Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Innovating to Zero Sin Romans 8:6-11

Innovating to Zero Sin

There is no acceptable level of environmentally harmful waste. And there is no acceptable level of disobedience to God.

At a Glance

Bill Gates took the stage at a TED Talk and said that there is no tolerable level of environmentally harmful waste and emissions, and that the human community must "innovate to zero." There's a theological analogy here. Usually, believers think that sin is something that, while not acceptable, is nevertheless inevitable. Perhaps we need to innovate to zero sin.

Editors' Pick

For material based on today's gospel text, see "New World Syndrome," March 17, 2002, at

In 2010, Bill Gates stood on the TED stage to give one of those famous talks. He spoke not as the co-founder of Microsoft, but as a philanthropist and an innovator. He wanted to motivate some of the best and brightest minds in the world to a particular task. He called the talk, "Innovating to Zero."

There are times when zero is a bad number. No one wants to get a zero on a test or performance review. We don't want to see a zero balance in our savings account or retirement fund. We don't want to be stuck in traffic going 0 miles per hour.

Sometimes, however, zero is a great number! Like zero messages in your inbox. Zero payments left on the car loan. Zero balance on a student loan or house mortgage. Zero cancer cells detected. Zero interceptions (if you're a quarterback). Zero mistakes on a quiz, a project or just about anything else.

When we talk about negative things in life, zero is a very attractive number.

On the TED stage that day, Gates shared his dream of finding a way to produce energy for the planet with zero emissions or waste that is harmful to the environment. Reduction, he said, isn't enough. There are no acceptable, tolerable levels.

The goal must be total elimination. We need to innovate to zero, he said.

Soon after his talk, others began to take up this clarion call. Companies are working toward eliminating emissions during production. Even Denmark's capital city, Copenhagen, is working to reduce its carbon footprint to zero.

The "innovating to zero" initiative has also spread beyond environmental concerns. Take the car industry and our nation's cities, for example. Not only has the auto industry tackled zero emissions, it is also taking on accident fatalities. To achieve zero, it's developing cars with automatic braking and self-driving features.

As for towns and cities, many are innovating to zero poverty and zero hunger by housing and feeding those in need, and doing it in new and creative ways.

Other such projects exist:

+ zero people without clean drinking water,

+ zero children without access to education,

+ zero cases of preventable illness,

+ zero domestic violence,

+ zero security breaches,

+ zero defects,

+ zero waste,

+ zero crime and

+ zero bullying.

The world would be such a different place if we could eliminate those things that cause harm to ourselves and others.

This includes sin. We must innovate to zero sin.

Zero sin

While the apostle Paul does not use the phrase "innovating to zero" when writing to the Romans, he does say we should be working to eliminate sin from our lives.

Many, however, think differently about sin today. We try to manage it, to control it. We pretend that there is some acceptable, tolerable level of sin allowed within our lives. "We can't be perfect," we tell ourselves. "We're only human."

In fact, we don't even like to use the word "sin." Instead we use words like, mistake, misstep, blunder, gaffe, error and so on.

Working toward minimizing sin in our lives is a good start, but it will not work for at least two reasons.

First, sin is a powerful force that is impossible to control.  Sin is not just something we do; it's an active and controlling impulse that is deeply rooted in our hearts. In today's epistle text, Paul talks about "the flesh," our sinful selves, and argues that because of this disposition, we'll never be able fully and completely to submit to the very high standards expressed in the law of God.

This means that no matter how hard we try, we cannot control the sin in our lives. This is because our "sin actions" are generated by our "sin nature." To eliminate the former, we must eradicate the latter. Actually, the "sin nature" must be completely replaced with a new nature.

Our friends in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous know this very well. The first of the 12 steps is to admit to yourself that you are not in control of your addiction. "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable," people in recovery say.

The same is true of our sin. It cannot be controlled. It cannot submit to God's law.

When sin is in our lives, it takes over and we are powerless. Our lives soon become unmanageable.

Yet, even when, as children of God, we embrace our "new nature" as new creations in Christ, the old sin nature lurks. We all know this to be true.

It's like malware on our hard drive.

It's like Trojan software waiting for an opportunity to shut down our operating system.

Second, the Bible tells us, all sin leads to death. That sounds dramatic, but it is true.

As Gates talked about the environment on the TED stage that day, he told his audience of the effects of harmful emissions on the world. Even when we do not immediately see them, they are still there, doing harm.

He pointed to the irony that those who produce the least amount of harmful emissions feel their effects dramatically, while those who produce the most feel them hardly at all. The environmental changes Gates attributed to carbon dioxide emissions make it difficult for the poorest in the world to grow their food.

"Crops won't grow," Gates says. "There will be too much rain, not enough rain. Things will change in ways that their fragile environment simply can't support."

Sin in our lives also has unintended and destructive consequences. While we are the ones who most often feel the pain of those consequences, sometimes others are deeply affected by our mess-ups. Like family relationships. Our professional life at the office. Our friends. Our life at school or in the classroom. What we do affects other people.

Sin is dangerous. We must innovate to zero sin.

The conundrum

The conundrum is this: The Bible says that we're sinners, and that to maintain that we are without sin makes us liars (1 John 1:7). On the other hand, Jesus tells us to be perfect "as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

So, what other discipline, what other organization, what other religion ... would tell us that we should work hard to achieve a goal which it also admits is impossible to achieve?

That's crazy.

About 100 days ago, we were making New Year's resolutions. The conventional wisdom is that these resolutions should be achievable and measurable. Good advice.

Yet the Bible says that we should be perfect, even though the Bible also says that such perfection is impossible.

Like we said. Crazy.

A miracle

Or is it ... crazy? Maybe not.

If we break down our daily lives into sections, events or relationship transactions, we then understand that if we're mindful and "in the moment," we can act in those moments in a sin-free manner.

Imagine some situation. You have a choice in terms of how you're going to respond. In that moment, it is absolutely possible for you to be perfect and sin-free!

From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., let's say, it's possible to live sin-free.

In some specific encounter with an employer, employee or co-worker, it's possible to be sin-free.

In a 16-hour day, therefore, it's possible to live sin-free ... i.e. without an unkind thought, or an unkind action.

You lived your day one moment at a time, and succeeded every time! You innovated to zero!

Perhaps yesterday was not so good.

Perhaps tomorrow, your sin nature will get the better of you.

The miracle is that we have a new nature, and by "practicing," we will find that our "perfect" hours, our "perfect" days, become more frequent.

By honoring our "Spirit" nature rather than what Paul calls our "flesh" nature, we can indeed innovate to zero sin!

So, the more we can fill ourselves with the Spirit, the less room there is for the flesh, the sin.

That's why ...

+ we don't need to pray for more patience,

+ we don't need to pray for more love,

+ we don't need to pray for more joy and

+ we don't need to pray for more kindness.

We need to pray for more Jesus. For more of the Spirit.

As we listen to Jesus and walk in the Spirit, we will find that moment by moment, day by day, we can, indeed, be sin-free! Awesome!

Zero is a great number!

Possible Preaching Themes:

+ Full humanity

+ New humanity

+ Holy Spirit

+ Submission

+ Resurrection 


Gates, Bill. "Transcript of 'Innovating to Zero!'" TED. February 2010. Retrieved August 19, 2016.

"'Innovating to Zero' initiative." Innovating to zero: Overview. Neeco: Global ICT Services. n.d. Retrieved August 19, 2016.

Singh, Sarwant. "The 10 social and tech trends that could shape the next decade." May 12, 2014. Retrieved August 19, 2016.

THE OTHER TEXTS: April 2, 2017, Cycle C

Ezekiel 37:1-14

What Does the Text Say?

Today's lesson is a vision (vv. 1-10) and its interpretation (vv. 11-14), a combination that occurs elsewhere in the prophetic literature of the OT. It is part of a series of visions and discourses in the book of Ezekiel (33-39) concerning the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian exile of 587-539 B.C. This vision is remarkable not only for its gruesome vividness, but also because of the radical reversal it represents in the context of Ezekiel's message of Israel's utter destruction because of its unfaithfulness, even in exile. The passage is also one of the few passages in the OT from which a notion of resurrection can be adduced (the other being Daniel 12), albeit with considerable distance from the common modern understanding of the term resurrection.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Our Bones, God's Breath. Start with the bone angle. Bones are sort of fascinating, aren't they? Some forensic anthropologists make a living studying bones. A TV show, Bones (which is now in its 12th and final season based on information at the present time), is all about messages that lie hidden in bones -- messages that tell a story or that might reveal a killer. The message of the bones in Ezekiel 37 does not require the sleuthing of Temperance "Bones" Brennan, because something amazing is about to happen. God is going to take "dem bones, dem dry bones" and breathe on them, bringing them to life. The scene is a metaphor that's explained in verse 11: "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost." When we feel that hope has evaporated in a desert of despair and in a valley of bones, when we feel that these old dry bones have been buried beneath a pile of useless rubbish, let's hear God's promise, "I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves." God's going to breathe on us, and the reaction of God's breath on our dry bones will cause sinews to appear, the Spirit to reinvigorate our souls, and new life to grow. We "shall live."

*Homiletics has treated this text five times. Go to Select Ezekiel in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

Psalm 130

What Does the Text Say?

One of the best-known pieces of liturgical prayer, Psalm 130, is a plea for help -- specifically, a cry for a divine hearing -- that combines the deeply personal with the nationally corporate. It reflects the psalmist's awareness of the pervasive nature of human sinfulness in the face of God's righteousness and justice -- making it one of the penitential psalms -- and the despair that such an awareness can provoke. But it is also a clear affirmation of God's mercy that overcomes human despair. The psalm falls naturally into two sections. The first, a private plea for God's attentiveness (vv. 1-6), opens the psalm and lends it its defining tone, and the second, a rousing call for confidence on the part of all Israel (vv. 7-8), has the feel of an addendum. Although the closing verses may have been part of the psalm since its inclusion in the Psalter, they may have been added to an originally more somber composition to bring it to a more hopeful (and more broadly appealing) conclusion. Although the historical setting of individual psalms is notoriously difficult to determine, the sentiments of Psalm 130 would bring great consolation to a nation suffering exile or foreign domination, and so the psalm may date from the exilic or post-exilic period, but this is simply conjecture.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

The Law of Holes. On page six of The Washington Post, October 25, 1911, the following aphorism appeared: "Nor would a wise man, seeing that he was in a hole, go to work and blindly dig it deeper." Over time, this expression has been modified to read: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." This is the First Law of Holes. When you find that you've unwittingly dug yourself into a hole, stop doing what you're doing, thereby exacerbating the situation. The Second Law of Holes is found in today's psalm reading. The author is in a hole. "Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!" (v. 1). Obviously, the scene is of a person in a pit from which escape is impossible. From the bottom of this pit, he's now hollering for help. "Lord, hear my voice!" The Second Law of Holes, then, is that one must cry for help. The Third Law of Holes is that, having stopped the digging and having set up a cry for help, one must wait with hope. "I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope" (v. 5).

*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Go to Select Psalm in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

John 11:1-45

What Does the Text Say?

Unique to the gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus is a remarkable story, and not only because of the event it records -- the author's ability at weaving this lengthy account together is a wonder in itself. The story works on a number of levels at once.  John perches the story of Lazarus' resurrection at the pinnacle of Jesus' miracles or signs. The first 12 chapters of John's gospel are referred to as the "Book of Signs." Within this book, the Lazarus miracle stands as the seventh and greatest of Jesus' wonderworks. In John's gospel, there are no other resurrection miracles except for this one -- a fact that increases the singular status John accords this story. Furthermore, the author has tucked into the story all sorts of references to events in Jesus' ministry that have either already occurred (analepsis) or have yet to occur (prolepsis). The story portrays numerous characters with distinct and active roles. We are first introduced to the Bethany family of Lazarus, Martha and Mary and made aware of Jesus' connection to them: Jesus "loved" Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary (vv. 3, 5). In an adumbration of Easter morning, Jesus calls out Lazarus from the grave, even as God will roll the stone from the tomb not too many days hence.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Foretaste of Easter. This text offers many sermonic possibilities for the preacher. It's striking, though, to notice how the gospel text resonates with the psalm and prophetic lections for today (see above). In all three of these readings, there's a hole or pit. The Ezekiel reading refers to a valley of dry bones, but moves to the graves that God is going to open. The psalmist is wailing like a banshee from the bottom of a pit, waiting and hoping that God will hear his voice. Here in the gospel reading, someone else is in a pit, or grave. It is Jesus' good friend Lazarus. It's a scene so poignant that we're not surprised that Jesus has to have a moment. He brushes away some tears, and then gets down to business. All three texts seem to imply that God is moved at the sight of people who are in utter despair, experiencing dryness or living in the vestibule of death. God breathes on the bones. God lifts the psalmist from the depths of despair, and Jesus extracts his friend from the jaws of death. This is what God does. These texts are a foretaste of Easter. They remind us that God is about abundant life. The dryness, the hopelessness, the death -- that's just not God. God is totally about something else.

*Homiletics has treated this text seven times. Go to Select John in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.

Worship Resources

Music Links


Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Spirit of the Living God

Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers

Make Me a Captive, Lord


Welcome in This Place (Webster)

I Surrender All (All to Jesus) (Hall)

Holy Spirit Rain Down (Fragar)

For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

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on Romans 8:6-11

from Apr 02, 2017

Prior to Romans 8:6-11, Paul strongly states his central message that "there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (3:22a-24). While Jews and Gentiles alike merit the wrath of God (1:18-3:20), together they are also heirs of God's promise to Abraham, whose... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

Perfection, Nevada, is a fictitious desert community which serves as the primary setting for the 1990 film Tremors. The town was originally named Rejection back in 1889, as seen in the 2004 direct-to-video prequel Tremors 4: The Legend Begins.

Perfection is depicted as being located within the borders of the state of Nevada, in an immense box canyon known as Perfection Valley. The valley has rocky cliffs to the north and mountains to the east and west. Only one road leads in and out of Perfection, with the exception of an old jeep trail. The road leads south to the closest town, Bixby (also fictitious), which is described as being 30 miles out.

In 1889, as seen in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, the town was named Rejection. Most commerce revolved around a silver mine, known as the Bottom Dollar Mine, owned by Hiram Gummer (portrayed by Michael Gross). There was a general store, known as Chang's Market, run by Pyong Lien Chang and his wife Lu Wan Chang. There was also a local inn run by Christine Lord.

Perfection in 1990, as depicted in Tremors, contains very little commercial activity. There was still Chang's Market, the general store that doubled as a post office, run by Walter Chang. Other than Chang's Market, the only other commercial activity was the unofficial business known as V & E Odd Jobs operated by handymen Valentine McKee and Earl Bassett.


If you have an interest in discussing perfection philosophically, you might start with Aquinas' Summa, Question 184 (The State of Perfection in General), Article 2 (Can One Be Perfect in This Life?). Google "The state of perfection in general + Aquinas" to be directed to the pertinent passages.

When you aim for perfection, you discover it is a moving target.

There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.

--Shannon L. Alder.

In the divine economy of grace, it is imperfection, sin and failure that become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself. Much of organized religion, however, tends to be peopled by folks who have a mania for some ideal order, which is never true, so they seldom are happy or content. This focus on perfection makes you anal-retentive, to use Freud's rude phrase, because you can never be happy with life as it is. ...

Sin and salvation are correlative terms. Salvation is not sin perfectly avoided, as the ego would prefer; but in fact, salvation is sin turned on its head and used in our favor. This is how divine love transforms us. If this is not true, what hope is there for any of us?

--Richard Rohr, adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality of the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 60-61.

Children's Sermon

Arrange for a volunteer to do the writing for this conversation so you can just interact with the children. On an easel big enough for all to see, ask the volunteer to write a huge 0. Tell the children this is not the letter "o" but rather, a zero. What are some things associated with zero? Get them started by examples of a car that uses zero gas or a soft drink with zero calories. Have your volunteer write these answers and the answers given by the children inside the big zero. Additional ideas would be zero on a scoreboard, zero fat, and zero sugar. Introduce the idea of zero tolerance: those things that we will not accept or allow under any circumstances. In a different part of the zero, have your volunteer write down the answers to the question: "What is something you have zero tolerance for?" Possible answers might be cheating, hitting, fighting, stealing, being cruel to animals, treating people unkindly –– you get the idea. When the children have run out of ideas, review their answers and challenge them to be zero-tolerance people. To do that, we need the help of Jesus and so we pray together: "Jesus, help us to be people who are known to be kind and caring. Help us to be people who solve problems rather than create them. Help us to be followers of you. Amen."