Puddletown, Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 9th July 2016
Matthew 11.16-19; 25-30
A stitch in time saves nine.
Many hands make light work.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
I wonder if, like me, you had to learn lists of proverbs when you were at school.
There are many of them – one website claims to have collected 680 English proverbs. That was just with a quick Google search. I didn’t count them but I have no reason to assume that that number is incorrect; certainly the proverbs listed under the letter A, all seemed genuine.
Proverbs are pithy sayings which are easily remembered, and which share some truth – all of the ones above express wisdom that has been built on human experience, even where they seem to be saying the opposite to each other.
There are, of course, some contexts in which many hands do indeed make light work – I am reminded of the counts at the General Election where we saw on television the constituencies who wanted to be the first to declare had employed lots of young people to shift boxes, which they then passed down a human chain to a runner who then raced it to the counting table, only to be immediately replaced by another.
But, as we well know, there are times also when too many cooks spoil the broth – well, have you ever eaten soup that has been seasoned by several different people but not tasted in between? It’s foul.
There is one proverb which is very pertinent for our reading from Romans today: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Some of St Paul’s writings are hard to relate to, but I think we can all understand what he is saying at the start of today’s reading. He’s relating a struggle that I’m sure we all experience at times – not being able to do the good we want to do, but ending up doing the things we don’t want to do.
The hymn we’ve just sung picks out quite a few: failing to listen to God’s guidance, being slow to recognise God’s touch on our lives, keeping God at a distance, things we do and say, when we say we care for others but don’t act in their interests, when we doubt and fail to trust God when hardship comes, when our prayers and Bible readings become so familiar we no longer heed them, closing ourselves to what God is teaching because it requires us to widen our horizons or change our view, being too busy and fraught with life to find time for God.
All of us have different sins that we fall into more easily than others. We do something or say something, realise we’ve done or said the wrong thing, vow not to do it again, but not long afterwards we find we’ve fallen into the same trap.
Have a think about what it is that you call to mind every Sunday in the prayer of confession – I can almost guarantee that the same things will come up over and over again.
Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of theology at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford, tells the story of going to see his bishop during the retreat before he was ordained deacon.
He says: “I was painfully aware of the temptations in my mind that seemed more intense than ever. I shared them with the bishop who prayed for me.
“The following year at my retreat, before being priested, again I had personal, pastoral time with my bishop, and I confessed the same ongoing struggles and temptations.
“This time the bishop seemed somewhat shocked: ‘Yes, yes, we spoke about that last year.’
‘I know. It’s this year’s struggle too.’”
However hard we try in our own strength to address our sins, we won’t manage it. Our old self still lingers within us and “keep[s] on trying to climb out of the grave like the villain in a low-budget horror movie,” as Phil Moore puts it.
We may through concerted effort get rid of one or two bad habits, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll always be more.
There is something within us and within the world – what Paul calls “in my flesh” – that will always prevent us from living pure lives. It’s the power of sin.
Good intentions will never be enough to conquer it. Sin is all pervasive. It’s not something we talk about much in our world, where the prevailing culture seems to be one of anything goes as long, as it doesn’t stop me doing what I want to do.
Most people in this world are trying to lead good lives, doing their best for themselves and their families. But doing our best will never be enough to remove evil from the world.
When I do visits to a family who want their child baptised, so often they see the Christian life as nothing more than a set of guidelines for good living. Often when I ask whether they know what the word sin means, they respond with the sort of things we find in the Ten Command-ments. For them it is about a moral code.
But that’s not what Christianity is all about. Paul is saying that no moral code – no law – will ever be able to defeat sin - and by sin we don’t just mean evil acts, but anything that misses the mark of perfection that God has ordained for us and by which Jesus lived.
What am I going to do? Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me since my own efforts can’t?
Paul answers his own question – thanks be to God through Jesus Chris our Lord. That is the only way to be freed from the powers of sin that assault us, day by day, hour by hour.
God does lay down boundaries but the boundaries God lays down are only for our good and for the good of all – they are there to enable everyone, all creation, to flourish.
Think perhaps of a sign that says “Danger – do not touch this wire”. There is a boundary put in place, we may feel our choice is being limited, but the reality is that if we touch that particular live wire, we may lose our life altogether. The boundary brings freedom with it.
Where my baptism families get it wrong, and sadly where many other Christians get it wrong too, is by thinking of Christianity as a set of dos and don’ts. It isn’t.
What it is about is a relationship of love with God. It is allowing ourselves to be loved more and more by God, and that will bring about our transformation, not following a set of rules and regulations.
As Paul says, rules can be helpful in aiding us to know what is good and what is evil, but they are merely markers that will make us more aware of our sin rather than free us from it.
The only way we can be liberated is through our relationship with God. That is the only antidote to sin.
And strangely enough, as we grow in faith and deepen our relationship with God, the sins do disappear, but we become aware of others under whose spell we hadn’t realised we were before. The more we give ourselves over to the receiving the love of God, the more we realise how far from that mark of perfection we are.
The war has already been won – our ultimate salvation is assured – but sin still battles away trying to get one over God and love and goodness, which it won’t ever do, but it hasn’t yet given up.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord – what a reminder from Paul about how God has already sorted out our rescue.
Thanks be to God for loving us so much that he wants to set us free to live lives that are good for us and for others.
Thanks be to God for being a Creator who wants us all to flourish, who wants the absolute best for us, who longs for us to know what love really and truly means.
Thanks be to God who sends us out restored and forgiven.
Next time we become aware of our struggle to do what we want to do but are tempted away from that path, let’s focus not on our wrongdoing but on the love of God, “who rescues us from this body of death” through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us live each day as if sin has no power of its own, rejoicing always in the victory of God.
 Nick Fawcett’s “Lord, we know that we have failed you”
 Simon Ponsonby God is for us: 52 readings from Romans p. 211 (2013, Lion Hudson)
 Phil Moore Straight to the heart of Roman p. 132 (2011, Monarch)
 Romans 7.24