I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Normally, this week, millions of Americans would be glued to their television sets to watch 68 college basketball teams battle each other in the beginning rounds of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. For three weeks each March, this event commands the attention of the sports world, until a champion is crowned on the first Monday night in April.
Never mind that the majority of these viewers couldn’t tell you the name of any of the players on any team, let alone their coach. Some probably wouldn’t even know a basketball from a Kumquat!
The tournament has become a rite of Spring, not because people are necessarily sports fans, but rather because money is involved. All across the country people pay a wide-ranging amount of money to purchase and fill out tournament brackets in hopes of guessing who will be left standing alone atop the heap of defeated teams after the smoke clears.
Gamblers have devised a complex system of assigning point values to individual games in each round, so that guessing the eventual champion becomes secondary to correctly picking enough game winners to emerge victorious by amassing the highest cumulative point total.
The prize, obviously, is a lot of cash. What was once a cottage industry, a harmless office guessing game, has become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
Under more favorable circumstances, crowds would flock to the sites where the games are played, significantly boosting the revenues for those communities. Many sports bars and other entertainment establishments could count on balancing their annual budget on the income from these three weeks alone.
Until last year’s abrupt cancellation of the tournament due to COVID-19, we had become obsessed by this seemingly insignificant pastime that has no lasting significance, suspending all connection with the reality of larger issues that affect our society and even our world. It was bread and circuses, if you will.
But for this past year we have been at war, both within ourselves and with others, over what we can and cannot do because of the pandemic. Despite the dangers of gathering in large crowds, this event has become so popular that, with this year’s resumption of the tournament, some may still take the risk of jamming together in their favorite drinking establishment for the mere joy of fellowship and entertainment.
It has almost become a cliché, but the pandemic has upset our way of life as we know it. So how do we come to terms with the dangers of doing what we used to do, which once seemed innocuous, but now pose a serious safety hazard?
On a much grander scale, today’s assigned reading from Romans seems to parallel this dilemma. The apostle Paul wrestles with the power of sin over and against his better judgment. Life seems to be a constant engagement with the trivial and the unimportant versus the ultimately uncontrollable and unpredictable.
There is something that lives in us that compels us to either do good or evil. I’m aging myself, I know, but it brings to mind that phrase by the comedian Flip Wilson, who would always use the excuse, “The Devil made me do it.” It was a joke, of course, but there was an element of truth in the comment.
In this reading and in many of his letters, Paul teaches us that there are consequences to every choice we make – bad and good – and what can happen when we make the better choice.
But we often have to be brought around to a realization that we are engaging in unproductive or self-destructive practices or habits and put an end to our wayward patterns of behavior. That is the challenge that is always before us. That’s what in many ways we confess each Sunday when we admit to God that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve written this already, but strengthening our relationship with God is the chief motivation of our journey through Lent. It is important to recognize that our God provides the help we need to let go of what burdens us and conceals the goodness that awaits us.
When we dwell in God’s word, we develop the confidence to place our lives in God’s hands.
It is there where we find God’s peace, and discover the joy of God’s grace.
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