Return to Sermon Archive
Walking Back the Cat
September 15, 2002
by Tony Grant
Walking Back the Cat
Upheaval Dome in Utah's Canyonlands National Park is a mile wide and 1,500 feet deep, and scientists are still not entirely sure how it came to be. One theory involves the erosion of a vast underlying salt dome. Another theory focuses on asteroid assault. The last theory has the most supporters, since Upheaval Dome certainly looks like an impact crater. A sign at the edge of the dome offers this explanation: "Some 60 million years ago, a huge meteor streaking through space ... pierced the earth's atmosphere directly above this point." The text goes on, "The meteor hit with little warning." I am interested in that last phrase--"with little warning?" Was the meteor supposed to warn someone before impact? Was the meteor supposed to give a BEEP, BEEP, BEEP warning, like a garbage truck backing up?
Of course not. I am being overly critical today. I know that the Park Service's writers meant nothing more than "suddenly," and the wording they chose--"with little warning"--just came naturally to mind. Cullen Murphy, columnist for the Atlantic Monthly, observes that we inhabit a culture of warning and have come to expect advance notice of nearly everything. Doppler radar picks up storm fronts. Traffic copters swoop over commuting bottlenecks. Financial analysts predict stock futures. Medical imaging outlets offer full-body radiological scans, designed to highlight warning signs of tumors and heart disease.
This represents a big psychological shift. Our ancestors woke up not knowing if a hurricane was about to strike. They did not need traffic predictions, because they did not have any traffic. They did not anticipate fourth-quarter downturns. The threat posed by arterial plaque never entered their minds.
But people today are obsessed with looking ahead and spotting trouble on the horizon. And that is not all. Our forward-looking efforts have a counterpart in backward-looking attempts to figure out what went wrong after trouble has arrived. This week has been traumatic for us, as we remembered last September 11th. That day evokes a terrible sadness in all of us. But also it has evoked an immense amount of brain power to reconstruct the events leading up to September 11 and tell us what went wrong and where. Intelligence analysts, who often have to second-guess themselves after defections and other failures, have a phrase to describe this kind of rear-view diagnosis: "Walking back the cat." We walk back the cat when we try to reconstruct, or rather deconstruct, a disaster to find the root causes.
The mindset of "walking back the cat" is behind the proliferation of "black-box" technologies. The black box that everyone knows about is the flight-data recorder on commercial aircraft, which preserves a second-by-second record of mechanical and electronic performance. One much publicized new application is in stock cars, a consequence of the death of Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 last February (2002). Black boxes are also being installed in some passenger cars, to preserve data on speed, gas-pedal position, brake activity, force of collision, air-bag deployment, and seat-belt use. An experimental black box tested by Toyota goes even further: it has sensors capable of discerning elements of a driver's physical state, such as sobriety and cardiac condition.
Flesh VS Spirit
But we could make a case for the Apostle Paul as the world's pre-eminent backward cat-walker. He seems to be walking back the cat in search of an answer to one of the great, unanswered questions of all time: "What is wrong with me?"
Our text today from Romans 7:15-25 is part of a six-part discussion from the letter's first eight chapters in which Paul compares the old life of the flesh with the new life in the power of the Spirit. Understand that when Paul talks about flesh (the Greek word is sarki--7:18), he does not mean this physical body. He means a weak, self-centered way of life that is hostile to God. The way out of the old life of the flesh is beyond human achievement, emerging solely from God's grace.
(1) Romans 1:18-3:20 demonstrates the universal need of salvation due to the sinful condition of all humankind.
(2) Romans 3:21-4:25 focuses on God's gracious gift of redemption in Christ that is "effective through faith" (3:25) and justifies "the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith" (3:30). Here, Paul highlights Abraham's pre-circumcision faith in God's promise, making the patriarch the faith ancestor of all regardless of circumcision. Abraham is Paul's primary example for stating the case that we receive the promises of God, including salvation, not through any human effort but through faith.
(3) Romans 5 underscores that the source of the salvation we receive through faith is none other than the reconciling activity of Christ.
(4) Romans 6 quickly dispels any speculation that we should sin in order to prompt God's grace. Paul emphasizes that salvation means freedom to participate more fully in the new life of sanctification, urging his audience, "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness" (6:13).
(5) Then in 7:15-25, we find that Paul has just finished putting the law into perspective compared to God's free gift of eternal life in Christ (7:1-14). At best, the law is a spiritual warning system by which sin becomes recognizable for what it is (7:7, 12-13). At worst, however, being made aware of sin by the law leads us to sin, not away from it (7:8-11, 13-14). As J. Christiaan Beker puts it, the law "compels sin to show its true face," the law "detects sin and makes me aware of my desperate plight," and, sadly, "this knowledge is not therapeutic or preventive but a knowledge-unto-death, which seals my doom" (Paul the Apostle [Philadephia Fortress, 1980] 238-9).
Thus, Romans 7:15-25 opens with the understanding that humankind is ill-equipped to make effective use of the holiness of the law (7:11), which alerts us to sin. The trouble is that the warning system is in fleshly hands, which results in the irony that our observation of the law, our doing right, leads us not into peace and harmony but into confusion and distress. Romans 7:15-23 delves into this dilemma full-bore as Paul considers the conflict between knowing what is the right thing to do and being morally incapable of doing it. Beverly Gaventa's writes that "Paul has in view here the religious person, the responsible member of the human community, the one who wants to be a contributing member of society. Despite every attempt to accomplish good for other and for self, the efforts of the religious person come to nothing" (Text for Preaching: [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995] 393). The result is despair -- "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (7:24).
(6) By underscoring the eventual failure of our fleshly human attempts to employ the law against sin, Paul points us toward the only way out--Christ Jesus and, as will soon be elaborated in Romans 8, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ. Because we cannot handle the warning system of the law, we fall prey to the deadly futility of sin. Only Christ can successfully handle sin, overcoming it and setting us free for fruitful life in the Spirit. By the end of chapter 7, Paul reaches a conclusion that coincides with Paul Achtemeier's appraisal of the apostle's post-conversion "shift from thinking that one could uphold a right relationship with God by fulfilling the law to an understanding that only by trusting in God can one's relationship to God be rectified, even if one does fulfill the law ... Christ, not the law, is the way to a right relationship with God" (Achtemeier, Romans [Atlanta: John Knox, 1985] 128-9).
Now scholars debate whether Romans 7:15-25a is an autobiographical confession of Paul's personal sin or whether he is speaking of the general human condition of sinfulness. Most likely both of these assessments are true and complementary. Some scholars, such as Krister Stendahl, argue that our focus in this passage should not be on Paul's guilty conscience but upon Paul's insistence in what, or in whom, we place our deepest trust. Paul knows that most people will take the warning system of the law as an indication that they, like mighty mouse, can save the day. Many people would say, "If you will just warn me about sin--like that doppler radar weather warning--then I can take care of it. I can avoid it. But Paul knows that is not true. All the warning in the world does not help us avoid sin. We have warning Paul says, and yet we do it anyway--wretched people that we are.
So what Paul craves is not just an interior SoulAlert warning system that will awaken him to the evil that lies close at hand. He desires someone or something to swoop in and free him from the "law of sin" that dwells deep within him. He does not simply want to know that sin is bearing down on him--he is acutely aware of that. He wants to be rescued from sin (vv. 21-24).
So he indulges in some rear-view analysis to see what's going on. "I do not understand my own actions," he begins. "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (v. 15). Paul begins by admitting his own personal powerlessness over sin, like an alcoholic stumbling into AA for the first time and confronting the truth of the first step: "We admit we are powerless over alcohol--that our lives have become unmanageable."
Paul has hit rock bottom.
Of course, he does not want to stay there. Desperate to climb out of this hellish hole, he walks the cat back another step: "I know that nothing good dwells within me," he admits, "that is, in my flesh. 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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me" (vv. 18-20).
Paul argues that a sin-principle resides in us like an alien power, determined to dominate our flesh and corrupt all our actions. The apostle has unearthed an alien operating system, a worm virus wreaking havoc in the deepest cavities of our moral hard drive.
When we want to do what is good, this virus lies close at hand, tapping and scrambling all our spiritual data and programs. When we attempt to follow the law of God, an internal code war erupts -- full of command deletions and program overwrites. When we deconstruct the mess we have made of our day, or our month, or our life, we come face to face with an inclination or a power, that pushes us to disobey and rebel. The result, according to Paul's exercise in walking back the cat, is that we are captive to the law of sin that dwells within us (vv. 21-23).
So how do we escape? Not by our own power, insists Paul. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" he exults. Threatened by complete defeat in the struggle with the enemy entrenched deep within us, we throw ourselves into the arms of Christ. Only there can we find freedom from the grip of sin, and victory over the power of evil. Like members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Paul knows that we must acknowledge that only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
The mystery of Upheaval Dome in Utah may be solved by the discovery of fragments of a huge meteor that streaked through space some 60 million years ago. Or maybe not. Nothing may be left of that alien body. But we who struggle to follow the law of God have discovered, along with Paul, that we have been hit hard by a force called sin, one that has left a huge crater in our lives. We are also beginning to see that only Christ can rescue us, only Christ can protect us, only Christ can prevent our spirits from becoming a dry, dusty wasteland -- what Paul calls in v24 a "body of death."
So, how do we restructure our daily lives so that Christ can be more present in them, offering us rescue and protection and new life? Frederick Buechner suggests that we should organize the church along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, turning our community into an organization that could be called, "Sinners Anonymous."
Think about it. In AA, men and women acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up, and to help others to do the same. They realize they cannot pull this off by themselves. They need each other, and they need God.
If we are going to be a chapter of "Sinners Anonymous," we follow the example of A.A. in telling our own stories, and in reflecting on where we went wrong and how we can do better. We share with each other the secrets of where we find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying, and how the new life of Jesus Christ helps us to face another day with confidence. As the body of Christ in the world today, we take responsibility for each other, and are available at any hour of the day or night if the need arises. We are open to people of every background, to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. "There's not much more to it than that," writes Frederick Buechner, "and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made."
Clearly, one of the great, unanswered questions for every human being is the mystery of why we do the things we don't want to do, and why we don't do the things we should do. But with the cat walked back, we now know that the reason for our struggle is "sin," a force that afflicts us all.
Many years ago a famous cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, wrote a best-selling book, New Faces -- New Futures, which was a collection of case histories of people for whom facial surgery had opened the door to a new life. However, as the years went by, Dr. Maltz began to learn far more from his failures than his successes--from patient after patient, who though made beautiful after facial surgery, did not change. They acquired new faces, but went on wearing the same old personalities. Worse than that, they became more angry and irritated than before. They would look in the mirror and angrily say to the doctor, "I look the same as before. You didn't change a thing"--this, in spite of the fact that to any objective viewer the before and after photographs were drastically different. And so in 1960 Dr. Maltz wrote a different best seller, Psycho-Cybernetics. He was still trying to change people, not by correcting jawbones or smoothing scar tissue, but by helping people change the pictures they had of themselves. I guess we could say he tried to get people to walk back the cat of their lives and see what was wrong. Unfortunately, when we do that we discover that no matter how beautiful we may appear on the outside, on the inside something is wrong.
The cat-walk turns out not to be a cakewalk, but a walk toward hell. But the point of walking back the cat, is not just to examine our flawed personalities and our failed morality. The point is to cause us to give up on everything but Christ. When the cat-walk becomes a Christ-walk, then it is indeed a cakewalk. Amen.
Buechner, Frederick. Whistling in the Dark. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 4-5.
Murphy, Cullen. "Walking back the cat." Atlantic Monthly. December 2001, 20-22.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 09/18/02