked based on how Paul answers them. Paul says loud and clear: listen, we are no longer slavishly trying to earn love from God in some kind of points system, and we are no longer trying to work the system like we’re getting away with something. That whole system was a death trap. But we are free now. The whole point is being fully alive in Christ. The promise is a well for them too, out there in the dry desert of perfectionism and trying to earn love. That’s how the living water of Christ operates.
If we do it right, being in this place of stone and water can feel like a well, ancient and new. Music reminds us that we can find harmony with each other and hear the echo of God’s forever promise. Scripture tells us again that we are loved by God and that Christ went to hell and back to make sure we know that. We leave here sloshing around with ancient melodies and the coffee taste of beloved community and somehow an old wound inside us is tended. We head out into the muddy world ready to share again, braver now because we don’t fiendishly avoid the possibility of being wrong.
And thankfully, that same well-ness can be found if you step on cool sand in the morning and hear the work of ocean waves reminding you the work of receiving grace is never done.
And that same well-ness can be found at a lake where a fish flop breaks the quiet and somehow that Jesus that most-patient fisherman is there with you.
And that same well-ness can be found by a creek or an old pond or the bathtub where you splash children clean and the Spirit splashes you back to life, awakening you to a call to serve those who are thirsty still.
And that same well-ness can even be found staring deep into history, like some of us did yesterday at Bull Run, where you can see the grace of Christ shine back even from our darkest chapters.
In the desert of our guilt and pain, God provides a well every time. And often it sounds like the voice of Christ saying, You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven.