March 12, 2017
The Second Sunday in Lent
Ever read the books of Leviticus and Numbers from the Bible? Laws, laws and more laws, right? Sounds like our government! Makes one wonder if it is safe at all to even get out of bed in the morning.
However, with Jesus we learn the old wheel of religious devotion now collapses and fits into the lives of those who have faith in Christ.
Inventing the wheel. The wheel is a terrific invention, one that has been incredibly popular since its debut 7,000 years ago. You'd think that an object, the essential characteristic of which is perfect roundness, could not be improved upon. If it's round, it's round. End of story.
Well, not quite. Not if you're Duncan Fitzsimons who decided he could invent a better wheel. Let’s start with his story and then see if there's a better way to be holy than the tried-and-true "keep the law, keep the law, keep the law."
From Sumerian carts to American cars, wheels have kept us moving forward. I think we all agree on that. They are critical to the operation of almost any form of transportation -- planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles and even unicycles.
By the way, do you know why unicyclists can always go longer than bicyclists?
Bicyclists are always two tired.
But wheels have a difficulty that has persisted over the years, despite the fact that they keep getting lighter, faster, stronger and sleeker. The problem?
Fold up a bicycle, and how small can you make it? The size of the wheel at best.
Same for wheelchairs. You might want to collapse a wheelchair and put it in an airplane's overhead bin, but you cannot do it. It doesn't get any smaller than the wheel.
At least, until now.
Designer Duncan Fitzsimons has reinvented the wheel by creating one that folds. A cycling enthusiast, he began by wanting to invent a smaller, foldable bicycle. Then, he realized that handicapped people would be helped by having wheelchairs that could collapse even smaller. The large, spoked wheels of bicycles and wheelchairs are almost universally cumbersome.
So Fitzsimons invented Morph Wheels, which fold from 24 inches wide to about half that size. These wheels are narrow enough to fit in the back of a taxi or in an airplane's overhead bin. They are made of glass-filled nylon and can be attached to any wheelchair with a quick-release axle. Just go to: www.folding-wheels.com and look for yourself.
After 7,000 years, the wheel has been reinvented. And we all said it couldn’t be done!
Now some might think that foldable wheels are frivolous, like the invention that comedian Steve Martin came up with a generation ago: foldable soup. Possibly you know of it, from his book Cruel Shoes: "First prepare the soup of your choice and pour it into a bowl. ... Then, with a knife cut the soup down the middle into halves, then quarters, and gently reassemble the soup into a cube. ... Place the little packet in your purse or inside coat pocket, and pack off to work."
Ridiculous, right? Well, you might feel the same way about foldable wheels until you find yourself on an airplane, in a wheelchair, staring at an overhead bin. Then you'll be glad that the wheel has been reinvented.
Then there is the round wheel of works-righteousness.
Let’s face it. We all want to travel on a highway of holiness, right? And we're accustomed to doing so by slapping on the round wheels of right-living as law-abiding observers of the righteous commandments of God. As we should. No problem there.
But Jesus comes into the picture and has a whole new idea. He folds this wheel in half. He does something radical. Doesn't get rid of the wheel, but gives us a whole new perspective on it.
For thousands of years, the term "righteousness" was associated with a list of “thou shall and thou shall nots” that people are supposed to do. Righteous people were men and women who did, or who tried to do, everything on the list.
"Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth" (Psalm 119:142). Proverbs tells us that "the righteous hate falsehood" (13:5), "the thoughts of the righteous are just" (12:5) and "the desire of the righteous ends only in good" (11:23).
Righteousness means doing the right things. When we behave in this way, promises Proverbs, everything "ends only in good."
In other words, we're riding to glory on the wheels of law and order snapped to an axle of obedience ... and the grind goes on: from law to righteousness and law to righteousness.
Problem is, we all experience an inner conflict between the law of God and the law of sin. Instead of doing good, we do evil. Instead of being righteous, we behave in ways that are unrighteous. In different chapters from that which we read today, his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one" (3:10). Looking inward, he confesses, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (7:18-19).
There must be a better way. And fortunately Paul finds it. He reinvents the wheel. The folded wheel of faith
Paul asks, "What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about". Paul is aware that many people saw the righteousness of Abraham in his works, in the things he did in obedience to God. The apostle James suggests that "our ancestor Abraham [was] justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (2:21). God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, after God saw Abraham’s faith in his willingness to sacrifice his son as God asked. How many of us would go as far as Abraham did if asked by God?
To be justified is to be declared righteous. And when looking at Abraham, you might think that his works are what justify him and make him a good guy.
But Paul grabs this old wheel and collapses it. He quotes the Scripture which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (v. 3, quoting Genesis 15:6). He sees that it was Abraham's faith that made him righteous, not his works.
This development is as shocking as the invention of the Morph Wheel. After years of assuming that Abraham was "justified by works", Paul discovers that he was justified through "the righteousness of faith". Suddenly righteousness can be gained by all who "share the faith of Abraham", even if they are not able to follow God's law to the letter. The cumbersome wheelchair of religious devotion now collapses and fits into the lives of all who have faith in Christ.
For Paul, this is not just wishful thinking. It is grounded in the solid foundation of Holy Scripture. "For the promise that Abraham would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law," he explains, "but through the righteousness of faith".
Abraham had faith, and so can we. His willingness to believe is what makes him right with God.
Faith is the reinvented wheel that we all need to be riding. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are declared righteous by God. As Paul says to the Romans, "We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law". This all is made possible by the God who has sent Jesus to make everything right in the world, beginning with our relationship with God.
God's life-giving victory is a great ride, one that connects us to God, Jesus and the people around us in a web of right relationships. It's a ride in which we take on the wheel called faith.
So what does it feel like to ride this reinvented wheel? Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, says that faith "is beyond denominational purity, more than religious devotion, more than saintly rigor. Faith rests in the arms of God, trusts today and accepts tomorrow because faith knows that whatever the day, God is in it."
Faith is not about purity, devotion, rigor or law, law, law. Instead, it's a willingness to trust God and rest in God's arms. It's a decision to trust Jesus and walk behind him on the path of life. Faith is a willingness to lean on a power much greater than ourselves, and to trust that whatever lies ahead, "God is in it."
Abraham is an example of the "faith" wheel.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that Abraham put this kind of trust in God. "He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead," says Paul later in verse 19, "or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb". Instead, Abraham trusted God to be the one "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist". And sure enough, God did what had been promised, and made Abraham "the father of many nations".
When we have this kind of faith, we're made right with God -- both now and eternally. We trust God to work through us, even when our bodies begin to fail us. We trust Jesus to lead us, even when we wander through a thicket of difficult moral choices in school or at work. We trust the Holy Spirit to uplift us, even when our careers disappoint us and our friends let us down.
Being righteous in these situations doesn't come from moral perfection. Instead, it's based on taking a ride on the wheel called faith.
So what do our lives look like when we're riding on this reinvented wheel? Building on last week’s sermon, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that "good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works." He knew that only our faith in Jesus Christ could make us good in the eyes of God, but once we're right with God then our job is to go out and do the right things. So good Christians behave in ways that are compassionate, kind, humble, patient, loving and forgiving -- they do this not because they are naturally such wonderful people, but because Jesus has already forgiven them. "Forgive each other," says Paul to the Colossians; "just as the Lord has forgiven you" (3:13).
Compassion, kindness, humility, patience, love, forgiveness -- all of these qualities begin with Jesus, and they become ours when we trust in him.
The wheel of faithful living has been turning since the time of Abraham, and it was reinvented by Paul when he discovered that we're made righteous through faith. So let us trust God's Son Jesus, and roll into the future knowing that we're right with God and right with one another. If we wait until we are ready, we’ll be waiting the rest of our lives.
Let us pray.
Father God, many of us often leave Your Word wondering how can we keep all the “thou shall and thou shall nots” that we must do. Yet, You realized this and sent Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ to bring us our salvation first, then You sent Paul to help us see how through Christ, we can live through all the laws, laws, laws.
When we think of our bureaucratic states and governments, and think deep, we discover there are more laws than any human could possibly remember in a life-time. Lawyers and judges have to go back to earlier precedents and look up the laws to properly execute them. Yet, the average citizen such as all of us in this chapel, do not have an inkling about all those laws, yet we are law-abiding citizens by the state.
With this as our backdrop, help us Father to see that life in the kingdom of God is much the same. We know the basics, such as the Ten Commandments, and we know the rules of road, such as Jesus’ example to us, and by merely keeping these in mind as we treat each other, we are on the road to righteousness thru faith in Christ our Lord.
We ask You to help us reinvent our wheels that we may live a life full of righteousness and faith, in You, Your Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.