A Life of Can’s and Can’ts


Fitting that my last sermon should be based on a song lyric that is a mondegreen. a lyric that is regularly misunderstood. Confederate Railroad’s 1992 song “Jesus and Momma” has the lines “Life's a picture that you paint/ With blues and grays/ And cans and can'ts”. Most sources have, “With blues and grays/ cans of canvas.” Musixmatch.com agrees with me. Paul in our text also agrees, sort of.

If life is really a picture that you paint, go with the Rolling Stones not Confederate Railroad. Their 1966 song Paint It Black gets this right. On our own we want everything from the red door, to the line of cars, to faces painted black because “I look inside myself and see my heart is black.” This is the doctrine of Original Sin denied by all outside the Church and even by many churches. But Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). David, in Ps. 51, says that he was sinful from the point of conception. In Gen 6:5, before the Flood destroyed an unbelieving world leaving only the Church, and even after only the Church is left in Gen 8:21, the Lord says our thoughts are only inclined to evil as soon as we can think.

Paul himself begins where the Stones are. In Rom. 7, Paul laments that the good he wants to do, he doesn’t, and the evil he doesn’t want to do he does. He sees himself chained to a decaying body of death, made to look eye to eye like the Romans chained a murderer to his victim till the decaying body made him insane. Paul, an apostle, writer of over half the NT, cries in anguish at the end of Rom. 7: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?” This body of death is our problem too. It’s not our spouse, our parent, our kid, our job. It's not my church and it’s not your pastor. When Chesterton was asked to write an article on what’s wrong with the world. Chesterton is said to have written back, “Dear Sir, I am” (www.chesterton.org/wrong-with-world/). We are too.

Paul saw that his body of death not anyone else’s is his problem, and the answer to who will deliver him, Paul gives in the next verse. “Thanks be to God through Christ our Lord!” Chapter 8 follows starting with there being no condemnation for those in Christ. Paul then goes to the Spirit helping our weakness which leads to all things working together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose. Right before our text Paul goes to predestination where God chose us before time began to be conformed to His Son’s image. That is crucified, dead, buried, and risen. So, with all this as context, Paul asks, “What then shall we say to these things?” What things? No condemnation, the Spirit’s aid, all things working together for good, and predestined to be little Christs. What shall we say to these things? That life isn’t a picture we paint. Thanks be to God. 25 year ago who would’ve painted himself here? Who could’ve? We don’t paint the picture, but life is filled with cans.

You ought to know by now I don’t mean Little Engine that Could cans or Disney’s “you’ve got to believe in yourself.” I don’t mean the can-do attitude of self-help or positive thinking. No, Christians with Paul say, “O wretched man that I am.” That’s bizarre to fallen men. Even in our beautiful text Paul shows Christianity isn’t a victorious, glorious thing in this world, and I always trip over this. Paul goes from asking if hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger can separate us from God’s love to quoting Ps 44: “for Thy (God’s) sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Augustine said “all day long” means through your entire life (ACC, VI, 234). The Christian’s lot in life for Jesus’ sake is as Ray Montagne sings: trouble, trouble, trouble dogging our souls. Try can-doing in the face of that. When you’re not just over the hill but under it; when you don’t just think you might be sick but are; when life doesn’t hand you lemons for lemonade but tosses you hand grenades, can-dos quickly become can’t go-ons.

But then again, there are actual cans in your life. Paul gives you 2 and I leave you with them. You can be certain of God’s providing in Christ. Here’s Paul’s proof: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” What Paul actually says is that God betrayed His own Son. Paul uses the same Word the Holy Spirit does for Judas’ treachery. The Father told Sin, Death, and Devil, “Take My Boy. Don’t take him or her, or any of them. Take my innocent Son. Punish Him instead of them. Take Him to hell not them. Kill Him for their sins and bury Him in a grave as the worst sinner ever, not them. That’s what’s going on in Gethsemane. The Son is struggling with the Father’s will to betray Him. To have Him drink the cup of wrath that was squeezed out of your sins. Because of this Divine betrayal, you can be certain of God’s providing all things. Feel free to leave out anything physical or spiritual that is not included in all things.

The second ‘can’ I leave you is a reverse one, an ironic one, a negative that is really a positive. Can anyone charge let alone condemn someone elected, justified, and interceded for by the Triune God? The answer is no one can. And since no one can even charge you in Christ you can live with no condemnation. Karl Menninger said that if he could remove guilt from the patients in his psychiatric hospitals 75% could go home. But that can’t be done by telling yourself, “Stop feeling guilty.” Listen to what Paul says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:1-4). That’s why you can have a clear conscience. Not because your conscience tells you. What you think about your sins is not what the Lord goes by. He goes by what He thinks of them. If that guilt of yours does not have chapter and verse connected to it, put it down and back slowly away. If it does run quickly into your Baptism, Absolution, or Communion which apply the Blood of the betrayed Son to condemned sinners thereby cleansing them.

Life is not a picture that you paint but it’s filled with can’s and yes can’ts too. Not just the no’s of the Law like the 1971 song Signs sings of, “Do this, don't do that/ Can't you read the sign?” But the cant’s along the lines of Alice Cooper’s 1972 song: Schools Out. “No more pencils, no more books/ No more teacher's dirty looks”. The can’ts given here are freeing, assuring; they’re of the Gospel not the Law. And they can help us deal with Separation Anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a real deal. You will feel it; I will feel it. I will feel it in the absence of the rhythms of 40 years of ministry and you. You will feel being separated from me the person but not the Office of the Ministry, from this particular under shepherd but certainly not from the Good Shepherd and not from shepherding. What you need to be aware of is that when your new pastor comes he will be experiencing separation anxiety from all that he leaves behind to come here. You by then will likely have gotten over yours. He and his family’s will be going full bore. But let’s look at what we’re ultimately anxious about being separated from.

What we’re really anxious about being separated from is God. All homesickness we experience when away from our earthly home really testifies to that longing we have for our heavenly home. Ultimately no earthly home will satisfy this. This is Augustin’s “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You” (Confessions, 1.1.1). Whether in or out of Christ all attempts to find home here whether where your heart is, your family is, or your dream house is, will be frustrated. So all our separation anxiety whether from parents, family, kids, or job really points to the fear of being separated from God. The Devil, the World, and your own sinful flesh tell you that you should be so separated. The Lord’s frightful words of judgment ring in our ears and shake our souls. “Depart from Me I never knew you.” This is written in all men’s hearts and men do all sorts of things not to hear them, to muffle them. That may work for a while but somewhere in life, probably at death, and certainly at Judgement the cotton is pulled out. 

See how Paul handles this. He says you can’t be separated from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Notice how he introduces that: “I am convinced.” It’s a perfect passive. God has forever persuaded him that not anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. When dying, as we all will, I want you for the love of God to remember that God in Christ says: Death can’t separate me from Him. And when you find yourself fearing life more than death as people do sometimes: I want you for the love of God to remember that God promises nothing in life can get between you and Him. Do we need to go through them all? Since they’re God’s Words to us, I think we get to. For the love of God, neither angels, demons, the present nor the future can separate you from God in Christ. 

Do you hear how expansive Paul paints your life with the colors of Holy Scripture? You can’t find anything Paul doesn’t exclude from being able to separate you from God’s love. But why doesn’t the Holy Spirit mentioned the past that beguiles so many with guilt, bad feelings, regrets? Who can’t hear Roy Clark’s 1969 Yesterday When I was Young without resonating to the prospect of having “to pay for yesterday when I was young”? Yet Paul doesn’t mention yesterday as not being able to separate us. Why? Because despite our preoccupation with the past, it’s not a real thing. It’s passed away. As Kris Kristofferson sang in 1970, “Yesterday is dead and gone.” I don’t know if prior to Einstein people accepted the notion that the past is something going on in another timeline that you can step back into. You can’t. It’s not there.

If you insist on stepping back, step to 1544. Fourteen months before his death, Luther preached on who to preach to: “it must be people who have troubled hearts, who fear death, and who are gnawed by sins. … It must be the ones who were struck by thunder and lightning upon Sinai, who long to be saved....He wants only those who have been on Mount Sinai, who have crushed and broken hearts" (LW, 58, 202-3). A Confessional Lutheran pastor preaches to those whose lives have been painted with the black of the Law and long to be painted with Jesus’ red blood. Such have been you, and it’s been a privilege to preach to you. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

New Year’s Eve, Eve of the Name of Jesus (20231231); Rom. 8:31-39