Genesis 22:1 - 14 and Romans 6:12 - 23
Faith can feel like a catch-22.
Sometimes faith can feel like a no-win situation.
Sometimes faith can feel like you are simply stuck between a rock and a hard-place.
That doesn’t sound entirely uplifting, and it might sound surprising coming from the mouth of your preacher, but as a Christian, we can all relate with each other that sometimes faith can feel like a no win situation.
God IS good. God is good all the time. Faith itself is good, and it is good to have faith. It is good to have faith in God who is good to us, all the time. It is good to share faith with others. It is good to live in a community of faith that supports and loves you. But all this goodness that comes from faith does not mean faith is free from hardship or from suffering.
Faith can feel like a catch-22. Faith itself is good, but in faith you still experience heartbreak.
Without faith, you may be limited in your life experiences, you might not experience some of these painful emotions. But at the same time, without faith, you would not be able to work through these painful emotions or the difficult situations in life that are so hard to grasp.
Even this week, our church family witnessed a catch 22 of our faith life. Without our own individual faiths, we would not be a part of this faith community, this family that brings life and creates meaning for us. Without our own faith that has brought each of us here today, we would not know these individuals who sit here to the right and left of us, as brothers and sisters on our journey of faith. But at the same time, because of our faith, and because of this faith community to which we belong we were forced to face a shocking loss. We were forced to unexpectedly say goodbye to a beloved church member of 48 years. If we weren’t part of this church community we would not have had to say goodbye to Don, or to the many others who have gone before. But at the same time, we wouldn’t have met Don, or others, we wouldn’t have been influenced by their faith, and by their dedication to the church. If we weren’t a part of this faith community, we wouldn’t have had the positive experiences we share with one another, the joys and the blessings we celebrate together, and all the good that comes from sharing in this community of faith.
Without this faith community, we may not have had to face that loss. But simultaneously without a faith community, we may not be ABLE to face any loss.
Faith can feel like a catch 22.
More than just a phrase that has caught on, a phrase that eventually made its way into the dictionary, Catch 22 is actually a novel, written in 1961 by Joseph Heller.
The novel tells the story of Yossarian, a US Army Air Forces pilot, a bombardier that is trying save himself from the horrible experiences of war. The results of his plan to save himself from seeing combat is simply a no-win situation. Yossarian, as with all pilots, is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to the armed forces so that he might be relieved of flying these dangerous combat missions, the very act of him making that formal request proves that he is in fact quite sane and therefore ineligible to be excused from combat missions.
As the novel moves forward, the main character, Yossarian gets caught up in yet again another ‘no-win’ situation as he goes on to realize that Catch-22 as a policy does not actually exist. As a military rule, Catch-22 does not actually exist, but the powers-that-be claim it does and the world believes it does exist. But since it does not actually exist, there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown or denounced. So again, Yossarian is in a no-win situation, a double-bind, a situation we would now call a catch-22.
Faith can sometimes feel like a catch-22.
Think of Abraham in our Genesis passage. He and his family are some of the first people to have faith in God, a god that is eternal, all-loving, all-knowing, providential, and a god that moves with them no matter where they are on this earth. That was not common in Abraham’s time as many people worshipped gods who were limited to where you were at that moment, only worshipping them in that place, and gods who were fickle and capricious. But Abraham had made a covenant with The Lord, with God Eternal, who protected Abraham and promised him great things, including descendents that would number the stars. God has asked Abraham to move from the land and the family that he knew to something completely unknown and beyond. But God has also provided for Abraham and Sarah every step of the way, protecting them in foreign countries and from foreign armies, and has even given them a son in their old age. Faith in God has been a good thing for Abraham. God has provided and has led Abraham in a fruitful life.
But now, God has provided Abraham with a son, a son whom God promised, even in Abraham and Sarah’s old age. And now God wants Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Abraham’s only hope at having descendents who would be greater in number than even the stars, God asks Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice.
Without his faith in God, Abraham would not have to make this difficult decision, he would not have to listen to God’s command to do the impossible; without his faith in God Abraham would not be in this situation where God has asked him to murder his own son as a sacrificial lamb. But at the same time, without his faith in God, Abraham might never have had a son, Abraham would still be Abram, living in the same country with his same family, still worshipping fickle, capricious and demanding gods who were restricted to only certain locations.
A catch 22.
It is an intense catch 22, certainly a no-win situation. And while most of us cannot say that we have been put in a situation like Abraham’s, many of us have felt stuck in a no-win situation.
You can’t get a job without work experience, and you can’t gain experience without first getting a job.
You can’t get a loan without a credit history, but you build a credit history by borrowing and paying back money on credit.
In order to get a picture ID to prove your identity, you must first present picture identification in order to establish your identity.
Even faith can feel like a catch-22.
It can feel like a no-win situation.
It can feel like you are simply stuck between a rock and a hard-place.
In our Romans passage this morning Paul speaks to the Roman church reminding them that in Christ, followers of Jesus are no longer slaves to sin, but we ought to be slaves to righteousness. We are freed from one type of bondage, from sin, but we are enslaved again because of that freedom from sin.
Now when we hear the word slavery and enslavement the word can be a bit confusing and uncomfortable. We hear the word slave, or enslaved, eight (8) different times, and each time we hear it, it’s a little more uncomfortable. Whether we’re thinking of the slavery that plagued and tore apart our own nation for over 150 years, or the modern day slavery we hear about in which women and children are forced into degrading and corrupt lifestyles in order to survive, hearing Paul suggest that WE live lives of slavery does not bring pleasant feelings.
Even if we aren’t thinking of slavery in the sense of one person “owning” another, but we think of the freedom that is lost in slavery, we still cringe. We live in a day and age where we want so many things without restriction. We want cell phone plans and health care providers without restrictions. We get frustrated when airlines restrict the number of bags we can take on an airplane. Even if we might not need more than what we’re allowed, we don’t want to be restricted. We want an unlimited number of movies to watch through Netflix, and we don’t’ even want to be limited by time constraints or schedules when watching TV. We DVR our favorite shows so we can watch them on a different night and fast forward through the commercials. We do not want a master over any part of our lives.
And when we must accept some restriction we still push the boundaries of these restrictions at least just a little bit. We set the cruise control just 2 or 3 miles over the speed limit and we eat just one more piece of chocolate, or cut the work out on the elliptical by just 30 seconds, because its close enough to 30 minutes, isn’t it? When a mother tells her child it’s time for bed, he always wants “just five more minutes,” or the daughter pushes her curfew, arriving home just 3 minutes past midnight insisting that it is not a big deal because it was close enough.
Whether they are restrictions place on us by an institution, another person or even the government, we don’t like the idea of surrendering even a small part of our lives, of our freedom to the control of another. And if we have trouble surrendering even just a part, we certainly can’t imagine surrendering our entire life and all of our life’s decisions to another person, being, or institution. We want to be in charge of our own choices and our own lives. While we are thankful for our freedom from sin in Christ’s resurrection, how can Paul honestly suggest that we again should be enslaved by anything. Slavery to sin is a horrible thing, we don’t want to be slaves to sin, but we really just don’t want to be enslaved to ANYTHING. Our freedom in Christ should allow us to make our own decisions, allow us to make our own priorities and guide our own footsteps. Sure, we want those decisions, priorities and footsteps to be in the right direction, following God’s will, but we should be free to do those on our own, and not enslaved, without choice, to anything or anyone else. Shouldn’t we?
There was a teenage boy, who after graduating from high school, was told by his parents that he would no longer have a curfew. He was going away to college in the fall, and they wanted him to adjust to his new responsibility.
So after the first night that they told him of his new freedom, he stayed out until 2:00am. Like most parents, neither slept until they heard him come through the door, but they did not say a word as he walked down the hall, nor did they say anything the next morning at breakfast. They had given him their word: he was free from his former curfew.
The next night their son stayed out until 4:00am. The parents became concerned at how late it was and considered calling his friends, but they did not. They kept their word and allowed him his freedom from a curfew.
The third night it was 6:00am before he arrived home.
Now, you see, the son had a summer job that started at 8:00am, and that morning at breakfast, he looked almost as exhausted as his parents did from all his late nights. But no one said anything.
Finally, on the fourth night, their son came directly home from work and after supper he went straight to bed. And after that, he actually kept reasonable hours, coming in early enough that he could get a good night’s sleep before work, and staying out later only on the weekends. But even then it wasn’t the early hours of the morning, and he would call his parents if he were going to be out much later than midnight.
It seems as if the young man thought he was completely free when his parents lifted his curfew, initially thinking freedom meant complete liberty from any former restraints. He even tested his parents to see if they would keep their word about not calling and not asking him to come in a bit earlier to make sure his new found freedom was in fact complete freedom.
But in testing his parents he found a catch-22. Even though he was free and able to test that new freedom from a curfew, he found himself bound to something else. He discovered the limits of his own body and its inability to function after missing so much sleep. He learned that absolute freedom doesn’t actually exist. (i)
We are never absolutely or completely free. We are always enslaved to certain limits, certain powers, and even to our own allegiances.
Even if we’re not thinking about slavery in the sense of 1800’s America, we are still enslaved to certain things in our lives. For many of us, even something as simple as leaving your cell phone at home when you head to work, or having to take your computer into the shop where you are without email, we realize how enslaved we are to technology and our ability to be in touch with anyone and everyone at a moment’s notice.
I have several friends who are slaves to fashion. Every season there is a new set of requirements, new clothing, new shoes and new accessories to be purchased, new trends that must be adopted. Most of the time they look fabulous, and I’m even a bit jealous. But sometimes they look ridiculous and even just plain uncomfortable. Regardless, they have pledged their allegiance to the fashion world, are servants to the seasons, and they take their orders from all the latest fashion magazines and websites. (ii)
One author says of slavery, “If you want to know who your master is, pay attention to what occupies your thoughts and how you spend your money.” (iii)
In that case, many of us are slaves to our family, and to our loved ones, or slaves to providing a home and a safe upbringing for our children. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, to want to provide for your family or your children, it reminds us that we are all serving something or someone. We all have a master that holds dominion over our lives, regardless of how much freedom we perceive or of how philanthropic our reasons are. We all have a master.
There is a bluegrass band called Mumford and Sons, and in one of their songs they sing the lyrics, “in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die, where you invest your love, you invest your life.”
We will die someday, and in that sense, we are all enslaved to mother-nature, but we have a choice about where we are investing our love now, while we are living. Where are you investing your love? Are you investing your love in the desire to be free?
Are you so dead-set on “having freedom” and investing your love in ways that you can be free, that you have in fact enslaved yourself to yet another thing.
We all struggle with the idea of having any sort of restriction place on us. Slavery or servanthood, any sort of restriction or any sort of limit place on our own personal freedom and independence is uncomfortable. And while faith can sometimes feel like a catch-22, this is NOT one of those situations.
Because while we want to be free, and not enslaved to a life of sin, when we surrender ourselves to God, we are not enslaved without reason, rather we are liberated. Enslaving ourselves to God is a loyalty that will not only liberate us but give us life. God is on our side and has our best interests at heart. If we devote ourselves to God, if we commit ourselves to servanthood of Christ and God’s will, then God WILL lead us to abundant life.
When I was younger I had a creative way of keeping myself out of trouble. I was not without some trouble, but I did have a way to keep myself out of any major trouble. If a friend would call and ask me to do something that I knew was questionable, or something I knew would not be in my best interest I needed a way that would allow me to say no without losing the respect of my peers. So I would remind my friends that I needed to ask my parent’s permission, and when I went to them to ask I would tell them, “You need to say no.” I even had a look to give my parents when I wanted them to say no. And they would, so that way I could go to my friends and tell them, “Sorry, my parents said I can’t come.”
Surrendering control to my parents allowed me to do the right thing without a struggle.
And this is what Paul is trying to tell us about our salvation. God IS on our side, and if we just surrender control to God, if we allow ourselves to be enslaved to God, and to nothing else, God will lead us to eternal and abundant life. (iv)
For we are no longer slaves to sin, so we should therefore be slaves to righteousness in the life of Christ.
Christ died on the cross, and after three days rose again so that we would no longer be slaves to sin, we would no longer be subject to the payments for our sin. We are no longer subject to that transaction, we are no longer bound to a life that leads toward death because of our sins, rather because of Jesus we are free to live a life enslaved to God that leads to eternal life with God in Christ. And for this reason, we celebrate servanthood every time we worship.
(i)Thomas H. Troeger “Romans 6:12-23” New Proclamation, Series A, 1999, 132.
(ii)Shawnthea Monroe “Romans 6:12-23 Pastoral Perspective” Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 3, 2011, 186.