December 4, 2011, The Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Windy and I grew up North of Boston, home to, among other things, the Topsfield Fair. It is the oldest county fair in the nation, this coming year is its bicentennial. It is great: rabbits, horse shows, fired dough, real honest to goodness carneys and consistently the place where the world’s largest pumpkins are shown, and did I mention the fried dough? The record is something like 1650 lbs.. The last thing I did in Massachusetts before leaving was go to the opening night of the fair with Win and the girls. The fair looms large in the North Shore’s imagination.
Back in high school, I was on my way into the fair and there was a man standing near one of the entrances. This man looms large in my imagination. He was wearing a powder-blue jacket like old men used to wear, and he had a holder, one of those old cigarette girl holders full of pamphlets, religious tracts. Written on the back of his jacket in black magic marker were the words “Jesus Saves: Repent and Believe”.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins….”
That man in the powder-blue jacket was a voice crying in the wilderness. He looms large in my imagination much like John the Baptist does, probably because he was doing the same thing John was doing; being a religious wacko, going where he was not expected or particularly welcomed, dressing oddly, in general someone you do not want to have over for dinner. Mostly, though, both of these men, they spoke with conviction about repentance, the need to repent… No one, well, at least very few of us in Anglican/Episcopalian circles like to talk about repentance; I think because it begs us to be so repentant! No, actually I think we do not talk about repentance with any conviction because we too often do not talk with any conviction about sin. And let’s face it, the entire reason for the Christ Event, for the coming of God in the form of a human being is the whole problem of sin. “Lamb of God who….” The thing is, if we do not understand sin, then we cannot understand repentance. And if we cannot understand repentance, then we miss the point of John the Baptist and the guy in the blue wind breaker which means we miss the depth and breadth of the ministry of Jesus Christ whom they herald and if we miss that we might as well skip Christmas… so as not to be a grinch, let’s save Christmas and talk about sin. Sound good?
What is sin?
Ok, let’s try this on for size: Everyone pick up a BCP and turn to page 843. “An Outline of the Faith,” (Turn the page) “commonly called the Catechism.” Turn to page 848. Would someone read the answer to What is sin? “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” How does that sound? Sounds reasonable. Sin thought of this way could even be forgiveable, no? The catechism is not policy, it is not something we need to accept word for word, it is a point of departure for prayer and learning about our faith. And in it is a pretty good starting point.
Sin: “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Another way to say it is that sin is anything that gets in the way of right relationship with God and Neighbor. What this really means is that the sin we need to talk about in church, what John the Baptist got all excited about, what God is ultimately concerned with, is not so much a law forbidding specific actions or behaviors, but a recognition that some things we do and think are disordered, they prevent us from seeing others for who they really are, for seeing our selves for who we really are, for feeling the true consequences of our own action and inaction, that lays road blocks between us and God, the true nature of things. Sin is that which prevents us from being what we are supposed to be. When it comes to sin it is not so much about doing as it is about being.
Drinking too much is sinful not because of the drinking, but because of the drunkenness. It is the too much part that is sinful, and for some of us, one Drink is too much, it treads into the world of sin. Ever tried to pray drunk? Be a good friend drunk? No. Being gluttonous, hording material things, be it food, possesions, money, anything beyond what we need is sinful because, first, having too much means others can not have enough (neighbor) and second, whenever humans get too concerned with things we are not concerned enough with God. Anything that gets in the way you being your best self, is sinful.
Take sex. (Really, how can we talk about sin without talking about sex?) Sex is not a sin. It something that people do, and joyfully. Men, women, transgendered, in whatever combination, it does not matter to God who is having sex, or even how, so long as it is done in mutual love between adults. Sex becomes sinful, becomes adultery or worse when sex is used mindlessly or carelessly, exploitively, violently, in any way that anyone is harmed, and that includes harming yourself. Unsafe sex is a sin because it can cause harm. You can die from it. One of my closest friends is going to die because they had unsafe sex; once. Sex before you are physically or emotionally ready for it can be devastating. It is not the action that tells us if something is sinful, it is the result of the action. And yes, we are culpable, responsible for knowing this difference. We are beautiful, wonderful creatures, and we are very fragile creatures. We break easily. We are horribly distractible. We constantly get confused and treat things more importantly than they should be treated. Idolatry, treating as God that which is not God, this is our primary individual sin.
More conservative theologies of sin focus a lot of energy on the individual nature of sin. In the choices and actions that you, and you and I take; that is where the big break in relationship with God comes. We are certainly sinful creatures, but the big sin, to be a big, big sinner requires group effort. Reinhold Neibuhr’s Moral Man, Immoral Society teaches us that individually our sins are small, and primarily hurt ourselves, but collectively, joined together in sin as a society, that is how the Holocaust happened. That is how 6 million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo so far. 6 million and counting. That is how between 2009 and 2010 the homeless census in Eugene increased by 47%. That is how we have children living in campers in church parking lots, and who are glad for it. This is the result of what we call structural sin. Structural sin occurs when whole societies and cultures take on traits that prevent right relationship with God and neighbor. Structural sin the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, and many, most other places. Structural sin is the oppression of indigenous peoples in every corner of the world. Structural sin is the blatant and latent racism and continued segregation of our nation, he says to a vastly white congregation. That 1% can control wealth beyond imagining and hold all the keys to Caesar’s kingdom while student loan subsidies are being slashed by $18 billion, Social Security, Medicare and Medicade are on the chopping block. I have a 67 year old mentally retarded aunt on Mass Health, the equivalent of OHP, and her dental care was just eliminated. Sin. And she cannot get glasses any more. Sin. And in the worst employment climate in two generations, unemployment benefits are not being extended… When a society forgets its least of these… there is some sin of biblical proportion.
And original sin… we cannot forget that, but I don’t know. I take the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to represent the archtype of loneliness. The apple had the power to delude us into thinking that we are separate, even different from God and from each other. We are not. I heard this story about the author Madeline D’Engle and I think it is largely true. I heard it in a sermon, so you never can tell, poetic liscense and all. Some friends of hers had a 4 year old and a new baby. One day the 4 year old went into her baby sister’s room and the parents overheard her saying, “Please, tell me something about God, I think I am forgetting.” Is that what growing up means? Putting on original sin?
We have homework this week. This coming week I want you all to think about sin. I want you to think about the things you encounter in your life that pull your eyes away from the prize that is God. Think about what prevents you from being happy. Whatever is preventing inner happiness is sinful. I want you to pay attention to the things that get in the way of you being a peaceful family, that derail your efforts to be a patient friend, a good husband or wife or partner, or parent or grand parent. Think about the things that keep you from being the clear reflection of God Almighty, the imago dei that you are in spades. Next Sunday we will get back to John and the man in the powder-blue jacket. We’ll get on with repentance. The answer to our prayers. The reason for this and every season. And until then, no sinning. AMEN.