CONUNDRUM: (n) A puzzling question or problem
By Pastor Steven Molin
SERMON: CONUNDRUM: (n) A puzzling question or problem
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As long as I can remember, I have liked solving riddles. Riddles; the kind of word puzzles that your teacher gives you when you’re done with your math assignment and waiting for the other students to finish. I was never particularly good at solving them, but I liked working on them. Maybe you, too? Riddles like this:
I am the only thing that always tells the truth
I show off everything I see
I come in all shapes and sizes
So tell me what I must be (mirror)
I am a wealthy doctor, I have a wealthy son
But if you’re looking for his father, I am not the one
Who am I? (mother)
Here’s one written by Albert Einstein…
If you were standing on the South Pole facing north
And you take one step backward, which way would you be traveling?
(north, since all directions from the South Pole are north)
Those are riddles; they all have answers, and if you think about them long enough, you can usually come up with an answer that makes sense. But what about puzzling questions that seem to have no sensible answers? And even when you come up with a possible solution, it doesn’t satisfy everyone? I learned years ago that those are called conundrums. I like that word; I even like to say it: conundrum. Webster defines conundrum as “Any puzzling question or problem.”
Bright people love conundrums, because they think that if they work on them long enough, using all their brain-power, they can come up with an answer. But then it wouldn’t be a conundrum; just a problem or a puzzle. The unique feature about a conundrum is that it is truly unsolvable. Here is a real-life case in point that might illustrate what I mean.
There was a Lutheran church in the middle of the process of calling a new pastor. They interviewed two candidates; we’ll call them Pastor A and Pastor B. The congregation voted to call Pastor A, but the church secretary mistakenly sent the letter of call to Pastor B. Pastor B was so happy to leave the church he was serving that he immediately resigned and wrote to the new church to tell them that he was coming. Only then did they realize that the wrong pastor had been sent the call.
What do you do? That was their conundrum, and this is a true story! Do you tell Pastor B that he wasn’t really selected, and leave him now without a church? Or do you take Pastor B, knowing all the while that the congregation’s choice was really Pastor A? And if so, do you tell Pastor B he was second choice? He’s going to find out anyway, isn’t he? It’s a conundrum. There is no human answer that will satisfy everyone, no matter how determined a problem-solver you may be. Incidentally, I don’t know much about the outcome of this story, but I do know that the church took Pastor B as their new pastor…and then they fired the secretary!
In the verses from Romans that were just read, the Apostle Paul presents us with a conundrum of the first order. It has to do with sin; with living our lives in willful disobedience to God, even when we know we are doing so. Here is the way Paul says it: “I do not understand my own actions.” British scholar J.B. Philips translated it this way “My own behavior baffles me, for I do not do what I want to, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Paul is describing the conundrum that is his life: that there is a constant tension within himself when it comes to doing the right thing. He knows what the right choices are; he can wish to do them, he can tell them to his friends. But when it comes to doing the right thing, more often than not, he fails. And the harder he tries to obey, the more likely he is to disobey. It makes no sense to the reasonable person, but there it is.
Paul goes on to describe his frustration with this tension. First, he suggests that trying harder is the solution. If the problem is lust, just try harder not to think about those things. If the problem is anger, try harder not to be angry. If the problem is judgment and criticism, then simply refuse to be judgmental and critical. This was the position of the Jews in Paul’s day. They had all the rules – 612 of them – and they prided themselves in keeping every one of them. And we can do that too…for awhile. For a brief period of time, we can control our desires and our thoughts and our actions, and look very, very religious. But not for very long, and then we too give into them, and we have failed. In our Lutheran liturgy, we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” That’s what Paul is saying here.
But there’s another way, Paul says. The other alternative that he identifies is to simply give in to the temptations that face us. If we are bound to sin…if we are “captive to sin” as Paul says, and we have no choice in the matter, then let it rip! Think those sinful things, give into those human desires, if it feels good, do it. After all, it’s not us doing it anyway – it’s not our fault – it is the sin that lies within us, so we’re not really responsible.
Do you see how unsatisfying both of those two roads are? One leads to total frustration and failure, while the other leads to total resignation and corruption. Neither is acceptable; neither is a viable solution to this dilemma which Paul defined, when he wrote “My own behavior baffles me, for I do not do the thing I want to do, but I do the very thing that I hate.” And both lead to misery, and despair…and finally…to death. And there ain’t nothing we can do about it. That, my friends, is the truth about the human condition of sin.
If you received your July church newsletter and read it, you found an excellent article written by Heather Schererman, explaining her experience in her small group. The great value Heather describes is knowing that there are other young moms just like her who share her frustrations and share her joys. That’s the value of small group ministry; we recognize that we’re not alone in this journey we call “the Christian faith.”
That article reminded me – vividly – of a small group experience I had nearly 20 years ago. We were sitting in our living room, studying this very passage in Romans, and the person who was reading the text became more and more discouraged as she read the despairing words of Paul. You could hear the despair in her voice. “I can’t do the right thing…I’m a slave to sin…it holds me captive and it will not let me go…wretched person that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” As she was reading, I realized that she wasn’t reading Paul’s words, she was confessing her own. “I’m a slave to sin…it holds me captive and will not let me go…Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then she choked back tears as she read Paul’s conclusion. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
What we cannot accomplish, through our efforts and our noble actions, Jesus Christ has done through his death and resurrection. The dilemma that was humanly impossible to solve by us has been solved by grace. Gone is the frustration of not being able to do the right thing. Gone is the shame of giving in to sin. God has spoken, the problem has been solved, once and for all time.
And that brings us…to us. Where are we…where are you…in this present day conundrum? Are you still trying to do the right thing, to live by the rules, to meet all the expectations that you know to be good? I’ll be you’re frustrated. I’ll bet your failing badly, and it has made you miserable in the process.
Or are you one who has just given in? You tried obedience, it doesn’t work, so you just live any old way you want to live, and you destroy anyone and anything that gets in your way, including those you love. And you tell yourself that you will not be ashamed for anything you do; because it’s not your fault…you were made that way. But at night, when you go to bed, you’re not so sure. And you are miserable, too.
People, there’s another way…in fact, there us an “only way.” We bring our sins, and our crumpled lives to Jesus, and we tell him everything. We tell him that even when we know the right road, we often turn the other way. We tell him that sometimes we even enjoy the sin that holds us captive, though we know it breaks his heart. We confess to him that we are dying, and we wonder who will rescue us from this body of death. And then he speaks – this Savior – and these are his words: This is my body, this is my blood, all given in love for you. Take it, and eat it, and know that your sins, though they be like scarlet, are as white as snow. You are forgiven; and everything is new. The conundrum is no more. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2002 Steven Molin. Used by permission.