June 27, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm,Maryland  USA
based upon Romans 6:9-23

"You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did." (Rom. 6:11)

I had a cheap record player when I was a kid. You recall what one of those is, don’t you? Haven’t seen many lately. Can’t buy records to play on them anymore, unless you turn to someone like Leon Kagarise. You name it, he might have it! Anyway, I used to do more with my record player than play records. Did you know that if you put little action figures (we called them army men or cowboys and Indians) on the turntable, and then flipped the switch, those figures would go flying every which way? It was great fun.

The science behind it is called centrifugal force. It’s the same principle that pushes you toward the door when you turn a corner in your car, or squashes you up against your friend in one of those rides at the amusement park. If it wasn’t for that door, or some other barrier, you’d go flying just like those action figures on a turntable. Of course, there’s also something called centripetal force, which works in just the opposite way, pulling toward the center.

When I hear the words of the apostle Paul saying that "the wages of sin is death," I think about that record player I had as a kid, and that thing called "centrifugal force." The power of sin is centrifugal. That is, when it’s at work in our lives, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Even the important stuff. Little by little, bits and pieces of who are, our values, our relationships, our most significant dreams, even our beliefs go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of that core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. Indeed, according to Eugene Peterson’s imaginative translation of Paul’s words, "Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death." There isn’t anything else left.

God desires so much more for us. It’s not just a matter of God being so high and holy that he won’t condone any sin. Indeed, God is holy. That’s the truth. Sin doesn’t have a place in God’s realm. But that’s because of what sin does. It cuts us off from what’s most important, it shoves us off the record player (if you will), it slowly but surely takes from us the richness of life that God wills his creation to have. Sin leaves us empty and alone. Does God desire that for us? No way. That’s why God gave us Jesus. He sent his Son, the very heart of God, not to condemn but to restore - if you will, to turn off that record player and reach out and gather God’s people in who had been thrown every which way - broken, lost, and alone.

In a popular song this past year, singer Jewel Kilcher sang these words:

"If I could tell the world just one thing it would be that we're all OK,
and not to worry because worry is wasteful, and useless in times like these.
I won't be made useless.
I won't be idle with despair.
I will gather myself around my faith.
For light does the darkness most fear.
My hands are small, I know.
But they're not yours, they are my own.
And I am never broken."

("Hands," written by Jewel Kilcher & Patrick Leonard)

I like those lines, even though they’ve become somewhat lost in pop culture, and may not have been written from a Christian perspective. I don’t know much about this performer known simply as "Jewel," other than that she’s from Alaska and writes deep, introspective lyrics. "My hands are small, I know. But they’re not yours, they are my own." At first hearing that line seems to be leading toward the edge of the record player. You see, sin is a "me" centered religion. What matters most, according to this creed, is "me, myself, and I." Some might wonder if this is not the great Trinity of our day and age. A majority of people in our country still say that they believe in God, but which God - the great "I am who I am," or the mighty "me"?

The sadness of it is that ultimately placing "me" at the center is a broken, lonely, and lost condition. What’s even more sad is that people who are enslaved by the religion of sin can’t even see it. They "don’t have a problem" from their point of view, even though bits and pieces have been breaking off and flying off every which way - things that matter.

"‘Original Sin’ means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from." (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p.89)

There is that other force I mentioned earlier, centripetal force. I’m not all that adept at science, but I wonder if this wouldn’t be a good way of describing the power of God in our lives. In many ways, we can’t stop the record player of life from spinning. The world keeps turning. Life goes on. But there is a different force at work pulling together what is most important, drawing those whom God loves toward the Kingdom.

It’s interesting to see these centrifugal and centripetal forces interact in people’s lives, and I’m not talking in scientific terms. Maybe "interesting" is not the right word. I’ve walked with persons whose lives were being pulled apart by sin. In so many cases the opposite power seemed so obvious to me - how God was at work in their lives, reaching out to them like a shepherd after that one lost sheep, seeking to pull them toward the true center.

I can well remember one fellow in a previous church who had so many wake up calls that I envisioned God as like the "hound of heaven ... baying at his heels," to borrow an image from Francis Thompson’s famous poem. I’ve known others who just could not seem to see the obvious. In some cases they blamed God, and didn’t believe in him, because of all the rotten things which had happened to and around them. However, they weren’t looking at what God was doing for good then and there, in answer to the prayer of others, some being what we might call miracles.

The funny thing about this centrifugal force called sin. We tend to think of it as "freedom." But what really is freedom? Is it the ability to do whatsoever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, however I want to do it? Is that what makes a person free? Is it a matter of not having any limitations, not being confined by rules or boundaries? Is that what makes us free? If so, we might want to be careful what we long for. Such freedom comes at a high price. In the long run, that kind of freedom just leaves us broken, lost, and alone.

Let me return to the lyrics of that song by Jewel. "I won't be made useless," she sings. "I won't be idle with despair. I will gather myself around my faith, for light does the darkness most fear. My hands are small, I know. But they're not yours, they are my own. And I am never broken." Indeed, this song is full of "I" language, but I hear a difference - perhaps another power at work (as I said, I know little of this songwriter’s background or beliefs). Later on in the song, she sings, "In the end, only kindness matters. I will get down on my knees, and I will pray. My hands are small, I know. But they're not yours, they are my own. But they're not yours, they are my own. And I am never broken. We are God's eyes. God's hands. God's heart."

Whether or not those words were originally Christ-centered, we can make them so in our hearing. Our hands are God’s hands. That, however, is choice we are free to make. When, in our true God-given freedom, we choose to live in a right-relationship with God, made right by Jesus Christ, the centripetal power of God really kicks in. That doesn’t mean we don’t experience the heartache and struggle that come with living in a world that still operates by the centrifugal force of sin. The turntable still goes round. The difference is that we are being pulled closer to God, not pushed away. In the process, our priorities become (as in the motto of Alexander Mack) "the glory of God and our neighbor’s good." Our hands become God’s hands. In freedom, we serve a different master than the great trinity of "me, myself, and I." And we come to know what real life is.

Speaking of songs, the words to our final hymn were written by a fellow named John Naas. Perhaps some of you remember who he was, maybe from a children’s book in our library entitled The Tall Man. Indeed, John Naas was a tall man, standing more than six feet. In the early eighteenth century was an itinerant Brethren preacher, traveling across Germany, drawing people toward God in Christ. According to tradition, one day agents of the king of Prussia took him by force in order to draft him into the king’s personal guards. You see, when you are king, it’s wise to have persons taller than yourself standing around you as protection, just in case.

Of course, John Naas refused to enlist, which infuriated the king’s officials. So they tortured him and threw him in a dungeon. According to the story as it has been passed on, they hung John by his left thumb and right toe, and left him in his cell that way to think it over. Even that didn’t change his mind. Later on, he was brought before the king himself and asked to explain why he would not become a soldier. There he told the king, "I have already long ago enlisted... My captain is the great Prince Emmanuel, our Lord, Jesus Christ."

John Naas was released in order to serve his king. He became a prominent leader among the Brethren, and later emigrated to the colonies, helping to establish not only his home congregation in Amwell, New Jersey, but also several others in eastern Pennsylvania. He was also a poet, and our last hymn makes use of three stanzas of what was originally a seventeen-verse poem. The composer of the hymn, William Beery, was ninety two years old when he put John Naas’ words to music, serving the same king as John did.

As you sing, consider freely choosing the same goal as John did, serving the same king, empowered by the same Holy Spirit force, making your hands God’s hands. Shall we stand?

1999Peter L. Haynes

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page