We All Fall Down

We All Fall Down

Do you remember playing hot potato
when you were a kid?
You sit in a circle with your friends
and you pass a ball around while music is playing
and whoever is holding the ball
when the music stops is out.
If you didn’t play that
you probably played musical chairs
which is very similar.

The whole point was to not get caught with the ball
when the music stopped.
Because if you did, the game was over for you…
at least for that round.

In First Corinthians 13
the apostle Paul writes
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.”

And while that is fantastic poetry
in the midst of one of the greatest writings
about love, it is, at least in part, fantasy.

I’d love to be able to tell you
that these kids games are on my mind
because I saw my own kids
playing cute versions of them this week.
But that is not the case.

The reality
is we still play those same games as adults.
The stakes are higher
and if you get caught holding the potato
you could be sitting out for more than a round,
but we still play those games.

Over the last couple of weeks
our country’s immigration policies
and in particular our treatment
of immigrant families
have come to the forefront
of our news and social media.

The response of our leadership,
those in charge,
those with whom the buck is supposed to stop,
has been a game of hot potato on an epic scale.

“It’s not my fault!” “Don’t blame me.”
“I just inherited someone else’s mess.”

We have heard those ideas expressed a lot lately.

The current administration
declaring that these were not their policies
but the policies of the previous administration.
I have even read claims
that the policy to separate immigrant families
goes all the way back to Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The attorney general,
as we discussed last week,
went so far as to blame God,
or at least the bible, for these policies.

It seems to happen that way
when controversies and scandals break.
No one wants to be holding the potato
when the music stops.

And there is good reason for this.
When the music stops, 
 if you are holding the potato,
you are the one who gets all the blame.

You are the one
who is going to be vivisected by the media.
You are the one
who is going to have to resign or be fired.
You are the one upon whom the buck will stop.
And so this week
we see people stepping back, planting their feet,
and trying to launch that blame filled potato
as far as they can into the past.

None of them, none of us,
wants to be caught holding the potato,
we don’t want to be the guilty party,
we don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes.
So we all do it, we all play hot potato.
on the national stage it is a whole lot easier to see,
but we all still do it.

All the way back at the beginning,
in the Garden of Eden it happened.

When God approached Adam
about eating of the fruit of the tree
of the the knowledge of good and evil
Adam’s response was to blame Eve saying
“it was that woman you gave me”
it was her fault –
or maybe even God’s fault
for making her in the first place!
And Eve blamed the serpent.

In our house
we can be sitting in the living room
and hear an ear piercing shriek
come from the playroom
and the rumblings of a sibling brawl beginning.

But when we ask what happened;
it is never a simple recitation of the facts
but an immediate and unapologetic attempt
by each of my girls to make sure
that when the dust settles
the other one is holding the potato.

We pass the blame
on to someone or something else
so we aren’t the guilty party,
so don’t have to be the one
to deal with the consequences.

We feel the guilt though
because deep down we know we are just that,

Guilty of pride, of making excuses,
of looking out for self more than for our neighbor. And as the opening chapter of Romans tells us,
we are all guilty of idolatry.

So far the book of Romans
has done a lot to try and help us see this truth,
that we are all guilty.
Not just the Gentiles or just the Jews, but all of us, every human being is guilty,
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
as we read in verse 23 just a few moments ago.

Every last person on the planet is guilty.
Not merely on the home level
or the work level or on the national level,
but on a universally cosmic level
we are all guilty before God
and we are without excuse.
The music has stopped
and each of us is holding the potato
and that baby is HOT.

We cannot pass the blame on to someone else.
It is our fault.
Who God is can be seen in the creation around us.
The law of God,
even if we don’t have it written down,
is written on our hearts.
Yet we stray, we worship other gods,
we invent evil things,
we do tremendous evil to each other;
all of us, every last one. Guilty with no excuses.

And it is at this point
where we look at the apostle Paul
and begin to think that hanging out with him
might have been a real downer.

Could you imagine walking into a room
that the apostle Paul is in and saying
“Hi Paul, how are you?” and his response
“Me, well, I am a terrible sinner,
guilty of idolatry and a myriad of other sins.
What’s worse is I have no excuse.
I am just a wretch.
And oh, by the way, so are you.”

As greetings go,
“You’re a terrible, horrible, no good, sinner”
is a far cry from
“God loves you
and there is nothing you can do about it.”

When I was in bible college
there was a course we all had to take
called Evangelism.

This class largely took place off campus.
Every week,
dozens of students from the school,
would head down
to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Campus
or to downtown Milwaukee itself
and walk around and try to strike up conversations with random people, complete strangers.

The goal of those conversations
was to share our faith,
to tell people about the good news
and hopefully help lead them to faith
in Jesus Christ.
Part of the class, of course,
was learning the script of that conversation.

Every conversation,
after the ubiquitous and morbid question
“If you were to die today, where would you go?”, began here in Romans 3.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Followed of course,
by a slew of other verses,
explaining how all of us, like sheep,
had gone astray
or how compared to God our goodness,
our righteousness,
was comparable only to filthy rags.

Psychologically speaking,
that entire part of the conversation
was designed to convince the other person
to see how truly rotten they were.

To tell them that apart from faith in Christ
they are evil, enemies of God and all goodness. And that because of their sin,
their war with God,
they were going to end up in hell
if they didn’t believe in Jesus
and repent of their sin.

In other words, guilt.
Convincing someone of their guilt before God
was the goal.

Which, if it ended in that person
finding faith in Christ
and experiencing the forgiveness of God
it could be a great moment.
If not, well, than a total stranger
just walked up to them and told them
how horrible a person they were.
(I’ll let you imagine which one happened more often)

Now there are a great number of problems
with that approach.
But I am not going to knock it
because it was that approach,
that view of the gospel that brought me to faith,
so I know that it is a viable,
if not all together horrific, doorway to faith.

What it does though
is make an assumption of Paul’s view of sin
and the purpose of the discussion
in the letter to the Romans
that I don’t think is actually present.

Stating that we are all guilty before God
and without excuse is not there
to make us hang our heads
and walk away in shame.

And it is not there as a stick
to make us feel horrible about our lives
and fearful of our future
so that we are more likely to respond positively
to the carrot of the gospel.

It is there to put an end to the game of hot potato.
It is there to say,
“Stop tossing the potato around.
We are all already guilty.
There is no excuse.
Put the potato down,
boil it, mash it, stick it in a stew. Just let it alone.”

If we are all guilty,
we don’t have to worry about shifting blame.
We don’t have to get in competitions
trying to justify how we may not be perfect
but at least we’re better than *them*.

Instead of comparing ourselves
or passing the buck,
instead of hiding our shame or guilt or fear,
instead, we can focus on God,
on God’s love, on God’s forgiveness,
on all the joy and beauty God has in store for us
here, and now, and forever.

Part of that scripted conversation
from that evangelism class
was talking about how sin separates us from God.

That God is too holy and pure
to be touched by our sin
and that sin creates a barrier of separation.
And there is some truth to that I think,
but not in the same way that I used to.
Let me tell you what i mean.

As the weather has gotten nicer
the kids have been able to play outside a lot more
and playing outside as a kid
means playing in the dirt.

My youngest daughter, Braeleigh,
loves playing in the dirt,
right up until the moment she realizes
that her hands have gotten dirty.

At that point it is a crisis.
There is whining and crying
and wanting to be picked up.

And it doesn’t matter to her
that daddy is wearing a white shirt
or light colored pants.
She is looking for comfort
and for someone to help her wash her hands.

As she comes in for a hug or to be picked up,
I’ll admit, I usually try to dodge the hands.
I am not a fan of dirty hand prints on my clothes.

But at the same time,
I am grabbing soap and a washcloth
or a wet wipe,
to help Braeleigh clean her hands
so I can scoop her up in my arms
and cuddle her and tickle her
until her hearts content.

Now I know that dirt is not sin,
and I know I’m not God. Thank goodness!
But I also find in those moments
a reminder of how God loves us.

We all have “dirty hands,”
our guilt is evident,
the important thing is how we deal with that dirt,
that guilt.

Do we try to hide it?
Do we try to shift the blame onto someone else? Or do we acknowledge it
and allow God to do what God
is always wanting to do clean away the dirt,
bandage our wounds,
and help to make us whole again?

After all, this is the God who knelt in the dirt
to form us from the dust of the earth.
This is the God who,
came to earth in Jesus Christ
to walk our mud covered streets
and show us how to wash each others dirty feet.

We have all sinned. We have all fallen short.

This is not about judgment, but about a level field.
A reality in which we don’t need
to play the blame game
to pass the hot potato along
but rather a reality in which,
all of us being guilty,
are free to receive the gift of God’s grace
in Jesus Christ.

Instead of trying to hide who we really are,
and what a mess we’ve made of things,
we can come to God
and have our hands washed clean.

We can experience true forgiveness
because we know we are truly guilty.
We can come to God and find ourselves embraced,
find that we are still loved,
that we always have been and always will be.

So let’s open our eyes to the truth,
we have all sinned and fallen short,
and let us open our ears to hear the words,
you are forgiven,
and let us go forth into the world,
forgiven and free,
proclaiming with our lives
the grace and love of our great God.
Amen? Amen.

Romans 3:19-26

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