The Quiet Mind: No Condemnation (Part two of a two-part series. Part one is here:
23rd Sunday After Pentecost – November 17, 2019
Under the old system of ordination in the United Methodist Church, one could be ordained while still a seminarian, and then be appointed by the bishop to return to seminary for the third and final year to complete one’s degree. This is how I came to be an ordained United Methodist pastor at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I was ordained in 1996 and then returned to Duke University Divinity School, which is when I completed my clinical work which I did as a hospital chaplain at Duke University Medical Center.
Up to that point, my pastoral care experience was limited to visiting members of my field education church in rural western North Carolina, either in their homes or occasionally in the hospital. Yet none of it could have prepared me for my Clinical Pastoral Education course: the life, the death, the grief, the profound hope, the diversity of people and experiences that would permanently shape my future ministry, and in so doing, would shape me.
The pager would sound and I would respond by reporting to the physician who had called me and given instructions as to what I needed to do. The patient is a woman whose heart keeps stopping. She is not going to survive, and I need you to go to the waiting room and support her mother and son until I can join you and speak to her.
There was the time one autumn Saturday when a physician paged me to tell me he was about to deliver a difficult diagnosis to the family of a patient and he wanted me to be in the room when he did. I entered the small, brightly lit conference room where fifteen people sat around a long table, awaiting the doctor, and as I spoke with them, I learned that no two of them were from the same Christian denomination (none of which were United Methodist), and I sat with them until the doctor entered the room, gave the diagnosis, answered a few questions, and then informed this large family that “the chaplain is here to help you if you need him” before exiting the room.
What my semester working in a hospital taught me is that there is a facet to my personality that I never knew existed, so much so that it truly surprised me to discover it: the God-given ability to enter a room where a terrible thing has just occurred and be a non-anxious presence. I learned that if I can overcome my initial fear and self-doubt, I can, more often than not, say the right things, listen for long periods of time, even be comfortable with long stretches of holy silence where there is nothing to say, and nothing that needs to be said. I learned that I can do the holy work, not of “bringing Christ to people in the hospital” but to, as Bishop Pennell used to remind us, to “testify to the fact that Christ is already there.”
This is something I learned about myself by allowing myself to be in a situation where I no could trust what I knew about myself, only God. What self-discovery awaits you that only God can bring, where God only asks you for a little faith, a little trust, a little vulnerability?
I do not tell you this story of my work as a chaplain to toot my own horn. By now, you know me well enough to know that I am always the stooge or the foil in all my stories, or that if I do the right thing, it is only by the abundant, miraculous grace of God. Yet the reason I tell you all of this is because I am not a naturally non-anxious person by any stretch of the imagination. I am instead a rather anxious person. I always have been, ever since childhood. It is part of how God made me.
This two-week “Quiet Mind” sermon series was borne out of how I have learned, as a pastor and as a disciple of Jesus Christ to address this facet of who I am in hope that it blesses all of us in our daily trials of being fully human, people who scripture attests are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s own image; people for whom Christ came so that we may have, as our Lord put it, nothing less than life and abundantly.
The way my anxiety generally manifests itself is through negative self-talk. My brain has a tendency to overthink things and to ruminate upon situations and conversations that have already happened, looking for faults and things I should have done differently. The cumulative effect of this is that my mind can very easily slip into telling me things about myself that I should not dare question, things I should simply accept as true. My mind justifies this by telling me that it is simply trying to keep me alert, prepared, and always improving.
The thing is that these thoughts are rarely affirming and good stuff tends to get overruled by the bad.
Now, if anything I am saying is resonating with you in any way, you know as well as I do how easy it is to start projecting these thoughts upon God, as if God were the speaker, as if God were the author of each and every negative thought we think or the negative self-image we may have. Doing this is not uncommon; it is one reason so many people associate religion, and especially the Christian religion with guilt.
This is the bad news.
The good news is that we need not assume that our thoughts are the final word on what God thinks of us, or of what we should think of ourselves. God can, and God does, speak for himself, and the primary and most accessible way that God does so is through scriptures like the one we have before us this morning.
In today’s text, Paul is writing to a congregation he did not found and does not know. The Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s letter of introduction to the Christians in Rome that was to be read before his arrival in the city, and it is widely held that Paul’s goal in traveling to Rome was to raise funds for a missionary journey to Spain, a journey he never made due to his imprisonment and execution in Rome. As such, the Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s “theology textbook,” a document where he did not have to dedicate ink to addressing specific congregational problems as he did in, say, his epistles to the church in Corinth, which we know today as 1 and 2 Corinthians.
Anyone who reads Paul is aware that he had no issues with speaking his mind and telling his listeners what he really thought. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in his Epistle to the Galatians, where he was addressing people intentionally undermining his ministry and where he was clearly frustrated, if not angry.
And yet, in this morning’s text, Paul tells us this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
There is no condemnation. We have been set free.
In my mind, Paul could easily have found some way to criticize the Roman Christians. He could have told them they were wrong about everything and he was coming to set them on the proper course. Yet he doesn’t. Remember, Paul was born and raised a Pharisee, a community within Judaism who prided themselves in strict adherence to the law in all circumstances of everyday life, the people who in Jesus’ day were known, when it came to religion, for truly “walking the talk.”
And Paul, this highly educated expert in the law, this man for whom the laws of Judaism were the foundation of who he was, laws that gave shape and meaning to his life, laws that gave him his very identity as a man of God tells these Roman Christians that, in Jesus Christ, God has set us free from this very same law, that Christ has set us free from sin, has liberated us from death. For those in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation. Ours is the God who suffered and died and rose again so that sinful humanity could be freed from wrath and judgement and condemnation. Our God is and forever will be a pardoning God.
So then, why are we so quick to condemn ourselves, and to project that condemnation upon the God who saves us, even at the greatest expense to God?
Years ago, there used to be a bumper sticker that I would see from time to time that reads “I just do what the voices inside my head tell me to do.” While I find this sentiment insensitive and rather tacky, I also wonder how often it is, to a certain extent, true for you and true for me. How often do we truly question the veracity of what we believe about ourselves? How often do we blindly accept what we think about ourselves? How often do we assume we know what others think of us, or even how often they think it? How often do we take the short and easy path of just accepting at face value that interior monologue that exists within each of us?
As they move through childhood, some children have invisible friends. Yet many adults, it turns out, have invisible enemies who live inside of us and who repeatedly attempt to convince us of the lies that too many of our thoughts are real and all we are today is all we can ever hope to be.
And to this, our savior replies, “In me, there is no condemnation. Why, then do you condemn yourself?”
There is a beloved story in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John that Eugene Peterson tells this way in his Message paraphrase of the Bible:
Jesus went across to Mount Olives, but he was soon back in the Temple again. Swarms of people came to him. He sat down and taught them.
The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.
Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”
“No one, Master,” [she said].
“Neither do I,” said Jesus. “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.”
I have said before that religion at its best raises us up, gets us outside of ourselves, and elevates us above our present circumstances, increasing our mindfulness of those around us. Religion, at its very best, is a call to drop the stones, the stones we can so easily cast upon others, that we can even cast upon ourselves and our own sense that we are beloved children of God. Twenty-three years of ordained pastoral ministry has convinced me that there is no functional atheism more prevalent and potent than the false notion that nothing can ever change, for the only way that this to be true is if there is indeed no God at all.
And yet, we hold it to be true that there is a God, a God who came to earth and lived our lives, who suffered our death, and who rose for our sake, as we will someday rise. Ours is the God who indeed intervenes, including intervening in our own interior monologue, turning the monologue into a dialogue where the God of life, in whom there is no condemnation, speaks to the negative thoughts, forcing them to answer for themselves, and in so doing quiets our relentless, overactive minds that never seem to be able to just stop.
I cannot stand before you this morning with a clear and simple prescription for eliminating the thoughts that attempt to convince us that we are less than we are, less than we were meant to be. Oftentimes, addressing the source of this kind of thinking is the realm of gifted men and women in the medical community who God utilizes and works through for this very reason.
What I can do, however, is offer you this: a counterweight, something to counterbalance the negativity that likes to take up residence in our minds. We think we are unlovable, God’s word counters by saying we are indeed lovable. We think we are without hope, and God counters by promising to be our hope. We claim nothing can change, and yet God says “behold I am making all things new.” We are convinced we are condemned forever, and our savior tells those condemning voices to drop their stones and walk away, for we are not condemned. We have been set free from the law of sin and even death by the God who defeats them forever.
Bob Marley famously sang in his “Redemption Song” “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” To me, this means giving God voice and vote in these wonderful minds of ours. For when our minds wish to fill our thoughts with lies, God’s word speaks truth, the truth that we are loved and that in Christ there is no condemnation, not today, not tomorrow, but forever.
These minds and the thoughts they produce can be wonderful servants but terrible masters, and our God who is the God whose realm is both inside and outside of these beautiful brains, and this God waits to be invited into those conversations we have with ourselves, turning the monologue into dialogue where God speaks and our hearts and minds listen. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” As you move this week amidst your customary round, let the intrusive thoughts chew on that fact for a while, and see if you just maybe you are able to move one step closer to the abundant life Christ gave his life to bring to bear, in your life, in my life, and in our life together.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.